Government and Institutions

Forget horse-trading over cuts: The Spending Review is an opportunity to rethink the state

How large were cuts to government spending during the last parliament? The answer may surprise you. Overall real expenditure fell by just 2.9 per cent between 2010-11 and 2014-15. Later in the month, when the chancellor delivers his Spending Review to flesh out where the axe will fall to meet this parliament’s spending targets, it’s worth remembering this.

Of course, this top line conceals as much information as it provides. For starters, the UK population has grown since 2010. Adjusting for that, real spending per head fell by 5.5 per cent. An ageing population also leads to higher demands on the state pension and healthcare services. But the headline figure reminds us that, for a given spending envelope, governments choose where to allocate resources. While we can debate what overall government spending should be, the 30 per cent budget cuts that some departments will make this parliament (as announced yesterday) are a direct consequence of other areas being spared.

Across the last parliament, we saw two “Comprehensive Spending Reviews”. Except they were anything but comprehensive. The coalition decided to ring-fence NHS and schools spending, to increase international aid, and to implement the extraordinarily generous state pension triple-lock. The end result was that real spending on “health” rose 4.5 per cent; “international services” by 26 per cent; and the huge “social protection” budget (which includes pensions) by 4.4 per cent.

These three areas plus debt interest now represent 59 per cent of government spending. Shielding them inevitably means huge cuts in other areas. “Housing and community amenities” saw real cuts of 22.3 per cent, “transport” 11 per cent, and “public order and safety” 15.4 per cent, for example. It may be that there was much fat to trim in these areas. But continuing on this path, as the government seems intent on (indeed, it will now go further by ring-fencing defence too), will fundamentally alter what the British state looks like. Whether the Prime Minister and chancellor have thought this through from first principles is unclear.

To put it differently: is ring-fencing large areas and then salami-slicing departments through political horse-trading really the best way to cut spending? A more economically sensible approach to achieve the same objective would be to instead adopt the following six principles.

First, undertake a zero-based review of all government activity based on the “functions” of government (rather than departments) and assess all programmes – deciding what it is essential, desirable, and unnecessary for government to do. Eliminate the latter, and decide how departments can be reconfigured to deliver the former most efficiently. Second, for areas where government spending is desirable, prioritise growth-enhancing expenditure. For capital projects in particular, this means choosing those with the highest return. Third, make reforms now which help alleviate the pressures of an ageing population on health and pensions spending. This will not save money straight away, but will vastly improve the long-term debt-to-GDP outlook, which is what matters most.

Fourth, do not institute any ring-fences or “as a percentage of GDP” targets for spending areas such as defence or foreign aid. Spending should be according to need, and should not arbitrarily fluctuate according to the broader health of the economy. Fifth, for essential or desirable areas, undertake audits of what workers constitute “the front line”. Given limited budgets, this may mean ensuring pay restraint is delivered to protect the number of these staff. Finally, in areas where it is still believed spending needs protection or increasing, ensure it is genuinely protected. That means controlling for demand and price changes in those sectors.

This approach would provide an opportunity to really re-think what government does in the UK, protecting essential areas while working towards getting the public finances under control.

Ryan Bourne is the IEA’s Head of Public Policy. This article first appeared in City AM.

Head of Public Policy and Director, Paragon Initiative

Ryan Bourne is Head of Public Policy at the IEA and Director of The Paragon Initiative. Ryan was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he achieved a double-first in Economics at undergraduate level and later an MPhil qualification. Prior to joining the IEA, Ryan worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics on competition and public policy issues. After leaving Frontier in 2010, Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies think tank in Westminster, first as an Economics Researcher and subsequently as Head of Economic Research. There, he was responsible for writing, editing and commissioning economic reports across a broad range of areas, as well as organisation of economic-themed events and roundtables. Ryan appears regularly in the national media, including writing for The Times, the Daily Telegraph, ConservativeHome and Spectator Coffee House, and appearing on broadcast, including BBC News, Newsnight, Sky News, Jeff Randall Live, Reuters and LBC radio. He is currently a weekly columnist for CityAM.

1 thought on “Forget horse-trading over cuts: The Spending Review is an opportunity to rethink the state”

  1. Posted 11/11/2015 at 17:14 | Permalink

    This strikes me as rather an academic approach. Zero-based budgeting has always appealed to me in theory; but I gather that it can often be impractical. For instance, by what criteria does one judge whether government spending is ‘essential, ‘desirable’ or unnecessary’? And how much government spending are we talking about? Concentrating on ‘growth-enhancing’ capital expenditure sounds sensible enough (who would want ‘growth-reducing’ capital expenditure?), but is that much different from the old practice beloved of central planners, of picking winners? The record on that wasn’t very encouraging! I do agree with the third principle of trying to alleviate the likely long-term pressures from an ageing population — in particular increasing the age at which the state pension starts to be paid (by at least two years every decade until further notice).I also agree with the fourth principle, no ring-fencing. I prefer the old maxim: ‘No sacred cows’. I must admit I didn’t really understand the fifth and sixth principles. In any event, I would add a seventh: include among the people working on this approach, in each area, at least two ‘unreasonable’ devil’s advocates, who won’t be too ‘politically aware’, to press for really significant cuts in government spending. Otherwise we’ll end up with a meaningless exercise like the Prime Minister’s recent ‘demands’ from his
    so-called negotiations with the European Union — designed, as I think Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested, to make Harold Wilson’s negotiating achievements on the same general topic look good!

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