Much of the analysis of the Comprehensive Spending Review focused on the big picture and the multi-billion pound savings the coalition hopes to make in a wide range of areas – most obviously on welfare payments. However, a lot of detail needs to be filled in on exactly how each government department will actually make the savings outlined by George Osborne. There remains a significant challenge in converting intended cuts outlined on a spreadsheet in Whitehall into genuine savings in the real world.
The initial analysis of the Comprehensive Spending Review focused on the term “comprehensive” as essentially meaning “substantial”. And given the size of the budget deficit, this is hardly surprising. But a report published by the smokers’ rights group FOREST this week highlights another important meaning of the term “comprehensive”.
FOREST’s report details the state funding given to anti-tobacco campaigning groups by public bodies. The numbers are, unsurprisingly, tiny in terms of the overall budget deficit – eliminating ASH’s annual grant of £142,000 from the Department of Health is very small beer when tackling a deficit of £150bn - but they do raise significant issues for the coalition and for David Cameron’s Big Society agenda.
No one can object to citizens establishing campaigning groups to draw attention to the potential health risks of tobacco consumption or to pharmaceutical companies aggressively lobbying to promote their alternative nicotine products, such as chewing gum and patches. But for taxpayers’ money to be given over to such causes is wholly unacceptable.
In so far as the Big Society agenda is comprehensible at all, it applauds and encourages private initiatives as opposed to state-run or state-sponsored programmes. Surely this must apply to the field of public discourse and debate, not just to public spirited behaviour such as keeping the local park tidy and repainting the church hall.
The problem with taxpayer support of groups such as ASH is not just that it forces people to fund campaign groups they may disagree with, but that there is a danger that the public believe that such groups really are private and completely independent. There may be a debate to be had about what sort of role the Department of Health should play in encouraging or facilitating smoking cessation, but at least when you hear from a health minister you can be reasonably clear where they are coming from.
The government needs to be clear about limiting the scope of the public sector, not merely its size. Removing taxpayer-funded grants to groups such as ASH will not make a substantial impact on the deficit, but it would indicate that the government is opposed to using public funds to “load the dice” in areas of campaigning. The coalition should ensure that anti-tobacco groups are obliged to stand on their own two feet.