What are the implications of earmarking taxation for the NHS? Photo: Getty
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Earmarking taxes for the NHS won’t guarantee more money for healthcare

By clearly linking a tax to overall spending on the NHS, it can help reconnect voters with the purpose of taxation, but makes healthcare spending vulnerable to macroeconomic shocks and cycles.

It is no secret that the NHS faces a huge funding shortfall. By 2020/21, the total health budget deficit could approach £30bn, up from £2bn in 2014/15. This has sparked a debate about how the funding gap could be narrowed, and renewed interest in the idea of hypothecating – or earmarking – taxation for the NHS.

Back in 2002, Gordon Brown increased National Insurance rates by 1p, and earmarked the revenues raised for increased NHS spending. Earlier this year, Labour MP Frank Field proposed repeating this policy, estimating that it would raise around £15bn by 2020/21 – or half of the predicted 2020 health budget deficit.

Nick Pearce, director of IPPR, also expressed support for the idea. He argues that an "NHS tax" or an increase in National Insurance could “play a significant – and immediate – role in reducing the funding gap”.

The thinking behind these proposals is that the public would be more likely to support a tax increase if they knew the additional funding was earmarked for the NHS. Indeed, a poll by Guardian/ICM found 48 per cent of respondents were in favour of tax-funded spending increases in the NHS.

But, as CentreForum reveals in a new report, earmarking taxes for the NHS won’t necessarily guarantee more money for healthcare.

In the report, we study the merits of what is known as "strong hypothecation", where a particular tax (and only that tax) funds an entire service, and "weak hypothecation", where revenues are notionally earmarked for an area of government spending. It is the latter that is proposed by Frank Field and IPPR. But we conclude that the former is the more viable of the two.

Whereas strong hypothecation promotes transparency, accountability and trust in government, weak hypothecation has significant disadvantages. Chief among them is that it would not guarantee that an increase in an earmarked tax rate led to higher spending on the NHS.

The government could "borrow" earmarked revenues for other programmes, or it could vary the designated service’s tax funding from other sources, leaving overall spending on the NHS unchanged.

Furthermore, even if the government could show that the tax rise led to increased spending on the health service in the first year, it is unlikely that subsequent spending reviews would treat the earmarked revenue as additional to the NHS budget. As the Barker Commission recently noted, weak hypothecation is “a soft form of the idea, and one that may rapidly become a lie”.

Strong hypothecation, on the other hand, has some merits. By clearly linking a tax to overall spending on a particular service, it can help to reconnect voters with the purpose of taxation, and gives the public a sense of what a particular service costs.

On the flipside, strong hypothecation would make health spending dependent on macroeconomic shocks and cycles, rather than need or demand for services. This risks insufficient funding during economic downturns, and wasteful spending during booms.

During a recession demand for healthcare is likely to increase, just when the money available for the NHS is falling, and so strong hypothecation would offer little wriggle room in providing a health service that meets the public’s expectations.

It is important to note as well that there are conflicting political motives among proponents of hypothecated taxation. While advocates on the left support earmarked tax increases as a means of raising revenue for the NHS, proponents on the right consider it an opportunity for a fundamental rethink on how the NHS should be paid for.

Conservative peer and Times columnist Danny Finkelstein, for example, has emphasised the role that strong hypothecation could play in deciding “how much healthcare we should offer people free at the point of use”, indicating that the right’s solution to the NHS funding gap may well be at odds with the left’s.

Although earmarking taxes is not inherently right or wrong, politicians must be clear about the objectives and implications of hypothecating taxation for the NHS. Or they will very quickly run into political difficulty.

India Keable-Elliott is an economic researcher at CentreForum and author of the CentreForum report "Hypothecated taxation and the NHS"

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.