The public spending debate in the media continues apace, with the crucial numbers left out. The debate about defence spending has been one of the most active, presumably because the lobbies in defence have been especially keen to put their views to the media whilst arguments rage within Whitehall.
The meetings at Westminster on this topic have tried to keep up with the ever more lurid portrayals of cuts. The Secretary of State, Liam Fox, has explained in various meetings that many of the stories are unreliable, without being able yet to replace them with accurate guidance based on agreement about the future. The new line in some of the papers is that this Defence Review is proceeding too quickly and will not be thorough enough, yet day after day brings evidence of every stone being overturned.
When I have attended meetings I have asked a couple of simple questions. Will Defence be in receipt of rising sums of cash current spending, given the fact that current public spending overall rises from £600 bn a year to £690 billion 2010-15? What is the scope to buy better, given the many criticisms of past weapons procurement, and the cost overruns on one off designs and some programmes? I can get no answer to these questions. Without an answer it is difficult to have a worthwhile discussion of what might be needed and what can be achieved.
The debate in the newspapers is conducted around the proposition that there will be cuts of 10% in defence spending. Does that mean that current spending will be 10% less by 2015? Does that include the cuts in capital spending as well? We know that by 2015 the Afghanistan war will be over for the UK, so we would expect a saving from that happy release. If we are talking of a five year programme, efficiency and effectiveness improvements and better buying could achieve a cumulative 10% if they run at a modest rate of under 2% a year.
I read some very odd ideas. Apparently an economy could entail selling or mothballing expensive ships we already have in the Navy. Another could involve buying two new aircraft carriers but not many of the planes that were meant to be on them.
Many of our leading retailers regularly cut costs by at least 2% a year. They do not do so by announcing the closure of the bread department, or by failing to stock milk and butter anymore. They do so by working away at doing more for less. The managers and staff do not parade difficult choices over which costs to cut in our daily newspapers. They know they are all in it together.