Ministers have already identified £11bn of the £20bn in Whitehall spending reductions pledged by the government this year, Francis Maude has announced, as Labour warned the scope for more "back office" savings was narrowing.
Under its Efficiency and Reform programme, the Cabinet Office has vowed to drive down spending across departments by £20bn in 2014/15, against a 2009/10 baseline. It aims to achieve this through measures including cuts to the civil service pay bill; reining in the cost of major projects; and reducing the government’s estate, IT, and procurement spending.
Updating MPs last night in what is likely to be his penultimate appearance at the Commons despatch box, the minister for the Cabinet Office claimed the government was “well on the way” to meeting its £20bn target for the year.
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“As part of our long-term economic plan, our aim was to save £20bn from central government efficiency and reform for the last year of this parliament, including by reducing losses to the public purse through fraud, error and uncollected debt,” Maude said.
“Mr Speaker, I can tell the House today that we're on course to meet and indeed exceed this target.
“Up to January 2015 we've already identified £11bn of efficiency and reform savings, over a third up on the same point last year.”
At last year’s Autumn Statement, ministers set out the ambition of cutting a further £10bn from Whitehall spending in 2017-18 against this year's levels, with £15-20bn more in savings to follow during 2019-20.
Maude last night aimed to spell out how Whitehall might achieve those further reductions, claiming they could partly be accomplished through measures - set out in last week’s Budget - to curb the cost of government buildings. He promised the government estate would, in future, be managed by a “new approach based on central ownership and management of assets and departments paying market-level rents”.
“This will provide greater incentive for departments to rationalise their space as well as releasing land and property for productive use,” he added.
Maude also unveiled plans to boost Whitehall’s commercial skills by recruiting 25 commercial directors to work across departments and help them to "own more of the transformation agenda". He promised that a new project leadership programme for officials would be launched in conjunction with Cranfield University, “in parallel” to the already-established Major Projects Leadership Academy.
Responding for the opposition, Labour's Lucy Powell praised the minister for his “zeal” and “work to reduce the cost of government bureaucracy”. But she warned that Whitehall had an increasingly limited capacity to absorb further spending reductions without hitting frontline services.
The Shadow Cabinet Office Minister said: "With all due respect to the minister, no amount of back office efficiencies will save frontline police, armed forces and social care services... There is only so much from efficiency savings one can get and even with his savings in this parliament the government is still only halfway to his own deficit reduction target."