Brown's iron fist

17th July 1998 at 01:00
The Government's comprehensive spending review is, obviously, about spending. The argument will no doubt continue about whether the extra Pounds 19 billion for education across the UK is really Pounds 19 billion or, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims, "only" Pounds 6 billion after inflation is stripped out. Fingers will continue to be tightly crossed at the Treasury that recession will not start to unravel the package and that pay restraint will work.

But the spending review is also about more than just spending. The Iron Chancellor has not relaxed his iron grip; indeed Gordon Brown has reinforced it as all 21 Government departments have now to account for spending his money. The political Chancellor has also cleverly locked other political parties into his spending priorities and, at last, begun to free himself from the damaging charge that he was simply following plans inherited from the previous government. This is especially notable in Scotland where the SNP and Liberal Democrats will now have to decide whether they will try to outdo Labour's spending commitments - and who loses out to do so. Mr Brown has essentially set out Labour's stall for the Scottish parliament.

But New Labour is not about to "spend, spend, spend". Perhaps the most significant element was the end of the "something for nothing" era. Extra money will only be paid out if the recipients sign up to the Government's reform programme in public services such as education. That has a particular implication for local authorities. Tuesday's statement confirms the trend where sums for everything from early intervention to teacher training have all been ring-fenced. Local councils now have no discretion over spending new money for education which is, effectively, under Government control.

There used to be a debate about whether education was best run nationally or locally. To adapt a footballing cliche, they thought the debate was all over. It is now.

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