Treasury contradictions

Sitting in the Treasury Select Committee listening to Alistair Darling, chancellor, give evidence on Britain’s fiscal position, I am struck by a contradiction and one hopeful sign in Britain’s fiscal consolidation plans.

The current contradiction is that the chancellor insists he knows the total public spending figures because he knows borrowing will be halved, but he cannot reveal anything else because it is too uncertain. If uncertainty rules and the details of spending projections are completely uncertain, there can be no credibility in the government’s commitment to protect spending on schools, hospitals and police. He can’t be sure he has the cash.

If the annually managed spending is not completely uncertain (something that is obviously true), then there is no credibility in the chancellor’s arguments for keeping the details of spending plans concealed. The total spending numbers give implied spending totals for departments and everyone I know in the Treasury accepts this. This should not be secret as it is the fundamental choice facing the country in the coming election.

The hopeful sign is that the chancellor has just said he is reflecting on how to publish more information about the details of his public spending plans. Taken at face value, this might help to inform Parliament and begin to get the public used to the necessity of the tough budget decisions to come.

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