Can Ed Miliband reform the NHS, and not just save it?

Labour’s health policy should focus on patient empowerment and obtaining the best value for money fo

Ed Miliband's primary task today was to turn the screw on Andrew Lansley. In this, he has been largely successful, but his speech was also revealing for what it says about his future approach to public-service reform.

During the Labour leadership campaign, none of the candidates had an incentive to raise difficult reform arguments, for fear of alienating union and grass-roots votes. This might have been tolerable if Labour had renewed its pitch on public services in its last years in office. But despite repeated attempts, it only came close to a new, post-Blairite paradigm with its manifesto pledges on citizen guarantees or entitlements and public-sector takeovers of weak providers by strong ones. It is fair to say that Labour thinking on public services has not advanced much since about 2004.

The coalition government has made much running dismantling the worst elements of New Labour's statecraft: its indicators and targets, anaemic localism and a latter-day preference for stakeholder management over bold reform. But it has said very little about the big strategic choices. There is no sense in the coalition's programme of which public services best support full employment and an affordable welfare state; of the challenges that an ageing society poses for reform of the NHS and social care; or how real innovation and productivity can be secured in universal services that face enormous cost pressures.

Miliband devoted a substantial section of today's speech to outlining the main long-term challenges facing the NHS, including far higher levels of chronic disease, growing levels of mental illness and the rising social care needs of the elderly. Each of these challenges requires services that are more joined up (integrating NHS care with social care provision, for example) and at the same time more preventative, to take pressure off the acute services.

But they will also entail rising costs. This is why making public services more productive and efficient needs to be a key task for the centre left and why Miliband is right to say that he will be "a reformer of the state as well as the market". If we are to defend high-quality universal public services, at a time when voices on the right are calling for services to be cut back and targeted just at the most disadvantaged, then we need to set out how these can be afforded, given rising cost pressures and the public's reluctance to pay higher levels of tax.

Miliband emphasised that to make services responsive to their users requires strong forms of accountability. Here he needs to learn the lessons of the last Labour government, which generally favoured the use of central targets in order to hold professionals to account. These targets did lead to significant improvements – waiting times fell and the number of failing schools was radically reduced. Nevertheless, there were too many targets that made doctors and teachers the slaves of a tick-box culture. Professionals on the front line need the flexibility to do what is right for individual patients and children, rather than simply follow Whitehall guidelines.

A chance to pull ahead

But if Miliband wants to reduce central targets, how does he ensure accountability to patients and parents? In the health service, the proposed health and well-being boards need to be strengthened by giving them the power to sign off the strategic plans of GP consortiums.

In education, it is crazy for the secretary of state to be directly funding an ever-growing number of free schools and academies from Whitehall. Instead, we should look at the idea of our big cities having an appointed schools commissioner, whose role would be to raise educational standards in their area, allocate funding to each school and provide shared support services to local schools. Having a single individual to perform this role would provide for greater focus and accountability to parents.

In policing, Labour should accept the government's plans for elected police and crime commissioners, but in the long term look at shifting responsibilities for policing in the large cities to elected mayors.

Miliband is absolutely right to point to the lack of patient empowerment in the coalition's NHS reforms: the agenda is all about bureaucratic change or market disciplines. Very little is said about passing power to patients. This is a golden opportunity for Labour to get ahead of the debate, by advocating the devolution of funding to "personal budgets" for those with chronic long-term conditions.

But Miliband is relatively silent on the role of competition in public services. Oppositions always default to woolly talk of "collaboration" and partnership. But competition has its place. In the NHS Blair's 2006 reforms – which gave patients the right to choose from a list of five hospitals and which led to competition for patients between NHS trusts – successfully improved outcomes (PDF) measured by length of hospital stay and deaths from heart attacks.

Labour should oppose the government's proposal to make the promotion of competition the overriding objective of the health regulator Monitor. This is putting the cart before the horse. Instead, its objective should be ensuring the best value for money for the taxpayer: competition may or may not be the best means of achieving that.

Ed Miliband criticised the Health Bill on the grounds that it would undermine the sense of "national mission" underpinning the NHS. He should be careful that talk of the public-service ethos is not used simply to defend vested interests. But his defence of the NHS as a national institution resonates with the "Blue Labour" approach.

The NHS is a popular public institution, which embodies values of solidarity, public interestedness and fairness. It is a British tradition. Any decent society should defend institutions that are run by and large in the public interest and not simply for profit. There is a very real danger that these institutions could be lost in the government's rush to expose every public service to market competition.

Miliband may save the NHS, but can he reform it?

Nick Pearce is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?