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Talking Politics Column for Courier

by jamesbaker on 23 February, 2015

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Here is a copy of the talking politics article I wrote for this week’s Courier, it’s available from all good newsagents, and you should go out and buy a copy to support your local newspaper! 

PFI debt shows Labour can’t be trusted with NHS finances

You wouldn’t pay £9.72 for a pint of milk, £10.26 for a litre of petrol or £13.68 for a loaf of bread. Yet the last Labour government paid 12 times what it cost to build Calderdale Royal Hospital. Under the ludicrous PFI deal that built the hospital we, as tax payers, are forking out £773 million for a building that cost £63 million to build.

This PFI deal was supported by the then Labour MP for Halifax, Alice Mahon MP, and was signed off by the Labour health minister Frank Dobson. The cross-party People’s Commission report commissioned by Calderdale described the £10 million a year interest repayments eye-watering, and it was right: this PFI loan truly is the ‘pay day loan’ of public finances. There is now cross-party agreement this PFI debt has impacted on decision making at our hospitals and that the money spent on interest charges would have been better spent on patient care.

Liberal Democrats campaigned against this PFI deal at the time. A campaign called Calderdale against a Smaller Hospital (CASH) led by Dr Bob Heys and the late former Councillor Stephen Pearson collected thousands of signatures from local residents. It called on Tony Blair not to go ahead with the PFI deal. Not a single Conservative or Labour Councillor signed it at the time. Stephen Pearson called the PFI deal Calderdale’s biggest scandal, and he was right.

It is therefore beyond belief that, having saddled the local hospital with “eye-watering” interest repayments, Labour have the sheer brass neck to try and blame our hospital’s financial problems on the coalition government. In leaflets being distributed across the Borough Labour are stating the coalition is to blame for the hospital’s financial problem. I don’t doubt Labour care about the NHS but so do all of those, especially those like myself who wouldn’t be here without it. As much as Labour may care about the NHS though it is clear they don’t have the economic competence to manage its finances. Their habit of borrowing has saddled our local hospital with financial problems, just as their habit of borrowing in government saddled the nation with debt.

The NHS is however in need of more resources, as our changing population is putting additional demand upon NHS resources. An aging population and increases in cases of dementia and diabetes mean the costs of providing health care are increasing. NHS bosses say the service needs an extra £8Bn over the course of the next parliament. To date it is only the Liberal Democrats who have a credible financial plan to provide this funding.

Firstly we will maintain the additional £2bn that the Liberal Democrats successfully secured in the Autumn Statement for 2015/16. In addition to this funding, as we set out at our Autumn Conference, we will invest a further £1bn in real terms in 2016/17 which we will then also maintain in future budgets. This will be paid for by capping pensions tax relief for the very wealthiest (saving £500m); aligning dividend tax with income tax for those earning over £150,000 (saving £400m); and scrapping the Conservative shares for rights scheme (saving £100m). Then once we have finished the job of tackling the deficit in 2017/18, we will increase health spending in line with growth in the economy.

Labour may have the heart for the NHS, but they don’t have the financial brain to manage its finances. It is only the Liberal Democrats who can both deliver a Stronger Economy, and a Fairer Society.

Time to get a grip on the Highways Budget

The budget for the Council’s highway’s department was given a boost last year. With so many roads across the borough in need of repair and improvement you might have expected all the money allocated to this budget would be quickly spent on improving our roads. We are not yet at the end of the financial year but current revenue reports are showing that it’s unlikely all the budget will be spent. Whoever is running the Council after the elections in May needs to get a grip of this budget and ensure officers are delivering on the Highways improvements the roads across our Borough so desperately need.

Air pollution kills ten times more than traffic accidents

I’m currently chairing a detailed scrutiny review on the Council on the relationship between our local environment and public health. The panel recently heard evidence that states ten times more people are dying prematurely due to diseases caused by air pollution than are killed in traffic accidents across the Borough. Air pollution may not be as visible as it once was but the smaller particles expelled especially by diesel engines are more dangerous than we realize. If we are to tackle this problem we need better investment in public transport and cycling infrastructure, and to start looking at measures that restrict the levels of the most polluting diesel vehicles on our roads.

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