Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Social Democracy for beginners

For months, the right wing newspapers have been inventing horror stories about what the consequences of what they call 'Harriet Harman's equalities bill' will be. None, however, have managed to come up with as ludicrous a suggestion as that of Polly Toynbee.

She wrote today in the Guardian that she thinks that providing free personal care for elderly people might contravene the government's Equalities bill, which expects public bodies to consider the effect of their policies on inequality.

Presumably, by the same logic, the NHS, schools, child benefit, free bus passes and every other popular and effective public service which reduces inequality should be changed so they are free only for the poorest, with everyone else having to pay.

With friends like this...

This kind of imbecility is merely an extreme example of a set of beliefs which are widely held amongst the political elite, which can be summarised thus:

Providing high quality public services to everyone is "unaffordable", particularly at the present time. The only way to get middle income people to pay more taxes is through stealth, such as local councils massively increasing charges on everything from meals on wheels to parking permits, tuition fees, social care insurance and so on. And the way to help the poorest is through targeted services which they have to show that they are eligible for, and introducing markets into public services.

There are endless examples of how this system offends against most people's sense of fairness, often delivers poor quality services and misses out people who need help. We spend billions on helping people to understand the vastly complex systems that we've put in place, and still people die because they can't get the help they are entitled to. Public money which is meant to help unemployed people get jobs instead helps a small number of people live in mansions.

At the moment, the middle class gets taxed once to pay for a whole range of services and payments which they don't benefit from, and then has to pay astronomical costs for care for their loved ones. Meanwhile, up to a third of people on lower incomes can't or won't jump through the hoops to get the help they need, and often end up with lower quality services provided by poorly trained workers who themselves don't earn a decent wage. It is this which is "unaffordable" and unfair.

But we've already got an alternative which we know works much better. Seventy years ago, the problems with healthcare were similar to those which we have today in terms of social care and childcare. Back in 1948 when the NHS was set up, very few elderly people needed years of care after they retired, just as most women stayed at home to look after their children. But times change, and we need to modernise the welfare state to meet people's needs.

Just as the NHS makes sure that everyone contributes through the tax system and gets free healthcare when they need it, so elderly people should receive high quality social care provided by well trained care workers earning a decent wage, and parents should be able to get the childcare they need to be able to go and work.

Means testing essential services in order to keep taxes down just means that public money gets wasted on everything from processing complex eligibility forms to "take up" campaigns, while civil servants think up new ways to introduce stealth charges which hit the middle classes harder than the rich, instead of raising progressive taxes. The idea that means tested services for the poor plus high care costs for everyone else is the more affordable option is as ludicrous as the idea that new equalities legislation would make high quality universal public services illegal.


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