Yesterday government Ministers queued up to appear on TV and radio programmes to tell us they are â€œlisteningâ€. We were told to await the Autumn Statement patiently to see if their listening extended to understanding why people are against the big hike in Vehicle Excise Duty which they defended in the Commons recently when the Opposition told them to drop it. I guess the conjunction of Labour MPs in a queue to rebel on this issue â€“ somewhat late, considering the amount of parliamentary time it has already enjoyed- with an orderly queue of lorries protesting on the A40 in London was sufficient to give us the benefit of hints in interviews that there could be change in the air.
This leaves us with two problems. The first is that we have learnt, from long experience of this media savvy government, that what counts is not what they say but what they do. A straightforward government that deserved more respect would have come out yesterday and said â€œYes, the new higher oil prices change things. We will cut fuel duty and cancel the VED increases as a result.â€ Instead, we have backtracking from No 10 saying these Ministers went too far! The second, is, how will they pay for any concession they are finally forced to make?
If the government had control of its spending it would be easy to offer something off fuel duty, as they will be collecting so much more tax from VAT on fuel anyway. They could offer us the amount of the extra tax back to show their â€œsharing of our painâ€ had produced some response. They could also offer to cancel the worst of the VED increases, by using the substantial windfall revenue they will be getting from North Sea oil.
Unfortunately the government does not have control of its spending, and it is finding it expensive to remedy the obvious economic and political errors of the error-strewn last budget of Mr Brown, and the first budget of Mr Darling. There is the Â£2.7billion of cost of alleviating the 10p income tax band abolition. There is the Â£24 billion offered to support Northern Rock, and all the contingent liabilities which may well produce losses for the taxpayer to fund. It has been an expensive few months.
What the government needs to do immediately is to take action to get better control over its own costs. It should not be sacking teachers and nurses, and should not be mean to the police in denying them their Independent Pay review increase. They should be getting very tough on civil service and quango staff numbers with a full recruitment freeze, they should be market testing more of the administrative functions of government, and as they are so concerned about how much energy the rest of us use they should go on a drive to cut energy use in the public sector to combat the surge in bills.
We need to cut the tax bill on people. To do so we need to curb spending. Curbing spending is now very easy, because administrative staff numbers are so high, quangoland is so bloated, and the core public sector is profligate. Instead we have a government which is still spending on itself like thereâ€™s no tomorrow, whilst losing its authority to raise the money to pay for it all.