Priority Boarding for Public Services
Could Ryanair point the way to the future of Britain's public services?
Just as you pay extra for priority boarding or to check in bags, you could pay more for your own hospital room instead of an open ward, a premium rate to use your local swimming pool when it's less crowded, or for a better quality university degree course?
Not controversial enough? Well, how about a tenner for a visit to your GP?
A premium rate to skip hospital waiting queues on non-emergency operations?
Or fees to get a place at a council school with smaller class sizes and better exam results?
Don't expect them to feature in any of the imminent party manifesto launches.
But the idea of more charging for use of public services is being seen (by some who don't have to appeal for votes, of course) as one of the approaches to the gigantic challenge facing Britain's public finances.
Specifically, the idea is being highlighted by the public sector team at consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In analysis published today, they argue that if Britain were to raise the level of non-tax revenue from around 4% of GDP to nearly 6% - in line with Australia, Canada, Japan and the US - it could close half its huge fiscal gap.
But then, these countries have a lower tax take.
The European way currently brackets Britain closer to France, Germany and Italy, with higher tax revenue and lower user charges as a share of GDP.
There could be benefits besides increased revenue: it would reduce demand and cost, it could change behaviour (fewer missed medical appointments and reduced car use) and it could enable greater choice to citizen consumers over service levels.
PwC only suggests where increased charges might fall in four broad categories;
In health: prescription charges and dental care.
In education: fees for university tuition and adult skills.
In transport: congestion charging, with road and bridge tolls.
In local authorities: more for parking and leisure.
You'll note that the first three of those present something of a problem for the Scottish government, in that its first two years in office have seen moves in the opposite direction.
Tolls have been removed from bridges and university endowment fees have gone.
And today saw another tranche fall off prescription charges.
SNP ministers have chosen to make such services free for all, while removing means-testing.
But in conceding very tough times ahead, they're going to have to decide where cuts should fall, or taxes and charges should increase.
And without much tax-varying potential, charges may prove a relatively attractive option.
More means-testing could become the least of several evils.
And it's at the heart of a debate opened up last week by the Scottish government and engaged today by the UK government, as Labour set out plans for funding long-term care for the elderly.
When we talk about care being free for such care in Scotland, of course user charges are already there for the so-called 'hotel costs' of an elderly person renting a room and paying for food.
Nothing off limits
It's worth noting the contribution to the public spending debate from Crawford Beveridge, former Scottish Enterprise chief executive, now California-based business executive and leader of the task force asked by finance secretary John Swinney to "consider the implications" of forecasts of public spending reductions in Scotland.
It's also worth noting those terms of reference.
"Considering the implications" doesn't mean coming up with a programme of cuts.
But it does let Beveridge's team prepare the ground for the Scottish government to introduce some unpalatable measures, and perhaps a U-turn or two.
In an interview for Newsnight Scotland, Crawford Beveridge agreed with independent calculations that Scotland will have to find more than £3bn in real terms cuts over the next three years, saying that's the same order of cuts reckoned by the Scottish government's chief economic adviser.
That's roughly a 10th of all spending.
And he stressed nothing is off limits.
He made it clear that he's already looked at the possibility of selling off Scottish Water, and found one significant problem would be that the proceeds would go to the Treasury rather than St Andrew's House.
Here are two quotes from the interview that give a clear view of his direction of travel:
"We've been given a remit that we should not exclude anything. Local authorities, the NHS and civil service have done a very good job and exceeded the efficiency savings they've been asked to make over the past couple of years.
"Now we're down to not being able to meet these cuts through efficiency savings alone.
"And so we're going to start making some hard choices. It's not our job to make those choices, but to lay out what they might be and then allow parliament to consider what the choices may be."
What's his view of taking the same cut out of every departmental budget?
"My personal view is that salami slicing is a very difficult way to go because it usually means that you're asking people to do a lot more with a lot less resources," says Beveridge.
"When we do this in industry, we try and set priorities and say 'these are the things it's essential we protect and these are the things we need to take some cuts in'."
The same view of efficiency measures is taken by PwC: "The lesson from history is that a focus on efficiency is rarely enough to turn around major fiscal deficits - governments must transform their approach and seek radically new ways of doing things".
Along with user charges, it suggests there should be extension of a health service pricing mechanism to other services.
That means some procedures have a tariff set, for which rival hospitals have an incentive to compete.
Could that apply to schools? To social care?
We'll have to wait until June to see if Crawford Beveridge is putting a strong emphasis on user charges.
As a clue, in his Newsnight Scotland interview, he pointed out some better off pensioners could afford to pay their bus fares.
- Out of the silo
- In the business of government, one of the challenges is how to get ministers to think beyond their departments and give up budgets for lower priority programmes?
- PwC's report includes two novel ideas, at least for Westminster and Whitehall.
- One is to get them to agree to the scale of departmental cuts before allocating departmental portfolios. It's not clear how you could do that without having leaderless departments for a prolonged period.
- But Scandinavian governments has already shown how you can take ministers out of their departmental, or so-called silo, mindsets by taking them out of their departments - putting them all together in one office block.
- Indeed, isn't that what the Scottish Government already does? So already, maybe it's half way to solving its problem.