Unlike the farce at Westminster, public sector cuts are no joke

Jeremy Hunt has been dealt a difficult hand. But with no PM, it's hard to see what authority the chancellor has to make these serious decisions
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Mike Clancy

21 Oct 2022

Sketch writers may be having a field day with the extraordinary events in Downing Street – and indeed, if this wasn’t the future of our country that we were talking about it, it might be funny. But the truth is that hugely important decisions are being made this week about tens of billions of pounds of public spending – decisions that will have a real and lasting impact on people’s lives.  

These decisions are being made by a cabinet that won’t be in place in a week, overseen by a chancellor who may not be either, and with no prime minister and no mandate from the public. All this as the result of a catastrophically misjudged mini-budget which has crashed the markets, accelerated interest rate rises and put the entire pensions industry at risk.  

It is hard to overstate the impact that the predicted level of cuts to public spending will have on services. After George Osborne’s package of austerity, Whitehall departments and agencies have been left operating on the edge of collapse for years. Our regulators do not have enough people to adequately fulfil their roles, leading to crises like the spectacle of sewage on our beaches. The Covid pandemic laid bare the inadequacy of the just-in-time model and exposed the susceptibility of services to shocks when there is no slack built in. That inadequacy is apparent right the way across the public sector and will be further exposed by the reckless proposed cuts.  

The civil service, often overlooked as worthy of praise when compared to frontline roles in the health service, schools, police and armed services, has held this country together in the past few years. Dedicated civil servants, often at the receiving end of criticism from some politicians who like to scapegoat them – despite clearly having no idea what they actually do – have gone above and beyond to deal with Brexit, the Covid pandemic, and to keep the country running while the Conservative Party holds a never-ending series of leadership contests.  

Cutting public spending means that many of these workers will face the sack, and that public services upon which people rely will have to be stopped. Where is the debate about what the government can do, should do, and what services we can afford to lose? There is no honest discussion – there is only rhetoric implying these things will happen with no pain, while those who are supposed to lead bicker amongst themselves about who is the least likely to continue the UK’s spiral into ungovernable insignificance.  

"Where is the debate about what the government can do, should do, and what services we can afford to lose? There is no honest discussion – there is only rhetoric"

I can accept that the current chancellor – at least, at the time of writing – has been dealt a difficult hand by his predecessor, who failed his probation period. But these are serious decisions he is making and with no prime minister it is hard to see what authority or democratic legitimacy he has to make them. Another question arises: will the next prime minister and cabinet be tied to the conclusions he reaches?  

Good government cannot operate in this way. How can civil servants, their futures on the line, deliver in the face of such uncertainty? It’s currently impossible to know who your minister will be in a week’s time, let alone what government policy will be. Huge spending cuts must not be drawn up on the back of an envelope in the space of a few days. There are no easy “efficiency savings” left to be found after 12 years of cuts. The new PM and chancellor must think again.  

Mike Clancy is general secretary of Prospect

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