And without those, how can we have a proper debate about funding for public services?by Emily Andrews / January 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
How much did the government spend on hospitals last year? What about mental health? Schools are apparently facing a squeeze right now: how much has spending changed since 2010?
Knowing the answer to those questions is an obvious pre-requisite to any meaningful debate about public sector cuts. After seven years of spending constraint in public services, we should have easy access to them, right?
Wrong. Despite mountains of financial data pumped into the public domain, it is surprisingly difficult to work out exactly how much spending on key public services has changed since the years of austerity began.
Police cuts have become a favourite topic of the opposition—but the Home Office accounts won’t tell you how large these have been. For a consistent measure, you’ll have to go to local government financial returns. Spending on our immigration services is a similarly hot topic, but we don’t know how much it changed between 2010 and now: organisational changes make a comparison between the earlier and later years impossible.
The Department of Health accounts are not segmented in a way that permits a simple reading of the numbers. They won’t tell us, for example, how much is spent specifically on hospitals, or how much on mental health. Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS, told MPs that spending on mental health went up 5.7 per cent last year. When fact-checkers at Full Fact asked the Department for the provenance of these numbers, they told them that Stevens’s statement itself was the best source.
Schools are the trickiest case of all. Academy spending and local authority school spending are reported separately—but before 2012, we can’t get our hands on the spending data for academy schools. Instead, we’ve had to use funding numbers—which won’t take into account any deficits or use of reserves. That too involves a degree of fudge, due to changes to reporting schemes over the years.
All of this information exists, somewhere—in disaggregated form, prepared and pored over by hardworking public sector accountants. We dug beneath the surface, sought out proxies, and put together a set of consistent numbers showing national changes to spending on hospitals, schools and other key public services for our Performance Tracker report.
But the absence of basic, big-ticket numbers, needed to make the high-level spending decisions at the top of government begs a serious question: on what basis are government ministers making those spending decisions?
This government is currently trapped in a reactive spending cycle, forced into pumping emergency cash into services that it originally thought they didn’t need. If ministers aren’t asking for figures—showing what has changed, as much as where we are now—there is little hope that they will be able to break free of it.
Of course, they should not stop there. A spending debate based on financial figures alone, without looking carefully at what the government is getting for our money, would be meaningless. And the challenge of understanding the outputs, as well as the inputs, is often even greater.
Measuring the effects of austerity on public services is understandably complicated, with myriad approaches possible. But measuring the scale of spending cuts to public services should be straightforward. The fact that it isn’t should worry anyone who hopes to see this government live within its means in the challenging years to come.