Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland text tax proposal

A 1p tax on all text messages sent in Northern Ireland could generate £23 million a year for public services, a leading economics academic said today.

Outlining to MLAs a series of measures that could help offset the looming spending cuts, Professor Mike Smyth said charging public sector workers £5 a week for parking could raise between £10 and £15 million a year.

Also arguing that the executive should reconsider its refusal to introduce water charges, the University of Ulster expert told the Finance and Personnel committee that the Assembly had to embrace new ways of sourcing funds to weather the current storm.

"One part of the challenge to this house is to examine new forms of revenue raising and alternative ways of leveraging our public assets," he said.

"Another part of the challenge is to cause the executive and assembly to ask fundamental questions about the ways in which we deliver public services and to get more value for the money we now have less of.

"And if we don't do the latter then I think we are implicitly arguing that we believe that public service delivery is optimal and if you ask anybody, even people working in the public sector, they'll tell you that's far from the truth.

"So government, I think, must constantly ask itself should we be doing this or should we be delivering that - we haven't done that before. I think that process has to become part and parcel of our daily thinking."

In regard to the text message tariff, the professor said it would raise substantial funds without having major consequences for the public.

"You can't tell me that's going to greatly impact the most disadvantaged," he told committee members.

"Those of you who have children and you pay for their mobile phone, it will come out your pocket but you won't notice it."

He claimed there was no good reason not to introduce such a levy.

"Where are philosophical or commercial objections to that - I haven't heard any?"

Other proposals Prof Smyth outlined included:

  • raising MOT charges to around £60
  • unfreezing rates bills
  • ditching free prescriptions
  • introduction of certain healthcare charges, such as a fee for a GP visit
  • encourage local councils to borrow money from investment banks to help fund projects
  • change the status of the Housing Executive to enable it to also access the financial markets and borrow against its sizeable assets
  • rethink decision to scrap Workplace2010 initiative to upgrade public sector accommodation.

Mr Smyth told members the measures could help absorb the reduction to the block grant.

"My suggestions to you today would in totality greatly reduce the proposed impact of the proposed spending reductions on the delivery of front line services here in Northern Ireland," he said.

"But they make no judgment, no judgments whatsoever - whether they are value or political - about their impact on the electorate - I certainly leave that to you."

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