Finally it's out. The Report of the comprehensive Spending Review was released by Chancellor George Osborne, and the result? Well it's a bit mixed.
The real effect is to cut government spending to levels seen in 2007. Hardly radical.
The cuts are spread over the next five years and are a £83 billion reduction compared to the Gordon Brown budget. What does that mean? Well it is actually only a £28 billion reduction in real terms (taking into account inflation). From a total budget of £697 billion, it is a reduction of only 4%! In nominal terms it is a £41 billion increase in spending. In effect the increase in nominal spending has been cut by two-third. Brutal cut? I think not.
So the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the statists of the left is unjustified. In this period, spending on interest on debt (in other words the price of the past decade of overspending by Gordon Brown) climbs 46% (nominally) to £63 billion per annum by 2015. 9% of all government spending in 2015 being just the interest on servicing debt. That's more than the total education budget (but deficit spending is caring didn't you know?).
The welfare state isn't being decimated either. The estimate is that total spending will be increasing in nominal terms from £194 billion today to £214 billion by 2015. That's over £3,500 for every adult and child in the UK!
The lie is that it is about hitting the poor. It is actually mostly about hitting civil service bureaucracy, with 500,000 "jobs" being scrapped over 5 years.
So what is good?
- The appalling "Department of Business, Innovation and Skills" gets a 30% cut in real terms over 5 years, primarily by ending its funding for universities (universities being free to set fees from students to make up the difference). It also loses £400 million in administration. Its government science funding is frozen. Government university funding is not solely from this source, but this is a wholesale shift from predominantly state funding to predominantly student funding. This is a worthwhile step.
What is tolerable?
- Welfare spending only gets a slowing of growth. A single benefit is to be created, means tested, staggered to encourage work over welfare and to be cut for those with savings over £16,000. Already announced cuts to abolish child benefits for those on the top 15% of incomes, and capping total welfare anyone can claim to the average wage. The pension age drips up to 66 by 2020, hardly radical. Yet child benefit will still be spent on children until age 19. Increases in winter fuel allowances will be made permanent and remain for people on all incomes. Free bus passes and TV licences for the elderly remain. Pension increases will be linked to the highest of inflation, wages or 2.5%! In short, welfare is being tinkered with, but the welfare state remains big and strong.
- The Department for Communities and Local Government gets a 7% cut in real terms over 5 years. The big saving is in council housing. New council housing tenants will face rents of up to 80% of market levels, but existing council housing tenants face no change in rental conditions. It will stem demand for council housing, but is intended to subsidise construction of 150,000 more state owned homes over four years. So the role in housing isn't being cut back much Council tax is frozen for a year, because the state will be subsidising it! Funding for "social care" (essentially care homes and support for the elderly) gets a £1 billion increase over 4 years. Not much excitement here.
- The Department of Education and Skills gets a 11% cut in real terms over 5 years. This involves a one-third cut in administration, 60% cut in capital budget and abolition of quangos. The £30 a week bribe to teenagers to stay at college after 16 is being scrapped in favour of targeted bribes. However a "pupil premium" will be increased to subsidise poor children to go to better schools. Teaching salaries and expenditure wont be seriously affected. Education largely holds its own outside the tertiary sector.
- The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gets a £700 million cut over 5 years, from a one third cut in administration, two thirds of its quangos are to be abolished, with cuts in funding for nature reserves, flood defences and biosecurity (all of which will have to fund themselves more).
- The Home Office gets a 27% cut in real terms over 5 years. This means a 20% cut in funding of local police forces from central government (although the locally funded share means the effect is less dramatic). The UK Border Agency gets a 20% cut in real terms (which either means more efficiency, longer queues at Heathrow or less control of illegal immigrants or all of the above!). Home Office civil servants spending are cut by one third. The capital budget is cut by 49%. Why tolerable? Because it continues to fail to confront real crime to tackle the social disaster of parts of the country that are controlled by yobs. The Home Office is a bloated centre of ever increasing control
What is disappointing?
