Nick Clegg has laid out plans to provide an extra £8bn of spending on the NHS if the Liberal Democrats enter government after the election, in an attempt to trump the promises made by Labour and the Conservatives.
Fleshing out the figure released by the deputy prime minister at a press conference, the Lib Dems said they would increase the NHS’s funding by £8bn a year by 2020-21 in three stages. They would make permanent the coalition government’s extra £2bn a year – which was announced in the autumn statement – by 2015-16.
In addition, Clegg said the party would find another £1bn a year in real terms in 2016-17 by capping pension tax relief for the wealthiest (which the Lib Dems said would save £500m), aligning dividend tax with income tax for those earning more than £150,000 (saving £400m) and scrapping the shares for rights scheme, which allows employees to forfeit certain employment rights in return for company shares (saving £100m).
Once it had reduced the deficit in 2017-18, Clegg said that the party would increase health spending in line with growth in the economy. He said: “It’s a combination of change plus more money and the reason we can do that, and no other party will be able to do that, is firstly, as we explained at our party conference, is we are going to introduce some tax changes which only affect the very wealthiest, to put in an extra billion pounds into the NHS, and next year and the year after that.”
The commitment came after the head of the NHS, Simon Stevens, said the government would face a public backlash if the NHS did not get billions of pounds a year in extra funding.
Stevens said he hoped for more annual funding than the £2bn injection promised by the chancellor, George Osborne, and the £2.5bn promised by Labour, which would be paid for by a levy on cigarette companies.
Stevens’ report, released in October, outlined an £8bn-a-year funding gap between what the NHS gets and what it needs to deal with increasing demand because of population growth and people living longer.
Clegg said: “The big difference between ourselves and Labour and the Conservatives is that we have said that once we have dealt with the structural deficit, once we have dealt with it in 2017-18, we will link the amount of money going into public services – including the NHS – to the growth of the economy.
“The Conservatives have not done that at all – they actually want to see the proportion of money going into public services remorselessly decline as a proportion of our national wealth for ideological reasons.
“Labour will still be paying off much, much more interest on our accumulated debts because they haven’t committed to the timetable by which we would deal with the deficit. Money, which instead could be spent on hospitals. So we are the only party that, by managing things responsibly and in a balanced way … can meet the Simon Stevens challenge and meet it in full.”
The future of the NHS is a key battleground in the upcoming election, with Labour launching a 27-page dossier on Sunday, claiming the NHS cannot survive another five years of the Conservatives.
The Lib Dems also said they would commission a non-partisan fundamental review of NHS and social care finances in 2015 to assess the pressures on NHS budgets and the scope for efficiencies.
The party also said it would focus any additional funding in two key areas – ending the discrimination against mental health and preventing ill health by bringing social care and the NHS together.
Clegg positioned his party firmly in the centre ground during the press conference on Monday, saying the Lib Dems would spend less than Labour and cut less than the Conservatives.
He said a coalition government had been good for the country and his party would be a moderating force on the two major parties, who he said were “reverting to type” at either end of the political spectrum. He said the Lib Dems could provide “spine” to a Labour government and “heart” to a Tory government.
Although Clegg did not rule out entering a coalition with Ukip, he said he couldn’t see “a meeting place” between the two parties and that Nigel Farage represented everything he opposed.
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