By Paul Goodman
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Today's Times (£) reports the latest exploits of Mad Frankie Maude, the crazed axeman of Whitehall:
"More than £5 billion of efficiency savings will be made across Whitehall by this April through cutting spending on property, IT and consultancy, ministers will announce today. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, will disclose that during the first eight months of the year, the Government has found £3.25 billion of savings."
Maude says that projected savings for the full year are now anticipated to be about £5 billion and that this sum will dwarfed the £3.75 million savings made last year.
The Daily Mail, however, suggests that the Cabinet Office Minister is deeply sane and that his axe has as much bite as a toothpick:
"While it is true that civil service numbers – those working directly for government departments – have fallen in recent years, the numbers working for quangos and national agencies has mushroomed…In fact, the true figures reveal that the number of people working for central government is still far higher than it was when Tony Blair took office."
Could the Mail be miffed because the Telegraph had the original story yesterday (together with a comment piece by Maude)? This is the way it sometimes goes with newspapers, I'm afraid. More importantly, what's the truth of the matter? Is the Cabinet Office Minister really cleaving through the red tape or not?
It's true that finding savings in Whitehall can be like squeezing a balloon, with retraction in one part compensated for by expansion in another. Entire episodes of "Yes Minister" could have been dedicated – and for all I know actually were – to mandarin wheezes of how Sir Humphrey gets round Ministerial efficiency drives.
But while Maude's claims could usefully be put under a magnifying glass, is the start of the Blair Government the best baseline from which to measure? It's the Mail's this morning, but many voters will simply want to know where Brown's Government left spending and headcount, and whether the Cabinet Office Minister is squeezing both.
Angie Bray, Maude's Parliamentary Private Secretary, wrote about all this on this site last year, and her piece evoked both praise and criticism: there were counter-claims about headcount and redundancy costs.
But I suspect that Maude has made an impact on the horrible legacy he was left by Labour – it would have been hard not to – and that the savings on I.T and consultancy and central suppliers which he claims are more than statistical jiggery-pokery.