I want to think about the future.
As we emerge from this Covid-19 crisis we will not be short of pundits advising us of the absolute necessity of things that are on their agenda but don’t really have anything to do with our economic, moral or other response to the pandemic. The sound of the hooves of the hobby horses cantering out of the stables and clattering over the cobbles is deafening!
I have some questions of policy all of which carry a moral dimension. These are matters for discussion and reflection; you may agree or disagree!
What policies will we adopt to ensure that enterprise and innovation remain at the heart of our economy?
We know the businesses that have innovated during the Covid-19 crisis will be the ones which will survive and flourish. If we are also to seek to ‘rebalance’ the regional economies of the UK we are more likely to achieve this through encouraging enterprising small business in the regional economy than by centralised government spending.
Policy suggestion: 25 targeted regional economic development zones with reduced employers’ NI for new employees and 50% grants for business rate relief.
Moral perspective: targeted, focused approach rather than giving universal benefits
To what extent should we decentralise aspects of our national health service?
I do not want to get into the politics of Covid-19 management. However, one aspect I have noticed is the potential weakness of the response with management through the centralised systems of the health service. So Public Health England, at least on the face of it, appeared incapable of increasing testing capacity until they had built another centralised lab and of delivering personal protective equipment until imports were quality approved centrally. One hospital in the south of England was so frustrated they approached local businesses and secured a supply. Then there was the app fiasco. The centralised approach was exemplified by our own National Health Service thinking that the only way forward on tracing was if they developed their own app, rather than use the private sector version seemingly used by much of the rest of the world. Not just British exceptionalism, but NHS exceptionalism!
Policy suggestion: as a minimum instil a policy presumption into Public Health England of local and decentralised decision-making at the lowest possible levels (e.g. hospitals, surgeries) for both supply and quality control.
Moral perspective: localised decisions encouraging responsibility
Are we able to have a rational discussion about the balance of tax and spending in our fiscal policies? How do we achieve the balance between this and future generations in the carrying of a significant amount of sovereign debt as a proportion of GDP?
The cry goes up, ‘there must be no return to austerity’ or ‘there must be no tax increases’, both of which, it seems to me, are unrealistic. We cannot simply spend without the income or growth to support the expenditure. To do so transfers the burden of debt servicing to future generations, which is, morally, at least, questionable. Clearly in the short-term, to deal with the immediate crisis, funds can be borrowed at very low rates of interest. However, economically those interest rates are unsustainable low more than in the very short-term. Similarly, the size of the rescue package makes it inevitable there will need to be an increase in tax in the short-term. My natural inclination is to cut tax in order to stimulate. I think the size of both the deficit and the debt are probably too high to achieve that. We could, though, adopt some measures on a strictly temporary basis.
Policy suggestion: we bite the bullet and increase all rates of income tax by 5% (that is, 5 percentage points) for a strictly, time limited 3 years, after which they revert automatically to current rates and there is, alongside that, a 3-year public sector pay freeze and no overall increase in government expenditure in cash terms. Probably too controversial!
Moral perspective: responsibility cannot simply be shifted to future generations.
Can we seek to find a resolution to the questions of financing social care?
One of the more difficult and painful aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the impact on the care home sector. The mighty, centralised, NHS pushed vulnerable patients out to the care homes which clearly then enabled the disease to spread. This simply brings back to the fore the responsibility to seek to solve (and it must be admitted the solution has evaded successive governments) the financing of social care. We forget, of course, that this is linked to family policy. The first step is to target support to those who are willing and able to care for those in need of social care within the family setting thus relieving pressure on the wider sector.
Policy prescription: inheritance tax incentives for care provided within the family. For example, a property in which a vulnerable person is cared for within a family could be made 100% free of IHT. I recognise that there is also a funding system needed for the wider sector.
Moral perspective: we need to incentivise family-based solutions as much as we can
What lessons can we learn about the priority of education in reducing poverty?
I will here be blunt. The education unions were shocking during this crisis. Not a single effort to say ‘what can we actually do in the circumstances we are in to maximise the number of children in schools’ simply, ‘it is not safe to go back’ – despite much evidence to the contrary. I was genuinely angry about the hypocrisy of those who (rightly) complained about lost opportunity, increased inequalities, impact of loss of education on the poorest and did absolutely nothing to help get the system back up and running. More problems here with centralised decision-making and politicised local education authorities. The academy trusts seemed to have responded better.
Policy prescription: increase the level of local decision-making at academy and local school levels
Moral perspective: again, locality and the big picture of the central importance of education not least in reducing poverty and inequalities
Readers may not agree with any of what I have suggested!
What I am really trying to do is say, let’s try to be objective about the challenges and trade-offs, and let’s debate and reflect on how we might respond going forward. We have moral responsibilities in economics about the management of spending and debt, in the relationship of centralised bureaucracies to localised decision-making and in seeking family and indeed local solutions wherever possible. I am sure that is not the end of the story, but at least let’s have the discussion.
Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.