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On politics: The numbers game

7 March, 2018

On politics: The numbers game

You may remember the moment during last year’s general election campaign when the prime minister, challenged over NHS pay, told us that ‘there is no magic money tree’.

We have heard that line many times from the mouths of ministers responding to questions from journalists or members of the public. It is a convenient way for them to sidestep discussing the virtue of spending the money – they want to recruit more midwives or pay NHS staff better, they will say, but, alas, ‘there is no magic money tree’.

The problem is that it is not true. There are plenty of magic money trees. Let me give you just one example: personalised car number plates. You know the things. They are those number plates that people buy for their cars that bear a resemblance to, say, their name.

There is an entire DVLA website dedicated to selling them. On it, I see that I could, for instance, splash out £1599 on ST66 ART, because it is sort of like my name, Stuart. Alternatively, I could shell out £999 for BO17 NAR, as my surname is Bonar. You get the idea.

You’d be surprised how much money these sales generate. In the last financial year, for example, the Government raked in more than £110 million for the public purse from the sale of personalised number plates. That doesn’t include the VAT on them, so the true figure will be even higher. That figure, by the way, is from the government itself, so it is official. In total, these sales have raised over half a billion pounds in public money since 2010.

That figure of £110m, if spent on NHS staffing, could have paid for 2330 full-time midwives. And it would cover not just their salaries but the employers’ national insurance and pension contributions too. Once again, we are using the government’s own estimate of the average cost of employing a midwife, so they cannot quibble with that calculation.

The most recent national midwifery shortage estimate the RCM has produced suggests that we are short of the equivalent of around 3500 full-time midwives. If we crunch all these numbers therefore, the money generated just from the sale of personalised number plates could pay for two-thirds of the extra midwives we need. They just need to give that magic money tree a good shake.

This gives you a little insight into my working day as the RCM public affairs advisor. Unearthing the facts in this article was the product of something I do every morning. I go through two long documents, one from the House of Commons and one from the Lords, listing all the hundreds of parliamentary questions asked by MPs and peers, and their ministerial answers. I make a beeline for those about midwives, support workers or maternity services, of course, but one can pick up really useful titbits too, such as how much the government makes from selling these number plates.

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