Here is the good news: things are getting better

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The Independent Online

Higher taxes work. Because of the Blair government's tax increases over the past six and a half years, British people are less poor and more healthy. In the past fortnight, two authoritative studies by independent bodies have shown that higher taxes have yielded amazing success in two key policy areas - but where were the headlines?

Instead, everyone - including the liberal press - ignored the good news and concentrated on an opinion poll by YouGov. It showed that 66 per cent of people think Brown's projected spending plans should be cut - a stance obviously related to the fact 79 per cent believe money raised by future tax cuts will be wasted. Is it any wonder they feel this way, since the evidence of incremental improvements in public programmes is never reported, while every tiny flaw in a health system that treats one million people a day is blasted on to the front page?

What are the facts beyond the horror stories? The Nuffield Trust last week published the results of an 18-month investigation into the Government's policies. If the crisis propaganda sprayed over the NHS every day by the right-wing press were correct, they would have discovered declining hospitals getting worse by the day. In fact, far more patients are surviving and fewer are waiting. Waiting lists are lower now than at any point since 1991. Since 1997, under-75s are 10 per cent more likely to survive cancer, and 23 per cent more likely to survive heart attacks. Could this, perhaps, be related to the fact that there are 14,000 extra doctors and 55,000 extra nurses?

There is no question of fiddling the figures here. The Nuffield Trust has compiled this data independent of the Government, and is not afraid to be savagely critical when the Government makes mistakes. It's real: the NHS is improving. So what Labour and the wider left said through 18 chilly years of opposition - that if you put more money into the NHS, it will get better - has turned out to be true. Yet this achievement is being dissolved in an acid bath of cynicism.

Of course the NHS is imperfect, but it is confronting difficulties that challenge health services everywhere. Every country is finding it hard to match ill people with ever-improving medical resources. There is no magic formula: all funding systems leave people disappointed. The US system of private provision has problems, as recent legislation reforming Medicare shows; the French system of mixed funding has problems, as my colleague John Lichfield described on this page this week; and so on. Some dissatisfaction is inherent to healthcare, period; a well-funded NHS is as good a solution as any.

Let's look at another area of public policy which is reaping vast returns for your tax money. The New Policy Institute - another autonomous group which bashes the Government when it fails - has documented this week that out-of-work benefits for both working-age families and pensioners have increased by 30 per cent in real terms since 1998 - far faster than earnings. This, along with government programmes such as the New Deal and tax credits for the working poor, means that we have lower income poverty than at any point in the 1990s. There has been a "significant impact" on poverty.

Again, it would be insane to pretend that everything is OK: poverty remains endemic. Yet it is just as insane to moan that Blair's a Tory and his policies make no difference. Why though, you might be asking, does this evidence seem so counter-intuitive?

Part of the problem has been the mixed messages from the Government. Tony Blair has been so afraid of sounding like a "tax-and-spend" leftie that he committed two errors. The first was his decision not to increase taxes substantially in his first two years of government. This meant that public services actually got worse at the very start of Labour's first term - and the time-lag means that we are still feeling the effects. Even now, taxes are not as high as they need to be if we are to have European standards of healthcare.

The second mistake is his lingering reluctance to inform people that the primary reason for NHS improvement is increased spending. The extra cash is only ever mentioned by ministers along with a neurotic insistence on endless reform. Of course reform is essential: in the absence of signals from the market, government needs constantly to introduce innovations into the service itself. But reform will only tinker at the edges. It is hard cash that makes the difference. The government message should be simple: if you want better hospitals, you need to give them money, money, money.

But it's not just the government's fault. The media is failing in its basic duty to provide information about public services. Partly this is due to an ideological bias against the NHS on the part of newspapers owned by right-wing market obsessives. Yet even liberal news outlets show an addiction to sensation. "Hospital death-trap!" is always a more interesting headline than "Hospitals a bit better".

At the moment, the Government is ploughing on with added investment through this sea of pessimism and misinformation. Soon, however, Gordon Brown will have to decide between raising taxes further or ending the public service increases. We had better start appreciating the benefits of higher taxes now, or he may make a choice we will all regret.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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