I was very interested in the response to my “modestly provocative proposals” for fixing Northern Ireland’s public finances. Generally, I was encouraged by the willingness of many respondents to pay their way. If that willingness is representative of the public, it would indicate that as with political realities during the 1998 negotiations, the public are ahead of our politicians on the financial realities during the 2014 negotiations.
It cannot be denied, however, that this is also political. It is not merely a matter of balancing the books as an objective accountant, but making political choices. So I thought it worth responding to some queries based on the principles which underlay my proposals.
Re-distributive Revenue Raising
There was some debate around Prescription Charges. I understand why. However, their re-introduction would punish the sick, particularly those with long-term conditions. That is not re-distributive and it is fundamentally not fair.
On the other hand, I proposed the introduction of motorway tolls to pay for road-building: vehicle drivers pay for the roads they drive on. That is fundamentally fair. To some under my proposals extent Eastern drivers do pay for new Western infrastructure, that is true, but that is to even up a historical anomaly. That is also fundamentally fair.
I also proposed the raising of household rates. This means people who pay rates pay a little more; those who do not, do not. It is a wealth tax. It is fundamentally fair.
I also proposed the introduction of a public sector levy. This would see public sector workers taking home the same disposable income as everywhere else in the UK – a reverse ‘London weighting’, if you like; it would also see the highest paid workers contributing a little more for a short period. That is fundamentally fair.
In addition to the above re tolls, there was some debate around what is, essentially, a general proposal that more commuters should use public transport. Some suggested public transport simply couldn’t cope. Others said it was already bad enough with ‘Belfast on the Move’.
To respond simply, I would stand over the view, but I accept it is a political one, that fewer people should commute by car and, particularly, fewer between around 7am-10am and 4pm-7pm.
I would add, as a matter of fact, that headlines suggesting reports had shown Belfast to be particularly ‘congested’ were inaccurate. In fact, those reports suggested not that Belfast was particularly congested during peak hours, but that it is notably uncongested by the standards of a typical UK city during non-peak hours.
I would contemplate, in fact, operating the motorway tolls only during those hours (or having higher tolls at those times, similar to the Dublin Port Tunnel).
Motorway tolls at the gateways to Belfast, perhaps only during peak hours, would be preferable to a ‘Congestion Charge’, in my view. Such a Charge would make the City Centre even less accessible during non-peak hours, causing economic damage.
Administrative Simplification and Jobs
One respondent wanted one Health Board and one Education Board. Effectively, we now have that.
However, I do propose the simplification of structures, particularly around overall devolved finance management and OFMDFM.
My proposals notably do not involve compulsory redundancies in:
- Teaching – school mergers do mean an overall reduction in teaching posts, but I do not believe any compulsory redundancies would be necessary (it would be necessary, however, to train fewer teachers in the first place, one reason for a Teacher Training College merger);
- Social Security Agency – I am unclear why DSD is proposing these, other than just general budget pressures, but my proposals do not envisage them;
- Health Units – under my proposals there would be no loss of staff in the Health and Social Care Service beyond those envisaged in ‘Transforming Your Care’;
- the Arts – my proposals do involve merging the Department of Culture into other departments, but this would merely release a current administrative burden to enhance bodies such as the Arts Council; and
- Neighbourhood Renewal – there is no reduction in Neighbourhood Renewal necessary under my proposals.
My proposals do involve a voluntary redundancy scheme which would specifically see removal of grades and, specifically, a reduction in Finance staff, and the effective abolition of OFMDFM.
There was a suggestion that raising revenue should follow the appropriate administrative savings, to demonstrate value.
I quite like that idea.
Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that most of my proposed revenue raising takes place towards the back end of the next Assembly Term. Arguably, therefore, my proposals achieve this.
A number of respondents noted that my proposals would be ‘electoral suicide’ or similar.
I’m unsure, from other respondents, that it would. Nevertheless, that this point is raised was my underlying reason for doing this.
Fundamentally, my proposals do offer a way to balance NI’s public finances. Furthermore, they do so in a way which is absolutely redistributive. They are fundamentally fair.
The suggestion, therefore, is that the voters won’t vote for something which is fundamentally fair. What do readers make of that suggestion?!