Why the NHS shouldn’t be spared from cuts

Protecting the £110bn national health budget entails unjustified cuts elsewhere.

This morning's Independent reports on growing anger among Conservative MPs over the coalition's costly pledge to ring-fence spending on the NHS. We can expect opposition to intensify as the autumn spending review (due on 20 October) draws closer.

A Tory backbencher is quoted as saying: "MPs are getting a reaction in their constituencies about the cuts to the school-building programme. They are wondering why the NHS should be protected when the future of our children is apparently not." It's a good point. The Tories' promise to protect the NHS (and International Development) from cuts has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with economics.

The decision not to touch the £110bn NHS budget (the development budget is a far smaller £6.2bn) is part of the reason why other departments of key importance (Transport, Housing, Local Government) are now facing savage cuts of up to 33 per cent.

There is a good argument for treating the NHS with care: factors such as an ageing population, drug prices and technology make inflation in the health service roughly 3 per cent higher than in the rest of the economy. But, as in the case of education, this should make the NHS a candidate for limited cuts (about 5-10 per cent), not for no cuts at all.

To his credit, Andy Burnham, the former health secretary and Labour leadership candidate, has argued as much: "The effect is that he [George Osborne] is damaging, in a serious way, the ability of other public services to cope: he will visit real damage on other services that are intimately linked to the NHS."

So far, Labour has failed to land any hefty blows on the coalition over spending cuts. The party's message (when one is discernible) is always hindered by the question: what would you cut? Coming out against ring-fencing could help the party to answer this question.

It could be Labour's Nixon-in-China moment: only the party of the NHS can be trusted to cut with care. It is time to expose the Tories' pledge for the political positioning that it is.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.