The Chancellor George Osborne has pledged to hand another £2bn to the NHS year on year, in what is set to become a key election platform for the Conservative Party. The party wants to tie economic success, on which it is more trusted by the electorate, to the financial wellbeing of the public health service in a bid to win public support.
This morning Osborne appeared on the Andrew Marr show, on which he told his host “Because we have a strong economy and we’ve got the public finances under control, we can afford to put £2 billion into the frontline of the NHS across the United Kingdom.
“I can tell you we can go further and use those fines that have been paid by the banks for a permanent improvement in GP services. This is a down-payment on the NHS’s own long-term plan and it shows you can have a strong NHS if you have a strong economy.”
His comments echoed those of his leader Prime Minister David Cameron, who rebutted questioning by opposition leader Ed Miliband on the NHS during last Wednesday’s Prime Ministers Questions saying “We are putting £700 million more into the NHS this year, and we are able to do that only because we have a strong and growing economy. That is the key: you can have a strong NHS only if you have a strong economy.”
Recent polling shows that the Conservatives have a 20 point lead over Labour when it comes to who voters trust most on the economy. An ICM poll taken in early October found that, when asked which team they most trusted “to manage the economy properly”, 39 percent of respondents picked Cameron & Osborne, against just 19 percent who chose Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls.
A Lord Ashcroft poll over the summer found that a quarter of Labour voters trusted Cameron over Miliband on the economy. Just six out of ten Labour voters trusted Miliband/Balls on the economy, compared to nine out of ten Conservative voters who backed Cameron and Osborne.
The NHS is coming under increasing pressure as high immigration and an ageing population place ever growing demands on the service. Last week, admissions for emergency treatment hit an all-time high of 108,301 patients, leading to several casualty departments advising people with minor problems to go elsewhere for treatment.
Yesterday, Devon and Cornwall Police confirmed that they had had to hold a 16 year old girl suffering from mental problems in a police cell for two days as not a single NHS mental health bed could be found in the whole country. Assistant chief constable Paul Netherton called the situation “unacceptable”, saying that “obviously a police station is not where someone suffering mental health issues should be kept.” He also voiced concern that using police resources for health purposes undermines the Police Force’s crime-fighting capabilities.
The looming crisis prompted the Liberal Democrats to call for an emergency cash injection of £1.5bn into the service. But Osborne will instead promise £2bn during his Autumn Statement this week, which amounts to a real term rise of 1.5 percent in health funding. He is expected to say that it is “a simple truth” that “you can’t have a strong NHS without a strong economy to pay for it. If you don’t have a long-term plan for the economy, you don’t have a plan for the future of the NHS. We have both.”
However, the spending pledge is likely to fuel criticism that the government is not taking repayment of the national debt seriously. Cameron was rebuked in October when, in his speech at Conservative party conference, he said that Britain was “a country that is paying down its debts.”
Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Office noted that “Public sector net borrowing is the difference between total accrued receipts and total accrued (current and capital) expenditure over a specified period. The measure of net borrowing is frequently used by commentators to summarise the extent of any public sector ‘deficit’.”
Under that definition, he said that debt had risen from £997.4bn at the end of June 2010 to £1,432.3bn by the end of August 2014. The deficit had fallen from £133.9bn in 2010/11 to £99.3bn in 2013/14.
His comments came in a letter to shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie, in response to a letter from Leslie, in which Leslie had concluded “We can only conclude that there is a deliberate attempt by David Cameron’s Government to mislead the public about their true failures on the national debt.”