Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Irregular Conjugations

It is surprising how quickly politicians can move from opposition mode to government mode, seamlessly adopting the foibles and failings which until so very recently they were forthright in condemning.

Thus it is that those who until May were so strong in their condemnation of 'spin' have already learnt that it is, in fact, an irregular verb, which is conjugated thus: "I give briefings", "You spin", "He tells whoppers”. I suppose this sort of Damascene conversion is inevitable, but the utter confidence with which they expect us to believe what they say having previously told us to disbelieve the same things when said by the other lot still confounds me.

The Assembly budget is a case in point – and involves another of those pesky irregular verbs. This time, it’s “I seek efficiency savings”, “You impose arbitrary budget cuts”, “He cuts jobs and services and increases council tax”.

Key to the whole budget is the £600 million of ‘efficiency savings’ which they are going to achieve by a ‘bonfire of inefficiencies’, according to Andrew Davies, the Finance Minister. The word ‘bonfire’ is a bad omen to start with; the last time an Assembly government tried to light a bonfire – under the quangos that time – they found that they had no matches, no kindling, the fire was wet, and it was pouring with rain. Much of what was supposed to be burned seems to be still standing. Not an auspicious precedent.

The question, of course, is how they are going to achieve these savings. The answer – although they haven’t admitted this – is that they haven’t a clue. But by cutting certain budgets and telling the budget holders that they must deliver the same level of services with reduced funding, they expect people to do as they say. In short, it’s nothing more than an entirely arbitrary round of budget cuts.

It looks as though the brunt of this is to be borne by Local Government, which has had its funding cut year on year on the same basis by the previous Assembly Government; the only difference being that Plaid then opposed it. I hesitate to put words into their mouths, but I suspect Plaid viewed it as an arbitrary way by which the Assembly government passed on any budgetary problems to local authorities whilst protecting its own spending. It’s different this time, of course; although I have yet to see a satisfactory explanation as to why it’s any different.

The Tories, as the main opposition, are unlikely to be able to do very much to expose this sham - after all, their manifesto for the Assembly elections said that they would fund their spending plans … by imposing an arbitrary ‘efficiency savings’ budget cut on all departments. They cannot disagree with the method, so they fall back on the simplistic – but not necessarily entirely wide of the mark – argument that if there are inefficiencies, it’s Labour that has introduced them, and therefore Labour cannot be trusted to identify and eliminate them.

The Government do, of course, have another old favourite as well – cutting out red tape. It sounds like an immediately obvious thing to do; after all, no-one wants unnecessary bureaucracy. But it looks to me like yet another of those difficult irregular verbs – "I cut red tape", "You repeal regulations", "He takes away workers rights and protection".

I am not arguing that there are no bureaucratic rules and regulations which are superfluous to requirements. But none of them were introduced without an apparent good reason at the time, and when 'business' in particular complains about red tape, they are often referring to those rules and regulations which prevent them either exploiting their work force or polluting the environment. (The Working Time Directive is one of their favourite targets.) Neither would I argue that we do not live in a risk-averse culture where some Health and Safety rules have been taken to excess – but almost all the rules which have been introduced are there in response to a particular occurrence or circumstance, and it would be a brave politician who tried to reform the system.

So, both ‘efficiency savings’ and ‘cutting red tape and duplication’ sound entirely logical and obvious – they are things that no-one could argue with. It’s what the Americans call motherhood and apple pie. Whether they can be delivered in a transparent and measurable way without cuts in services or jobs, council tax increases, or reduced protection for workers and the environment is something that I very much doubt.

PS - There is one other irregular verb to which I should refer here in all fairness – “I comment objectively”, “You criticise unfairly”, “He snipes incessantly from the sidelines”. It all depends on perspective, of course. And it underlines the point that people who expected us to believe them when they spoke from one perspective should not be at all surprised if we have difficulty believing them when they speak from the opposite perspective.

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