Public domain - theres no debate, by Colin Talbot

22 Jun 06
The promised summer report on next year's Comprehensive Spending Review has yet to materialise, making it unlikely that MPs will be able to discuss it before the recess. But that's par for the course now

23 June 2006

The promised summer report on next year's Comprehensive Spending Review has yet to materialise, making it unlikely that MPs will be able to discuss it before the recess. But that's par for the course now

When senior Treasury officials were asked at the Treasury select committee in March when exactly the government was going to publish the pre-Comprehensive Spending Review report, they answered: 'We and ministers always take Parliament into account.'

This report, due to be published this summer, is meant to set out the context for the 2007 CSR as part of a great national debate on the future of public services.

The committee members were concerned that if and when the report finally emerged, it would be in the final few days of the parliamentary session, too close to the summer recess for any scrutiny by select committees.

They were further worried because in all the talk about a 'great national debate', Parliament never got a mention.

If the Treasury mandarins were trying to reassure the committee, the above comment certainly didn't help. It was a wonderfully ambiguous turn of phrase, one Sir Humphrey would have been truly proud of. It could be interpreted as: 'Yes, we take you into account and will ensure it is published in good time for you to fully scrutinise and debate.'

Alternatively, it could mean: 'Yes, we take you into account in making sure it comes out when you can do it the least damage through your irksome enquiries.'

What exactly the summer report was or is going to cover has always been a bit mysterious since the chancellor raised it last December. Nothing very specific has been set down anywhere but, according to the Financial Times on June 15, it is now called a Fundamental Savings Review. Crucially, according to the FT story, the FSR is being driven by Downing Street rather than the Treasury and the latter is now trying to scupper the whole idea.

Where Tony Blair sees setting the direction of the next decade's public spending and reform as part of his 'legacy' project, the Brownites apparently see it as unwarranted meddling by someone who's on his way out.

Who knows what the truth is behind all this? It certainly seems very unlikely that anything significant is going to emerge for Parliament to scrutinise. First, a lot of decisions about CSR07 have already been taken. The broad envelope of commitments in health, education and international aid are fairly nailed down, although there is a lot of detail to resolve.

In the 2006 Budget, Gordon Brown further announced early CSR settlements covering the Department for Work and Pensions, Revenue & Customs, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury itself. There are still some big areas left, such as criminal justice, transport and the environment.

The Home Office in particular must be deeply worried given its recent poor showing (although it will undoubtedly turn its disasters into an appeal for more funds to put them right).

But we know that CSR07 — covering public spending from 2008 to 2011 — is going be tighter than before and the chancellor is projecting a small fall in public spending as a percentage of gross domestic product, so the pressure is going to be on those services not protected or already settled.

If you want any further evidence that the report — whatever it is — isn't going to say much, then the best indicator was the complete silence about it and the 'great national debate' at the recent 'Twenty-first century public services' conference at which both Blair and Brown spoke. Neither highlighted — or, as far as I can remember, even mentioned — either the summer report or the national debate.

This glitzy, heavily stage-managed event at the QEII centre in London was billed as a major discussion about the future of public services — but a debate it wasn't. A string of ministers and current or past Whitehall policy wonks treated us (us being mostly public service leaders, a few academics and a bus load of foreign visitors) to their vision of the future — but clearly serious engagement in debate wasn't part of the agenda.

The next Spending Review will represent a watershed in British politics – it will cement the post-Thatcher consensus about

the broad size and shape of the welfare state in Britain for the next decade. As such, it is a genuine pity that the government's summer report and the national debate seem to be on ice, pending Gordon and Tony sorting their succession planning out.

The fact that Parliament is being effectively excluded from the debate speaks volumes about the contemporary British political and constitutional settlement.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy and management at Manchester University's Centre for Public Policy and Management


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