The bruising rows about whether individual budgets should be ring fenced have always struck me as an odd way to build a budget. Whitehall public spending debates are all set up for the parade of the bleeding stumps, as departments claim that if they are going to face a “cut” they will have to discontinue something sensitive or popular. The system is designed to protect the paperclips and the new computers, the travel budgets and the recruitment of more staff or consultants.
I asked recently how much departments spent on travel for officials and Ministers in 2012-13. The Foreign Office, Health and Environment Departments did not bother to reply. The Treasury said £1.5m, Business £2.9 m, with International development coming up with an eye popping £11.25m. I accept they need to visit the places they are giving money to, but Business needs to visit places we are selling goods to.
I asked how many new computers and tablets each Department had bought over the last two years.Education said 2624, Health 3090 and International development 4027. Only the Home Office bought more, at 7766. The Treasury kept their buying spree down to just 2. Once again the Foreign Office did not stoop to a reply.
All this shows several trends. Firstly, government does not treat Parliamentary questions as seriously as they used to. Secondly, if you give a department a large increase in its budget, as with International development, they spend much more on themselves on items like new computers and travel. Thirdly these two simple questions, even allowing for under recording and non answers in some cases, seem to show that departments are still spending on things that could be cut.