Health and Social Care Levy (Repeal) Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Health and Social Care Levy (Repeal) Bill

Richard Thomson Excerpts
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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It was a little over a year ago that the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury told the House that this health and social care levy

“will enable the Government to tackle the backlog in the NHS. It will provide a new permanent way to pay for the Government’s reforms”.—[Official Report, 14 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 845.]

That was quite a spectacular U-turn on the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto. Page 2, signed by the then Prime Minister, made a solemn pledge:

“We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

To be back here, just over a year later, seeing a reversal is really quite something. Describing it as a U-turn does not do it justice. An antisocial driver doing donuts in the car park of the local supermarket is the best analogy for how out of control this approach seems to be.

The UK Government published a health and social care levy policy paper when the levy was introduced, and I distinctly remember this quote:

“This levy provides a UK-wide approach which enables us to pool and share risks and resources across the UK”.

It was therefore highly enjoyable to listen to the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury claiming that, now the levy is being repealed, the reverse also happens to be true, in terms of the UK-wide approach to pooling and sharing.

I spoke in the debate when the levy was introduced, and I recall that there was a sparsity of Back Benchers prepared to provide political cover for their Government’s change of heart. Quite clearly, an awful lot has changed since then. We have a new Prime Minister, who makes much of the fact that she is prepared to be unpopular, which is probably just as well in the light of recent events. She also tells us, and the Chief Secretary repeated it today, that there is apparently a sinister grouping at work outside this place—the anti-growth coalition. I will not go through all the groups that supposedly comprise this coalition, but it seems to be anyone who has the temerity or the audacity to disagree with the Prime Minister, so it probably includes about half the Cabinet and most Conservative Back Benchers.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the Government’s assault with such frivolity. Does he know how one joins this anti-growth coalition? When does it meet? Does it provide lunch? Does one have to apply through the currently absent Minister? Is there a form on the internet, as there is for everything else?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I do not have any answers. From a Marxist perspective—a Groucho Marxist perspective—I would not want to be part of any club that would have me as a member. I am sure the T-shirts are being printed and will be available very soon.

The Government Benches were rather sparse in our previous debate on the levy. Judging by some of the contributions and the exceptionally well-targeted friendly fire, the Government clearly have some way to go to persuade their Members on not only the sincerity of their commitments on health and social care, but their broader approach to managing the economy.

Scottish National party Members had concerns about the levy at the time as a means of achieving the policy objectives outlined. In our view, it was unclear what the additional resource would be used for, other than in the broadest of terms. The near £13 billion levy seemed to us to be an arbitrary amount, unconnected to any clear plan for how the funds might be used to tackle the pressures in the NHS—far less for how that resource, and how much of it, would end up being passported through to meet the challenges in the care sector. We also remarked that there was no sign of the accompanying reforms that would be necessary to get better outcomes on integrating health and social care services in England, as has been done in Scotland and as will be built on through the establishment of a national care service by the end of the current Scottish parliamentary term. The levy was also introduced, and is now being withdrawn, without our having had any indication from the OBR—although we believe the work has been done—of the impact not just of this but all the other fiscal choices that now sit around it.

To say that the UK Government are in complete disarray in their approach not just to health and social care but to managing the economy, would be a kindness and an understatement. They are abandoning the national insurance rise in favour of increased borrowing, just as the Chancellor’s limited fiscal event has resulted in borrowing growing considerably more expensive. They are introducing tax cuts, which are intended to be funded in part by cuts to public expenditure, and those will inevitably feed through to pressures on the health and social care sectors that the levy was supposed to be bolstering. With the rampant inflation we now see in our economy, any resource that makes it through to the health and social care sectors will not travel as far as it would have done—those pounds will buy less. The huge post-pandemic health and social care problems that we face in common across these islands have also been made that much worse by the botched nature of the mini-Budget.

John Appleby, the director of research and chief economist at the health think tank the Nuffield Trust, is surely correct when he warns that the funding ball is now back in the Government’s court, saying:

“They will have to fund the commitment through some combination of borrowing and deprioritising other public spending”.

Let us be realistic about this: that is a far more likely set of outcomes than seeing the commitment being met through ambitions for growth, no matter how loudly and repeatedly they are stated.

To be clear, SNP Members never believed that a levy on national insurance was the way to achieve the objectives of meeting those challenges. It is tempting to go back to what was said on 24 March, when Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, called the Government to account in The Times newspaper, saying:

“Why promise to spend billions cutting the basic rate of income tax whilst going ahead with an increase in NI rates? That will make the tax system both less equitable and less efficient. It will increase the wedge between higher taxes on earnings and lower taxes on pensions and unearned incomes. And wouldn’t that money have been better spent sooner helping those most in need?”

That was an excellent question then and it remains so today.

Let us be clear that the funding challenge goes beyond the challenges of the economy, to meeting the parallel challenge presented by the growing and complex demands of an ageing population. In meeting that challenge, it is important that we are able to meet the demands and needs of patients, service users and staff with dignity and compassion, while making sure that the responsibility for contributing towards that financially is a burden shared fairly and equitably.

In financial terms, that is going to be met through a combination of revenue spend and capital spend. The way in which that cost is shared will come down to political choices over how much is to be borrowed and how the tax system is to be balanced over the longer term. We certainly wait with a mixture of bated breath and nervousness as to what the Chancellor will finally bring forward later this month. I make no apology for repeating this point: it must be fairer, as a general principle, to spread the burden by increasing income taxes across the board on both earned and unearned income, as well as to look again at areas such as inheritance taxes and capital gains, so that the totality of the wealth right across the nations of these islands can be taken into consideration when sharing that burden.

Instead, we seem to have a piecemeal and incoherent approach to reform from this Government, allied to an equally piecemeal and incoherent approach to taxation and the wider economy. It is often said of a person’s character that, when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them. My goodness, haven’t we in the past three weeks seen exactly what the essential character of this Government is when it comes to their priorities? We have seen that instinct revealed in the decision to unapologetically lift the cap on bankers’ bonuses. We see it in the attempts to cut taxes for the richest, to give least to those who need it most and to hack back on the public services that enable people to live the best lives they possibly can, irrespective of their personal circumstances. We see it in the resulting economic chaos and the fiction that out of that chaos growth will emerge, which somehow makes all of this additional borrowing affordable.

In some kind of conclusion, it is clear that the problems that led to this levy being identified as a solution in health and social care have not disappeared, even if the levy itself is about to. The Chief Secretary repeated the Prime Minister’s lamentable jibe about the “anti-growth coalition”. As the chaos that has emerged from the mini-Budget shows, the solutions to the myriad problems we face are not going to be found among the dangerous, disruptive ideologues who cause mayhem by supergluing themselves to the policy prescriptions of the Institute of Economic Affairs. They can be found only by building long-term value in the economy and making sure that the burden for doing so is shared equitably among all people and all businesses that can make the contribution that they need to.