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Leading article: Wanted: some political honesty on public services

Both Labour and the Conservatives are obfuscating the issues

On one of the most critical issues in British politics, a stifling blanket of denial has descended over Westminster. At Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons this week Gordon Brown promised that, under a Labour government, public spending would continue to rise in real terms over the coming years.

And so it probably will, largely thanks to unavoidable increases in government debt interest and rising welfare payments. But, assuming that the Government has reached the limits of its ability to take on debt and raise taxes, there will need to be serious cuts in other areas of public spending to compensate. Mr Brown chose to trumpet the "massive" spending cuts supposedly being planned by the Conservatives, while remaining silent, as ever, on where his own Government might seek to save money.

Yet the Conservatives are behaving no more impressively. When the opposition health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, suggested in an interview this week that there would be cuts across a host of official departments if the Tories won power, he was quickly silenced by his party. Sometimes there is no offence as grave as articulating the truth.

What British politics needs is some basic honesty from both parties. If David Cameron and his shadow chancellor, George Osborne, believe that cuts in public spending are needed to stabilise the public finances, they should be upfront about this. They are entitled to argue that the mismanagement of Labour necessitates such drastic action, but it is disingenuous of the Conservatives to issue blood-curdling warnings about the state of the public purse without giving some indication about what they would do to improve matters.

As for Mr Brown, he should admit that his own government is likely to need to find considerable savings in the years ahead, even if growth rebounds strongly. It is perfectly reasonable for the Prime Minister to argue that cutting public services now, while the British economy is still suffering, would be foolish; but it is not reasonable to ignore the fact that some sort of fiscal shake-up is needed further down the line.

We need this acceptance of economic reality so that our political system can move on to the serious debate about where those public sector cuts should, or should not, fall. If there is to be a reshaping of the public realm, it must be enacted with serious thought. The easy option is the salami-slicing approach, where the Treasury simply awards each department a smaller budget. But this has been tried before and its effect is to harm frontline public services, as the managers and civil servants who run these departments manoeuvre to protect their empires and push all the pain on to those who wield less political clout.

Instead, entire government spending programmes should be reconsidered, from ID cards, to big-ticket defence projects, to public sector pensions. At the moment, this debate about strategic spending cuts is dormant. The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, has signalled that he will not publish the Government's usual spending review this autumn. Everyone understands that there is a considerable level of uncertainty about the prospects for the public finances. But let us at least see the potential scenarios upon which the Treasury is working. The shareholders of public companies expect managers to continue to present forward plans in uncertain times. Why should taxpayers expect any less from the Government?

We also need a serious engagement from our politicians with the question of how our public services can be made more efficient. Figures from the Office for National Statistics this week showed that productivity levels across the public sector have fallen over the past decade. A vast amount of money has been pumped into health and education but the value that taxpayers have received has been patchy.

Our public services are going to have to get used to doing more with less. If they are to improve, that improvement will have to come from efficiencies rather than higher funding. The Cabinet held a three-hour meeting yesterday discussing public sector reform. But shaking up our public sector will be the work of years. One meeting, even a three-hour one, can only be the start of a long, difficult process.

Of course, it is not hard to see why both the Government and the Conservatives have chosen obfuscation over openness. The Tories fear that the public still associates them with painful cuts of the past and could punish them again at the ballot box if this debate moves up the political agenda. Meanwhile, ministers are loath to admit that their historic investments in the public sector since 2000 now need to be thrown into reverse. The Liberal Democrats have been admirably open about their belief that the role of the state needs to be reconsidered, but there is only so much the third party can accomplish on its own.

Yet this debate cannot be evaded forever; these questions are simply too important to all our futures to remain unanswered.