There was very good post by Dizzy over the Labour claim (lazily accepted by much of the media) that the Conservatives had ny got "back of the envelope" plans for cutting public spending. Dizzy points out that if journalists read Hansard – particularly the Written Answers section they would know that the appetite for detail the Tories had accumulated for saving money was absolutely voracious. No fair minded journalist would have given credence to Labour's attack that the Tory approach was in some way casual or unrealistic .
As one of those lazy journalists who doesn't regularly read Written Answers I felt duly stung. Hugo Rifkind wrote in The Times that Dizzy is "the reason why geeks will inherit the Earth." Reading Written Answers is pretty geeky – although Dizzy is an unusual geek as he was always getting expelled from his schools.
Anyway, I did a spot check. I searched the Written Answers given to just once Tory MP – Grants Shapps – for the last two years. I scrolled down the first couple of hundred and only read the ones he had asked to the Department for Communities and Local Government.
I discovered that last year the department spent £14 million on advertising. (Including £213,000on Google Adwords.) There was £15 million on agency staff. There was £12 million on Gypsy and Traveller site grants. The DCLG employs 47 civil servants on the English Regions programme. The Audit Commission spent £118,000 at the City Inn, Westminster last year. There is £862,851 on cars.
I am all for encouraging shared ownership schemes but is the £1.5 billion annual subsidy for the different schemes good value for money? Could a less bureaucratic approach be more effective in getting people onto the housing ladder?
Often the same question needs to be asked twice to get an answer or they say: "The answer could only be provided at disproportionate cost." This is often the most revealing response of all. It is code for saying: "We don't know/don't care/won't say how much public money we are spending."
Also the most important point about the questions the Tories are asking is the mentality behind them. Saving money is an attitude of mind. It is certainly about efficiency savings. But is also about eliminating some areas of spending entirely if they are wasteful. The DCLG and its Quangos spend £1.5 billion collecting pointless data. No doubt the unnecessary data could be collected more efficiently. But the really big saving is to stop collecting it at all.