What public expenditure should be cut?
BBC’s Newsnight programme is appealing for viewers’ proposals on how best to cut public expenditure. Myself, I agree with the government that cutting public spending in the early stages of a massive recession would be insane (although HM Loyal Opposition doesn’t seem to grasp the reason for that view, the strongest reason currently on offer for not risking a Tory government next year). But sooner or later public expenditure clearly will need to be cut back, so I have offered this ten-course menu of cuts to Newsnight:
1. Scrap ID cards and the associated giant national database (obviously). They are intrusive, irrelevant to terrorism, won’t bother serious crooks, will intensify discriminatory stop-and-search, won’t be capable of storing reliable information, and will be open to every kind of abuse.
2. Don’t renew Trident. We don’t need nuclear weapons, nor rockets, submarines, ships, aircraft or hot-air balloons to deliver them. For the foreseeable future Britain can’t afford to pretend to be a world power. A cold douche of realism will be salutary.
3. Don’t build any more prisons — neither three Titans nor five smaller ones. Reduce the size of the prison population, don’t keep on building new homes for an even bigger one. Around half the prison population ought not to be there: it’s far cheaper to address their problems outside prison than in it.
4. Scrap the NHS giant computer system.
5. No more failed politicians, businessmen, actors, ministers’ nephews or other amateurs to be appointed as ambassadors or high commissioners. Career diplomats are much cheaper (and far more effective).
6. No more Private Finance Initiatives, Public-Private Partnerships, or other kinds of sleight-of-hand dodges to postpone public expenditure or keep it off the public accounts: in practice risk can’t be transferred to the private sector and the private sector is hugely more expensive.
7. Nationalise the failed banks — much cheaper than paying off their bad debts for them and then pouring money into them as bribes to induce them to do their job of lending.
8. Bring the quangos, hived-off agencies and most privatised bodies performing public services (such as privatised prisons) back under direct ministerial and departmental control. Not only will they work much more economically: you won’t need to pay their chief executives and other senior managers nearly so much when they are middle-ranking civil servants again.
9. Abolish, or severely limit, private medical practice by doctors etc. trained by the NHS at public expense. Consultants will deliver much more to the NHS, for no more money, if they don’t spend half their time in Harley Street treating Saudi princes while pretending that private practice only accounts for 3 per cent of their time.
10. Remove all British troops from Afghanistan within three months. Their presence entails unacceptable casualties, serves no discernible purpose, is irrelevant to the real problem of al-Qaeda terrorism (i.e. Pakistan), antagonises ordinary innocent Afghans, is set unattainable goals, and costs millions.
Actually all ten proposals are desirable in themselves, even if there were unlimited money available. Taken together they should free up enough resources to double overseas development aid, launch a huge programme of public building of houses, roads and other amenities as a job-creating fiscal stimulus, take a few million people out of income tax to get them spending again, and bribe the International Olympic Committee to give their damn games to someone else.