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Thursday 9 August 2012

Maude Press Release Comes Into The Garden

[Update at end of post]

Not so long ago, there were grumbles that the Maily Telegraph had become insufficiently reliable for Conservatives: dishing the whole dirt on Parliamentary expenses – not just giving Labour the going over – along with the shopping of David Laws, seen as the one Lib Dem that the Tories would dearly love to have as one of their own, had the readers wondering.

Today, though, those readers need wonder no more, as a Government press release is shamelessly churned over as if it were real news, and without the odd fact check anywhere. Political Correspondent Rowena Mason has obediently told those upstanding and right leaning readers exactly what Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has decided that they should hear (also lifted by the Mail).

The Civil Service, for instance, is held to be at its smallest since the Second World War, but that isn’t quite accurate: the number is the lowest since before the war. And, although Ms Mason talks up the reduction in Civil Service numbers to around 430,000, the Coalition’s target – not in the Telegraph article – was 380,000. So Maude and his efficiency men are thus far 50,000 short.

Moreover, they’ve accomplished some of these reductions by not filling vacant posts, which is fine in the short term, but is the kind of exercise that is likely to catch up with you over time, unless those jobs did not need to be filled. It gives the impression of proving that there was really waste by assuming that vacant posts are automatically waste – a neat but circular argument.

Maude – via the obedient Ms Mason – claims that his savings amount to an annual reduction of £5 billion, but – to no surprise – there is nothing to back up the figures. Consultancy is said to have been reduced – but no breakdown of figures is provided, just that the amount is “more than £1 billion”. What kinds of consultants are being shed? Is it really a reduction in consultancy services?

Or is it merely a reduction in the number of those who work through service or other limited companies – in other words, freelance staff, such as those who work in IT? Some of the savings, such as building leases and consumable item costs, appear genuine, but the unquestioning trotting out of Government figures makes one suspect that the detail may be less favourable.

On top of that is the promise to quadruple the amount supposedly saved in the near future. The cynic might suggest that this will merely dump the problem, and an accumulation of underinvestment, on a future Labour Government and make it easier to blame them for higher spending, to which my reply would be in line with the well worn response from the TV series.

You might like to suggest that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

[UPDATE 1940 hours: the excellent Whitehall Watch blog has posted on this subject, under the title "Lies, Damn Lies and Government Efficiency Savings - yet again". Colin Talbot runs through the claimed "savings" and shows that they may not be all they are claimed to be.

Certainly, "efficiency savings" is a misleading description of much of what has been presented, as it appears to be no more than cuts. Talbot points out that much of the Civil Service is concerned with delivering services - like the tax system, benefits system, and controlling our borders.

Moreover, the initial claim that the "savings" had been independently audited by the National Audit Office (NAO) turned out to be false, and the only audit has been an internal one. Something does not smell right about this, and perhaps Francis Maude would like to appear and explain himself, though I somehow doubt this will happen any time soon]

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