General election round-up: Funding gaps, lazy civil servants and supermajority scaremongering

Civil Service World looks at what the main parties have said this week – and the impact for the civil service
Ed Davey would be loving this soaking: Rishi Sunak launches the general-election campaign in a rainy Downing Street. Photo: ZUMA Press/Alamy

By Jim Dunton

21 Jun 2024

It's now a month since Rishi Sunak took a drenching outside No.10 Downing Street as he explained to the nation why 4 July was the right time for a general election. For the embattled PM, the political climate has failed to improve as the 2024 campaign enters its final stretch.

Think tanks are still accusing both the Conservative Party and Labour of being in denial about their spending plans. Liberal Democrats leader Sir Ed Davey is still gleefully hurling himself at open water whenever there is a camera crew on hand. And Sir Keir Starmer's party still has a 20-point lead over the Tories in the opinion polls.

This week think-tank the Health Foundation added its voice to the chorus of dissent over the plausibility of the lockstep public-spending plans from the Conservatives and Labour. It cautioned of a £38bn gap in the government's plans for the NHS over the course of the next parliament. By definition, there would be a similarly-proportioned void for a Labour Party sticking to the Conservatives' plans.

The Health Foundation says that rather than the £8bn funding increase for the NHS that is currently forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, an extra £46bn is actually required by 2029-30. According to the think tank, NHS funding is projected to rise by 0.8% a year over the period, when 4.5% is needed to aid the health service's recovery from the pandemic and invest in modernising services.

Anita Charlesworth, director of the Health Foundation’s REAL Centre, said: "The health service is in crisis and all the main political parties have said they want to fix it – yet the funding they have so far promised falls well short of the level needed to make improvements.

"Politicians need to be honest with the public about the scale of the challenge the NHS faces and the reality that an NHS fit for the future needs long-term sustainable investment. Honesty about this has so far been conspicuously lacking from the general election debate, with both the main parties unwilling to spell out the difficult choices on public spending and taxation that will confront the next government."

Meanwhile, the Resolution Foundation has this week called on the next government to avoid "rushed attempts" at benefits reform in the face of a projected 50% rise in the cost of working-age incapacity benefits over the next six years.

The think tank, which focuses work on improving the living standards of low-to-middle-income families, said the root causes of the issue must be properly investigated rather than treated as a problem for the Department for Work and Pensions and Treasury to fix.

It said that between 2013-14 and 2022-23, real-terms spending on working-age incapacity benefits had increased by 34% and spending on disability benefits had risen by 89%, taking the total bill for both from £28bn in today's prices to £43bn.

The foundation said that expenditure on the two core benefits it focused on – the health element of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments – was set to rise rapidly, hitting £63bn in 2028-29.

In a special general election edition of the BBC's Question Time programme last night, Sunak, Starmer, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey and newly-installed Scottish National Party leader John Swinney each fielded audience questions for 30 minutes.

Neither Starmer nor Sunak was directly scrutinised about the extent to which their party's proposals for public sector spending would meet demand. Both pledged to reduce NHS waiting lists, however.

A tartan plan

Boosting NHS England funding by £16bn is a core ask in the SNP's manifesto, which was launched on Wednesday. The not-entirely altruistic move would result in an annual uplift in the region of £1.6bn for healthcare in Scotland because of the Barnett funding formula for devolved government.

Under the SNP's proposal, £1bn of its share of the cash would help to meet increasing demand for services while £600m would be invested in pay deals for NHS staff.

Other plans in the party's manifesto include a reversal of £1.3bn in capital cuts for Scotland up to 2027-28 that the SNP says were imposed in chancellor Jeremy Hunt's Spring Budget. The party is also seeking to decriminalise posession of drugs for personal use and to introduce new supervised drug-consumption facilities.

Additionally, the SNP is calling on the next UK government to invest at least £28bn a year in the green economy to deliver a step change in public and private sector measures to deliver net zero carbon emissions. It also wants a "Four Nations Climate Response Group" to be established so that climate plans are agreed across the UK.

Your country doesn't need you

Reform UK's manifesto, which was launched on Monday, proposed £17bn of additional investment in the NHS every year, and pledges to eradicate all NHS waiting lists – a plan so ambitious that neither the Conservatives nor Labour were prepared to float it.

Reform's manifesto is calling on departments, quangos and commissions to make £50bn in annual savings without impacting frontline services. It also says a further annual reduction in "wasteful government spending" of £41bn would be possible by cutting Official Development Assistance by 50% and stopping the Bank of England paying interest on quantitative easing reserves to commercial banks.

Independent think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies cautioned that the working behind Reform's proposals didn't add up.

Departmental officials may have been distracted from the nitty gritty of Reform's plans by party chairman Richard Tice's self-penned tirade in the Daily Telegraph, which the paper headlined "Lazy civil servants are driving Britain to the brink".

The opinion piece said the party was "simply suggesting" a tough, businesslike approach to cutting waste and reinvesting resources in frontline services.

"Perhaps our greatest sin was to suggest that there is vast waste in the public sector, that outcomes are poor and productivity stagnant," he wrote. "The civil service bods who enjoy their cushy jobs are understandably furious at the idea they might have to do a real day’s work."

He added: "Practically every time I discuss this, I am contacted by people who work in the NHS or other public sectors to say that I am right, and the waste is obscene."

Poll-position blues

The Conservatives' continued failure to narrow Labour's opinion polls lead over the course of the general election campaign has given rise to a new phenomenon: current cabinet members cautioning of the dangers of a Labour "supermajority" after the big vote.

One poll by Savanta has projected that the Conservatives could have just 53 MPs in the next parliament, with Labour securing 516 seats and a majority of 382 – more than four times the majority Boris Johnson secured at the 2019 general election.

Defence secretary Grant Shapps is the most vocal purveyor of supermajority concerns, arguing that giving Labour "unchecked power" in parliament would be bad for political scrutiny and therefore "very dangerous for Britain".

While a Labour supermajority would undeniably be very bad for the Conservative Party, Institute for Government director Hannah White this week challenged the notion that a change of government that resulted in a significant power-shift would be democratically problematic.

"In parliamentary terms the difference between an 80-seat and 200-seat majority is not material," she said. "The most significant factor for democracy is the attitude a government takes to the role of parliament and the value of scrutiny."

White pointed to former prime minister Theresa May's decision not to give parliament a meaningful role in discussions on what shape a Brexit deal should take during her three years in No.10 as an example of why a supermajority need not be an issue.

"Even with a slim and then non-existent majority she was able to proceed – ultimately to her own detriment – without allowing meaningful scrutiny of her plans, at one stage refusing to allow inconvenient opposition or backbench debates in the Commons for a period of over five months," White said.

She added that May's successor, Boris Johnson, had used the 80-seat majority he secured in 2019 to adopt the attitude that nobody should be able to oppose his parliamentary plans.

"His ministers refused to entertain even the smallest amendments to bills and some were extremely reluctant to appear before select committees," White said. "He was free with the creation of new ministerial powers and their exercise – using secondary legislation to pass numerous measures without the possibility of parliamentary opposition. In practice, his opposition came more from within his own party than other parties."

And that might just be Keir Starmer's latest anxiety dream.

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