Play the fantasy budgets game;Another voice;Opinion
Hypothecation involves saving or raising money in one area of a budget and specifying in advance where it will be spent in another. One attraction to ministers is that they can raise revenue for new projects without affecting the public sector borrowing requirement. Blazing this trail, John Prescott is to raise new money for key transport projects by "hypothecating" the use of the revenue from the Dartford crossings.
Fantasy hypothecation, on the other hand, doesn't involve a transfer of money. Instead, players simply pick out one example of national expenditure where we seem to be underspending and another where we seem to be overspending. They then ask, with touching naivety, why Stephen Byers, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, can't simply transfer the money across tomorrow.
My own favourites for this game are education and defence expenditure. Here are three differentiated examples to get you started.
The armed services need around 24,000 recruits each year. Training lasts an average of one academic year. More than a third of all trainees are under 18 and many of these attend service colleges. Officers say that since recruitment is difficult, paying trainees a salary is essential if we are to recruit enough people to maintain world-class, big-league armed services.
The Department for Education and Employment also needs around 24,000 recruits each year. The postgraduate certificate in education programme onto which most register also lasts one academic year. Educationists argue that since recruiting is difficult, providing trainees with modest remuneration is now essential if we are to recruit enough quality candidates to build a world-class education service.
Big-league armed services or world-class education service? As a nation, the choice is ours. Accordingly, we spend more than pound;250 million each year paying all service trainees a salary and nothing at all paying trainee teachers.
My first question to Stephen Byers, therefore, is: why can't we compromise by paying a bursary instead of a salary to 16 to 17-year-olds at services colleges and use the savings to pay the same bursary to all PGCE and final-year Bachelor of Education students?
Get the idea? Here's a more advanced example. The services spend around pound;100m each year supporting 13 per cent of private boarding school places in the UK. The rationale is that service children need geographical stability. At the same time, however, we also maintain schools in all overseas garrisons, while personnel now spend the vast majority of their time in the UK.
In truth, this expenditure is simply a historical perk which enables officers educated in the private sector to send their own children to private schools in spite of modest salaries. The stability argument is a relatively recent device, introduced following tricky questions from the Treasury.
Meanwhile, even with the pound;19 billion of new money to be injected into state education over the next three years, too many teachers will be forced to spend too much of their time dealing with social welfare problems - meaning too much lesson planning at nights and weekends.
So my second question is: why can't we lop pound;50m more off the MoD budget? First by weeding out dodgy boarding school allowance claimants, then by asking a dozen good state schools to find partners for Private Finance Initiatives and establish boarding facilities. We could use the pound;50m saved to provide state schools in areas of particular need with social workers and educational psychologists -while the remaining pound;50m would be injected into the new state boarding schools.
Now here's an even more sophisticated example of fantasy hypothecation. Like colleges, services training units receive funding through training and enterprise councils from the DFEE according to how many students pass through on national vocational qualification programmes. Some use this money to buy extra equipment. And why not?
Here's why not. Because they're military training units and anyone doubting MoD funding levels need only look at the high construction and equipment standards in an Army classroom, or quiz an instructor about low contact times.
So, here's a question based on contra-hypothecation: why can't we simply stop transferring millions of pounds each year from the DFEE to the MoD?
Of course, players should not expect an immediate response from Mr Byers - he's a busy bloke with a new job. But don't be too downbeat either; if you play fantasy hypothecation often enough you never know - he might just hear one of your questions.
Major Eric Joyce is a serving officer whose most recent post was operations officer at the Army Training and Recruitment Agency. He is currently on leave of absence and doing educational research at Bath University