PMQs review: Cameron plays dirty on the NHS

Miliband accuses the PM of a "disgraceful slur" after he says the Mid-Staffs report was a "reminder of Labour's record on the NHS".

Since the publication of the Francis Report into the scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, David Cameron, against the advice of some Tories, has chosen not to politicise the issue. But at today's PMQs, the first for five weeks, he dramatically changed tack. After Ed Miliband challenged him over the sharp rise in A&E waiting times, Cameron declared:

If anyone wants a reminder of Labour's record on the NHS, they only have to look at the report on Stafford hospital. 

His remarks were greeted with loud boos and cries of "shame" from Labour MPs but Tory backbenchers were visibly energised by the intervention (one that bears all the hallmarks of Lynton Crosby). A stunned Miliband replied by accusing Cameron of "a disgraceful slur on the transformation of NHS".  

What happened at Stafford was terrible, and both of us talked about that on the day, but what a disgraceful slur on the transformation of the NHS that took place after 1997 and on the doctors and nurses that made it happen.

But in a sign that the Tories intend to make a sustained effort to pin the scandal on Labour, Cameron ended his exchanges with Miliband by declaring that under a Labour government "all the problems that we have at the Stafford hospital will be repeated again." The political war over the NHS just got dirty. 

Cameron had earlier responded to Miliband's claim that he was presiding over an NHS "crisis" by referring back to Labour's decision not to pledge to ring-fence health spending at the 2010 election. "His answer is to cut NHS spending when we are investing in it," he declared. This is a strong line for Cameron; the Tories' chaotic reform of the NHS has made it even more important for him to emphasise that the coalition has protected health.

But unfortunately for the PM, it's no longer true (if it ever was). As I noted yesterday, in his biggest spending commitment since his election, Miliband has pledged that a Labour government would not cut the NHS. Today's exchange was a good example of why. Polls regularly show that health is the most popular area of spending with voters and Miliband has no intention of finding himself on the wrong side of public opinion on this issue. 

Cameron, who has already seen tomorrow's GDP figures (which will reveal whether the UK has suffered its first-ever triple-dip recession), give no hint as to their content or on whether the government would temporarily withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to enable the deportation of Abu Qatada. But a notable moment came when, in response to a question on benefits, he declared: "I find it extraordinary that heads are shaking opposite. I thought it was the Labour Party, not the welfare party." The line was an echo of what Labour MPs such as Frank Field and Simon Danczuk have said recently and will unsettle those in the party who believe that Labour has allowed itself to be characterised as soft on "benefit cheats". Expect to see it deployed regularly between now and the election. 

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street before Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.