The axe man cometh

The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude refutes accusations of masterminding a shrivelling state and says he sees no contradiction between cost-cutting and 'big society' – if he saves £100m he earns his salary, he says, it's what he's here to do
Francis Maude, chairman of the Conservative party
Maude makes no bones about cutting the £45bn central government budget but acknowledges it's an unglamorous job. Photograph: Martin Argles/Guardian

The determination of this government to centralise spending – even if it conflicts with the prime minister's own 'big society' programme – has been highlighted this week by growing anger over the impact on the voluntary sector of public spending cuts.

But it is not just the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, who is centralising. At the heart of government, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is focusing ruthlessly on scything millions from Whitehall budgets by centralising buying decisions.

Maude has been described by the Guardian's Polly Toynbee as "the Cabinet Office mastermind of the shrivelling state, axeman in chief" and as someone who believes in "the impossible ideal of minuscule government".

Maude makes no bones about his brisk attitude to cutting the £45bn budget of central government departments. "If I go home at the end of the day having saved a hundred million pounds, by dint of what I've done or led – and there have been days when we've done more than that – I feel I've earned my salary," he says.

He also sees no contradiction between his Cabinet Office role supporting the 'big society' and his cost-cutting tasks. This back-office role is one with which he is comfortable. "I love doing this stuff. But there's no doubt about it – you don't get interviewed on the Today programme because you've centralised commodity procurement," he says. "For politicians this is very unglamorous."

In place of glamour, there is instead steely determination. Maude maintains that the previous government, while it talked about making savings, "totally failed" to make the most of potential savings that should accrue from government buying power – the point made in Sir Philip Green's review of government procurement last year.

"The last government totally failed to leverage the scale [of procurement] in central government and was obsessed with trying to mobilise the whole public sector," comments Maude. "That's just unrealistic. I'm interested in the first instance in leveraging the scale of central government."

Last week, the Cabinet Office announced a review of the role of the Buying Solutions procurement agency. The review is being carried out this month by John Collington, executive director of procurement in the Cabinet Office's efficiency and reform group, and by David Shields, procurement delivery director for Buying Solutions.

In future, says Maude, there will be a single crown representative to do business with major suppliers – not necessarily an official from the Cabinet office but possibly a commercial director from elsewhere in Whitehall. "It's not just about immediate savings, it's about how we do business in Whitehall in future," comments Maude.

Centralisation remains the key mantra. Maude points to the controls put in place immediately after the election, which included a freeze on all new ICT contracts above £1m and ministerial sign-off for all consultancy spending above £20,000.

"Those will remain in existence. We will force government buying through central deals, because otherwise you can't give the guaranteed scale that drives the prices down," says Maude. The wider public sector will be able to "piggy back" off these central deals.

Alan Leaman, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association, supports the Cabinet Office move to centralise Whitehall procurement, although he points out a difference between buying commodities, like laptops, and a "more sophisticated spend" on professional services like consultancy.

"There was a short-term exercise to save £6bn this year in the quickest way and to demonstrate the need for central control and coordination, and that has now been done," he comments.

"There is now a need for some serious analysis. We are looking to the government to produce a clear statement about when it is appropriate to use consultants, for which projects and in which areas."

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