The age of austerity

Now that cuts in public spending are on the agenda, a parade of experts has been in evidence, arguing for a new kind of welfare regime. However, what they are arguing for looks a great deal like the policies the same people have been pushing for over twenty years – a programme of privatisation, individualised services, diversity and a withdrawal of the state from direct provision.(1)

Precisely because these arguments have been running for more than twenty years, we can form a pretty clear picture of what happens when services are based on these principles. The policies may seem in principle take expenditure off the books of the public services, but that is largely illusory: the most expensive services are nearly always paid for ultimately by government, and the costs are still largely held within the accounts. The central argument is that the private sector is supposed to be more efficient than the public sector. That efficiency is largely achieved, however, by adverse selection – refusing to do things that the public services are bound to do; and the main way that private services have reduced cost is simply by reducing labour costs. Partial provision by the private sector still leaves the public services to provide residual services. The appropriate comparison to make is not between public and private services, but between the total cost of services where there are different patterns of service provision and delivery. Taken in the round, the combined effect of expenditure in the private sector, the development of regulatory mechanisms in the public sector and the maintenance of residual public services has been generally more expensive than services were when services were planned, delivered and strictly rationed by a sole provider.

Personalisation, diversity and consumer choice are not cheap options. There are no good grounds for believing that such policies save money.

(1) e.g. R Hewit, Public service reform is the only way to avoid cuts, Scotsman 1.3.2010

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