Coffee House

6 steps to out-fox local government’s Sir Humphreys

3 April 2013

Shortly after the 2010 general election I attended an event where mandarins complained of ‘swingeing cuts’. Then one NHS boss admitted that he had so much cash sloshing around he was having trouble spending his multi-hundred million budget. Local government, which accounts for one quarter of government spending, has the same mindset.

Despite the rhetoric of cuts, little has actually changed. I have watched Sir Humphrey Whitehall and local government (both as a private contractor and as a councillor), and each year we witness a rush before the financial year ends to spend money which, if cuts were actually deep, would not exist. Fraser Nelson spelt out this reality before the budget. Public spending increased by sixty per cent during the last government. Since 2010 spending has been cut by just three per cent. Sir Humphrey sits on the sideline like a Wimbledon umpire while each side calls for tax hikes or welfare cuts. Here are my six recommendations to restrain Leviathan, broadly in line with existing coalition government policies.

1). All new public sector appointments on salaries of £60,000 and above should be fixed term contracts of three years or less. This would end the ‘job for life’ mentality, which is central to the way taxpayer’s money is spent. There is not sufficient pressure to make budgets more efficient. This is not an attack on the public sector – I have huge respect for many of the people I work with – but many believe their budgets should be spent in full.

2). The Home Office recently revised police officers’ starting salary, dropping it by thousands of pounds. And even the London Borough of Islington advertised a chief executive salary at tens of thousands of pounds less than the previous incumbent. Government could enforce proportionate cuts for all new appointments.


3). One hotelier tells me that the Sir Humphreys in Eric Pickles’ department prefer booking into a £100 a night boutique hotel five minutes from Belgravia so they can enjoy the night life, although ‘the rooms aren’t big enough to swing a cat’. A blanket ban on all hotels and rental accommodation in London zone one and other expensive locations such as Manchester, coupled with a genuine push to move fifty percent of government out of our city centres by 2015, is perfectly feasible. It may only save the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds; but it would inculcate a value for money ethos that is still missing from Sir Humphrey’s DNA.

4). Why does government allow basic services (dustbin emptying and road maintenance) to be delivered by council employees in inefficient (usually Labour-run) councils? David Cameron highlighted this in a White Paper launched the day he had to rush back to the House of Commons at the height of the hysteria over tabloid phone hacking. Why should mostly Tory councils make efficiencies year after year when mostly Labour ones cut from front line public services (libraries, leisure centres and childcare) to protect their civil servants?

5). Eric Pickles has offered councils additional grants to encourage them not to increase council tax, and has forced councils to hold referendums if they increase council tax beyond a certain limit. But many have raised the council tax by a little less than these caps. Government could publish regional tables of council tax rates, and prohibit councils who are above the average rate from any increase without winning a referendum.

6). Ask to meet with almost anyone one in the public sector on a Friday afternoon, or in the weeks adjacent to a holiday, and many will say that they are ‘in a meeting’. They are in fact likely to be ‘working from home’ or taking some of the almost eight weeks a year holiday to which most are entitled. Introducing a fortnight close down in August, and during other holiday periods, for all but genuine front line staff would highlight the over-manning which is still prevalent across government.

These steps would reinforce George Osborne’s budget and allow the British public to be able to keep more of our money.

Tony Devenish is a Westminster City Councillor and former South East England Conservative MEP Candidate

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  • ScaryBiscuits

    I’ve got a much simpler solution: cut the number of heads. Everything else follows from that.
    Then you can stop fiddling around the edges, worrying about the sort of hotel they stay in whilst ignoring their £200k salary package.

  • Hellen

    If we all use BitCoin for transactions an don’t pay tax it will starve the system itself.

  • Daniel Maris

    “Tony Devenish is a Westminster City Councillor and former South East England Conservative MEP Candidate” – I think we know who’s really got on board the gravy train with their super-sized spoon.


    1. That’s what budgets are for. Underspending is just as poor financial planning as overspending.

    2. You wouldn’t think there has been a public sector pay freeze for 3 years would you the way he talks?

    3. Let’s hear you call for a reduction in your prospective MEP mega salary first.

    4. Watatwat again. These contracts are won fair and square against the private sector. I’d like to see him get up at 5am to go collecting dustbins for four hours non-stop.

    5. Since when has a limit not been a limit? Since Porky Pickles start shoving his snout into things and cause complete chaos.

