Ditch the queen: UK public’s wild ideas for cuts

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LONDON (AP) — Sell off the Queen’s swans. Make lawmakers work for free. Force prison inmates to generate cheap power on the treadmill.

As Britain’s government decides how to make the toughest spending cuts in decades, it has asked the public for help. The result? A list of wild ideas on how to save money — proposals that Treasury chief George Osborne insists will be seriously considered as he draws up a five-year austerity plan.

Osborne wants to save 30 billion pounds per year ($44 billion) to quickly reduce Britain’s huge national debts, racked up as the previous government bailed out banks and launched stimulus programs during the global financial crisis.

He has ordered government departments to prepare for budget cuts of 25 percent to raise 30 billion pounds per year ($44 billion) in savings and will announce details of his plans in a major speech in October.

Ministers have already announced a slate of cuts — axing 700 new schools, halting payments to pregnant women to fund healthier diets and scrapping 10 billion pounds (US$15 billion) worth of projects agreed under ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

But the country’s Conservative-led coalition government says it needs help to meet its ambitious target, not least because Osborne intends to balance Britain’s books almost exclusively by cutting costs, not raising taxes.

More than 45,000 ideas for savings have been posted on the Treasury’s website by members of the public and government workers. They range from the deliberately extreme — scrapping Britain’s monarchy, to the seemingly sensible — have staff book hotels online, not through expensive travel brokers.

“We asked everyone across the country — the people who use our schools, hospitals, transport systems and other public services — to send in their ideas for how to save public money and get more out of our services,” said a Treasury spokeswoman, on condition of anonymity in line with policy.

Among edgier ideas are plans to put Britain’s population of almost 100,000 prisoners to work.

One suggestions calls for convicts to cook meals for public hospitals or government-run care homes for the elderly. A wackier plan demands treadmills and rowing machines in prison gyms to be adapted to produce power for the national electricity grid.

Other offerings propose lining the roofs of government buildings — including Parliament — with vegetable gardens and selling the produce at a profit. Another idea suggests seeking corporate sponsors for Britain’s spectacular, but expensive, military parades.

One submission suggested asking the Queen to sell off her swans for meat. Under ancient laws, the Queen owns most swans in Britain and the bird was once a favored dish among the country’s aristocracy.

In June, Osborne said the 7.9 million pounds ($12 million) in annual government funding to Queen Elizabeth II’s royal household, used to pay salaries and the costs of official functions, would be frozen for a year.

Contributors to the website say that doesn’t go far enough — calling for Queen Elizabeth II either to step down, or drastically reduce the number of her family members who receive public money. “The French have not had a monarchy for more than 200 years and tourists still flock to Versailles,” one of the ideas posted on the Treasury site reads.

Other submissions call for the U.K. to share its plush — and costly — overseas embassies with its allies, sharply cutting the costs of the diplomatic service.

Dozens of entries demand cuts to development aid paid to poorer countries. While ministers say fast-growing economies like China and India won’t in the future receive money from Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has already pledged not to cut the U.K.’s overall aid budget.

Submissions provided by government workers offer a long list of grass roots efficiencies — suggesting cheaper ways of paying for cell phone contracts, stationary and printing.

Speaking in Brighton, southern England, earlier this month, Cameron said seeking out the public’s ideas would help build support for the likely painful cuts to be announced in October. “I want to make sure we take as many people in our country with us as we do that,” he said.

Taxpayer groups praised the government’s approach, but said Osborne’s Treasury must now prove it is listening to the public’s ideas — however wild.

“Public consultation is a great tool in the right hands. It can smash down the barriers between the electorate and their representatives, and absorb people into the democratic process where they’re able to have a real say in how the country is run,” said Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

“But, like all consultation, the project will be undermined if public concerns are ignored and it’s ultimately exposed as a gimmick. If this happens then the public may well lose faith,” he said.

Britain has a deficit of about 10.4 percent of GDP, while debt stands at 903 billion pounds (US$1.4 trillion). Government lawmakers say the scale of the country’s financial woes mean the public largely accept spending cuts are necessary.