PMQs review: Miliband beats Cameron with detail again

But the Labour leader's new approach is subject to diminishing returns.

Detail, detail, detail. Ed Miliband has found a winning approach and intends to stick to it. Today's subject of choice was NHS bureaucracy."There are 163 stautory organisations in the NHS at the moment," the Labour leader noted. "how many will be left after the government's top-down reforms?" David Cameron, not a details man, was stumped, leaving Miliband to answer his own question: "561 ... is this what he meant by a bonfire of the quangos?" It was further evidence of the Labour leader's new focus on wasteful public spending.

The session continued in this vein, with Miliband asking the PM a series of technical questions on redundancy costs in the health service and Cameron struggling to answer. The government had spent £852m on making staff redundant, would it now be rehiring any of these people? It was a strong line of attack from Miliband, not least because many Tories will privately agree with it. The PM, in danger of suffering a third consecutive defeat, eventually erupted with a fury rarely seen in recent weeks.

"He can't talk about strikes because he's in the pocket on the unions," cried Cameron. "He can't talk about Greece because his plan is to make Britain like Greece." And then, the most telling rebuke: "He has to talk about the micro because he can't talk about the macro." Cameron was cut off in full flight by the Speaker ("We're grateful," John Bercow quipped, prompting Cameron to shoot him a look of pure fury), but he had made his point.

It was a criticism that at last some on the Labour benches will agree with. With Greece on the brink and the country facing the largest industrial action for decades, the opposition leader chose to ask an obscure question about health service reform. Few voters, you sense, believe that the Prime Minister should spend his time immersed in the detail of NHS bureaucracy.

Miliband can still mark today down as a win but his approach appears to be subject to diminishing returns.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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