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Keeping my Freedom Pass, blowing things up from inside and the invisible crime wave

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

No, I shall not be handing my pensioner perks back to the Treasury, as Iain Duncan Smith suggests. There’s no knowing what the government would do with the money. Most likely, it would spend it on further tax cuts for the rich.

There is something perverse and illogical about making a benefit available and then asking people to give it back. Though winter fuel allowances arrive automatically if you are over 62, the simplest way for the rich to forgo their free bus passes and, if they are over 75, free TV licences is not to apply for them in the first place. No doubt they could also insist on paying for their prescriptions and eye tests. I have never heard of anybody doing so. Though most rich people, I’d guess, wouldn’t wish to take the bus (such a rough ride and so many poor people), affluent residents of Greater London cheerfully use the Freedom Pass, which allows Underground travel without charge, and often boast about it, as Joanna Lumley did the other day.

The government has trouble persuading many rich folk to pay taxes that are legally required, so why it expects them to surrender benefits to which they are entitled is unclear. Introducing voluntary principles to financial transactions between state and citizen is to move into dangerous territory. How long before ministers suggest that the 45p rate of income tax paid by high earners should be optional?

Grey expectations
Many people talk about pensioner perks as though they were part of the fabric of the welfare state. In reality, they were introduced quite recently, mostly by Gordon Brown, as electoral bribes. It has dawned on politicians that the old can swing elections. Not only are pensioners the group most likely to vote, their numbers are growing. Those now reaching or approaching pensionable age came to maturity in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the political tribes began to dissolve. Unlike previous generations, they do not have fixed voting habits; they are biddable. Several writers, including the universities minister David Willetts, have lamented how young people face worse prospects than their parents did – but it would need a brave and skilful political leader to redress the balance.

Spat’s entertainment
What fun to follow the Twitter dispute between the BBC political presenter Andrew Neil and the Kent University journalism professor Tim Luckhurst. It ranged over Neil’s role in launching Sky TV and Luckhurst’s brief tenure in 2000 as editor of the Scotsmanwhen Neil was editor-in-chief. The spat culminated in Neil offering to “pay to straighten your teeth”, presumably after he rearranges them in a bout of fisticuffs.

I was reminded of how, in one of his less inspired moments, Geoffrey Robinson, then the proprietor of the NS, arranged for me and some colleagues to visit Neil at his London offices. We were to seek his wisdom on how to boost circulation, which, as Neil demonstrated to us with graphs, he had done (it turned out temporarily) at the Scotsman. The PowerPoint presentation concluded, we awaited his magic formula. “Ye blow it up from the inside!” he barked. “Take an old, established institution and blow it up!”

Crime and reason
The explanation for falling crime figures, which, against predictions, continued falling during austerity, eludes even the most omniscient commentators. Michael Howard’s claim that it’s because, as home secretary in the mid-1990s, he started locking up more criminals doesn’t make sense because crime is down across the developed world.

My theory is that crime hasn’t actually fallen – it has just changed. When your bank rings to notify you of “unauthorised” use of your debit or credit card, you probably don’t think of yourself as a crime victim. The bank tells you to shred the card and sends you a new one. Neither you nor the bank informs the police. You don’t, therefore, show up in the figures.

For the criminal, this and other forms of “invisible” crime, mostly online fraud, make perfect sense. Why work unsocial hours burgling houses in dangerous conditions and risk getting cold and wet when money can be made sitting in comfort at home? My theory admittedly doesn’t account for the fall in violent crime. Until you think that the internet offers ample opportunities for violence in a different form. See above.

Ill manners
The University of Buckingham Press has sent me a slim and rather eccentric volume, Defying Decrepitude, written by the university’s former vice-chancellor Sir Alan Peacock, a distinguished economist.

At 91, Peacock reports from the distant land of extreme longevity on how visits to surgeries and clinics play an increasing role in life as the body falters. What he doesn’t know – because it wasn’t true more than 20 years ago, when he was in his sixties – is that medicine now intervenes long before anything is wrong with you. I have no significant illness or disability and have never spent a single night in hospital (I touch wood as I write). Yet I am required to visit my local surgery regularly for tests and reviews and, each morning and evening, to ingest a variety of medicines. We used to see doctors when we were ill, hoping they’d make us well. Now, we see them when we’re well, hoping they don’t make us ill.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.