Angie Bray is MP for Ealing Central and Acton. She is also Parliamentary Private Secretary to Francis Maude.
Let’s be honest: cutting waste is not exactly glamorous. But it is hugely important, above all at a time when public spending is being squeezed to cut the deficit. We all knew that the Labour Government wasted taxpayer money like it was going out of fashion. And so after the election Francis Maude was determined to get on with the difficult and complicated work of cutting out the wasteful spending that spiralled out of control under Labour.
Francis knew he had to leave no stone unturned in tackling the endemic inefficiency in the way Government is run. And that is just what he has quietly got on with. In only 10 months more than £3.75 billion of cash savings has been found. To put this in perspective that is enough money to fund the salaries of 200,000 junior nurses or the equivalent of saving more than £225 worth of tax for every working household right across the country.
Cutting waste is not sexy and it’s not easy: it puts you up against swathes of vested interests and does not garner many headlines. Some in the Civil Service resent the stopping of pet projects and vanity advertising campaigns; it also involves a degree of centralisation which is not always popular. But it is vitally important and in Francis we have a minister who is totally committed.
From conversations with Francis, it seems we can’t underestimate how bad the situation we inherited from Labour was. The government basically had no idea how much it spent with its major suppliers, was not buying anything in bulk, kept minimal records on its spend on things like consultants and required no central sign off for any advertising campaigns. A box of paper bought from £73 in one department cost £8 in another – more than 9 times as much. There was a Civil Service redundancy scheme which allowed payoffs of over six times annual salary. Simply put, it is totally unbelievable how badly things were run under Labour, and no business would ever have got away with it.
The evidence strongly implies that Labour was far more interested in headlines than running anything properly; their much feted major efficiency drive, the Gershon review, was slammed by the NAO for savings which were either poorly measured or ‘substantially incorrect’. Over 60% of Labour’s claimed savings did not actually save any cash. This perhaps explains why there is so much scepticism about ‘efficiency savings’ in the minds of the public.
But Francis has managed to achieve real cash savings. Last summer was spent holed up with central government suppliers, renegotiating the contracts that the Labour Government had put in place. Just this saved a staggering £800 million. Francis also pushed through legislation to cap the ruinously expensive Civil Service redundancy scheme and managed to agree a successor scheme with most civil service unions; this enabled the bulk of civil service redundancies to be achieved by voluntary means and combined with the hiring freeze contributed to a shrinkage in the size of the Civil Service by 17,000. Not bad going.
Other sensible steps saved huge tranches of cash: putting a freeze on new leases and introducing central control over government property ensured the Civil Service vacated half a million square metres of government property – that’s the size of 70 Wembley football pitches. By centralising buying of basic things, ‘common goods and services’, he has saved £360 million. And by blocking all but essential advertising campaigns more than two thirds off the Government’s advertising spend has been saved. The Minister now personally signs off all exceptions to this marketing freeze and won’t let any vacancy in his department be filled without his say so.
This, I believe, is the key to his success. Francis doesn’t just assume things will happen. He pays real attention to detail and demands results from his civil servants. He doesn’t always accept the first answer that is given to him and is prepared to do the work himself. He was willing to sit in a hot room all through August wrangling with suppliers, and to stand up to departments demanding extra money for advertising campaigns. Certainly this is something that Ed Miliband just didn’t deliver when he was a Cabinet Office minister.
Francis Maude has nearly three decades of experience in politics yet he is every bit the modern politician. He cares deeply about taxpayer’s money not being wasted and about, what I would call, doing things properly. As the Minister himself said, with these savings he has addressed the ‘low hanging fruit’ but he insists there is more to come. I know he is not doing the most high profile job in Government, but I believe it is one of the most important and one that every taxpayer will really care about. And it’s right that Central Government is leading by example.