When it comes to government the British public are arguably both sceptical but also tolerant. Government’s can be excused for many sins. But they are never forgiven for sheer incompetence. The wider public are now coming to this view of the Cameron project and their tolerance is wearing thin.
I shadow Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office. One of his responsibilities is the development of an infrastructure to protect the country against civil emergency. He completely blew it when he advised the nation to use jerry cans in order to fill their garages with petrol in preparation for a fuel strike that hadn’t even been announced. The consequent chaotic queues and fuel price rises can be put down to his faulty judgement alone.
But this is only one of a series of incompetent actions which have emanated from his ministry.
Take the completely inept treatment of Quangos. Just last year, Francis Maude claimed loudly to all who would listen that the Government would make over £30 billion savings from their self-proclaimed “bonfire of the Quangos”.
Yet within hours the Prime Minister himself hastily revised this figure downwards without explanation by a massive £10 billion.
Labour offered to help with a considered review of all independent public bodies. It is right that we review the way we do things from time to time because the country’s needs change and it is always possible that we can provide services in new and perhaps more efficient ways.
The Government chose to ignore Labour’s reasonable offer and instead they chose to tackle the review in a totally ramshackle, chaotic and incompetent manner. Their main argument was consistent with their general line about financial cuts. The blaze of publicity which came with the announcement of a ‘bonfire of the Quangos’ was focused on wholly unattainable savings measured in the billions.
By the end of last year, however, the predicted savings had collapsed to just £2.6 billion in savings. In reality the Government’s much trumpeted ‘bonfire’ has turned out to be barely a damp weekend BBQ.
Yet even this is a far stretch from the latest revision of the savings expected, announced this week by the influential cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC), who now estimate that the likely figure will be £1 billion less again in actual savings.
The PAC report reveals a darker truth. Over two thirds of the public bodies to be abolished will accumulate no savings at all for the Government. And report by the National Audit Office out earlier this year states that the Government’s saving estimate is “imprecise” because “consistently estimated savings are not yet available for individual bodies”.
As a result of all this, the Cabinet Office has been forced to admit that their £2.6 billion figure is inaccurate and have accepted that it must be revised downwards yet again. An announcement by the Cabinet Office- the fourth revision in this messy saga- is expected by the end of this month.
Let’s be clear; the Tory-led Government have misled the public on numerous occasions about this matter.
We raised serious questions too in the House of Commons about the types of non-governmental bodies the Government was abolishing or transferring the legal duties from. These were not minor bodies with obscure roles and comic names; instead they included the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Agricultural Wages Board and the Regional Development Agencies, all doing very important jobs, amongst others.
Government Departments will now have to take on the functions previously carried out by public bodies and this likely to cost money. Departments will now have to find savings elsewhere to make up the cost of taking on these newly acquired functions, will mean even more cuts. This displays the complete incompetence of the Government and highlights their inability to think in the long-term.
It is now clear that the pressure on Government Departments has increased yet again, with Departments now having to make savings of at least £3.5 billion – that is nearly £1 billion more than the proposed savings from the whole Public Bodies Reform Programme – to actually realise even the Government’s lowest estimation of £2.6 billion net savings.
The most disturbing developments in this whole process took place whilst the Bill was still in committee for the Government began to dismantle the various public bodies even prior to the legislation having been passed and enacted. Staff were sacked or transferred. Departments were left devoid of resources. Functions were left unfulfilled. And the citizens of the country who had a right to expect statutory functions to be discharged were left with no organisation to which they could refer. Both the Commission for Rural Communities and the Equality and Human Rights Commission were stripped of resources before the legal requirements upon them were removed.
All of this was carried out in the name of a wholly spurious economy drive which we now know will not deliver the savings promised and never would. It has been said that the Government lacks a convincing vision or even a core set of values. This of course is true. But if they fail on the test of competency as the Cabinet Office is clearly failing, then the public will conclude that they are not fit for office. They will be right in that conclusion.