The magic extra million is a public sector constant quest

If the state is spending £100 million on providing a service the debate will be about providing an additional £1m to make it better. The possible extra £1m is endowed with magic powers by the service providers and often by the political opposition. The extra one million we are told would make all the difference to the quality and performance. A government that refuses it is mean, is cutting the service. A government which votes it is caring.

The trouble is it is simply not true that the extra million will tip a service from poor to good, or will make all the difference to the quality and quantity delivered. All the energy that goes into debating the extra million diverts the energy that should be going into debating how we spend the £100 million. It would be an odd programme where all £100 million was well spent, an odd service where you could find no ways of being more efficient and delivering higher quality.

Sometimes if you ask how would the extra £1m be spent it becomes obvious that it is not the answer. Of course some services need more people to deliver them well, or higher pay to motivate and retain good people, or more capital equipment to make the task of provision better. Sometimes extra money is part of the answer. The danger is that politicians will see extra money as the sole answer, when if you vote more money you still need to supervise how it is spent, and how the rest of the money is spent which it is topping up.

The private sector concentrates more on outputs than inputs. If I go to a shop they do not tell me how much it costs them to run and staff the shop. Shop A does not claim to be better than Shop B because it spends more on wages, computers and lighting. The shops compete on service and appearance without  saying which is the low cost and which is the high cost store. Those running the shops are always trying to get the costs of running the shop lower, whilst preserving or improving quality. Sensible employers also know you do not have a good quality service if you treat staff badly and pay them too little.

The public sector needs to concentrate more on outputs, service volumes and quality. Some of the services will need more money to make them better, but we need to start with an honest analysis of what needs doing to expand or improve them, which includes working out how well we are spending the large sums already committed.

The public sector has an approach that adds in something called “efficiencies” . Some of these are sensible improvements in purchasing, staff use and service delivery. Some are cuts in service dressed up as efficiency improvements.  What we need is a management process based on continuous improvement, and implemented by using talent well within the organisation. Good public service providers need to be good employers, training and mentoring staff and helping staff to worthwhile careers based on pursuing service excellence.

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Site service

Some technical work is being undertaken which might affect service over the next couple of days I am told.

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UK growth accelerated in the fourth quarter of last year

The fourth quarter saw UK growth speed up to 0.7% for the three months. The quarterly pattern last year according to the ONS was 0.2% in Q1, 0.6% in each of Quarters 2 and 3, and 0.7% in Q4.  The ONS says this amounts to 1.8% growth for the year as a whole, though the four quarters as reported gives you a figure of 2.1%.  What is clear from these figures is the economy grew faster after the Brexit vote than before by a decent margin, the opposite of the official and expert forecasts at the time.

As the ONS rightly said “In the fourth quarter the UK experienced the strongest arte of growth among European groupings and G7 countries”. Let’s hope the Treasury adjust their forecasts for our economy in the Budget statement, as their recent forecasts have been far too low.

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Lords pass Brexit Bill unanimously

Parliament has now spoken. A large majority for Brexit in the Commons is now matched by a unanimous vote in the Lords.

The Supreme Court has succeeded in delaying the letter but not in stopping it. As I thought at the time of the discussions on the Supreme Court decision it is the view of Parliament we should send the letter. If it had not been Parliament would have said so and voted accordingly prior to the Court decision.

I expect the Lords to approve the Bill at third reading in a similar way. It would be odd indeed if they changed  their minds after yesterdays important vote.

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UK public finances are OK

The latest figures for public spending, tax revenue and borrowing published yesterday showed more progress in reducing the running deficit.  Total state borrowing adjusted for the bonds the Bank of England has bought in remains at a moderate level, around 65% of GDP.

The main reason new  borrowing is reducing is the continued good growth in tax receipts. In the period April 2016 to January 2017 tax revenues were 5% higher than in the same period of the previous financial year. This reflects the continued growth of the UK economy. Self assessment income tax receipts and corporation tax receipts showed especially strong growth based on improved business activity and investment prospects.

This increase in tax allowed an increase of 2% in public spending and a reduction in the rate of new borrowing. In the financial year to date central government current spending is up by 1.4% and local government current spending up by 10.2%.  Central government net investment rose by 6%.  (ONS official figures). There are some areas where it may be necessary to spend more.

It is still a good idea to spend  money wisely. Ending our EU contributions  is an obvious improvement to make. There are issues with poor value for money in parts of the overseas aid budget. There are  more opportunities to help people into work, to cut the benefit bill by substituting earnings from work. There are many efficiency improvements to be made in areas like railway spending, which is running at high levels.

The government also  needs to be careful over tax rates. Taxing income may be a necessity, but it is not wise to tax working and investing too heavily as it can do considerable economic damage and prove self defeating. The budget is an ideal time to review current rates and ask which taxes should be lower in order to raise more revenue as and when economic growth delivers more cash.

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The future of the High Street

The changes to rates has once again highlighted the rapid changes on UK High Streets. Large centres with numerous coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques and the main multiples are usually trading successfully. The Metro Centre, Oxford Street, Bicester Village, Meadowhall and the other well established shopping centres are flourishing. People want a good range of shops, good brands, and the capacity to make a half day or a day of it with stops for food and drink. Big new shopping centres like Westfield are still being added, with the redevelopment of Birmingham Bullring and other leading City retail destinations.

In contrast many of the smaller High Streets are suffering from the attack of internet shopping offering keener prices, and destination shopping offering more choice. Many a small butcher, baker, fishmonger and green grocer has given up the struggle to compete with the volumes, prices and freshness of the leading supermarkets. In their turn the large supermarkets are under strong competitive pressure from the discounters, who target a narrower range of popular products so they can use their dominant volume in these items to command great prices from suppliers.

