The Lib Dems' pledge to protect the NHS from cuts is another snub to Cable

The Business Secretary has long warned that ring-fencing some departments from cuts is not "a very sensible" approach.

By far the most significant policy announcement made by the Lib Dems at their conference is that the party will pledge to protect the NHS and schools from cuts after 2015. Nick Clegg suggested yesterday that both budgets should be ring-fenced until 2020 and Danny Alexander told the Today programme this morning:

We’ve said that we want to, as a party, maintain the commitments to the NHS in terms of keeping its budget protected in real terms, and also to the schools system.

Among other things, this is another snub to Vince Cable, a long-standing critic of ring-fencing. Before the recent Spending Review, he warned that shielding some departments from cuts and forcing others to endure even greater austerity was not "a very sensible" long-term approach. He said:

The problem about ring-fencing as an overall approach to policy, is that when you have 80 per cent of all government spending that’s ring-fenced, it means all future pressures then come on things like the army, the police, local government, skills and universities, the rest that I’m responsible for. So you get a very unbalanced approach to public spending.

But as in the case of Help To Buy and the future of the coalition, Clegg and Alexander have chosen to disregard Cable's advice.

It's also worth noting that the Lib Dems' pledge means that all three of the main parties are now likely to go into the next election promising to ring-fence the NHS. David Cameron and George Osborne havee long made it clear that they want to continue to protect the health budget ater 2015 and Ed Miliband told the BBC earlier this year: "We're not going to be cutting the health service, I'm very clear about that. We will always be protecting the health service and will always make it a priority."

Promising to shield the NHS from cuts is both good politics and good policy. Polls show that it is the most popular spending area with voters and the above-average rate of inflation in the health service means it frequently requires real-terms rises just to stand still. But it does mean all parties will be under greater pressure to say how they would continue deficit reduction without significant tax rises. Should the ring-fences around health, international development and schools spending remain, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by the end of the programme, with a 64% cut to the Foreign Office, a 46% cut to the Home Office and a 36% cut to defence.

Protesters from the National Health Action Party lead a mock funeral procession for the NHS along Whitehall on July 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.