Cutting the NHS to fund defence is bad politics and bad policy

Raiding £500m from the health and schools budgets to fund defence might please Tory MPs but the voters won't like it.

David Cameron and George Osborne have long rejected calls from figures such as Vince Cable and Liam Fox to end the protection of health spending in order to limit cuts elsewhere. But the NHS ring-fence is looking less secure today. Ahead of June's Spending Review, the Telegraph reports that Philip Hammond is in talks with the Treasury about transferring up to £500m from the health and schools budgets to reduce the expected cuts to defence. The Defence Secretary, you'll recall, has previously publicly demanded that welfare is cut again to protect the MoD. But with the Lib Dems vetoing any further cuts to welfare (bar those to pensioner benefits, which David Cameron has pledged to protect), Hammond has been forced to look elsewhere. 

Cameron has already demonstrated his willingess to raid other departments' budgets to fund defence by suggesting that aid spending could be used to meet the cost of peacekeeping and other defence-related projects. It's thought that the government would justify any decision to divert resources from health and education to defence by pointing to the hundreds of millions of pounds a year the MoD spends on health care for armed forces personnel and the education of their children. But while the move will prove popular with Tory MPs, who are furious that defence is being cut by 7.5 per cent, while aid is being increased by 37 per cent, it is likely to be judged less favourably by the public. 

As a ComRes/ITV News poll published in February showed, health and education are the two most popular spending areas, with defence trailing in sixth place (behind police and law enforcement, welfare and transport). It was partly for this reason that Cameron and Osborne chose to ring-fence the NHS and schools budgets. At last week's PMQs, Cameron made much of his commitment to protect health spending, contrasting it with Labour's decision not to pledge to do so before the 2010 election. "The right hon. Gentleman’s answer is to cut NHS spending, whereas we are investing in it," he declared. A decision to now do otherwise would offer Labour an easy political hit. 

It is also doubtful whether the NHS, which is already required to make unprecedented efficiency savings of £20bn over four years, should be cut for the purpose of reducing cuts to defence. The above-average levels of inflation in the health service mean that it requires real-term increases in spending just to stand still. But under pressure from his recalcitrant backbenchers and the National Union of Ministers, Cameron may yet give away. 

David Cameron with British soldiers based at Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?