British public do not accept need for deep cuts, says pollster

9 Jun 10
The government faces a huge challenge in its consultation over spending cuts, a leading public opinion expert told the CIPFA conference today

By Lucy Phillips

9 June 2010

The government faces a huge challenge in its consultation over spending cuts, a leading public opinion expert told the CIPFA conference today.

Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos Mori, said the British public was far more optimistic about the economy and the future of public services than it should be.

He revealed that almost four in ten people disagreed that there was a real need to cut government spending to plug the country’s £156bn deficit, while 64% thought the hole in the public finances could be filled by efficiency savings alone. 

‘The public has a long way to go in their understanding of what is coming,’ he said.

This sense of denial of the problem was reinforced by findings showing the public were more optimistic about the future of the UK economy than the Treasury – which has itself been accused of producing forecasts that are too positive.

Duffy said the optimism came after an ‘ungrateful’ and ‘depressingly negative’ attitude to increases in spending on public services in recent years. Some 60% of people thought public services had deteriorated since 2001 and by 2007, before the recession hit, the same proportion said the UK was a worsening country to live in. This came despite tens of thousand more police officers, doctors and nurses, more schools being built and huge rises in the number of people going to university.

‘We were more negative than the figures suggest we should have been,’ said Duffy.

He added that many of the public’s views were somewhat contradictory. When it came to whether people should be given more control of public services, he said: ‘In some sense we like the idea of local control but we also like the same services everywhere. That will be a really hard circle to square.’

Duffy said one of the most remarkable findings was public sector workers’ attitude to state services. ‘Huge proportions’ of staff across the health service, councils and criminal justice system were highly critical, he said.

His comments come the day after Chancellor George Osborne announced that he would conduct a public engagement exercise over the summer to build up public support on spending choices. Duffy described it as ‘one of the hardest subjects to communicate and consult on’, but he did not think it was ‘incompatible’ with the government taking quick action on the deficit.

Robert Chote, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, told delegates that much was riding on next week’s report by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the new independent economic  body that has been charged with identifying the size of the structural deficit.

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