A Fairer System of Healthcare for Britain

I read a great deal in local and national media about the NHS, much of it politicised by all sides, and seeming to do little but provide another layer of misinformation to the electorate. There are two great myths that I take objection to, the first is that oft peddled Labour line that the Conservatives will privatise the NHS.

Listeners of the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme earlier this month (January 5th 2015) would have heard an interview with the Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham that exposed the untruths of Labour’s position on the NHS. He was informed that it was in fact Labour that allowed ‘any qualified provider’ to bid for NHS contracts. And most interestingly, that when the coalition entered government in 2010, just under 5% of contracts went to the private sector. During the five years that the Conservatives have been ‘privatising’ the NHS, that has risen to 6% of contracts.

From this information, it is relatively clear that it was in fact the Labour party (the party that allegedly wants to protect the NHS from the evils of privatisation) that made it possible for private companies to bid for NHS services. It is also clear that under Labour, far more NHS services were privatised than under the Conservatives. Yet if you were to read Labour publications, you would be led to believe that Labour was ideologically opposed to privatisation as it damages the NHS. It is apparent that nothing could be further from the truth!

The second myth is one I often encounter when I speak to non-British nationals, who heap praise on the idea of ‘free healthcare’ and tell me how lucky I am to live in such a society. In the last year, I have had to visit my GP on three occasions, all related to a sports injury which I would concede was partially my own fault. It was indeed free…apart from the hundreds of pounds that I pay through income tax. According to my HMRC tax breakdown, I was charged almost £300 per appointment.

What is the alternative? The fairest system that I can think of is allowing taxpayers to opt-out of the NHS. Give the taxpayer the choice of a private healthcare system, one where privately funded hospitals would compete with one another, driving up quality and driving down prices. Private medical insurance often works out cheaper than NHS tax contributions, but many taxpayers cannot afford both private coverage and to prop up the state health monopoly.

But wouldn’t the NHS suffer if taxpayers all flocked to a higher quality and lower cost system? Perhaps, but this could serve to prompt the NHS to become more efficient. It has also been reported that 70% of people would be willing to pay additional taxes to support the NHS, and these people, as well as those ideologically opposed to private healthcare, could remain opted-in should they so wish. The NHS would continue to treat all those who remain opted-in, regardless of their contributions to the system, as it does now.

The question I often ask the defenders of the NHS is this: If you could design a utopian society, would it have an NHS as we know it today? Often the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. They would support the creation of an entity that would absorb almost 20% of all government expenditure and that would employ 4.7% of the entire working population (based on NHS England and the latest ONS figures for English employment data) but less than a third of whom would be clinically qualified.

The NHS has become the sacred cow of British politics. Something that must be revered and protected at all cost, and for the taxpayer, that cost is inordinate.

Can the SNP really sweep the board in Scotland in the 2015 General Election?

The latest election forecast for Sky News based on the latest polls in Scotland and the “poll of polls” has the Scottish National Party (SNP) on course to make major gains in the upcoming General Election. The current forecast predicts the SNP will win 53 out of the 59 available seats in Scotland. A result of this level would put them on course to be the third largest party in Westminster and may provide them with a significant role in a future government.

It has been a remarkable period for the SNP. After losing the independence referendum many expected the SNP to fall away. This has been far from the case with the SNP continuing to flourish. They have seen a rise in party membership, have experienced greater TV exposure and are steadily rising in the opinion polls. New leader Nicola Sturgeon appears to be a competent and popular politician and is attracting large audiences and handling the media well.

Outside of the party itself, a strong SNP performance will have the biggest impact on the Labour Party. Traditionally Scotland has been seen as safe ground for the Labour Party and in modern times they have returned a large number of MPs from the region. These latest polls indicate a big shift in Scotland and that the Labour Party can no longer take the support of the Scottish electorate for granted. This will make the chances of the Labour Party winning an outright majority at the next election considerably harder.

