Regrets, we have a few

8 Jan 13
Peter Riddell & Akash Paun

The coalition's Mid-Term Review should have been more than a renewal of vows. It needed to focus on urgent political priorities in the run-up to 2015

The Mid-Term Review is much better than nothing, despite all the political and media criticisms. It is helpful to have clarity about what the coalition hopes to achieve before the 2015 election. But the review could have been improved in several key respects.

First, there is little sense of what the top priorities are for the government as a whole, apart from deficit reduction and boosting growth. Like a Queen’s Speech and all too many cross-Whitehall statements, the Review reads like an accumulation of the departmental submissions, many written in ghastly jargon such as ‘we will transition all government departments….’

Second, the well-trailed central themes, on childcare; building more houses; longer-term investment in transport; an improved state pension and more help with the costs of long-term care, are mentioned in the foreword almost as an afterthought, in order to find some headline messages. But there is little detail. In some cases, such as childcare, key decisions have not yet been taken.

Third, there is no link to the economic and fiscal situation other than in the most general terms. But, as we argued in last June’s IfG report ‘A Game of Two Halves’, the promises need to be linked to spending to be credible.

This omission is presumably because decisions have yet to be taken on the allocation between programmes for 2015-16. Consequently, there is a lot of vagueness about how much money is available. There are at least seven ‘up to’ statements, such as ‘creating a debt guarantee scheme for up to £10 billion’ and ‘investing up to £300 million over five years in specialist housing for those in need of care’.

Fourth, contrary to our previous recommendations, there is no overall statement of progress on the original May 2010 commitments. In some cases, there are just bland and largely meaningless statements such as ‘we have improved the NHS’ and ‘we have improved the standard of care’.

Fifth, it is wholly unclear how the coalition partners will deal with disagreements—on a referendum about relations with the EU; on boundary changes, party funding and other aspects of political reform; on further welfare cuts; and potentially on Trident renewal. The Mid-Term Review could have been more open about this.

So while, as we have said, the review is welcome and, in its broad thrust, about as much as could be expected politically given the tensions within the two parties, it still falls short of what it could and should have been. It should have said more about establishing priorities, linking to spending constraints and giving a sense of the overall outcomes the government is seeking to achieve.

Peter Riddell is director and Akash Paun is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government. The original version of this post first appeared on the IfG blog

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