Watching the fallout from every budget is like being transported into the Truman Show.
Everyone says the same thing, moves in the same direction and ends up just where they started. Perhaps George Osborne’s tortured economic recovery will end, like Truman, running into a brick wall with a fake sunset on the horizon.
It’s just all so predictable, and not just because the Evening Standard told us what would be in it. Osborne revises previous forecasts like they never happened, Balls calls for a U-turn with all the predictability of a DVD menu display stuck on a loop when you’ve lost the remote control.
The ‘penny off a pint’ was classic political counterfugue. To claim your ‘free’ pint at, say, £3 a pint, you’ll have to drink 300 pints. After that quite frankly you’ll deserve a lie down, not a another drink.
All the while so many of the details get overlooked – and nowhere is this more prevalent than for the Ministry of Justice.
Despite the enormous benefits of our legal system to the taxpayer – put at more than £20bn by justice secretary Chris Grayling last week – his department has to get it in the neck with every budget announcement.
Like other non-ringfenced departments, the MoJ will lose another 2% from the budget by 2015 – a cool £142m in total.
Now, compared with the £2bn guillotined from the justice fund since 2010, it’s a drop in the ocean, but it will have to come from somewhere.
Don’t tell the pitchfork brigade, but the government has already cut costs through reducing prison numbers. Last week there were 84,501 people locked up compared with 87,870 a year ago.
As was pointed out in justice questions in the Commons this week, 3,359 cautions were given for burglary in 2011 (the last recorded year) – perhaps a hint that budgetary pressures are affecting punishment decisions.
The MoJ has already cut staff numbers significantly. According to the 2011/12 accounts, there were at least 4,000 fewer MoJ employees last April than a year before. Departmental efficiency savings, the rather vague all-encompassing miracle cure for cost-cutting, is surely exhausted.
Desperation to reduce outgoings has already led to the fiasco of the court interpreters’ contract, which is supposed to deliver £50m savings every year but which has seen nothing but trouble since its inception in February 2012.
The only remaining option for the MoJ – and perhaps the most unpalatable for the legal profession – is simply an extension of existing coalition policy: court closures and legal aid cuts.
The 142 court closures first announced in 2010 are mooted to save around £37m a year - and I’ve heard from a couple of sources that more closures may be an option.
And of course there is the issue of price-competitive tendering for providers offering defence services from 2014. Would that eat into the £142m? It’s difficult to know without someone actually explaining what the proposal would save.
However they choose to cut their cloth, there’s every chance it will affect us all in some way, yet we seem oblivious to it.
Perhaps, like Truman Burbank, we’ll awaken ourselves and escape this horror show. Or perhaps we’ll simply drink ourselves into oblivion holding out for that free beer.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter
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