Eamonn Butler

The Star Chamber won’t re-structure government. Philip Hammond might

The Star Chamber won’t re-structure government. Philip Hammond might
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You have a computer for years. It gets gummed up with old applications, many of which can’t do the job you need them for today. It hogs far too much memory, and – when it doesn’t freeze entirely – it runs painfully slowly. That’s Britain’s government: it is clogged with quangos and schemes and even whole departments that eat up vast quantities of tax and deliver very little output.

So it’s time to re-boot government. Back up the useful bits, bin the rest, group your files more rationally, and re-start. Which seems to be what Britain’s coalition government now promises: but will they succeed?

Several countries have been through the same mill – Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, Canada all turned around big budget deficits. I would give the coalition about 7/10 for what they’ve learnt from those countries: a promising start, but more hard work needed.

Full marks for starting speed and honesty. Cameron started this week with the clear message: we’re deep in debt, and getting out again will be nasty.

The coalition has understood the international lesson that you need to re-think government, not salami-slice it. Across-the-board cuts can save money for a year or two, but throw out the good with the bad - not what you want. No, they understand that you need to ask what departments think they’re there for – then ask whether that aim is worthwhile, and whether it could be done better in other ways – or by other people. Full marks there.

Another international lesson is that everything must be scrutinised, absolutely nothing should be sacred. Balancing the budget must be your sole priority. If it is one among many, you will be distracted and will fail. So no marks for ring-fencing the NHS and foreign aid. How can any ‘fundamental reappraisal’ of government be serious if you exempt one of the biggest and one of the least popular budgets? And the coalition’s talk of ending  ‘the bulk of the structural deficit’ is far too mealy-mouthed. You need a clear objective – to start paying off debt, not just to add to it more slowly.

Quarter marks for the Star Chamber. Yes, you need something to keep ministers scrutinising their departments. But (as the Canadians will tell you), it’s best to have a single minister in charge – a reform minister, not a penny-pinching finance minister. A minister who knows that failure is a career-breaker. A committee of four will just pass the buck of responsibility.

Indeed, this is the biggest flaw in the whole deficit-busting plan. Better to scrap the Star Chamber entirely and put a strong-minded reformer in charge instead. Step forward Philip Hammond?

Dr Eamonn Butler is author of The Alternative Manifesto (Gibson Square 2010) and Director of the Adam Smith Institute, which has just published his paper Re-Booting Government.