What Miliband's Sweden trip told us about Labour's tax policy

The Labour leader's commitment to "fairer", rather than "higher" taxes, suggests the party will not seek to significantly increase the overall tax burden.

While David Cameron visited India, Ed Miliband used the recess to make a pilgrimage to social democratic Europe. Accompanied by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and his chief consigliere Stewart Wood, Miliband held meetings with Denmark's Social Democrat prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (who is married to Neil Kinnock's son, Stephen) and the leaders of Labour's Dutch and Swedish sister parties. 

Having stated that greater income equality should be an "explicit goal" of a Labour government, Miliband believes that the UK has much to learn from Sweden and Denmark, the most equal countries in the developed world. He has expressed particular admiration for Sweden's system of universal childcare, the policy credited with enabling its impressive levels of female employment. More than 80 per cent of Swedish mothers work, compared with just 67 per cent in the UK. In a nod to this achievement, Miliband tweeted during his visit: "Just arriving at Swedish Parliament building, passing two Swedish fathers with pushchairs. Scandinavian scene."

But one thing the Labour leader doesn't think we should import from the Nordic countries are their tax rates. In an interview with Bloomberg (which is worth reading in full), he said: 

There are some lessons you can learn, and some things that are different. They’ve always had a tradition of significantly higher tax and spending, which we don’t have in Britain and aren’t going to have in Britain. We’ve said that we want tax cuts for low and middle income families. That’s a sign of a fairer tax system; it’s not about higher taxes.

Miliband's words suggest that while a Labour government would increase taxes on the wealthy (as well as proposing a mansion tax, the party is considering reintroducing the 50p rate), it would not significantly increase the overall tax burden. Rather than traditional tax and spend, Miliband will look to predistributive measures such as the living wage, curbs on predatory energy and rail companies and universal childcare to combat inequality.

But the question he will need to answer is whether it is possible to fund the party's priorities -  jobs, housing, social care and childcare - without also raising taxes on middle and lower earners. If Labour goes into the 2015 election promising only to make the rich pay more, the Tories will be quick to dust down their "tax bombshell" posters. 

Ed Miliband and Swedish Social Democratic leader Stefan Lofven, visit the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.