    6. This guy’s a conservative councillor in Westminster where I presume they have a majority. If August close downs are such a brilliant idea, why doesn’t he persuade his colleagues its a wonderful idea. (Clue: because it’s not). What part of local government is not “essential”? Education? Public health? Rubbish collection? Housing homeless families? Social services protection of vulnerable children?

    This guy is a good example of why no one takes the TOries seriously anymore.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Accurate Mr Devenish. Unfortunately reform of local and national government would be a long hard slog which is beyond dilettantes like Osborne and Cameron. It is questionable whether they want reform enough anyway.

  • John Moss

    Oh and when the officers tell you things have to be done, or done a certain way because of this legislation or that directive, ask them whether it’s mandatory, or just “guidance”.

  • telemachus

    Absolutely correct
    There is no reason to cut benefits until the public sector is efficient
    We all decry sloth whether at JCB or the Home Office
    Problem is that it is easier for IDS and Osborne to get their savings from the poor

    • Russell

      You mean easier for labour controlled councils to get money from the poor along with closing essential services for children and the old & frail with libraries rather than deprive the grants to labour supporting luvvies and oddball gay/lesbian theatre groups.

    • ScaryBiscuits

      Teletmachus, but IDS isn’t cutting benefits. As reported here and elsewhere the other day, benefits are rising both per individual and in total.

  • John Moss

    Cut the employer (taxpayer) contribution to the LGPS to a maximum of 10%. It is rising to 30% in my Council and if it doesn’t cover the pension liabilities, then cut those.

  • Mike Bennett

    This is written by someone who has no understanding of where the money is spent in local government. That in itself is no surprise, but why are we letting it ruin Coffee House? This dish water is not the kind of brew we have come to expect here (I humbly suggest).

    • fantasy_island

      Bless, your first post and you wasted it.

      • Daniel Maris

        No, it was a very sensible contribution. Which civilised development in the country in the world doesn’t have local government and police? I have never heard of any other country turning their public sector into the ramshackle chaos we are seeing in the UK. Even in the USA, they have a solid public sector not this gimmicky Heath Robinson machine that Pickles is putting together.

        • fantasy_island

          Did you actually understand the article Daniel?

          We have miniscule cuts of only 3%, after a rise of 60% during the labour years, years when original thinking and efficient management were simply replaced with the cash hose.

          Are you certain that such a modest saving is impossible to make without destroying public services?

          Are you certain that no local authority employ more people than the required minimum?

          England is arguably the most civilised and developed nation on the planet, I am certain that we can deliver effective public services for much, much less than we currently do.

  • Ian

    Here are some more ..

    1. Any one on £60k plus per annum takes an immediate 10% pay cut. If they can earn more in the private sector – invite them to go and earn it and promote their 2nd in command.

    2. Any one of £100k plus per annum takes an immediate 20% pay cut – as per 1 if they have an issue with this.

    3. Close all final salary pensions for new hires – as per the vast majority of private sector employers

    • realfish

      And another idea.

      A complete promotion freeze in the Civil Service. In my department we had a situation where Senior grades / managers were being given sizeable severance packages as part of a headcount reduction strategy and were then replaced by people promoted into their (apparently) non existent jobs. This might be a legitimate way of ‘freshening things up’ but not during the present financial emergency.

      Promotions (and grade inflation – creating a top-heavy Civil Service) had the added advantage of getting people around the pay freeze!
      Sir Humphrey has a limitless talent for saying ‘Yes Minister…three bags full, Minister,’ and going off and doing whatever he bloodywell wants.

      • Daniel Maris

        Get real, realfish. The cuts in the public sector are real and deep.

        • Hexhamgeezer

          No – not real enough.

        • fantasy_island

          Real and deep are they Daniel? why not list them so we all may be as enlightened as you.

    • Daniel Maris

      1. Why don’t we start with that idea with the banks we own?

      2. So someone on £100,000 will be reduced to £80,000 and someone on £95,000 will be reduced to £85,500. Clever.

      3. Yep, let’s make everyone dependent on the state. Thanks to the private sector running away from their pensions responsibility over the last 30 years we are now faced with the prospect of having to support millions of pensionless workers.

      I hope the Tories adopt all these impoverishment policies, so there is no prospect of them getting elected.

      • Ian

        The cuts in salary are incidental – so ok let;s forget that for our nationalised bank workers.

        However, I notice you have not mentioned cutting the banks workers final salary pension – I wonder why?

        Bringing public sector pensions in line with the private sector would in one stroke wipe out the deficit.

        • Daniel Maris

          … and increase the public debt because the goverment would have to make up the shortfall in pensions.

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