LibLink: Evan Harris – Vince Cable’s science spending cuts: how harsh will they be?

by Stephen Tall on September 8, 2010

This morning’s news that Vince Cable will announce in a speech today how the cuts to his Business, Innovation and Skills department will impact on science attracted a vigorous reaction from commenters on the Voice today.

Former Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris — whose Political Science blog for the Guardian has quickly established itself as essential reading — has contributed his throughts to the debate there. Evan, as Lib Dems will know well, is firmly on the social liberal ‘wing’ of the party (a staunch defender, for example, of higher taxes for the wealthiest), and has great credibility as an advocate of evidence-based policy. Here’s an excerpt from his posting today:

The figures that we do know (subject to assumptions such as an announced cut in welfare spending of £11bn) are that to tackle the structural deficit in this parliament, there would need to be average cuts of 14% in government departments over five years. The protection of the NHS against any cuts means other departments like the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) need to make savings of 25%. This in itself will rile LibDems in government like Cable and Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander, who were opposed to ring-fencing the NHS in this way because of the gearing effect on other government programmes.

Any relative protection given to defence and education (say, restricting cuts to 10%) would require cuts in departments such as BIS of 33%.

The coalition government is not responsible for the need to make cuts, and a Labour government – whatever the leadership candidates now say – would have had to deal with the deficit on a broadly similar scale, perhaps with a 70/30% split between spending cuts and tax rises compared with the 77/23% split of the coalition (itself different from the 80/20 pure Tory position). The cuts may also have been dragged out over a longer period. …

The government is however responsible for deciding where those cuts fall the hardest and the success of the efforts of Cable and his deputy David Willetts should be judged on whether he is seen to seek to present the best arguments to the Treasury for maintaining science investment, and – given the scale of BIS cuts that follow – whether there is a relative protection for science within his department.

The next question is exactly how spending cuts will be implemented and what the government should, can and will do to influence that, which Cable dealt with in his speech today and which will benefit from close reading.

You can read Evan’s post in full here, and you can subscribe to the webfeed of the Political Science blog here.