Nick Clegg’s speech on demonising and punishing the poor and sick (in which he displayed a heroic willingness to take one for the coalition team by declaring “the Liberal Democrats are now the party of welfare reform”) brought the issue of the “something for nothing” culture back to the forefront today.
Scots, of course, are already familiar with the leader of the Holyrood opposition standing up and angrily telling the chamber how unsustainable and morally wrong it is that well-off people such as herself are entitled to universal benefits at state expense.
Yet numerous reports emphasise that universality is a solution that’s practical as well as desirable, because it’s economically efficient as well as solving the problem of people suffering because they’re unable or unwilling to claim benefits they need and ultimately costing the state far more money in remedial care.
It’s a tricky old pickle and no mistake. So entirely free of charge, we’ve had a wee think and come up with a policy that squares the circle, so that Johann Lamont can offer to solve the problem without condemning hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Scots (and Labour MSPs) to lives of unending misery.
Let’s take prescription charges, for example. Ms Lamont has regularly told the Scottish Parliament that someone like her, with a well-paid job, should be paying for her medicine. So let’s help her out a bit. All it takes is a small printing adjustment – on every doctor’s prescription pad, we add a single little tick box at the bottom. The adjacent text reads “I’ve plenty money. I’ll get this one, thanks.”
If the box is ticked, the recipient hands the pharmacist the appropriate amount – we could have a debate over whether it should be the actual cost of the medicine or, to keep things nice and simple, it could be just a standard fixed charge as before. The money generated would go directly into the health budget.
The beauty of the plan is its simplicity and flexibility. It lets rich people contribute without the unsatisfactory, bothersome and time-consuming alternative of telling them to donate to charity whenever they receive some state benefit they could afford to pay for. It accounts for those whose circumstances fluctuate, and who might be able to afford to pay one month but not the next. And obviously it protects the poor – there’s no stigma attached, as not paying would be the norm rather than the exception.
The same principle could be applied to other universal benefits. Free bus-pass applications could come with a similar tick box, or even a choice of contributions users could pick between according to how much they’d be likely to use the service, and how much of a “discount” they felt was appropriate to their personal situation. The same approach would work for tuition fees, and all the rest.
Again, payment would be purely voluntary – the purpose of the box/es is simply to provide an easy mechanism by which people could contribute if they wanted to, and to ensure the revenues could be ring-fenced to that service. Administration would be limited to counting the money and passing it on to the Scottish Government, and therefore costs would be extremely negligible, though it might still generate a small handful of civil-service jobs as a bonus.
Of course, lots of people would still take advantage of the system, just like greedy rich people currently dodge higher-rate tax at 45% the same way they dodged it at 50%. But the “honour box” system is used widely and increasingly, both on small and large scales, with notable success. By appealing to people’s better natures and defaulting to an assumption of decency rather than suspicion, you tend to generate better results than by an adversarial system which generates resentment and becomes a game of trying to get one over on a faceless, powerful “enemy”.
And here’s the thing: if receipts are good it reflects well on the wealthy, encouraging more payment (clever PR could even make it into a sort of telethon, where the nation tried to beat the previous year’s total), while if they’re poor it at least shames the people who deserve shaming, rather than the unfortunate poor. But either way it’s a no-lose system, because with costs close to zero, any revenue you take in is still extra revenue, as well as teaching you something about the state of your society.
So there you go, Johann. You can have that policy initiative for nothing. Of course, if you feel you could afford to pay for it, you’re welcome to make a voluntary contribution any time you like.