Polls are notoriously fickle and as polling day draws nearer many voters could return to the Labour Party in fear of a potential Conservative government. Even so the SNP still remain on course to win enough seats to become the third largest party in Westminster. With the likelihood of another hung parliament, this outcome will provide the SNP with a strong negotiating position. Sturgeon has already ruled out the possibility of doing a deal with the Tories, but there appears a lot of common ground with the Labour Party and a distinct possibility that a deal could be agreed between the two parties. Given the largely expected demise of the SNP following the loss of the independence referendum, this would represent quite a turnaround.

What did the signature of the head of “Ukrinterenergo” under the agreement referring to Crimea as the part of Russia demonstrate?

Fortunately, times when it was enough to conquer new lands and be praised as a winner are in the past. Although, we still live in times where annexation of a territory happens, currently there is international law, which strictly prohibits the intervention and positions the sovereignty of the state in the first place. Moreover, there is economic and social burden that any country would have to carry if the law is broken. The case of Russia’s demolished economy and acute decrease of rouble’s value in foreign exchange market as the consequence of Crimea’s annexation showcased it. Much has been said, a lot has been written about Putin and Ukraine lately.

However, there is a small detail, that actually means a lot, and got my attention. The head of “Ukrinterenergo” , which is the State Energy Enterprise, signed an agreement with Russia’s “Inter RAO” on 29th of December 2014 on delivering electricity to Crimea. On 15th of January of this year, Prime Minister of Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused the head of “Ukrinterenergo” for signing the agreement in terms that were completely unfavourable for the country. The document was signed under the condition, that the electricity will be delivered to Ukraine only if the needs of Crimea and Donbass would be fully met by supply from Ukraine. The major point, opposing Ukrainian interest, was the price of electricity imported from Russia to Ukraine-: it could fluctuate, while the standard price was set for delivering electricity from Ukraine into Crimea, which included also 15% of discount.

Moreover, the explicit mistake of the head of the state agency was to sign the agreement, which defined Crimea as the part of Russia. Thus, the contract was not negotiated with the executive bodies before being signed by the head of state agency. But how is it possible the head of state agency can put a signature under the agreement, which completely contradicts with the interests of the state? How does it happens, that the procedure for signing an international agreement is not followed by the state agency? Prime minister Yatsenyuk required an explanation for the reasons of this action, which opposed to Ukranian interest in ten days from 21st January.

Currently, Ukraine deals with variety of major problems, as restoring its territorial integrity, achieving a revival of its economy and negotiating a long-term loan from IMF. However, the fact is, that major issues consist of minor ones. Details matter for seeing a comprehensive picture. And this case visibly demonstrated the omissions in the state structure.

The Green Party Surge!

Recent polls have shown the Green Party is on the rise. They are regularly polling around 10% and have moved ahead of the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. They are popular with younger voters and have seen a large increase in membership. So what is behind this rise and can they maintain it?

The Greens can claim with some justification that they are the only anti-austerity mainstream party standing in the next election. The policy may not be economically sound but it remains attractive to a proportion of the electorate. With the Labour Party already signed up to a programme of cuts after the next election this has left room for the Green Party to exploit.

In a world where all publicity is good publicity, the greater exposure received by the Greens has undoubtedly helped them. This was largely created by David Cameron’s insistence that they were invited to the leader’s debates. This is a stance that has definitely helped the Green Party. The Greens have also successfully run a campaign challenging their exclusion from the debates which gained large support from the public and has led to new debate proposals from the broadcasters with the Green Party invited.

The Green Party is a natural home for many protest voters who previously may have voted for the Liberal Democrats and still remained unconvinced by Labour. As seen by the rise of UKIP there is a discontent with the main political parties and therefore significant numbers of voters are looking for alternatives.

The electoral system in this country remains very much against the smaller parties and makes it hard for them to breakthrough in a significant way. They currently only have one MP and may struggle to add to this at the General Election. With greater exposure comes greater scrutiny and this adds a new dynamic and more pressure to the party.

