Dave Penman on life and taxes

Momentous life events remind us why the last thing we need is politicians playing fast and loose with our public services

By Dave Penman

24 Apr 2017

Mollie Katrine Penman was born on March 8, 2017, which, as I’m sure you remember, was International Women’s Day. This is surely an omen and Mollie is destined to be a future prime minister, Nobel winning scientist or the next J.K. Rowling.

No one goes through this experience without coming away with an enormous sense of gratitude to the dedicated professionals in our health service. No more so than when that moment comes, thankfully only fleetingly, when your heart sinks as you sense a change in tone in the exchanges between the midwives. At that point you see the years of training and expertise kick in to ensure your precious, vulnerable child eventually starts to scream in the manner of every movie birth. In that moment you have no words that can demonstrate your gratitude. You thank, kiss and hug your way around the assembled staff. But inevitably you move on, as do the staff, who have to do it all over again on their next shift, even though several have stayed beyond their contracted hours to ensure they saw the birth through to the end.

During pregnancy and birth we dealt with over 50 different healthcare professionals who came from more than a dozen different countries, all delivering care and expertise under the weight of ever increasing demands and limited resources.

Talk to other parents, even those that went through the experience only a year or two ago, and you inevitably hear: “Oh that’s different from when we had little Kylie/Quinoa/Hamish (delete as appropriate).” The relentless advances in medical science, whether in technology, practice or medication, are there for all to see and wonder at. And this of course adds to the burden of an ever-stretched healthcare system.

Healthcare is just one of the public services which seems to be constantly at the forefront of the debate on funding, but you don’t have an NHS without a Department of Health. Our environment is only protected because we have a DEFRA, transport needs planning, schools need funding and, of course, tax is only collected to pay for these if we have an HMRC.

March 8 was, of course, also budget day. Probably less of a milestone for Mollie, unless we’d named her Flip Flop in honour of Phil Hammond’s antics. More money for social care was the headline I’d read, and nodded in approval of, before other events in the delivery room took precedence. When I next snuck a look at the news several days later it appeared that the “politics” of tax rises, in whatever guise, were playing out across the Sunday chat shows.

As you can see from the picture to the left, no one was more surprised than Mollie when, just one week after announcing the rise in National Insurance, “Flip Flop Phil” performed the sort of political gymnastics that only a government unafraid of the opposition feels confident enough to pull off.

And so, with a £2bn hole in his calculations, speculation mounts that, like his predecessor, Mr Hammond will sip at the well of further cuts to public spending to fill the gap. As Nick Macpherson, the former Treasury permanent secretary, crammed in to 140 characters on the day of the announcement: “Is the UK prepared to pay the taxes to fund public services? If not spending cuts only answer. Public debt too high & a tax on our children”.

The NHS is always the most emotive public service we talk about. During that fleeting moment which my partner Kay and I faced at Mollie’s birth, and which everyone faces at some point when a loved one is in peril, you would happily open your wallet or sell your house if it made a difference. Yet when it’s over and you move on, leaving the hospital ward and the struggling public servants behind, are you still prepared to open your wallet?

Seven years into austerity we are kidding ourselves if we believe that further efficiencies can save the day. Dream up a number like £3.5bn as Flip Flop Phil has done and set it as a challenging target. Sir Nick had it spot on – and he was the king of efficiency targets. We face a choice: what do we want our children to inherit?

It’s not a binary choice between poor public services or massive debt, it’s only that choice if we accept the “politics” that paying more tax is unacceptable.

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