The John Glen interview: 'I am alarmed at the amount of tax'
Chief Secretary to the Treasury John Glen, photography by David Bebber
Repairing public finances to cope with future shocks means Tories must endure the ‘discomfort’ of a rising tax burden, insists John Glen. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury talks to Tali Fraser about AI in public services, why the NHS needs to explain ‘intolerable’ variations in productivity, and his love of Peloton. Photography by David Bebber
John Glen has what he knows is an “unpalatable” message for his fellow Tories – this is not the time to ask for tax cuts.
“I totally get my colleagues’ discomfort with people paying more tax,” the Chief Secretary to the Treasury says in the wake of estimates the tax burden will rise to 37 per cent of national income next year.
“I think there’s plenty in my party who are pretty alarmed at the level of tax,” he says. “I’m alarmed at the amount of tax!” And then comes the “but”.
“Debt interest spending in 2022 to 2023 was £112.1bn; that’s more than six per cent of GDP. That’s higher than any G7 nation. Those are the facts. They’re unpalatable facts, but they can’t be avoided,” he says.
“We’d love to be able to cut more, but we’ve also got to be responsible, make the numbers add up, see debt falling at the end of the period and deal with our primary consideration, which is inflation.”
A Treasury Chief Secretary speaking on the eve of a fiscal event is never likely to be mistaken for Santa Claus, but Glen, who has spent most of the last six years at No 11, takes to expectation management with particular gusto.
“You can’t shut down the economy four months after we come in [following the 2019 election], borrow that amount of money, then find we’ve got the Ukraine war, inflation and interest rates going up,” Glen, 49, says. “There ain’t no shortcut to deal with that, and anyone who says there is doesn’t recognise the public finances as they are.
“I want to give more money back,” he adds, “but I want to do that responsibly. The amount of discretion one has, is not perhaps as great as some of my colleagues would like to talk about.”
They’re unpalatable facts, but they can’t be avoided
Some of those colleagues are in the Cabinet, he hints. “I think most of my Cabinet colleagues understand the situation we’re in,” Glen says, without expanding on which members do not.
“They are pretty responsible in how they approach this,” he adds. This being a time when growth is soft in the United Kingdom, inflation concerns are keeping interest rates high and geopolitical risks are increasing.
“It is not where you want to be when pressured to deliver more public services and to deliver tax cuts,” Glen says.
The tax burden is due to hit that 37 per cent of national income figure next year, up from 33 per cent in 2019, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the equivalent of £3,500 per household.
Glen presses for it to be considered in the wider context of the pandemic support provided by the government, including the furlough scheme and bounce back loans.
“Of course, there are lots of other things that have happened politically which, when overlaid on it, create a different view of the government. I understand that,” he says. “But the core issue of having spent money on schemes that were delivered quickly and efficiently, that there was cross-party support for, it’s pretty uncontested.”
A committed Christian, Glen discovered his faith at university and has spoken about receiving his reward “in heaven”, rather than in a ministerial salary increase. He seems to take the economic circumstances personally and reflects that some developed “on my watch”.
One that didn’t was the Liz Truss emergency budget – he didn’t serve in her administration. Asked about that extraordinary period, he opts for party loyalty and insists “all Conservative governments have dealt responsibly with the public finances”. (At the time he was highly critical of the “lack of clarity”, the “uncertainty” and “tough dilemmas” of the mini-budget.
He agrees with Truss’ diagnosis of the economic solution: “She is right to say that growth is the way forward. I don’t believe in an ever bigger state. I don’t believe in more taxes.”
But, Glen adds: “you have got to take the markets with you” claiming that the former prime minister moved too quickly “in a way that was incredibly destructive”. He adds: “We can’t do that again, and we won’t do that again.”
He was a university contemporary of Truss, attending Oxford at the same time – where he studied modern history, getting in at his second attempt – but, he jokes: “I didn’t know her then because she was in the Lib Dems.”
The variance in performance across integrated care board areas is intolerable
As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he has been charged with drawing up a report ahead of the Autumn Statement on raising public service productivity, with a view to accelerating the rollout of artificial intelligence (AI).
He references the “manifest challenges” the NHS – the country’s biggest public service – is facing, with a post-Covid legacy of lower productivity and industrial action. The ongoing consultants’ strike is something he feels personal “regret” over, having advised the Chancellor and Prime Minister to accept the pay review body outcomes in full.
“I really do hope they can come back to work,” Glen says. “We need them working. These are difficult times for the country. We all need to come together.”
When it comes to the NHS, Glen thinks productivity would be aided by “more accountability” and to do that he would like to see more data on health trusts’ outcomes, such as how many operations are taking place or how many hours are being spent in hospital.
“The variance in performance across integrated care board areas is intolerable,” Glen says.
“We have got to [get] those who are accountable for delivery of services, who’ve got more resources than they’ve ever had before, to present data to allow us to scrutinise that.” Although, he emphasises, “it is not about shaming”.
Other areas in need of scrutiny, the MP for Salisbury says, are the Whitehall ‘diversity and inclusion’ jobs which he claims “seem at times to spawn a whole industry” – and he is looking at trimming the number of those roles as part of the wider plan to shrink the civil service and save taxpayers’ money, which could be used to fund tax cuts.
“I don’t – we don’t – want superfluous activities that distract from the core purpose of government, which is to deliver quality public services efficiently for taxpayers,” he says.” I’m nervous that it’s one thing to have a policy, but another to have an army of people measuring it.”
