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False economy, false conclusions

By Paul Goodman

If you want to measure the effects of the spending scaleback, a simple way of doing so is to slap down a series of FOI requests.  But be warned: simple means can mean simplistic, and therefore rebuttable, conclusions - exactly the trap False Economy has fallen into today.

Someone at the TUC-linked campaign had the bright idea of banging in up to 250 FOI submissions to local authorities aimed at unearthing cuts to local charities.  And lo and behold...the results found some £110 million worth of reductions, which were duly reported today on the BBC and elsewhere.

However, once the detail is examined, False Economy turns out to have produced a bit of a boomerang...which is why its effort so easily opens itself up to rebuttal.

  • Obviously, every part of the public sector should contribute to getting the deficit down, thereby staving off the triple threat of a loss of market confidence, interest rate hikes, and recession.  Labour themselves were planning to scale back spending by £14 billion this year - some £7 for each £8 of Coalition "cuts".  So False Economy's exercise would have been no more or less valid under Labour.
  • No more or less - because there's a great deal that a survey of this kind can't take into account, whoever's in Government.  Such as how well a local authority manages its money.  Whether it looks to curb overheads, costs and waste before reducing budgets.  Whether it tries to protect the voluntary sector when this happens. 
  • Which is exactly where the False Economy report falls down.  Seven out of the top ten councils for voluntary sector funding cuts are Labour councils - Liverpool, Sunderland, Sheffield, Blakcburn with Darwen, Oldham, Hackney, and Barnsley.
  • In the meanwhile, 13 out of the top 20 councils increasing voluntary sector funding by more than 5 per cent are Conservative Councils - Ashford, North Yorkshire, Tendring, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Chelmsford, Northampton, Cheshire West and Cheshire, Swale, Melton, Southend on Sea, Tunbridge Wells and South Hams.

CCHQ argues that across all councils controlled by one of the main parties, Labour councils are cutting £67.9 million and Conservative councils £22.9 million - despite the latter controlling many more councils.

So a great deal turns out to depend on how well you manage your budget and how committed you are to the voluntary sector.  Or whether, presumably, you find it easier to keep your costs high, cut charity budgets (and damn the consequences)... and blame the Government.

Cllr Phil Taylor has been hot on the case, and is full of detail about what's happening in Ealing, while Alistair Thompson and Matthew Wood have the flaw in False Econony's case.  By the way, those calculations about which councils are doing what what to the voluntary sector are based on False Economy's own findings.

Conservative councils are doing good work.  Oxfordshire is introducing a £600,000 Big Society Fund in 2011-12, open to the voluntary sector.  Gloucetershire is transferring over 30 buildings to communities across Gloucestershire.  Chelmsford is spending £100,000 fund to support the Big Society.

But over the next few years, we will see this pattern again and again.  A left-wing campaign releases a report on "cuts".  The BBC and others rush to report it.  The hard cases quoted are drawn up to change minds.  Which is why it's essential to rebut early and rebut often.

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