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"

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.