Bruce Lawson's personal site

Want my vote? Give me evidence-based policies

This year’s general election is going to be a close one, and a bitter one. For the first time ever, I’ve had representatives of political parties knocking on my door and, although none of the current crop of parties appeals to me, I told the last gang (Labour) that I’m sick of politicians (in this case, Ed Milliband) who react to the moral panic du jour with ill-thought out policies that appease the slack-jawed but actually cause long-term damage.

I’d vote for whoever had the courage to make policies based on evidence and long-term thinking rather than short-term headline grabbing, religious attachment to dogma, or the selfish interests of its core supporters. I doubt such a politician exists, but if any do, here’s my wish-list.

Immigration

We need to politicians with courage to say we need immigration. We are an ageing population: A Survey of the UK Benefit System by Institute for Fiscal Studies, November 2012) points out that a colossal 42.3% of the benefits spend in the Uk goes to “elderly people” (figure 2.1).

To support more older people, it’s obvious that we need more young people to work and pay tax. However, the birthrate in the UK seems to be falling:

The number of live births and the total fertility rate (TFR) fluctuated throughout the twentieth century with a sharp peak at the end of World War II. Live births peaked again in 1964 (875,972 births), but since then lower numbers have been recorded. The lowest annual number of births in the twentieth century was 569,259 in 1977. The number of births is dependent on both fertility rates and the size and age structure of the female population.The total fertility rate for England and Wales decreased in 2013 to an average of 1.85 children per woman from 1.94 in 2012.

Women are having children later. Tellingly, Coalition austerity policies – a prime example of dogma over evidence-based policymaking – are likely to be contributing to the lower birth rate. The UK government’s Office of National Statistics writes:

Other factors which could have had an impact on fertility levels in 2013 include:

  • uncertainty about employment and lower career and promotion opportunities (such as temporary, part-time, or zero-hours contracts), which can significantly reduce women’s demand for children (Del Bono E, et al.,2014; Lanzieri G, 2013)
  • reforms by the Government to simplify the welfare system, which have resulted in some significant changes to benefits that may have influenced decisions around childbearing. The changes were announced in 2011 and 2012 and included; reduced housing benefit from April 2013 for those living in property deemed to be larger than they need. Children under 10 are expected to share a room, as are children under 16 of the same gender; removal of child benefit where one parent earns over £50,000 from January 2013 and a 3-year freeze on payments for those eligible from April 2011; and a cap on the total amount of benefits that working age people can receive from April 2013, so that households on working age benefits can no longer receive more in benefits than the average wage for working families.

Therefore, the current austerity policies will have a long-term effect of reducing the workforce so making more elderly people dependant on fewer working people. Without immigrants working here, this will result in cuts to the services the elderly receive, or a higher tax burden on those in work, neither of which are desirable – particularly to the successors of the current Conservative government for whom elderly people are more likely to vote, and for which tax reduction is an article of absolute faith.

Immigration also brings us skilled workers. A good friend of mine works recruiting nurses from overseas for a big, nationally-known UK hospital. She doesn’t do this because she is part of a dastardly plot to flood Britain with highly-trained, hard-working Filipinos whose English language is better than that of many “indigenous” residents (to get a visa, non-EU applicants are required to achieve a higher score in their English language tests than EU applicants for some odd reason). No, she does this because hospitals need nurses, and there aren’t enough British nurses.

According to the Daily Telegraph, last year

5,778 nurses were recruited from overseas in the 12 months to September… This compares with a figure of just 1,360 reported by 40 trusts in the previous year. Experts said a lack of trained British nurses meant hospitals were forced to hunt abroad for trained staff, with the costs of global trawls vastly inflating the cost of recruitment. Hospitals pay managers and recruitment agencies to go abroad to seek out staff, while offering bonuses to nurses who come here. In total, 91,470 nurses – around one in seven of those now registered to work here – trained overseas, official figures show.

Why? The Telegraph – a highly conservative newspaper – reports

The surge follows cuts to NHS programmes to train nurses in this country, with 10,000 training places cut since 2010.

Anecdotally (from my friend who does the recruitment), many British people don’t want to become nurses. The Royal College of Nursing (the profession’s representative body) notes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said in his 2011 autumn statement

all public sector wage rises should be capped at an average of one per cent for two years from April 2013. This comes after a two year policy which saw all NHS staff earning more than £21,000 facing a pay freeze, while those earning up to £21,000 received an award of £250 in both years.

The RCN continues:

the supply of nursing staff is being seriously threatened as NHS organisations attempt to save money by cutting posts and by the reduction in commissioned training places for nurses. Commissioned places for pre-registration nursing has fallen by nearly nine per cent from 2010/11 to 2011/12. This is particularly worrying at a time when 12 per cent of the nursing workforce is aged 55 or over and a quarter is aged 50 or over.

Both the RCN evidence and the staff side evidence draw on results from a joint trade union survey of members which found that almost two thirds of nurses said they had seriously thought about leaving their job, and a third would leave for a post outside the NHS. The top two reasons for considering leaving the NHS are stress/workload and staff shortages. Two thirds of respondents said morale had declined in the last 12 months, while 71 per cent said staff shortages have frequently occurred in their workplace over the past year.

