Deep cuts will hurt
Here’s a piece originally published in Society Guardian today:
National debate has undergone a seamless change. Only a few months ago, talk was of a recession caused by a financial crash, building a greener economy less reliant on finance and dealing with unemployment. Now the public sector deficit is the big priority.
It has been a neat ideological trick. Those who preached free markets and deregulation have not been daunted after their policies were tested in a near-total meltdown of the world’s financial system.
They have quickly regrouped to use the inevitable growth of the deficit in a recession, as taxes fall and benefit payments rise, to argue that spending cuts must now be the top priority. The shrink-the-state right is now making the running, rather than facing the public drubbing it deserves.
Big cuts make no economic sense. The deficit is a symptom of our wider economic problem, not its cause. The deficit will close when the economy grows. But cuts will hit growth – and make the deficit worse.
It is crass to say that if consumers are tightening their belts, so should government. If citizens and businesses stop spending, then the state must fill in the gap. And we need the public sector even more in a recession. Mass unemployment wreaks social damage. People are less healthy, families are more likely to break up and antisocial behaviour and property crime increase.
It is hardly surprising that an Association for Public Service Excellence survey – for the TUC’s forthcoming Touchstone pamphlet, in a series designed to provoke debate, develop new ideas and influence longer-term policy thinking in government and parliament, and among unions – reports that 92% of public sector workers say the recession has increased pressure on services.
Users, workers and managers will need to defend public services, but we should not make the mistake of pretending that those services are perfect. While 81% of survey respondents say that cuts will lead to poorer services, 41% think that there is room for efficiency savings.
So what are workers and managers to do? There is nothing wrong in looking for these savings. Undoubtedly, there is some waste around – much of it imposed from the top. Do we need quite so many consultants, so much monitoring and systems built on squeezing out trust and professionalism? It is through talking to staff and service users that managers can identify ways of better using their resources and understand the full damage that cuts can do.
There should be no pretence, however, that deep cuts can be painless. It is time to speak up and say so. We need a proper debate about making public services better in an age of austerity. That will not be helped by lazy anti-public sector prejudice. It is easy to see why pollsters report the paradox of growing user satisfaction at a time when people think public services are deteriorating. One reason is their experience; the second is what they read and hear.
Nor do we need the artificial division between frontline heroes and back-office bureaucrats, used to justify cuts that are claimed will make no impact. Frontline workers need backup, yet politicians too often move from saying we need better support to free up frontline workers one week, to denouncing that support as bureaucracy the next.
In a democracy, the political process should make the final decisions about the size and shape of public services. But the duty on those of us who support quality services is to make sure that no one can take a decision to cut without realising, and taking full responsibility for, the social and economic damage they will do.