The NHS crisis that none of the parties will discuss: how to pay for it

With a £30bn funding gap, all parties need to decide whether they would raise taxes, cut spending elsewhere, or impose patient charges. But don't expect them to tell us.

If there's one NHS issue that none of the parties are prepared to confront, it's that of funding. The common view is that the health service has been shielded from austerity by having its budget ring-fenced, but in reality the reverse is the case. Owing to the above-average rate of inflation in the service, the NHS requires real-terms rises just to stand still. As a recent Social Market Foundation paper noted, "A ‘flat real’ settlement for the NHS is mot what it sounds like since it is defined with reference to an irrelevant price index. To keep up with rising input costs, growing demand, and the public’s expectations for an adequate healthcare system, growth in spending on health has historically outstripped GDP growth." 

By historic standards, the NHS is undergoing austerity. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4%, but over the current Spending Review it will rise by an average of just 0.5%. As a result, in the words of the SMF, there has been "an effective cut of £16bn from the health budget in terms of what patients expect the NHS to deliver". Should the NHS receive flat real settlements for the three years from 2015-16 (as seems probable), this cut will increase to £34bn or 23%.

If they wish to avoid a significant fall in the quality and quantity of services, this government and future ones are left with three choices: to raise taxes, to cut spending elsewhere, or to impose patient charges. The third of these is proposed by the think-tank Reform today, which calls for a £10 charge for GP consultations, £10 fines for missed appointments, the introduction of a means-tested system for end of life care and an increase in prescription charges from £7.85 to £10 (with exemptions for those on low-incomes). It estimates that these measures would raise around £3bn a year, with research director Thomas Cawston commenting: "Few will want to debate higher NHS charges but the funding outlook for the service makes it unavoidable. Prescription charges are the easiest route to new revenue, with exemptions for people on low incomes built in." If this seems heretical, it's worth remembering that our "free" health service hasn't been truly free since Labour chancellor Hugh Gaitskell introduced prescription charges for glasses and dentures in his 1951 Budget (although they have now been abolished in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

But perhaps unsurprisingly, the Department of Health has responded by dismissing the idea out of hand. A spokesman said: "We have been absolutely clear that the NHS should be free at the point of use, with access based on need. That is why we have increased health spending in real terms alongside £20bn of efficiency savings to make sure the NHS continues to provide excellent care."

Labour, meanwhile, spying an opportunity to cause political mischief, has commented: "Patients will be alarmed that friends of Number 10 want to see charges for GP appointments and hospital care.

"Labour froze prescription charges before the election, but they have increased year on year under David Cameron. They are now creeping towards £10, as these plans want, and are adding to the cost of living crisis.

"The Government must come clean on any plans to charge for NHS care. They have already lost people’s trust over the crisis in A&E and thousands of axed nursing jobs – this will only add to it."

But this merely defers the question of how we will ultimately pay for a health service of the standard the public both expect and deserve. Will any party grasp this nettle before 2015? Don't count on it. 

Jeremy Hunt delivers a speech during his visit with David Cameron to the Evelina London Children's Hospital on July 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.