The starting salary for graduate nurses is £21,338 (with an additional £4076 for inner London, as if the extra £78 week before tax makes up for living costs there), but it’s a 3 or 4 year degree course to get there. The current government raised the cap on university tuition fees, so the tuition alone for a 4 year nursing course could come to £36,000 – for a £21,000 pre-tax salary. If the government were genuinely concerned to reduce reliance on overseas nurses, it would either raise salaries, or subsidise tuition fees for socially vital jobs, such as nurses. But it won’t, because it’s unable to make sensible policies that might have the desired outcome due to its dogma of not interfering in markets, and its antipathy to the public sector.

Rent Caps

In 2012, the UK benefits spend was £159bn (up by 1.1% on the previous year). The single largest part of that was state pensions to the elderly – £74.22bn, or 47% of the total spend. The next largest item in the budget is housing benefit £16.94bn. That was up 5.2% on the previous year, and will reach a new high of £25bn a year by 2017, according to new government estimates. Housing Benefit is money paid by the government – sourced, of course, from me and my fellow taxpayers – to people on incomes too low to allow them to meet the cost of their housing themselves.

Incomes are low because of austerity policies, and housing is preposterously expensive in the UK because there’s an inadequate supply. It’s my belief that the main reason for this under-supply is the ideologically-driven “Right to Buy” sell-off of social housing by the Thatcher government – councils who owned social housing were required by law to sell it at deep discount to tenants (and weren’t allowed to use the funds raised to replenish the housing stock).

The stated goal was to make Britain a nation of home-owners; the actual result is that a third of ex-council homes are now owned by landlords. One inner-London council now pays £500,000 a year to rent back properties that it was forced to sell, a situation described as “utterly ludicrous” by its housing chief; it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. (Note that David Cameron proposed re-invigorating Right to Buy in 2011.)

Whatever the reason for the under-supply of housing, though, if the government really wanted to reduce the housing benefit spend, it would simply cap rents. Housing Benefit is nothing more than a government subsidy to landlords, who charge high prices because they know the government will pay them. If rents were controlled, the housing benefit spend would reduce. But it wouldn’t dream of doing so because that would be regulation in the free market (it’s religious dogma that the invisible hand is always right, whether it pickpockets your neighbour and hands her purse to you, or pokes you in the eye). It’s also the case that landlords tend to be Conservative voters. Upsetting loads of nurses and public sector workers is one thing – they mostly don’t vote for the Tories anyway – but landlords are part of the clan who rule us. After all, Charles Gow, the son of Mrs Thatcher’s Housing Minister during the council house sell-off, owns at least 40 ex-council flats on one South London estate.

Politicians of all political hues seem happy to talk tough on immigration, as if it were a bad thing rather than an economic necessity. They all seem to agree that austerity is required, while pumping billions into the City under the cloak of “Quantitative Easing” (which has failed, according to its inventor). This nutrient-free flatulent miasma of stupidity appeases the Daily Mail and Express readers, yet it damages the country.

Give me some joined-up, evidence-based thinking, and you’ll get my kiss on election day.

Update Sun 4 Jan: It seems that fewer than 10% of British people are against mandatory legal limits on housing rents.

Update 7 Jan: Great minds think alike. From the Daily Telegraph (of all places!) on 5 Jan, Ten ways we could fix broken Britain suggests paying people to do degrees we need, more tenants rights, more housing (and using the tax system to punish those who sit on land reserves, like supermarkets or volume builders), and other sensible policies like tripling the congestion charge and legalising drugs.

5 Responses to “ Want my vote? Give me evidence-based policies ”

Comment by Haxton

University fees – surely a result of the misguided Labour govt wanting everyone to go to Uni and forgetting that someone needed to pay for it and ultimately meaning that huge numbers of grads don’t have grad jobs but have been given the expectation that they will get an unrealistic starting salary of a lawyer, finance person.

Likewise some idiot said all new nurses need a degree-why?

Comment by Bruce

Excellent points, Haxton. The expectation that “everyone’s a graduate now” from the Blair era led people to expect overly high salaries.

But that doesn’t change the question: what to do about under-supply of nursing now when all parties agree with “austerity” so salaries can’t go up; tuition fees are high even for those who want to do socially valuable but comparatively poorly-paid jobs, and the UK political discourse is that immigration is a dirty word?

This is why I want politicians who’ll think things through and argue them rationally rather than shriek “tighten our belts! Tough talk on immigration” every time some journalist wakes them up.

Comment by Rob Kirton

Bruce, overall some good points, though you will find that Nursing and associated degree courses Fees are paid for by the NHS and they also supply conditional bursaries

http://www.nhscareers.nhs.uk/explore-by-career/nursing/training-to-be-a-nurse/financial-support-for-pre-registration-nursing-students/

It is a very complex picture. One of my daughters worked on a zero hour contract for the NHS as a health care assistant to help pay here way, whilst studying for a degree in Physiology. In this case, she loved the idea of zero hours as she could pick and chose her hours to fit around study. She had no fear of not getting work as a lot of folks don’t want to do the “dirty work” an HCA gets to do.

There is a great problem with how we reward those who do socially important work, and you are absolutely right in saying that it is ridiculous how the political classes can distill large and complex problems into ill thought out answers / policies – without evidence to back up their assertions.

Comment by Chris

I’d prefer if they followed the approach Ben Goldacre suggested.

They do trials and test to see if approach A will produce Y results.

Right now its like belief based car repair. We don’t need facts, I just need to believe that disconnecting every cable will unhinder the engine of the car and release its full potential!

Then again pigs might fly.

I’m so depressed now…

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