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Coffee House

6 steps to out-fox local government’s Sir Humphreys

3 April 2013

2:32 PM

3 April 2013

2:32 PM

Shortly after the 2010 general election I attended an event where mandarins complained of ‘swingeing cuts’. Then one NHS boss admitted that he had so much cash sloshing around he was having trouble spending his multi-hundred million budget. Local government, which accounts for one quarter of government spending, has the same mindset.

Despite the rhetoric of cuts, little has actually changed. I have watched Sir Humphrey Whitehall and local government (both as a private contractor and as a councillor), and each year we witness a rush before the financial year ends to spend money which, if cuts were actually deep, would not exist. Fraser Nelson spelt out this reality before the budget. Public spending increased by sixty per cent during the last government. Since 2010 spending has been cut by just three per cent. Sir Humphrey sits on the sideline like a Wimbledon umpire while each side calls for tax hikes or welfare cuts. Here are my six recommendations to restrain Leviathan, broadly in line with existing coalition government policies.

1). All new public sector appointments on salaries of £60,000 and above should be fixed term contracts of three years or less. This would end the ‘job for life’ mentality, which is central to the way taxpayer’s money is spent. There is not sufficient pressure to make budgets more efficient. This is not an attack on the public sector – I have huge respect for many of the people I work with – but many believe their budgets should be spent in full.

2). The Home Office recently revised police officers’ starting salary, dropping it by thousands of pounds. And even the London Borough of Islington advertised a chief executive salary at tens of thousands of pounds less than the previous incumbent. Government could enforce proportionate cuts for all new appointments.

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3). One hotelier tells me that the Sir Humphreys in Eric Pickles’ department prefer booking into a £100 a night boutique hotel five minutes from Belgravia so they can enjoy the night life, although ‘the rooms aren’t big enough to swing a cat’. A blanket ban on all hotels and rental accommodation in London zone one and other expensive locations such as Manchester, coupled with a genuine push to move fifty percent of government out of our city centres by 2015, is perfectly feasible. It may only save the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds; but it would inculcate a value for money ethos that is still missing from Sir Humphrey’s DNA.

4). Why does government allow basic services (dustbin emptying and road maintenance) to be delivered by council employees in inefficient (usually Labour-run) councils? David Cameron highlighted this in a White Paper launched the day he had to rush back to the House of Commons at the height of the hysteria over tabloid phone hacking. Why should mostly Tory councils make efficiencies year after year when mostly Labour ones cut from front line public services (libraries, leisure centres and childcare) to protect their civil servants?

5). Eric Pickles has offered councils additional grants to encourage them not to increase council tax, and has forced councils to hold referendums if they increase council tax beyond a certain limit. But many have raised the council tax by a little less than these caps. Government could publish regional tables of council tax rates, and prohibit councils who are above the average rate from any increase without winning a referendum.

6). Ask to meet with almost anyone one in the public sector on a Friday afternoon, or in the weeks adjacent to a holiday, and many will say that they are ‘in a meeting’. They are in fact likely to be ‘working from home’ or taking some of the almost eight weeks a year holiday to which most are entitled. Introducing a fortnight close down in August, and during other holiday periods, for all but genuine front line staff would highlight the over-manning which is still prevalent across government.

These steps would reinforce George Osborne’s budget and allow the British public to be able to keep more of our money.

Tony Devenish is a Westminster City Councillor and former South East England Conservative MEP Candidate

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