There is a good chance the Green Party will do well in the upcoming election, perhaps even polling ahead of the Lib Dems in fourth place. However, that is unlikely to translate into more Commons seats. The real impact of the Green Party could be that they take voters away from the Labour Party enabling the Conservatives to win more of the marginal seats. In what is already an unpredictable election, it makes calling the election result that much harder again.

The NHS under Labour

The Labour party recently launched its General Election campaign with a warning that five more years under the conservatives would be dangerous for the NHS. A poster reads “The NHS as you know it cannot survive five more years of David Cameron”. This has been a common argument coming from the Labour party, who claim that the recent increase in waiting times and multiple hospitals in a variety of regions that declaring major incidents in the last 5 weeks are down to Cameron and his party’s policies. Labour also claim that, if re-elected, the conservatives will surely make things worse and push through with further privatisation.

Cameron claims that Miliband is attempting to ‘weaponise’ the NHS in order to gain votes. That may be true, but the NHS is one of the things the United Kingdom has to be most proud of. Having an NHS that works well is imperative, especially as so many people rely so heavily on it. The question here is whether the Labour party has anything better to offer. The party’s campaign slogan ‘Save the NHS’ promises big things, however the party has been very vague about what they hope to do if they are elected into government. Labour’s plans for the NHS include creating a £2.5bn-a-year fund to pay for 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs and 5,000 more home care workers. This is a good start, but the conservatives have raised the point that the country simply cannot afford it. The NHS as it is now is expected to be in £1 billion in debt by the end of the financial year. While labour have mentioned extra funding coming from increased taxation on tobacco and mansions, the revenue gained from this is unlikely to cover costs.

According to Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, if the Labour party win the 2015 election then there will be an increased focus on care. At the Labour party conference in 2014 Burnham was met by roaring applause after his pledge to turn the NHS into a combined national health and care service. Once again, the key issue is how labour plan to pay for this. While increased care services are sure to make savings in the future as well as increase the effectiveness of the healthcare service, there are sure to be massive initial transition costs. If labour hope to use the NHS as the main platform through which to win this election, they will have to be far clearer about the details of how they wish to fund these plans. One positive from labour’s point of view is the UK’s economic recovery. If the country continues with this momentum, there is likely to be more money available to spend on the NHS and all the extra services that Burnham hopes to improve in order to aid the NHS (services including housing, education and even transport). Of course, spending more money while reducing the deficit is essentially lighting the candle at both ends, so there will need to be plenty of extra money available in order for this to work; something that is unlikely to happen without a large increase in taxes.

Nonetheless, for those who have deep concerns about the direction in which the NHS is heading, Labour would be a clear choice over the conservatives. The only issue is whether they can afford it and whether they can competently implement their policies. That is something that will become clearer as the election nears (although it will only become really clear if they are elected into government).

A referendum on our membership to the EU is more than just immigration.

Democracy, sovereignty, representation and socio-economic interests are at stake.

1975 is the only time that the British electorate had a vote on its membership of the European Union. We know that the “common market vote” was plagued in historical deceit by our political classes. The 1970 Werner report set out the political aspirations for a federal Europe but this was not conveyed to the British people due to the fear of a NO vote.

Today the EU is comprised of 28 member states which reflect this vision. The European Enlargement Strategy consisting of the West Balkans including Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia shows that the EU’s political aspirations are far from over. The EUs enlargement strategy is held to further peace and prosperity. The other side of the argument is that it will further increase the disparity of wealth between rich and poor member states, not rectifying the issue of development of poorer member states and thus increasing the pressures we are seeing today within the Eurozone. This could further fuel the Euroscepticism sweeping across original member states who are concerned with mass immigration, pools of unskilled workers driving down wages, strains on public services and social integration. Further integration and enlargement of the EU could easily threaten the very peace and prosperity the EU strives for.

Britain was indeed the sick man of Europe during the 1970s and membership for the next few decades benefited our economic recovery. However the European Monetary System cost the UK Treasury an estimated £67.2 billion or 11.3% of 1992 UK GDP. What followed? The Euro, thankfully Gordon Brown refused to sign up to and Britain would surely be experiencing the deflationary troubles of the Eurozone.

