Great strides have been made over the last few years in making the government’s accounts more honest. Whitehall is learning the discipline of accruals accounting and the chancellor talks of producing a national set of accounts.
But this week’s ‘Green Budget’, the so-called Pre-Budget Statement, once again highlighted that in the most crucial area of all, the government’s accounts can be as misleading as those of the worst sort of business.
Where government accountants control the figures they are generally good, but where government politicians call the shots they are almost meaningless.
Most weeks see new government initiatives, all with claims that millions of extra spending will be directed to a priority area. But examine the pledges in detail and vaunted new figures turn out to include sums already announced. And where local government is involved, what appears to be government largesse often proves to be merely permission for councils to borrow at their own expense.
The spring Budget speech always owes more to smoke and mirrors than to accountancy. Which is a pity. Politicians always want to put a positive spin on their actions. Gordon Brown, who came into office as the champion of honest government accounting, should have the courage to tell it like it is. If he has a good story to tell, he should take a helping of the medicine ministers like to give to business and let the figures speak for themselves.
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