Let’s have a quick look at what we - as a country - are facing at the moment. National debt currently stands at £1.45 trillion. That’s £22,500 for every man, woman and child in the country. Just the interest on this debt will cost us £60 billion next year, which is more than we spend on defence and transport. Simply put, we’re living way beyond our means and we desperately need to reign in our public spending.
Every time we make this increasingly crucial point, there’ll be someone, somewhere declaring that this must mean cutting out essential front-line services, because there just isn’t any more fat to trim in the public sector.
Well, my day started with a chat with BBC Radio Gloucester about “The Wilson”. This is a museum and art gallery in Cheltenham which was originally meant to cost £6.3 million, but ended up costing £6.7 million. BBC reports that the full extent of the £0.4 million overspend was not revealed in a report to the council in February. The sheer incompetence, if nothing else, would be enough to make one despair, but add to that the complacency of the council and it’s almost too much to bear. Here’s the BBC’s report of the council’s statement:
"The people who were putting in the orders should have followed a process to make sure the information was being fed into the finance team, and the finance team were making sure it was being properly recorded.
"If all that had been done properly we'd have known exactly what position we were in financially, but because some of that information wasn't flowing through like it should have done we were in the dark about the total expenditure."
Mr North added that extra money "may well" have had to have been spent anyway.
What’s a mere £0.4 million when the taxpayers are picking up the bill, right?
The newspapers, too, are full of these stories.
Staying with the local government theme, The Sunday Times reported over the weekend that Somerset county council insisted on consulting 22 bodies before putting back a road sign which had fallen down two years ago. It’s no use just blaming the local authorities for these “barmy” situations, as William Hague termed it; successive governments have added legislation after legislation which continuously get in the way of local authorities doing their jobs. What is frustrating is that there seems to be very little appetite within councils to fight this.
Moving on to national government, The Sun carries a story today – with a quote from us – that peers rejected plans to save taxpayers' money by streamlining catering in Parliament, because they feared that the champagne would be of poor quality. You couldn’t make it up. Add to that the fact that The Observer reports that the House of Lords has £5,713 worth of champagne in stock and it’s no surprise people are willing to paint a rather sorry picture of an out of touch upper chamber refusing to evolve with time or pitch in to bring down the deficit.
And finally, on taxpayer-funded parties, here’s another example, again courtesy of The Times. The Financial Conduct Authority, a taxpayer-funded body whose job in recent months has been to fine banks for various transgressions have set aside a “fun fund” of £180,000 for staff Christmas parties. For 3,000 staff, this comes to £60 per head. And this is austerity? Really?
These are just a few examples that we dug up from just 20 minutes of sifting through the newspapers. For all the Coalition’s hard talk, the culture and mind-set of carelessness with our money is still all too prevalent in the public sector.
Some ill-advised closure of essential front-line services while allowing terrible profligacy, waste and inefficiency in the public sector is anything but austerity. It’s bad economics, it’s bad politics.