How to get rid of public sector non-jobs

Even as local authority budgets are about to slashed, councils are still advertising nonsense jobs at astronomical salaries. Why? And how can we get rid of them?

I went on the Today Programme last Saturday along with several other regular contributors to give one money-saving tip to our new government. Mine was to do with pensions. You can listen to what I said here(fast forward to 51 mins 45 secs), or read my full argument here: The UK's pension rules are too generous.

But the core idea is pretty simple. We should cut the amount that we allow people to save into a pension so that they are able to save just enough to prevent them from being a burden on the tax payer in their retirement, and no more. Obviously they can still save as much as they like outside a pension just not in such a way that it is subsidised by the taxpayer.

I suggested cutting the amount everyone is allowed to save every year to a not-exactly-mean £20,000. The financial industry would prefer the number to be more like £50,000: they say they like simplicity but they clearly don't want any changes to hit their margins too much. Cutting it to £50,000 would save about £3.6bn a year (on industry figures). So, given that the cost of tax relief tends to be biasedtowards higher-rate tax payers, I think we can safely say that cutting the amount to £20,000 would bring the savings up towards a good £7bn. Not bad for a money-saving measure that really would only affect the much better off and that would remove the odd anomaly of the tax payer subsidising the vast pensions of the rich without making the whole system incomprehensibly complicated.

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Some of the other speakers came up with slightly more radical ideas (Simon Jenkins thinks we should dump the armed forces in their entirety) and some rather less radical. But when I then looked at the next day's Sunday Times I began to wonder why we were bothering with the out-of-the-box thinking at all. Why? Because the paper listed a horrible train of non-jobs still on offer in the public sector at vast salaries. You can read the original article here.

Read it and you will see that last Friday just after Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced around £1bn in cuts for local authority spending councils were still advertising for the likes of a 'Health, safety and wellbeing officer' (Surrey, £34,524) to make sure that "staff take breaks, go for walks that kind of stuff". Then there was the advert for a media officer with "the skills to deliver positive stories about the council" (Newham, £36,000) and a "putting people first programme manager" (Herefordshire, £50,000 plus).

I find this really odd. The councils must know that their budgets are about to be slashed contributions from central government are going to come down, and, as recession bites, so are their own revenues from council tax, parking and the like. So why, instead of taking action, are they carrying on spending on nonsense jobs? And just as importantly, who keeps voting the kind of people prepared to spend £180,000 on a head of communications (Suffolk) back in? Totally bemusing.

So how do we bring it to an end? Let's not forget that the more we pay communications directors to issue good news, the more we'll end up cutting the NHS budget in the end. The only answer is to encourage an outbreak of common sense.

A post on the Conservativehome blogsuggests how: get someone sensible from central government (this will be the tricky bit) to visit every council and list all their non-jobs plus the cost of those non-jobs. Then add them up and subtract the total amount from each council's central funding accordingly. That should do it.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.