Balls shows how Labour will counter Osborne's green tax gambit

The shadow chancellor charges the Tories with penalising "the ordinary taxpayer" by shifting green charges from bills without punishing the energy companies.

After being left in a tailspin by Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices, the Tories are confident that they can shift the debate in their favour by using George Osborne's Autumn Statement (on 4 December) to announce the removal of some green charges from consumers' bills. But at Treasury Questions today, Ed Balls showed how Labour will counter this gambit. The shadow chancellor attacked Osborne for planning to shift "the burden of his green levies onto the ordinary taxpayer", accusing the Tories of "giving with one hand but taking with another". 

While Labour will not oppose the move outright, not least because, as the Lib Dems are keen to point out, a tax-funded system is more progressive, it will present it as profoundly inadequate. Citing John Major's support for an energy windfall tax, Balls argued that both the former PM and Labour had recognised that it was "the energy companies that are making the excess profits" and that they, "not the ordinary taxpayer", should pay. 

Removing green charges from bills at least gives the Tories something to say in response to Miliband but it is likely to offer them only temporary relief. As one Labour strategist argued to me recently, Miliband's policy has a "longer shelf life". By the time of the election, after further price increases, it is his freeze that will still look like the most attractive offer. 

P.S. In a battle of the puns, Balls accused Osborne of not giving an "EDF" about energy prices, to which Osborne hit back, "with questions like that he is never going to be npower". 

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.