Furthermore our continued membership of the EU is maintained due to the perceived benefits of our access to the Single Market. Yet the myth of the importance of EU trade has been exaggerated, as current exports to the EU now make up around one third of the UK’s overseas trade, whilst back in 1992 the EU accounted for over half of British exports. This figure includes goods which go via ports in Belgium and the Netherlands, yet are still counted as exports to the EU despite being shipped off to other non-EU countries. The value of UK exports to the rest of the world amounted to £395 billion in 2013, a growth rate of 6.22% p.a. over the preceding 10 year period, whilst the value of UK exports to the EU consisted of £296 billion in 2013, a rate of growth of 3.06% over the same period. The value of the EU as a trading bloc is in decline as demonstrated by the fact that in 1973 the bloc accounted for 37% of World GDP, yet in 2015 it is predicted to be down to 22%.

Currently only 5 % of British businesses trade with the EU. Despite this, all British businesses are forced to adhere to excessive red tape and regulations imposed from Brussels. As Eurosceptic MEP Dan Hannan often points out, the European Commission’s own research has argued the Single Market benefits the European economy by just €120 billion a year, whilst EU regulation costs the European economy €600 billion a year.

We are told that our membership to the EU is crucial so that we can influence the Single Market and the EU budget. This is hard to fathom. Given that our largest representation within the EU is from Ukip a stark anti-Europe party, they wield little influence in changing the outlook of the European Parliament. Our percentage of seats in the European Parliament has dropped from 20 per cent in 1979 to only 9.5 per cent today. Our voting power in the Council of Ministers has decreased from 17 per cent to 12 per cent.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is an expensive and inefficient method of supporting agriculture, particularly in France and Germany. A UK government estimate in 2006 of the cost to EU consumers of higher food prices under CAP was £34 billion. The potential benefit of independence would be complete UK control over domestic regulation. Open Europe estimated the cost of new labelling requirements was £3.5 billion from 1998-2010. New food labelling in the EU to which came into force December on 13th will be an expensive process, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs calculating the average cost of a label change to be £3,260.

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was devised prior to Britain’s entry into the EU. The six original members of this policy devised the CFP as a way of gaining access to 60 – 80% of fish in EU waters which lay within the British Territorial Limit. In 1970 300,000 tonnes of cod were taken from the North Sea thereby devastating stocks so that in 1999 fishermen managed to catch only 60% of the total EU quota of 81,000 tonnes.  The total estimated economic cost to the UK of the CFP in 2012 was estimated at £2.8 billion by the TPA Research, “All at Sea”.

An Open Europe report “Rotten Foundations” has also shown that the EU green agenda is far from effective and beneficial for the UK. Without any EU policies the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) expected the UKs renewable energy share to reach 4% in 2012. The cost of UK energy related regulations is £1.3 billion, £7.1 less than the EUs. It is estimated that as a result of flawed assumptions by the EU the proposed net benefit to the UK from EU climate change measures has dropped from over € 200 billion euros in 2009 to a net cost by 2020 of £11.4-£20.6 billion.

We now know that the EU is not a common market, but an economic, fiscal, banking and political union. The outgoing Van Rompuy correctly asserted that “UK is not part of the largest project, the euro nor the Schengen area. But London has never prevented us from moving forward.”  We deserve a say as to whether we support continued membership with the EU moving forward. This is paramount given the farce surrounding the 1975 “common market vote”, the controversial 1992 Maastricht Treaty and our promised vote on the Lisbon Treaty. Immigration is not the sole issue. The supposed benefits put forward by europhiles of are far from clear cut for the United Kingdom.

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Can Britain pursue a green agenda outside the EU ?

Open Europe produced a damning report [i] highlighting the “huge costs” the EU’s climate change agenda has imposed upon the British taxpayer with the recurring cost of EU energy related regulations estimated at £8.4 billion a year.

