The Bloke was on R4 Today this morning to discuss Charles Clarke's new paper on public sector service charges.
In it, Clarke calls for an extension of charges across a wide range of public services, including health, education, and transport. He says:
"The fundamental case for increasing the role of such ‘user charges’ is to increase equity, reduce social division and increase the resources available for our key public services. Through raising the value of citizens’ contributions to public services quality will be improved, ‘personalisation’ of services assisted and better public-private co-operation established."
So for example he reiterates his support for variable university fees (which he himself introduced as Education Secretary) on the grounds that since it's the student that benefits, it's only fair the student should pay.
What do we think?
Overall, taxpayers should support user charges. Making the customer pay means that public services are no longer taken for granted, users start to appreciate their true cost, and they start to demand better and more efficient service - just like they do at Tescos.
But what taxpayers should not accept is the double-whammy, whereby we not only pay for services through tax, but we're then required to pay again through charges.
Take local authorities. Over the decade to 2007-08, Council Tax in England rose by 80%, more than four times the general rate of CPI inflation. Yet at the same time, councils increased service charges - for everything from parking to pest control - by 120%, about seven times the general inflation rate. And the revenue from charges is big - it's now equivalent to over 50% of that raised from Council Tax itself. Local residents have effectively been charged twice over.
Worse, many of these charges have crept in under the radar. There's been little public debate, or even publicity - you only find out about them when you use the service.
No wonder we can see the beginnings of a taxpayer revolt. Just over the last few months we've had the rows about hospital car parking charges, and Swindon council's decison to remove speed cameras because in truth they are no more than a revenue raising device.
So how does that square up against Clarke's paper?
It's an interesting piece, but fundamentally it calls for charges in order to increase funding for the public services:
"The demand for public services – and for improvements in the quality of those services – is growing inexorably... As citizens and users of public services, we are no longer willing to accept and be grateful for a basic level of service. Increasingly we demand the best... Yet we seem to be much less keen to pay higher taxes to fund these enhanced services. This gap between consumer demand and willingness to fund through taxation creates a dilemma which all responsible citizens, as well as all political parties, should face up to."
Thus, the paper accepts that we have reached the limits of taxation - which we clearly agree with. But it goes on to argue that we can find the extra money through charges - which is where we part company. Higher charges on top of high taxes is essentially a restatement of Colbert's famous dictum about finding new and cunning ways to pluck the goose.
Over the last decade, public spending has increased by 40% in real terms. That's a shedload of money, which as BOM readers will know has largely been frittered away on half-baked projects, mad pay deals, and bureaucracy.
The real issue for taxpayers now is not how we can find more ways of pouring in even more money - the issue is how can we find ways of making public service more efficient? Charges could play a valuable role, but not if they're driven by a desire to raise yet more revenue.
PS Another interesting experience at the BBC studios. This time it was Millbank, where they do all their Parliament stuff from. It's much bigger than the Guildford studio - like, MUCH bigger. Although once again, there was hardly anyone around, with rows of empty desks (although I guess it was before 8am). Charles Clarke turns out to be incredibly charming, twinkly eyes, and much more engaging than he's ever seemed on the telly. Which is just as well, given that we were alone in the intimacy of a small windowless soundproof booth, listening to Mr Naughty over the headphones (sorry, "cans"). And I was a bit happier with my performance this time - I knew Naughtie would want to use a chunk of the interview to invite Clarke to lay into Gordo, so when I got my one and only question, I just kept talking, despite various sighs coming over those cans. Interesting. Afterwards, and unsurprisingly, Clarke told me he's not a fan of the TaxPayers' Alliance, although he does recognise we've done a fantastic "PR" job at increasing media focus on tax and inefficiencies in public spending. His main gripe is that we go after "the wrong targets", and he specifically mentioned our campaigns against top public sector pay (the Rich List - cf the Doc's robust views). Which underlines how it's hit home.