Alex Salmond speaks during a press conference at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Salmond's NHS claims have been shredded by the IFS

The biggest danger to the Scottish NHS is independence. 

The Scottish Yes campaign has frequently been lauded for its positive, optimistic tone, in contrast to the rather dour No side. But the irony is that it's only by turning negative that the nationalists have prospered. It was Alex Salmond's warning that the survival of the NHS (a Scottish religion as much as an English one) was threatened by Westminster that allowed him to vanquish Alistair Darling in their second debate and to pull Labour voters into the Yes camp. 

The First Minister's claims were, of course, nonsense. Health has been devolved to the Scottish parliament since its creation in 1999, meaning that the only person who could privatise (or cut) the health service is Salmond himself. Earlier today, Gordon Brown raged at his mendacity, threatening to stand for election to Holyrood unless he stopped peddling lies. 

That Salmond is indeed telling lies has been made clear today by the IFS, which has dismantled his claims with typically brutal efficiency. It first notes, as I did, that health is already devolved to the Scottish parliament and that "the Scottish NHS does not have to make more use of private sector providers just because the English NHS is".

Then it points out that while health spending in England has risen since 2009-10, it has fallen in Scotland, noting that "the Scottish government has chosen to protect the NHS in Scotland slightly less than it has been protected in England. Spending on the NHS in Scotland has fallen by 1%." Nor can this be blamed on cuts to Scotland's block grant by Westminster. As the IFS points out, "the vagaries of the Barnett formula" mean that Scotland has had to cut overall public service spending by less than England. In other words, the decision to reduce NHS funding was a matter of choice, not necessity. 

Moreover, while cuts to the block grant will continue as part of the government's deficit reduction programme (whether Conservative or Labour-led), the tax raising powers that Holyrood is due to receive under the 2012 Scotland Act mean that it will be able to shield health from austerity: "If it were to increase the Scottish rate of income tax by 1%, for instance, it would raise around £400 - £450 million a year. This would be enough to boost health spending by around 4%."

By contrast, independence, and all the risks that it would entail (such as higher borrowing rates and capital flight), would make it far harder for Salmond to protect the NHS. The IFS warns that even if the Scottish government's optimistic oil revenue forecasts of £7bn a year (the independent OBR forecasts £3bn a year) are accepted, "its budget position would still be if anything slightly weaker than that forecast for the UK as a whole. If these more optimistic forecasts prove correct an independent Scotland would still need to borrow more or tax more than the rest of the UK if it wanted to increase spending on the NHS while protecting other services."

The final judgement, then, is that the best way for the NHS to be protected is for Scotland to remain in the Union: "It is hard to see how independence could allow Scotland to spend more on the NHS than would be possible within a Union where it will have significant tax raising powers and considerable say over spending priorities."

"Previous IFS work on the longer-term outlook for an independent Scotland’s finances suggests that under a wide range of scenarios, a combination of the eventual fall in oil revenues and an ageing population could make for a tougher fiscal outlook for Scotland than the rest of the UK and hence less room for additional spending on things like the NHS."

It is no exaggeration to say that Salmond's claims lie in abject ruin this afternoon. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.