This seems a suitable occasion on which to set out short proposals which the next government should consider.
Subsidiarity A great many things are being done by the UK government which ought to be done by counties and boroughs. Local authorities should be given greater power to decide questions (e.g., licensing hours and speed limits) which are primarily of concern to local residents.
Public services The principal public services (health, education, law and order) can all make strong cases for additional expenditure in special areas. However none of them have developed adequate criteria for evaluating their effectiveness. It would therefore be wrong to make large changes in the short term (not least, because many recent changes have not yet been fully worked through). Each minister responsible for one of these services should take, as their first duty following the election, the re-examination of ways of determining which interventions are worth while.
Transport Mobility, both of people and goods, has been one of the driving forces of the economy more or less since there have been people. It has now reached the point where there are substantial social costs, in alienation as well as pollution. For this reason subsidies of all kinds should be phased out, and town planning should be based on minimising the demand for travel. In particular, the scandalously generous treatment of air travel, in which fuel is virtually tax-free and airports can use duty-free sales as a subsidy, should be replaced by something closer to the treatment of motor vehicles.
Drugs Most of the popular drugs (in particular, cannabis, cocaine and heroin) should be legalized, regulated and taxed.
The environment As a first approximation, one does least harm by spending least money; the first concern of government should be not to make things worse. I do not think that the evidence on climate change is yet strong enough to justify any energetic action, but it certainly merits substantial research effort. In particular, we should make sure that if it were to become clear that we must move to wind, or tidal, or nuclear power on a large scale, we should know how to do it.
Income tax Income tax and National Insurance should be joined into a single progressive tax. Possible stages would be
0% on income less than £4000 p.a.
10% on income from £4000 to £8000
20% on income from £8000 to £16000
30% on income from £16000 to £32000
40% on income from £32000 to £64000
50% on income over £64000.
For those wishing to save, there should be a system of tax-deferred savings, so that money set aside would attract tax not when it was earned but when it was withdrawn for spending. It should be made possible for these savings to be invested in a wide range of vehicles, corresponding more or less to those currently permitted to trustees of charities, all income from such savings being tax-free so long as it remains in the deferred-tax trust. There should be no limit on the amount of money which can be set aside in this way.
Council tax Council tax should be replaced by a property tax, paid by owners rather than occupiers and assessed on the current market value of fixed property. Each local authority should determine its own tax rate, capped in such a way that no property is taxed at more than 2%.
VAT It might be right to reduce the level of VAT from its present 17.5%, while extending its scope by reducing or eliminating exemptions, e.g., on food.
Pensions The national government has two duties concerning provision for people's retirement: (i) to give a state pension (ii) to offer effective opportunities for saving (cf. "income tax" above). Otherwise, pension schemes should be permitted but not encouraged; as a rule they are pyramid schemes, give unfair privileges to those who stick in single jobs or occupations for their working lives, and give employers too much power over workers. In particular, public service pension schemes should be wound up, and those currently contributing to them compensated appropriately. Instead, individuals should be encouraged to think about their own futures and take action (or not) as they feel appropriate.
The state pension should be taxable but otherwise not means-tested, and should rise with age. The link with National Insurance contributions should be abolished.
Targeted benefits should in most cases be abolished. Three exceptions are child benefit, disability allowance (for which it would probably be worth interviewing beneficiaries) and job-seekers allowance (for which it would certainly be right to require beneficiaries to show themselves fairly often). All benefits should be taxable.
Identity cards Identity cards are an expensive nuisance, and seem to be irrelevant to most of the problems we face. However a much stricter approach to identity would be worth while. One possibility would be a tightening of the National Insurance number system, so that at every point where it matters who you are (passport, driving licence, admission to school or university or public examination, bank account, credit agreement, registration with doctor, admission to hospital, arrest, court appearance -- whether as witness or juror or defendant, etc) your NI number was routinely presented and, when appropriate, checked against a central database.
Immigration We have a duty to accept at least as many immigrants as we export emigrants; a necessary first step must be to devise suitable methods for estimating the numbers leaving the country. After this, we have a duty to do our share for those fleeing persecution; for very few of these is the UK their "first safe haven", and in nearly all cases we can reasonably insist on an advance application being made (which will involve withdrawing from the 1951 Geneva Convention). This will leave substantial room for immigrants seeking to work or join relatives, for whom a points system (as in Australia or Canada) would be appropriate.
Europe We should do all we can to strengthen the democratic institutions of Europe and to transfer the powers of the Council of Ministers to directly elected bodies. The constitution which is currently under discussion is quite unsuitable (it is far too long, for a start) and should probably be rejected. In certain areas (e.g., immigration) it might be appropriate to strengthen the authority of the European Union. In others (e.g., the Common Agricultural Policy) the activities of the Union should be sharply curtailed. The government of the UK should endeavour to persuade the people of the UK to join the eurozone as soon as possible.
Iraq Since we find ourselves with a degree of responsibility for security in southern Iraq, we should ask the National Assembly whether they wish us to stay. Failing an unambiguous public request to stay, we should leave at once.
Overseas aid Poor countries are mostly poor because they have bad governments. Government-to-government aid is therefore to be avoided. UN agencies are better, but suffer from having to work too closely with local authorities. A method which I seriously suggest is worth trying is direct cash gifts (£5 or E10 notes) to anyone who will stand in a queue for them (you would need a supply of adequately indelible ink to mark recipients). But the best ways of helping the poor overseas are (i) to allow them to sell things to us (ii) to allow some of them to come and work here, and find out how to get rich.
The arms trade I hope that our grandchildren will look on the arms trade as we now look on the slave trade. In the meantime, export licences for lethal weapons and their components should be granted only when the recipient governments are fully responsible democracies.
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19 April 2005