Last Wednesday’s Budget was more of the same. In spite of failing every economic test they have set themselves, the Government have just carried on regardless. I want to recap their economic journey and absolute failure over the past three years.
After signs of a recovery at the end of 2010, the economy has been flatlining and we will be lucky if we escape a triple-dip recession. Growth has been downgraded at every turn. Amazingly, just over three months since the autumn statement, the Government have had to halve their growth forecast for this year to 0.6%. Borrowing is up £250 billion since 2010 and the deficit will not be eradicated by 2015 as promised. In spite of the Government telling us how important austerity was to economic confidence and low interest rates, they have lost the confidence of Moody’s credit rating agency, which downgraded our triple A status, and we have been put on notice by two other agencies.
The Government have tried, as has happened again this afternoon, to blame everybody except themselves. They told us that austerity was the only way, only to receive a very embarrassing rebuke from the chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility, who said that public spending cuts wiped 1.4% from growth last year. We only have to look at how we are doing on growth compared with the other G20 nations. We are 18th out of 20. What the Government have been saying is absolute rubbish.
I could go on. Inflation, whether using the consumer prices index or the retail prices index, is well above the Bank of England’s 2% target. The Government have tried to say that we have more employment than ever before, but the rate of employment is lower than in 2008. One in 10 people is underemployed. Whatever indicator we go by, the Chancellor and the coalition Government are clearly failing. The public are starting to see that as well, with earnings falling by 2% a year in real terms. A recent poll showed that four out of five people feel that austerity is not working.
The Government are carrying on regardless. Is that really just down to economic incompetence? In the words of the Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang,
“the coalition government isn’t as stupid or stubborn as it appears. It is sticking to its plan A because spending cuts are not about deficits but about rolling back the welfare state.”
If we look at this Budget, as with the other Budgets and autumn statements, we can see exactly what is happening.
The IFS analysis of the Budget shows that the Chancellor is funding some of his give-aways with underspends from across Whitehall Departments, including £2.2 billion of NHS savings. However, the IFS and others have shown that even with an increase in revenue from national insurance contributions, from 2015 we will need to make further public spending cuts or increase taxes to meet a £9 billion shortfall.
The housing measures are too little, too late. They reflect the Chancellor’s inability to sort out lending for mortgages, as well as for small businesses. Many people, including property developers, will welcome the measures, but I wonder what the impact will be on demand and on house prices at a time when earnings are still constrained. They have the potential to take us back to the financial conditions of 2008.
Most alarmingly, the Budget completely fails the anti-poverty test. The IFS, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Resolution Foundation, the New Economics Foundation and others have concluded that the poorer people are, the worse off they will be following the Budget. Raising the personal allowance does little for the million lowest-paid workers, many of whom do not pay tax in any case. Some 682,000 working families who receive child tax credit earn less than £6,420. If next week’s welfare cuts are also taken into account, the lowest-earning taxpayers will receive an income boost of just 32p a week. Of course, that does not take into account the impact of the 20% VAT hike, the 26% rise in food prices or the 20% rise in energy prices.
The Chancellor’s distributional analysis shows that the cumulative impact of the tax, tax credit and benefit measures means a net reduction in income for the poorest 40% of households in the country. Although there is strong evidence that increasing the spending power of the poorest families is a way to boost the economy, the Government have failed to do that. This is about the Government’s choices and they have clearly failed.