The advent of new or expanded and revamped destination shopping centres, and more space for the main discounters has intensified the bricks and mortar shopping competition. The large food retailers have added to the complexity of their tasks by opening a range of local smaller stores, seeking to tap into the narrow range essentials that many people buy daily or several times a week at a convenience store near their homes.

The changes to rate valuations seek to mirror the changing fortunes, but some think they throw up anomalies. The aim is to reduce or remove business rates from small independents, to cut the tax on those many shopping centres with falling revenues or weaker margins, whilst boosting the tax on the successful destination shopping areas. We will find out how successful this has been in the debate that has been unleashed by the new rating schedules.

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Major problems with overseas aid for Eastern European countries

I was surprised to read in the Sunday press that some people think it a good idea to divert overseas aid to Eastern European members of the EU to “buy” a better  deal with that organisation.

As I have explained before, there is no Treaty power to require a UK leaving payment above and beyond completing our annual payments to their budget for the period of  our continuing membership. Nor is it legal under WTO rules to pay for more favoured trade with a particular country or group of countries than the rest. Payment for trade under WTO rules takes the form of accepting tariffs, and these have to be limited to the current mfn schedules the EU has agreed.

The trade choice is for the rest of the EU to make.  The Uk would be quite happy to carry on tariff free. That will help the rest of the EU more than us. It would mean registering our current trade arrangements as a Free Trade Agreement at the WTO. Or we can trade under mfn arrangements under the WTO. Most of UK trade will be tariff free, whilst EU sales of agricultural products would suffer heavy tariffs into the UK. The UK could agree lower or no tariffs with other cheaper suppliers of food around the world through the WTO process. I have  said it is in the EU’s interest to accept the tariff free offer, and they may  do so after much huffing and puffing.  I have also always said that they might decide to harm themselves by accepting WTO terms instead. Under the general WTO arrangements the UK will be fine.

The overseas aid  idea also falls well foul of the overseas aid rules. The Eastern countries in the EU do not qualify for overseas aid under the international definition, as they are too well off. UK Ministers  by law have to hit the 0.7% Aid target under international definitions, so they could not switch this aid money to Eastern Europe unless they repealed the 0.7% requirement. It would not be easy to achieve repeal, given the likely fact that all the opposition parties would oppose repeal other than perhaps the one UKIP MP. The government might be able to persuade  enough Conservative MPs to get it through the Commons, but the Lords would be likely to have a big majority the other way. As it would not be a Manifesto pledge, and does not stem directly from a referendum, the Lords might become  very difficult.

In circumstances where the EU Commision and one or two large countries were  not wanting a free trade Agreement with the UK for political despite their interests in having one, it is difficult to see how offering to send money to Eastern countries would buy a change of heart.



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Business rates

The media have been running two popular causes in recent days. The campaigners want the government to spend more on social care. Campaigners also want no business rate rises in places where property prices have risen. This highlights the perpetual tension. How do you raise enough money for good purposes without overtaxing the people and businesses which generate so much of the national income?

Taxing work and enterprise is never a popular idea, nor helpful to promoting growth. It is a necessary evil as the country wants to have decent public services. The skill is how do you raise enough from those who earn the money without doing too much damage to enterprise?

The decision to  tax business property is commonplace around the world. The political difficulty in the UK comes from the need for periodic revaluations of properties. In the areas where these have risen a lot businesses face large increases in rates bills. In the areas where values have gone down other businesses benefit but are not so vocal about the changes.

Is this a good system for taxing  business? If you did not raise business rates, how would you replace the revenue?

I favour setting income and profits  tax rates that people and business will pay and can pay, to avoid too much damage to incentives and to keep business and enterprise at home.  I have no problem with the principle of business rates but would be interested in comments on the current levels.

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How the world is changing

The advent of Mr Trump on the world diplomatic scene is making some big changes.

Mr Trump has in many ways a very conventional US view of the world . He sees his main allies as the UK in Europe, Japan in the Far East, and Israel in the Middle East. He tells Israel he wants them to reach a settlement with the Palestinians, but he no longer insists on what that settlement might look like. He warns China on trade,and is friendly towards Taiwan. He  condemns the harsh words and warlike gestures  of North Korea. He is keen to tackle the persistent large trade surpluses run by China and Germany, which he sees as disrupting the world economy and fair commerce.  He wants a world of bilateral relations between nations, rather than complex diplomacy between jostling regional power blocs. The US has traditionally  been suspicious of international bodies taking too much power, and has often found itself in disagreement with the liberal consensus that tends to dominate in those institutions.

The biggest change he is proposing in US foreign policy is the reappraisal of the strength and helpfulness of the EU. Where Mr Obama saw the EU as a benign force, and looked to Mrs Merkel to be his best ally in return for his support for the supranational body, Mr Trump is concerned. He sees the dangers of an inadequately resourced European defence activity that weakens NATO further but still expects US military capacity to be the guarantor of the peace. He is concerned about the low level of the Euro allowing Germany to build a colossal export surplus. He sees how the current level of EU integration is creating a force against it in rising independence movements around the continent. He is doubtless not impressed that the IMF has run up large bills lending to the weaker member states of the Eurozone, when the zone overall is rich enough to  be able to handle its own financing.

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UK retail sales up 4.6% in volume and value (excluding motor fuel)

The figures for the last three months compared to a year earlier still show good growth and no retail price inflation, with both volume and value figures up 4.6%. Add in motor fuel where oil prices have soared and volume growth is 3.8%.

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  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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