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Will the Chancellor's new budget help us to beat cancer?

Will the Chancellor's new budget help or hinder the fight against cancer?

Whatever your political leanings, it is impossible to envy Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The UK is suffering the most serious economic downturn since the Second World War, and this year’s Budget was inevitably going to be tough.

But what does it mean for Cancer Research UK and our partners, as we work together to beat cancer in increasingly difficult financial circumstances?

What it means for scientific research
In his 2009 Budget report, the Chancellor identified the UK’s scientific research as one of the country’s strengths, and over the past 10 years, investment in Britain’s science base has grown by 88%. Darling announced a £750 million Strategic Investment Fund to support advanced industrial projects, including £50 million set aside to support exciting new science in important growth areas. These include life sciences (and, by implication, cancer research).

But overall, many felt that this year’s Budget didn’t highlight the important role of the charity sector in funding vital medical research in the UK.  Simon Denegri, Chief Executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities said “For medical research charities this Budget represents a missed opportunity for the Government to signal its support for them as key funders of biomedical and clinical research in the UK.  The £900 million charities spent on research last year is by no means secure given the tough economic environment.

“Ongoing sustainability of charity funding, which supports the UK’s position as a world-leader in medical research, could have been easily and greatly assisted through a range of interventions – including a long-term commitment to the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF), changes to Gift Aid and the tax environment.”

What it means for cancer prevention

The Chancellor used this year’s Budget as an opportunity to increase taxes on tobacco an alcohol – two of the major preventable causes of cancer in the UK. Although these measures always cause public grumbles, it’s important to remember that pricing – particularly for tobacco – is an effective way to help people quit smoking.  And although the tax increase on tobacco is above inflation, tobacco smuggling remains a significant source of cheap smokes in the UK, undermining the effects of pricing.

As noted by Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s Director of Tobacco control, “Keeping the price of tobacco high is one of the most effective ways of helping people cut down or quit smoking. In the absence of a significant increase in tax in this Budget, we urge the government to ensure that the supply of cheap, illegal tobacco and cigarettes is cut as quickly as possible. We know that reducing tobacco smuggling will save thousands of lives over time.”

To this end, it’s encouraging to see that this week the Government signed anti-smuggling agreements with two international tobacco manufacturers.   This comes hot on the heels of “Tackling Tobacco Smuggling Together” a joint strategy by HM Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Agency to cut tobacco smuggling.

What it means for cancer patients
The Chancellor also highlighted proposed improvements for cancer care within the NHS, aiming to meet its ambitious target of a 20% cut in cancer death rates in patients under 75 by the year 2010.  We’ve written elsewhere about the costs of cancer care, and the challenges involved.   This year’s Budget proposals include a rise in spending allocated to Primary Care Trusts, subsidised by cuts elsewhere.

For example, currently over a quarter of the total spend on cancer care in this country goes on ‘in-patient costs’ – people staying in hospital – and we have proportionally more in-patient cancer cases than many other countries, including the USA. The Chancellor believes that £500 million can be saved by reducing the average length of hospital stays. And a further £550 million can be saved by the new Pharmaceutical Price Regulation scheme, which we blogged about back in January.

What it means for Cancer Research UK and our supporters
The biggest headlines this week have come from the proposed 50% tax rate and a future restriction on pensions tax relief for people earning more than £150,000.  In the current financial climate, this could mean that people in this bracket feel they have less money to donate to charities, including Cancer Research UK. However, it also means that, for this group, the tax relief on Gift Aided donations (see below) would be worth more.

The Government is also continuing to explore ways to improve Gift Aid – the tax relief on money donated to UK charities, which the charities can then claim from the ‘Tax Man’. This is a significant source of income for Cancer Research UK – last year we were able to claim back over £25 million in Gift Aid – so watch this space.

It’s important to remember that supporting a charity like Cancer Research UK isn’t all about donating cash – we also rely on donations of time from tens of thousands of volunteers.   In the Budget, the Chancellor highlighted the Government’s commitment to promoting volunteering, focusing heavily on improving the skills of unemployed people, with the aim of getting them into work or training.  So hopefully we will see a growing stream of willing hands, helping out at fundraising events, in our shops, as interns and so on.

Kat

With thanks to Laura McCann, Cancer Research UK Public Affairs Officer

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