There is to be a concerted effort to rein in Whitehall profligacy, we are told, and not before time. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, are proposing to set up a “star chamber” to hold Cabinet ministers to account over government spending. This is not a new device. Back in the 1980s, an annual public spending review was carried out and overseen by a committee also known as the “star chamber” after the court that handed down arbitrary and often draconian sentences without due process.
Ministers were expected to argue for every extra pound before getting the go-ahead for additional spending projects. They have subsequently been superseded by three-yearly spending reviews which have none the less presided over a massive rise in annual spending which, adjusted for inflation, has increased by over £600 billion since 1977/78, not accounting for the pandemic outlay.
Under the latest drive, it is envisaged that the Prime Minister and Chancellor will hold monthly meetings with ministers to ensure they are getting on top of waste. They are said to be anxious “to change the mentality of departments to ensure they are constantly focused on delivery and efficiency.” Such regular meetings should help instil the discipline that taxpayers expect, provided they are genuine exercises and not just for show.
It is the duty of governments to spend the money they take from us wisely. Prudence is a virtue in itself but if the Chancellor wants, as has been reported, to cut taxes before the next election, he needs to get a grip on spending. That means prevailing not just upon ministers eager to boost their budgets but on anyone else tempted to make spending promises, especially if he lives next door.