Glen adds: “People are very nervous about challenging this sort of expenditure, because they fear they’ll be accused of being anti diversity and inclusion, which isn’t the case. But it is legitimate for us to ask: ‘What’s proportionate here? What are you trying to achieve?’”
Within Whitehall and the civil service, he says, “there isn’t the degree of urgency that I would like” – and, again, Glen believes there needs to be a better sense of “accountability for outcomes” to drive productivity.
He flags that, alongside stints at the Conservative Research Department and working for William Hague as head of the political section in Conservative campaign headquarters, he was a consultant at professional services firm Accenture where “if I wasn’t bringing in fees, or the client I was working for wasn’t happy with the work, then there would be clear outcomes for me. I think people are frustrated that isn’t always clear to people in civil service.”
He continues: “The traditional social contract that you have a lower salary, higher pension and job security doesn’t mean you can’t be accountable for delivery.”
Glen floats the idea of providing incentives to “reward civil servants” for doing things “better and differently”, but will not be drawn on what that would look like, instead pointing out that the productivity review will be updated around the same time as the Autumn Statement on 22 November.
Something he is unabashed about wanting to see is people getting back into the workplace: “We need to see more people working in the office together,” he says.
During October, the Treasury, for example, saw an average of only 66 per cent of staff coming into the headquarters.
Flexibility to allow work-life balance is key, Glen says, but emphasises “it is right to expect people to come into the office” and that process “needs to accelerate” to boost public sector productivity.
“Over time, relationships are less strong and collaborations are less intense [as a result of not coming into the office], and the purpose of work is to deliver outcomes be it public service delivery, or productivity in the private sector.”
As part of Glen’s review, he is looking at the use of AI and how, as he says, it can be a “massive transformer of productivity and innovation”. The public sector, Glen adds, does not quite yet have the “high degree of readiness” expected of it towards AI.
He wants AI to be used in the immediate sense through department pilots, like the current one in the Department for Work and Pensions, where AI is helping detect benefits fraud and “doing a better job of matching people with jobs”. He’s also keen for it to be used at the intersection between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to tackle the criminal justice system and “stop us wasting court time”. And he advocates for clearer delivery to be revealed over the next spending period at the spending review in March.
Glen admits he hasn’t made use of many AI tools to make him more productive at work: “I use it to find out information, but I think it’s a bit different for me. My job is to try to work out the application of it across the whole of government.”
Although he says that someone in his local Conservative association did use ChatGPT, the generative AI chatbot, to write a speech like an MP, it turned out “pretty anodyne”. Glen says: “I would hope it would come up with something a bit better than that.”
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury continues: “AI is not going to be a panacea for everything” and “we need intelligent leadership, to actually lead transformation; that’s going to be difficult”.
But Glen adds, in a somewhat robotic fashion himself: “I’m very proud of the fact the Prime Minister is in a position where he understands this stuff, probably better than anyone else.”
The morning we meet at the Treasury, official documents warned that AI could fuel rising unemployment in the “plausible” scenarios for the state of AI by 2030.
Could he see a ‘robot tax’ where businesses that profit from replacing workers with robots face a new levy? “I think in the Treasury, we keep all matters under review and taxes will have to change as time evolves.
“If you look at cars in 20 or 30 years’ time, how we tax that will be different. I’ve got no immediate plans, but I don’t really want to be introducing more taxes this season.”
Concerns have been raised, especially over the risk of middle-class, white-collar job losses to AI. Is that something he shares?
“No, I’m not worried about it,” he says with confidence. “We’ve got to embrace changes as the economy evolves. If you think about 20-odd years ago, when we had the dotcom boom, that meant changes. There are opportunities for higher-quality jobs.”
He claims AI will also help tackle the productivity issue with admin spend, where teachers are spending five hours a day on out-of-classroom activities, or HM Revenue and Customs is going through 136 million items of post in a year.
I don’t really want to be introducing more taxes
“Of course, there are the digitally excluded,” he concedes. “But if my 75-year-old mother can navigate lots of things online, then it’s only going to get easier. We’ve got to grip these things, and deliver things more efficiently.”
This flows into the other element of Glen’s productivity review which is ‘demand reduction’. He cites the example of the costs of a child going into care.
“If you look at things like the kinship model, you can massively reduce the costs of looking after children by intervening earlier, looking at the wider family and supporting them. These are the sorts of things in every area, that if we fully apply, we can reduce costs and be more productive.”
The government is looking at new workplace entitlements for kinship carers, which could involve offering more paid leave for extended family members to look after kids otherwise destined for life in state care. A new £9m training and support programme is being launched by the government, and the first national kinship care strategy is set to be released at the end of the year.
You can’t help but feel that even the example Glen references is linked to his strong faith. “My faith is very important to me, it motivates me to do the best job I can,” he says.“When I get up at six o’clock and I spend an hour going through the pack for the day, I’m thinking: ‘What do I want to get out of this meeting? What’s important here?’ I then get on the Peloton and reflect on it all. Then, at the end of the day, I say: ‘What could I have done better or differently?’”
Working out on the Peloton is something he shares with the Prime Minister, who plumps for the instructor Cody Rigsby, a 35-year-old New York dancer who describes himself as an “opinionated homosexual”, for his morning sessions. Who does Glen use as a trainer (three times a week when he is in London)? Ben Alldis, a former private equity associate, of course: “Helping those around me level up.”
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.