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Social care is a constitutional row waiting to happen

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Wales's First Minister Mark Drakeford. Credit: Getty

September 7, 2021 - 10:17am

The Government’s proposals to hike National Insurance in order to fund increased social care spending are already facing a backlash from several quarters.

It’s a breach of a manifesto commitment. It’s a tax on working-age people to protect the inheritances of asset-rich older people. And so on. But the Prime Minister might be sailing straight towards another constitutional row too.

Why? Because he is proposing to raise NI, a reserved tax paid across the United Kingdom, to fund social care spending in England.

On a technical level, this is perfectly defensible. The two things aren’t formally linked. The Government is simply raising a tax that is within its purview, and at the same time increasing spending on an area under its control. The devolved administrations will get their Barnett consequentials in the usual way.

But rhetorically, it is quite clear what the increase is for, and the potential upshot is voters in Scotland and Wales paying more tax for reasons not directly connected to their own public services.

This isn’t the first time the Treasury, one of the last truly powerful and truly British departments, has found itself in this position.

During the pandemic, there was and remains obvious tension between the devolved governments having control over lockdown, but the British Government retaining control over furlough and the other economic interventions that make lockdown possible.

Once again, that’s right and proper — the “whatever it takes” economic response to Covid-19 was a prime example of the power of the British State, and of course the British Government should oversee the disbursement of British cash. But the tension was there.

Likewise, do not be surprised if the SNP and Welsh Labour try to weaponise this ‘Tory tax hike’.

Eventually however, beyond the rhetoric, they will run into a problem. The usual devocrat response to any real or confected crisis is to try and leverage it into ‘more powers’.

But if you go too far down the road of devolved taxation it gets increasingly difficult to justify the pooling of resources around the UK. A world in which England starts mostly paying specifically English taxes is one in which the amount of ‘British’ money available to redistribute shrinks dramatically.

And if they like precious little else about Britain, both Nicola Sturgeon’s big-N Nationalists and Mark Drakeford’s small-n nationalists like fiscal transfers very much.

Perhaps it will be enough simply to shout about how many extra millions ‘for Scotland’ and ‘for Wales’ will result from the increase. Or maybe Sajid Javid can find some pan-UK social care policies to implement under the UK Internal Market Act, making it look less like an English affair.

Nonetheless, Boris Johnson should be wary of gifting his opponents in Edinburgh and Cardiff any opportunity to portray the country as being ordered to the benefit of wealthy English homeowners. If nothing else, it won’t help the electoral fortunes of his party in Scotland and Wales.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.


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George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago

If Boris farts in London, Sturgeon will complain about the smell in Edinburgh. She’s a grievance monger shes going to complain whatever the Tories do

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
2 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

I’m retired. I have adequate enough pension income, thank you. And I think that using National Insurance to preserve my house for passing on intact to my heirs is just plain wrong. Oh, and I live in England, and think that Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford are entirely right in their concerns.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I am very anti NHS as I believe they are a Social Engineering Organization who do some health care on the side to justify their money – but I have and enough anti-NHS rants here to repeat myself yet again.

Same with elder care in UK. I had to take my ancient parents to live with me in USA because how terrible the in home care is structured in under the NHS. I cared for my father in my house in USA with almost no paid care, we did it ourselves, till he died, and will do the same for my mother, so are that sort – and the NHS do not like people who care for their own was my experience. The NHS Forced us to have 4 in-home visits of poor quality carers, each visit 2 people! And we to pay for it! (My sister and I took turns living in London to care for my father when he was debilitated) The care people did nothing as we did all the care really – but they were a very great expense…and it was offensive to be Made to pay them.

I do not get the socialist system in UK for elder care, it has a lot of bugs in the works, and as another poster said – it gets weirder when this maximum is set to protect the estate being passed down.

One also wonders how much Princess Flotus has to do with all this…. I wonder when I will ever get back to London to see my old city – refusing the vax and all – and what will be left of it when I do….

Nick Wright
Nick Wright
2 years ago

I’d like UnHerd/Post to run an article pointing out that the social care spending is expected to account for less than a sixth of the NI increase. In other words, a 0.2% rise was required to fund the programme. Or in other words, everyone seems to have been duped. Except maybe Sturgeon won’t be and if she speaks out, for the first time in my life I will support her.