Page last updated at 19:21 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Online political animals pick viewers' prime cuts

Andrew Haldenby and Sunder Katwala in the Politics Pen

Andrew Haldenby is the director of the independent, charitable, think tank Reform and Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society, the left-of-centre think tank and political society.

Together they are Newsnight's online political animals, whose job it is to analyse the public spending saving suggestions sent in by our viewers. Here they name their top five ideas from the hundreds of e-mails we received.


  • Dave Kirkbride from Chippenham, Jamie MacLellan from Dursley and Bill Mew of Tunbridge Wells all proposed reducing public sector pensions as a means of saving money.

Andrew says: "Every serious commentator recognises that defined benefit public sector contributions are unaffordable. The only question now is how to reduce their costs."

  • Mr Taylor from East Lancashire, Wayne Porter from Derby, and Dr Richard Godwin-Austin from Southwell all suggested compulsory complete or top-up health insurance as a means of saving government money.

Andrew says: "Health insurance will save money compared to the NHS because they have a direct incentive to make their customers (ie all of us) healthier. One health insurer can now reduce the cost of your premiums if you buy healthy foods."

  • Guy Woods from Sutton and Peter Hebard said that making civil servants accountable would save money.

Andrew says: "At the moment the decisions of civil servants are invisible to the public. Opening up Whitehall would change their culture of big spending and short-termism."

  • While Colin Turner in Norwich and R Ewen from Birmingham proposed means tested benefits.

Andrew says: "According to Reform research, £31bn in benefits is spent on benefits claimed by middle and high income people. The middle classes are being bribed with their own money."

  • Dr Vic Barker called for restrictions on the wearing of high heels. He says the wearing of high heels cause 90% of back problems, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis and play major roles in circulation, obesity, eyesight, sexual dysfunction, maternity and ageing. Dr Barker suggests that to prevent and treat such conditions people should wear completely flat shoes.

Andrew says: "Vic Barker has written very well received books about improving posture to improve health. These kinds of ideas will save big money in the long term."

  • Anton Shelupanov from London says hyper incarceration is the biggest threat to future society and that re-offending by ex-offenders is costly and wasteful. He calls for a radical revision of prison sentencing, easing prison overcrowding by reducing the use of remand, and further investment.

Sunder says: "This is a good argument. Building mega-prisons is not a good way to spend money if we want to reduce crime and reoffending. The key here is winning public support that non-prison approaches are not a 'soft option' - and showing how strong the evidence is that prisons can't do important work with those who need to be there because of over-crowding and the excessive use of short sentences is very strong."

  • Kaye Stearman from London proposed abolishing subsidies for arms exports, which she says make up around one third of weapons and components manufactured in the UK. Ms Stearman believes such subsidies are not justifiable on either financial or ethical grounds.

Sunder says: "There is a good opportunity to cut spending that should be hard to defend anyway, even if there are debates about how much would be saved. A common argument for defence subsidies is jobs - but these arguments have been rejected in most other sectors. Subsidies for technology and R&D would be much better applied to green technologies. And the argument about national defence is not convincing, as there is also evidence that the subsidies."

  • Juan Cano from London and Michael Plant from Basildon both suggested capping the salary of all public sector workers to that of the prime minister.

Sunder says: "I would favour a slightly amended version of this idea, with some limited exceptions for a small number of specialist roles approved by parliamentary scrutiny, for example to run the financial regulatory bodies. I don't think there would be any practical difficulty of finding strong candidates while having a £200,000 ceiling as a 'norm' for public sector roles. For example, I think those who apply to run the BBC on much larger salaries would remain rather keen on the opportunity to do so."

  • Christine Coates from London suggested stripping all honours and titles from all non- UK resident and non-UK tax payers. Christine believes this might shame and encourage these "pillars of society" to pay their fair share of taxes on income and wealth generated in the UK and that such a move might engender an appetite to tackle some of the "murkier tax avoidance and evasion schemes".

Sunder says: "The amount this might raise would depend on the vanity of those concerned. But it is a cost-free measure, and the right thing to do anyway, certainly for eligibility for all new honours, though the proposer would also apply it retrospectively."

  • While Richard Wilson from Merseyside proposed legalising and taxing cannabis. Richard reckons that the British government could gain £6bn per year from taxation alone and that it could help the economy, farmers, and people more widely.

Sunder says: "This would be highly controversial and quite unlikely. The economic arguments would only be part of a broader debate. I don't have a strong view about the pros and cons of legalising cannabis, but a cost-benefit analysis of what legalising and taxing it might involve would bring something new to the public debate. Some of the income would need to support health and educational activities, but the proposal would also help to free up police resources for higher priority activities."

Watch Newsnight's Politics Pen on Wednesday 4 November 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

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