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Douglas Carswell's Blog

28 JAN 2013

How to control public spending

Public spending, writes City AM's Allister Heath, is not falling, but rising as a share of GDP.

According to the OECD, UK public spending increased from 48.6 percent of GDP in 2011 to 49 percent in 2012. "The state is getting relatively bigger, not smaller" under George Osborne.

How can this be? Surely everybody knows that we face austerity and cuts?

To be sure, there are some pretty tough cuts in some areas - local government, for example. Public sector pay for some nurses, police and others. But overall, as Allister puts it, the government has "horrendously failed to gain a grip" on spending.

Why? How can there be so little control over what the state-sector spends?

Because the state-sector has outgrown the ability of the rest of us to hold it to account. The democratic constraints have been subverted by a technocratic system of government that spends regardless of what the taxpayer thinks.

There was once a time when government departments and state organisations were given a budget by those answerable to the taxpayer. The House of Commons lost the ability to do anything other than rubber stamp budgets from the 1930s. The state has grown every decade since.

Treasury ministers, you might imagine, have the power to write budgets. In theory, yes. But in practice they are presented with various options to approve by a Whitehall machine that only ever let's those we elect have an influence in the margins.

Don't believe me? Then ask yourself why government spending and borrowing under this administration has followed almost precisely the same trajectory it would have done had Alistair Darling remained Chancellor?

Treasury officials draw up "control totals" for departments, as they dish out our money. The one thing "control totals" never seem to do is control the total amount of money government spends.

If we are serious about reining in state spending, those we elect need to wrestle back control of the purse strings. The Commons, not the technocratic machine, should have the final say.

Each minister and accounting officer, for each government department and quango should have to appear each year before the relevant Commons select committee.  There they must plead for their budget for the next year. MPs should be able to vote to strike out items of expenditure. No approval, no money.

Bold, radical?  Un-British?  It is the whole point of having a Parliament in the first place, for goodness sake.

Government grew as officialdom discovered how it could escape from democratic control. If we want to rein in government spending, we need to restore that control.

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