In defence of his political masters

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Nicolas Barnard reports on the DFEE's senior civil servant's exchanges with MPs

SPIN or substance? On this Government's education spending record, MPs were left none the wiser by exchanges in Parliament this week.

Michael Bichard, permanent secretary to the Department for Education and Employment, provided a stout defence of his political masters' spending plans when he gave evidence on his department's annual report to MPs.

Treasury figures produced by Tory MP Nick St Aubyn showed that education's share of national spending fell to its lowest since 1989 in Tony Blair's first three years in office.

Mr Bichard's response to the education and employment select committee boiled down to two figures: spending this year is up 8 per cent; and over the life of this Parliament it will have risen 16 per cent - double the increase under the last government.

"You may well be factually correct," he conceded to Mr St Aubyn over education's falling share of gross domestic product. "One reason it was so high (in the early 1990s) was because the economy was in recession."

The Government had pledged to keep to Tory spending limits for its first two years, he added. It was now growing "quite dramatically", but in such a buoyant economy, it was harder t increase the share of the country's wealth.

Mr St Aubyn accused ministers of producing a headline-grabbing figure of 16 per cent over five years by starving schools of cash in their early years.

Mr Bichard's response was to list four years' spending increases - pound;1.5 billion in 1998, pound;3.5bn in 1999, pound;4.5bn in 2000 including the pound;1bn from the March budget, and a projected pound;3.1bn next year.

The two also clashed on the cost of implementing the Government's class-size pledge - originally put at pound;100 million a year, but now found to have included pound;620m in capital to build new classrooms.

In a dry but occasionally illuminating two-hour session, Mr Bichard also admitted that "turf wars" still take place between ministries. However relations with the Treasury, in particular, were "warm".

He conceded that the DFEE had not cracked the problem of bureaucracy and that centralisation had increased, particularly through the use of the Standards Fund to ensure money was spent on government priorities such as literacy and numeracy. "We need to keep that in review," he said.

But changes were afoot - in particular to the system of bidding for Standards Fund cash. "We believe we can simplify funding arrangements quite considerably," he said.

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