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How those party promises could cost us millions 14/04/2003

How those party promises could cost us millions
Tom Miers

Promises, promises promises. Now that we are well into the Scottish parliamentary election campaign, the ground is thick with party manifestos pledging jam tomorrow. Some are loopy. Some are outright dangerous. There is a lot of hot air. But there are also some intriguing nuggets for business and voters.

One big caveat to start with. Not one of the manifestos is properly costed. We are being promised goodies with no reliable indication of price.

This approach would disgrace any financial company trying to sell a savings product under today’s consumer-protecting regulatory regime. If they mislead, they are fined heavily. Why should political manifestos, that could cost us dearly, not be subject to the same discipline?

However, armed with several pinches of salt, how do they stack up? The First Minister Jack McConnell was unfairly teased for pledging to “Do less better”. If all politicians followed this motto, the world would be a happier place.

He’s done well to get the Scottish economy as his number one priority in the Labour manifesto. Scotland’s low growth and poor business start up rate need urgent attention.

Unfortunately, this is where the hot air comes in. Labour seems to think they can improve the economy by exhortation. Instead, they should be lowering taxes and cutting red tape. Why not take the only sensible leaf out of the Scottish Socialist book and axe Scottish Enterprise? It could be replaced by a unit which would concentrate on scrapping, simplifying, privatising or reforming all the regulations which make running a business so costly. But Scottish Enterprise isn’t mentioned once in the whole manifesto.

Encouragingly, both the Tories and the SNP want to cut business rates. There is also a great slot on the SNP web site describing the virtuous circle of lowering corporation tax.

One way to help the economy in the long term is to improve education. Labour and the Tories rightly want to devolve more power to headmasters. The Tories go a step further by saying parents should have more choice over where to send their kids. This would put competitive pressures on schools to improve.

But surely they and the SNP blunder badly by vowing to scrap the ‘graduate tax’. The tax may be imperfect. But at least it makes students pay something towards their higher education. Unlike good schooling, a degree benefits almost exclusively the student. It is morally and economically wrong to force taxpayers, many of whom left school at 16, to pay for undergraduates.

All the manifestos favour spending taxpayers’ money on transport projects. But surely if there these were economically beneficial, private companies could foot the bill? There is not nearly enough imaginative thinking on how to encourage business to invest in transport infrastructure.

Harold Macmillan once quipped that “as usual, the Liberal Party has some sensible and some original policies. Unfortunately none of the sensible ones are original, and none of the original ones are sensible!”

Sadly, this Lib Dem manifesto is not such fun. It’s dotted with freebies such as hearing aids and dental checks. No doubt they hope to squeeze them through next term so they can claim to have ‘made a difference’. A true liberal party would give voters back some cash. They could then choose how to spend it. Some might prefer something other than a free eye test. But no, these politicians know how to spend your money better than you do. And Jim Wallace, the LibDem leader has been found worryingly vague as to whether his policies would mean resort to the Tartan Tax or not.

The Macmillan quote is much better applied to the Green manifesto. On the sensible but unoriginal front they are firmly anti-Euro, and pro-congestion charging. But, like the Socialists and Lib Dems they claim that you can create jobs by taxing and regulating business. In the Greens’ case it is by making people recycle and ‘compost’ everything. There is no costing, apparently on the grounds that they do not have a computer.

The Scottish Socialist Party wants to impose a 35-hour week. The Lib Dems promise 5,000 jobs ‘by developing environmental technologies’. All will cost more jobs than they create. Again, no attempt is made to calculate how many.

It’s a shame the Greens and others can’t learn to work with the grain of human nature. Give people property rights over environmental resources and they will husband and cherish them. Iceland and New Zealand, for example, have rescued their fishing industries like this. The market and the environment should compliment, not confront each other.

Most parties seem to be learning from US ‘broken window’ theories on crime. But there is still too much emphasis on legal changes which restrict our freedoms. Instead, the real difference is made by getting policemen out of their offices and onto the streets, getting to know their own patch and being responsible for crime levels on it.

One serious omission is the lack of radical thinking on health policy. Scotland already spends well above the EU average and 30 per cent more than England on the NHS. Yet outcomes are terrible. As Tommy Sheridan’s SSP says, “Scotland's atrocious health record is an international disgrace”.

He’s got the right diagnosis - but the wrong cure. More money isn’t the answer. Nor is waffling about ‘devolution to front line services’. Instead, it’s all about patient choice and competition between providers. There are plenty of examples from around the world for capitalists and socialists alike to choose from. In Sweden, France and Germany, waiting lists and filthy hospitals are nothing but a bad dream.

Our health service is a tragic waste, not only of billions of pounds, but of lives and happiness too. Come on Tommy, look around you. You can do better than this. Trust the people and let them have some choice in the matter!

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