Fuel duty: Critics of plans end the freeze to fund the NHS should suggest alternatives or belt up

The NHS needs extra tax to fund it. The method of increasing it is less important than that it is increased

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Wednesday 04 July 2018 10:57
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Fuelling the NHS: Critics of plans to end the freeze on fuel duty have been out in force
Fuelling the NHS: Critics of plans to end the freeze on fuel duty have been out in force

If not an end to the eight year freeze on fuel duty then what?

The backlash against the Chancellor’s plans to lift the freeze for the purposes of funding the NHS is gathering pace.

What’s notable, however, is that Philip Hammond's critics have largely failed to suggest alternatives.

Partly it is because they will be well aware that whichever tax you plan to increase it’s going to upset someone. It’s inevitable. No one likes paying tax.

The thing is, those of us who aren’t billionaires, accustomed to salting our cash away in offshore havens, mostly recognise that it is necessary to deal with the fiscal challenges presented by an ageing population (and if you think the NHS is under pressure, take a look at social care).

Most of us also agree that, when it comes to the NHS, it’s worth paying a little extra, because it is an efficient means of providing mass healthcare and is better than just about any of the alternatives.

As I wrote at the beginning of the week, if you move to a privatised, insurance based system like the one that operates in the US, people with long term but treatable conditions like diabetes - I’ve had type 1 since I was two - die.

Most Britons, mercifully, aren’t comfortable with something that leads to that sort of outcome, quite apart from the fact that the US system is much more expensive than ours, and has a habit of kicking even those with insurance through hefty co-pays if they get sick.

But to ensure our publicly funded system can continue to provide what it currently provides, it requires more funding and thus higher tax.

You don’t have to put up fuel, or alcohol, duty as a means of increasing the take. You can look at other measures if you want.

The Liberal Democrats have, for example, long favoured a 1p increase to the basic rate of income tax to cover the service’s immediate needs, combined with a reformed national insurance system for the longer term.

The party says it would make clear what the public is funding through the increases to both levies being hypothecated, with the money raised pledged to the NHS and independent monitoring to ensure no cheating.

Suggesting income tax increases woujld, however, likely provoke still further discontent amongst the fractious Tory tribe, which is badly out of touch with public opinion on this one despite the party boasting an elderly membership more likely to use the NHS than those of the opposition parties with a greater commitment to its preservation.

Such ironies are now so common in modern Britain that many think irony is effectively dead. They’re probably right.

Regardless, with their failure to put forward alternatives to ending the fuel duty freeze, the backbench Tories threatening rebellion are guilty of exerting power without responsibility. The newspapers that are vocally backing them well know how that feels.

Prominent in both camps are ideologues and zealots. Their stance on Europe, with the thinly veiled desire among some for a no deal outcome, would further serve to starve the NHS of funds by badly damaging the economy, requiring still greater tax rises than those currently being contemplated if it is to survive.

But the NHS's destruction is an outcome the zealots quietly favour too. The public should take note. As for the fuel duty freeze? If that’s the Chancellor’s favoured method he really ought to stick to his guns and just raise it already. Those among his critics unwilling to suggest realistic alternatives, meanwhile, should belt up.

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