Crowdsourcing the cuts: statistics or propaganda?

Keeping track of the impact of cuts in public spending is not an easy task. There are no sound statistical sources to consult.

At least two organisations have stepped into the breach. Voluntary Sector Cuts is an alliance of voluntary and community groups who submit cuts made in grants to them from statutory bodies, including government departments and agencies, local authorities, primary care trusts and others. Its results – 490 cuts so far, worth a total of £76 million – are then mapped and tabulated on a spread-sheet.

The second site was launched by The Guardian. Its cutswatch site invites contributors to “help tell the momentous story of the cuts”. Reading some of the entries might suggest that the adjective is overblown – example: a Somerset recycling centre is now closing midweek and its hours of opening are being reduced – but all these changes matter to some people.

The problem with both sites, however, is a vagueness about defining what a cut is, and an absence of verification. Sometimes they aren’t cuts at all but threats of cuts, and the presumption in all cases is that a cut of any sort must be a bad thing, regardless of the value for money being delivered.

And is it a cut when NHS services are reconfigured to provide a better or more economical way of delivering healthcare? If it is, we are in for a blizzard of cuts over the next four years as the NHS aims to save £20 billion by efficiency gains, a target set not by the present government but its predecessor. This is not a cut, anyway,  but simply the effects of flat spending set against rising healthcare costs.

Is it a cut when an Independent Sector Treatment Centre for orthopaedic operations in Runcorn closes as its contract to provide NHS operations comes to an end? It is for The Guardian. (See entry for June 3.) No matter that waiting lists for such operations are now short and that keeping it open would have involved a full tender exercise to renew a contract for a service that is no longer needed. A cut’s a cut, even when it isn’t. Unless, of course, it’s in the armed forces which don’t seem to feature anywhere on the site, even though they have take a big share of the pain.   

The Guardian’s response to this criticism is to argue that it is not the job of the editors of the site to determine if a cut is justified or not. “One person’s efficiency saving is another person’s cut” was the reply given to a comment on the website. So any reduction in spending, for whatever reason, qualifies. Would that include, say, reducing unjustified expense claims by MPs and Lords? By the rules, it would.

The Guardian site does provide some degree of verification of the claims, from a team of volunteers who monitor their area. But when I searched the site today, of 250 cuts listed, only 134 had been verified. The voluntary sector site relies on readers to contradict entries if they are wrong, not the most reliable method.

So the judgement must be that both these sites are a selective and unreliable guide to the cuts. They may be the best we’ve got but that’s not saying a lot.