Hannah White rounds up the discussions and speeches at the IfG’s conference, and warns that both the Conservatives and Labour will need to spell out what their spending plans really mean
“How to do more with less” was the question running throughout all the speeches and panel discussions of our Government 2024 conference. The answer, for the most part, was absent. Because if there was one thing the speakers at our Government 2024 conference agreed on, it was the dire state of the UK’s public services and the challenge their reform will pose to whoever wins the general election.
What will spending commitments really mean for public services?
In her keynote speech setting out Labour’s plans for the NHS, shadow health minister Karin Smyth cited the analysis in our 2023 Performance Tracker report, in which we argued that public services have got into a ‘doom loop’ of chronic underinvestment, staff burnout and short-term emergency bailouts. Stepping in at short notice for Wes Streeting, Smyth suggested that Labour would address problems in public services in part through a ‘war on waste’ – echoing the ‘red tape challenges’ embarked upon by past governments.
Opinion polls show that the public want to see the problems in public services addressed: in late 2023, for example, IPSOS found that 66% of the UK public opposed cutting government spending to reduce taxes. Yet the Conservative government continues to telegraph its intention to do the opposite of what the public say they want to see: to spend whatever headroom the OBR gifts it ahead of the 6 March budget on further tax cuts. And the Labour party has so far stuck doggedly to whatever economic plans the government has set out. Our panel on the countdown to the general election, chaired by Joe Owen and featuring Giles Wilkes, Anita Boateng, Sam Freedman and Claire Ainsley, discussed the unreality of the positions currently taken by both main parties.
As I highlighted in my opening remarks to the conference, the parties’ plans to balance the books while delivering tax cuts are “a fantasy that would deal a body blow to already fragile public services”. I am not alone in my concerns. On Tuesday, Richard Hughes of the OBR criticised the government’s refusal to be upfront with the public about the consequences of the cuts it has pencilled in – telling the Lords Economic Affairs Committee it was “generous” to even describe the plans as a “fiction” because “the government hasn’t even bothered to write down what its departmental spending plans are underpinning the plans for public services.” Also this week, Paul Johnson of the IFS (who joined me along with Anand Menon and Adam Fleming for a special live recording of the Expert Factor) made the same point, arguing that if political parties “are promising tax cuts, let’s hear where the spending cuts will fall”.
The fact that politicians are refusing to be upfront with the public about the detail of the public service cuts they propose matters because public services are already on their knees, a situation discussed by our panel on public services – chaired by Nick Davies and featuring Georgia Gould, Kwasi Kwarteng and Adam Boulton. The panel dug into the analysis set out in Performance Tracker and discussed how to address the immediate problems facing those delivering public services in the face of anaemic economic growth.
Can the civil service really do more with less?
The subject matter was different, but Cabinet Office minister John Glen’s speech also focused on how to make savings while maintaining – or even improving – performance. In his keynote speech he argued that the Civil Service must respond to straitened economic times by doing "more with less" and make better use of technology to improve the efficiency of government. Later in the day our panel on civil service reform – chaired by Emma Norris and featuring Francis Maude, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Rowena Mason and Alex Thomas – considered the minister’s remarks in the light of the analysis set out in Whitehall Monitor 2024 – our annual stocktake of the size, shape and performance of the civil service.
The panellists agreed that whoever won the next election would need to prioritise civil service reform, to equip themselves with a civil service capable of meeting the numerous challenges facing government. And our final panel of the day – an IfG expert briefing chaired by Cath Haddon and featuring Tim Durrant, Jill Rutter, Akash Paun and Matthew Gill – ranged across many of those challenges – from the absence of government in Northern Ireland to restoring standards in public life, and from pushing ahead with English Devolution to making the most of the tools of regulation.
Government 2024 was a day designed to explore the key questions facing government – and opposition – in the year ahead. The discussions that took place throughout the day were illuminating, thought-provoking and well worth watching again.
But a day of exploring those questions made one thing abundantly clear: there is an increasingly urgent need for answers about what both parties’ spending plans would really mean for the running of government and public services.
Whitehall Monitor 2024
Our annual, data-based assessment of the UK civil service, how it has changed and performed over the past year, and its priorities for the future.Read our report
- Parliament and the constitution Civil service Devolution Public finances Public bodies Ministers Public services Net zero Policy making Regulation
- General election Official opposition Public sector Public spending NHS Civil servants Civil service reform
- The Expert Factor
- Whitehall Monitor
- Institute for Government