Yesterday a couple of Thames Valley public services came to Westminster to tell MPs about the state of their finances and the issues facing their services. Naturally both were apprehensive about possible cuts, and neither are yet well informed about the future they face. Local MPs are keen to help, as none of us wish to see cuts to valued local services.
One of the services told us their financial position had not been helped by experiencing increases of just 0.5% in each of the last two years. I asked if this was a real increase, after allowing for price increases, or a cash increase. They hesitated and then said it was a cash increase. It seemed very mean, and surprising given the large increases in public spending generally over the last two years.
When I got back to my office I looked at their wesbite. It contained some annual spending figures.These showed that this service had spent 5.1% more in 2009-10 than in the previous year, and planned to spend an additonal 2.7% this year, taking the two year cash increase to 8%.
The second service said it had experienced 14% cuts this year, but I could not find any figures that illuminated this on the relevant website.
I am not going to name the services, as I wish to help them. Their imprecision over past budgets I think tells us something about the style of public sector management allowed or fostered by the last government and the way the debate has been conducted in recent years over public spending. There is much confusion over whether budgets are being talked about in terms of cash or so called real terms. Different bases are adopted for real terms budgets. Some simply add on an amount needed to match the CPI or RPI, others have their own inflation indices which may be higher than stated national inflation.
I am trying to get more of my colleagues to look at actual figures, and to concentrate on how much cash each service has. It is difficult to make fair comparison and judgements between services, or to understand how much service they should be able to deliver, if different services use different price and year bases for their figures. Next year the government plans for the public sector to spend £651 billion on current service expenditure ( up £50 billion on the last Labour year)- surely we can get something worth having for that?
I have been asked by a contributor to the site to tell you about the state of the local police budget. The two services yesterday did not include the police. From their website the police budget was £418 million in 2008-9, combining revenue and captial spending, £433 million in 2009-10, and planned at £451 million this year. The cash increases are below RPI inflation.