Now here's an expression we've never heard before - “the compassion industry”. It may be new, but in our view it's also remarkably apt. It was coined by Max Hastings ...
Cut spending and taxes now, Tory MP Liam Fox demanded yesterday. A week ahead of the Budget, he delivered an almost undisguised assault on the Coalition's economic policies - and his speech will be music to many Conservative ears.
We are almost three years into the life of a Government which took office promising to reduce the mountain of debt bequeathed to the nation by Gordon Brown and Ed Balls. Yet today, while the BBC runs an unrelenting propaganda campaign on behalf of the Left, proclaiming the iniquity of 'Tory cuts', there has been no effective progress in reducing that debt.
State spending takes nearly half of national output. The national debt burden is still rising and scheduled to reach an awesome 96 per cent of GDP by 2016. The social security budget will rise from £182 billion this year to £199.3 billion in 2016-17. What is happening to Britain - and to our money?
The Chancellor, George Osborne, has arguably done his best. In his first years of office, he set targets for reducing state expenditure that seemed at the time brave and ambitious. He also increased many taxes to boost Treasury revenues, with hopes of cutting them again towards the end of this parliament. Yet, in the event, thanks to the stagnation of the economy, the tax take has fallen well short of predictions.
Meanwhile, cuts have proved extraordinarily hard to deliver. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, only 67 per cent of promised reductions have materialised, including just 32 per cent of pledged savings in the £208 billion bill for welfare.
The Treasury has struggled against the intractable problem that £138 billion of the Government's total £677 billion spend is committed to public sector pensions, almost all of them index-linked. The cost of servicing these continues to soar.
Since the welfare state was founded in 1945, a vast fortress of public entitlements has been created, defended by a garrison of lobbyists and crusaders which we might call the compassion industry. This fights tigerishly against every attempt to turn off the tap of taxpayers' generosity, even to the least deserving recipients.
The Archbishop of Canterbury weighed in at the weekend with remarks wet enough to earn him a place on a fishmonger's slab about the wickedness of proposed real-terms benefit cuts. The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, earlier this month warned of possible civil unrest if the legal aid budget is cut as proposed. Scarcely a day goes by without some prominent educationalist denouncing the Government's parsimony towards schools and universities.
Yesterday morning, I read an online blog about the NHS by a contributor who complained: 'I am a nurse and I find it increasingly frustrating that there seems to be a focus on a cost-effective service rather than the patient being the focus of the service.'
My point is that we are institutionally wired to assume unlimited public funds are available to fulfil obsessively extravagant requirements for human rights, environmental protection and much else. Coroners constantly demand drastic new public safety measures to protect against outlandish forms of accident. We need the imagination and courage to defy kneejerk sentiment about health care, and admit that the resources do not exist to give any hospital or NHS trust the money it wants to do everything modern medical science makes possible for every patient.
This is a harsh but vital message. Yet the Government gets almost zero support from health professionals, pundits and the media in conveying it to the public. I recently heard a senior doctor say smugly: 'It is not my job to ration medical care. My job is to give patients the very best treatment available, and leave it to the politicians and bureaucrats to worry about the money.' He thought this emphasised his own high ethical standards. Some of us would say that, instead, he exposed a wretched lack of responsibility about helping to solve a huge problem in our cash-strapped society.
We cannot reasonably expect the recipients of welfare to refuse their opportunities to claim cash on offer. But it seems somewhere between regrettable and scandalous that so many people holding responsible jobs collude with them. For instance, consider those young unmarried mothers who make no attempt to find jobs because they live perfectly comfortably on benefits. There is currently a new applicant every nine minutes for Disability Living Allowance, which is due to be phased out; 71 per cent of those who come forward are provided benefits for life without checks. There are doctors who knowingly sign false sickness claims, and local councillors and officials who fight tooth and nail to cling to every penny of their budgets.
And at the same time there are always BBC correspondents who peddle repeated half-truths and sometimes outright falsehoods about government cuts.
Almost the only government department where meaningful, painful cuts have been achieved is the one which can least afford them – defence. The Armed Forces are being slashed, because when the Chancellor demands that 20,000 soldiers should be made redundant, this happens; when he says ships must be scrapped or planes grounded, this is done.
By contrast, if he tells NHS hospitals to cut their drugs bills, not only is this unlikely to happen, but the Government is assured of a fierce blast at its inhumanity from the likes of Polly Toynbee, the Guardian's Queen of Entitlement, and the self-appointed compassion industry moves into full swing.
The result of all this is that George Osborne has become one of the most unpopular Chancellors of modern times, accepting the abuse for a massive programme of government cost-cutting, while actually failing to deliver it. If Liam Fox, the Tory who yesterday demanded a five-year spending freeze, had served as Chancellor since 2010 instead of Osborne, I do not believe he would have done any better. Fox was a failure as Defence Secretary, who had to resign after admitting serious errors of judgement.
Of course he is right that it would be marvellous now to cut spending and taxes. But for a Government in as much trouble as this one, such a policy represents the politics of fairyland. David Cameron and George Osborne, having failed to achieve radical spending cuts in their first two years in power, have missed the tide. To have any chance of keeping their jobs past the next election, it would be suicidal now to embark on more draconian cuts when the economy is stagnant.
The historic challenge - and one that they have failed to meet - is to make the British people understand that for this country to prosper in the decades ahead, we need a radically new attitude to public spending and public entitlements. For almost 70 years, against a background of rising prosperity, the state has been a giant cow, milked three times a day by everybody who could find a pail. Now the cow has run dry. Yet five years on from the 2008 financial crisis, Conservatives seem the only people in this country willing to take serious action to reduce costs and save money. Almost everybody else, including the Liberal Democrats, colludes to frustrate them.
Only when a British government discovers how to achieve spending cuts, instead of just talking about them, will Britain begin to find its way back to solvency.
The GOS says: Personally I get very tired of hearing the same old platitudes about benefit cuts. They always hit the poor, we are told, so they are unfair. Well, duh, of course they hit the poor, because it's the poor that claim benefits. Who else are they going to hit? How can you cut benefits to the wealthy when they don't get any? If anything is unfair, it's the fact that so-called “poor” people get benefits and I don't. I worked all my life and everything I have was earned, not given to me.
And let's lay to rest, shall we, the old saw about making the wealthy pay for the deficit because the Tories always protect their friends and yadda yadda yadda ... Naturally the Labour Party when they were in power never did anything to help their friends, did they? Look, if you taxed the wealthy until the pips squeaked it wouldn't make any difference. There just aren't enough of them to float Britain out of the well it's fallen in.
No, Hastings is right. This is something that has to affect the millions as well as the privileged few. “OK,” you'll say, “I'll start making my contribution when George Osborne makes his”, which sounds fair enough.
Fair enough, that is, for the playground. Since when can nations be governed on the basis of childish jealousy? Time we grew up a bit, I think, and lived in the real world for a change.
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