Politicians wriggling on NHS shake-up


The Financial Times’s economics editor, Chris Giles, is normally polite, even deferential. So his column on 10 October – not coincidentally the date of Ukip’s by-election victory – was a surprise. Ripping into both major parties, he said: “Forgetfulness or deceit, it does not matter.

When the new government opens the books after the [general] election and the truth comes out, voters will think their new rulers are a bunch of liars who would say anything to get elected. They would be right.”
Phew. But it certainly is true that all political parties avoid the toughest questions on government spending. The deficit is one example. But equally obvious wriggling relates to the NHS. It was Nigel Lawson who said the NHS was the closest thing Britain had to a national religion. So health spending is ringfenced and politicians vie with each other to preserve in aspic rigidities successful health systems have dropped: folk memory means the mantra “free at the point of delivery” continues to limit meaningful NHS reform.

Rocketing costs for an ageing population in an era of expensive scientific advance are untenable. The commendable suggestion that GP surgeries might operate beyond bankers’ hours in order to accommodate patients piles on further expense. Most successful socialised health systems – New Zealand, France, Canada – require some element of actual contribution, either through insurance or modest payments for appointments, prescriptions and hospital beds. Can we expect any prospective MP to acknowledge this? Don’t hold your breath.

Oddball alliance threatens free trade
Modern Luddites continue to work against all human progress. A manifestation of this is the movement against TTIP – the transatlantic agreement that would create a modest free-trade zone between the US and the EU. An oddball coalition between the Greens – opponents of GM foods – and Marine Le Pen’s Front National may block a treaty that would greatly enhance the eurozone’s moribund growth prospects. Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek disagreed on many topics. One on which they agreed was the universal benefit of free trade. SMEs, especially exporters, have most to gain from TTIP.

The subject is not receiving the attention it deserves.

Pimco boss’s regret
Many a dad will have felt a pang of guilt reading why Mohamed El-Erian resigned as chief executive of investment fund Pimco. His 10-year-old daughter handed him a list of 22 milestones that he’d missed, from the first day of school to a Halloween parade, and the school year wasn’t even over yet. He’d had a good excuse for each event: travel, important meetings, an urgent phone call. El-Erian’s work day was said to start at 4.15am. Was there a way of not going at 100 miles an hour and maybe just working 50 miles an hour? “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t explore that option.”

Holidays for grown-ups
Sir Richard Branson plans to let Virgin head office salaried staff choose when to take leave and how long to stay away – just as Netflix has. They still have to manage their own workload. If the plan works, he’ll extend it to the whole of Virgin Group.

Like flexible working, unlimited holiday time is counter-intuitive. But it does mean treating people as adults: remarkably, enough freedom and responsibility can go hand-in-hand. Will it work? According to Netflix it’s part of a workplace environment based on trust: “We don’t have a clothing policy either. But no one has yet turned up for work naked,” one executive said.

Cold comfort for pensioners
Many people will question the principle of paying the £300 annual winter fuel allowance to British pensioners regardless of income. However that is the government’s position, as is what may seem a reasonable restriction: making it no longer payable to countries where average winter temperatures exceed that of the warmest UK region – the south-west.

So how has the Department for Work and Pensions excluded 60,000 UK pensioners living in France, given that French winter temperatures are lower than those in the south-west? Easy: it just adds in tropical “overseas territories” such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Guiana, which lifts the French average just above the qualifying threshold. Not simple dishonesty, but pretty close. No doubt the DWP would have included the Falkland Islands in Britain’s temperature averages if it helped fiddle the result.

About author

Simon Walker

Simon Walker

Simon Walker served as director general of the IoD from September 2011 until January 2017, having enjoyed a career spanning business, politics and public service. From 2007 to 2011 he was chief executive of the BVCA, the organisation that represents British private equity and venture capital. Walker has previously held senior roles at 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, British Airways and Reuters.

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