- The Ministry of Defence faces a 5% cut in real terms in five years, but its story is deserving of the cliche "travesty". Reconnaissance aircraft (Nimrods) will not be replaced, the Harrier and Tornado fleets will be scrapped early. All three forces will lose soldiers, sailors and aircrew, but more welcome is the cut in 25,000 civilian personnel. Tanks, ships and artillery are being scrapped. The Ark Royal aircraft carrier is scrapped, and one of the two new aircraft carriers (being built which are more expensive to cancel than build) will be mothballed within three years. Aircraft carriers wont have any British aircraft to operate on them after the Harriers are scrapped, until 2020 if the Joint Strike Fighters proceed. The replacement for the Trident submarine based nuclear deterrent is deferred until after the next election. The short of it is that the UK could not repeat the Falklands conflict if it needed to, and could not match the commitment it had originally for Iraq or Afghanistan. The UK is stepping back from its ability to project military power. What is particularly frustrating is to have unfunded aircraft carriers ordered without aircraft able to use them. The MoD screwed up, the Brown government didn't spot it, and so one reaps the rewards of a state focused not on its core, but on too many issues at once.
- The Department of Energy and Climate Change (which frankly could be closed) will have a 5% per annum cut over 5 years. Why disappointing? Well it includes a "Green Investment Bank" worth £1 billion to fund gold-plated energy projects like offshore wind farms, £1 billion to fund carbon capture and storage, £200 million to fund low carbon electricity. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority gets an increase in budget, to support the policy of allowing new nuclear power plants. People will get subsidies for generating their own electricity in environmentally friendly ways. Grants for insulating homes get cut 63%.
- Health was always not to be really affected. Given estimates of inflation, it will face a 1% cut in real terms, but the NHS itself gets a 0.5% real increase. As it had a 50% increase in funding in real terms over the period of the last government, this is hardly going to hurt. More is to be spent on social care, cancer drugs, three new hospitals are to be built. Administration is to be cut by a third, with eight health quangos abolished. 10 health authorities and 150 primary care trusts are to be abolished. With £109.4 billion spending this year, this is an area where scope for efficiencies would be enormous, and to ration demand for a system that is "free at the point of use" (generating waste from appointments not kept and the worried well). One curiosity is abolition of a £75 million programme to promote healthy eating and drinking. The world's biggest health bureaucracy continues.
- The Department for International Development means foreign aid. It is being increased by 43% in nominal terms over five years. Administration cost are to be cut by 50% and foreign aid to Russia and China terminated, but this increase helps fund bilateral aid, the UN, the EU and other multilateral agencies. By 2013 0.7% of the UK's GNP will be spent on state foreign aid, a UN target. A transfer from the middle class of the UK to the upper classes of the third world.
- Ministry of Justice is cut by 26% in real terms over 5 years. Why disappointing? Because it effectively means cutting spending on prisons without a commensurate abolition of victimless crimes. Less prison places, court closures and reductions in legal aid. Without a comprehensive strategy to focus law and order on real crime, there is every risk that this results in the public being less safe. Again, a core role of the state being distracted by everything else. The potential is there for this to be positive, but there is little sign of this.
- Department for Transport is cut by 13%, but spending on grand rail projects like Crossrail remains, and the road budget is being used for some high value projects (but still remains hopefully inadequate compared to the revenue collected from road users). Rail remains addicted to the state tit, and there are few signs of moving roads to the private sector.
So let's not get excited. Government spending is being sent in the right direction, but not by much. The welfare state, health and education largely get unaffected (with university spending being hit the most), everything else is more about tweaking spending and cutting much bureaucracy. On the downside, the core roles of defence, police and justice are hit significantly, but it is unclear whether this has long run effects on Britain's military capability and whether law and order will be seriously affected.
So no, it isn't the catastrophe the state addicted left will claim, and it is hardly enough to get a libertarian excited. Keep calm and carry on.