The average medium size businesses have seen their bills increase by 9% because of EU regulations and targets, and will see their bills rise by 23% leading up to 2020. These policies are also punishing on ordinary households. Open Europe’s latest report finds “In 2013, the average household’s dual gas and electricity bill was increased by £59 (5%) due to EU regulations or UK implementation of EU defined targets. By 2020, EU-related regulations or targets will increase annual household bills by £149 (11%)

The proposed benefit of £162 billion from EU regulations is reliant on flawed assumptions. Of these a global deal on emission levels has not materialised. With a lack of a global deal factored in the net benefit to the UK from EU climate change measures has dropped from over € 200 billion euros in 2009 to a net cost by 2020 of £11.4-£20.6 billion.

Without any EU policies The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) expected the UKs renewable energy share to reach 4% in 2012. The cost of UK energy related regulations is £1.3 billion, £7.1 less than the EUs. Britain unilaterally acts on a number of issues to tackle climate change. We have introduced a carbon price floor of £16 per tonne instead of the EUs ETS system of €5 a tonne. We have also introduced a number of energy efficiency programmes which go beyond EU law, such as the Energy Company Obligation.

Despite costly EU regulation a report by two NGO’s Climate Action Network and Germanwatch ranked UK the third best country in reducing climate change, just trailing behind Denmark and Sweden. It is estimated that the UK will achieve 11.5% renewable energy share by 2020, not the 15% EU target. Continued adherence to the EU green agenda will cost the British taxpayer dearly. Open Europe estimates that dropping EU renewables targets immediately could save £16-20 billion, lifting 2.4 million UK households out of fuel poverty.

This report reflects the EUs principle of subsidiarity is a costly and ineffective measure. It is yet another example of EU regulations and targets affecting ordinary households and businesses within Britain.

This has been reflected more recently with the EUs legislation on plastic bags. This offers member states two options; either reduce consumption by 90 lightweight bags per citizen by 2019 and 40 bags by 2025 or a mandatory charge by 2018.  The UK government has already introduced a 5p charge on all single use plastic carrier bags in October 2015. However they have chosen a number of exemptions, such as small and medium sized businesses, ensuring the regulatory burden on them is reduced. It will be seen as to whether this will be challenged by the EU with the other exemptions adopted by the UK government.

Upon tackling climate change and adopting a green agenda, Britain has shown itself as a leader within the EU, acting unilaterally on a number of issues. Britain would be better suited to devising relevant UK policies which are flexible and efficient while striding for achievable targets.

[i] Open Europe, Rotten Foundations, September 2014

#I’llRideWithYou: A Powerful Weapon Against Terror?

On Monday, the world watched intently as a gunman held dozens of innocent people hostage in a Sydney Cafe. As people began to speculate as to whether this was an act of terror, Islamic people around Australia began to fear the prospect of an Islamophobic backlash.

In what was an amazing act of kindness, thousands of Australians took to the social network site, Twitter, to reassure people of the Islamic faith that they have nothing to fear. According to Twitter Australia, over 40,000 tweets including the hashtag #I’llRideWithYou were posted in the space of two hours; Over 150, 000 after four hours. The Hashtag has been used to tell people who feared for their safety that non-Islamic people of Sydney were prepared to stay with them and keep them reassured and safe from any potential backlash.

Apart from the fact that this is an incredibly touching and honourable use of social media, there could be other implications to this sort of behaviour. There have been studies into terrorism that suggest that the main motivating factor for those who join terrorist organisations is the desire for revenge.

Perhaps, then, a more effective tool in the fight against terrorism is kindness. The acts of kindness expressed by these strangers towards commuting Muslims removes the barriers we create when calling for war or revenge. With kindness there is no ‘them and us’ mentality, there is simply an increased desire for peace between different communities and cultures. While it is important to track down those who take part in and encourage terrorist activities and hold those people to account, perhaps the best preventative measure and the best defence against those supporting extremism is to treat Islamic communities around the world with the sort of kindness and hospitality we would like to see from them. It is a cheesy and possibly naive opinion; however I am almost certain that it would work far more effectively than treating Islamic communities with fear and resentment. Perhaps western states such as the United Kingdom and United States could learn a thing or two from the people of Australia.