My Lords, the numbers that matter most today are clearly not those that we might normally focus on in a debate on the economy—not numbers relating to growth, inflation or productivity, but instead the numbers of people who, in the UK and around the world, have been diagnosed with the coronavirus or have died from this pandemic. Alongside this tragic human cost and health crisis, there is now a growing economic cost and financial crisis for business owners, employees, their dependants, pensioners and pension investments. Already we have seen stock markets fall and the global economic outlook deteriorate dramatically in just a week since the Budget.
The Chancellor was right yesterday to recognise this as an economic emergency. He moved swiftly in announcing a further £330 billion of government-backed loans for business, the equivalent of 15% of GDP. His statement that more support will be available is also welcome, as help is still needed for workers ineligible for sick pay and for renters. The Government must act urgently to underwrite wages in exchange for businesses not laying off staff, as has been announced in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
The required economic measures are unprecedented in their scale, yet in the Budget last week the Chancellor presented an economy already with a number of serious underlying weaknesses, raising substantial questions about its ability to sustain and support the necessary action in this crisis. The OBR’s focus was already for extraordinarily weak economic growth, averaging just 1.4% a year—well below even the 1.9% average growth in the post-financial crisis decade that we have just lived through. Even last week, the Budget forecast looked optimistic. It assumed that the economy would grow by 1.1% this year and 1.8% next year. This was in contrast to the OECD’s forecast, suggesting the UK would grow at just 0.8% in both those years. Simply replacing the OBR’s forecast for this year and next with the OECD’s forecast brings the UK’s annual growth down to an average of just 1.2%—the worst average annual growth forecast for the UK ever recorded.
As the widespread impact of this pandemic becomes clearer, there will need to be further, even sharper downward revisions to reflect the impact of lost working hours, deferred consumer and investment spending and business failures. A recession is now surely unavoidable. Capital Economics has estimated that the UK economy could contract by 15% in this quarter alone, compared with a 6% drop from the peak to the trough of the 2008 financial crisis.
The Budget also illustrated how Brexit will continue to further weaken the British economy. Although unmentioned by the Chancellor, the OBR put the cost of Brexit so far at around 2% of GDP, or £40 billion a year. Yet the Government continue to pursue the most distant possible relationship with the EU, introducing significant non-tariff barriers to trade, which the OBR now believes will reduce UK trade with the EU by 15%.
The Government have refused to publish an economic impact assessment of their proposed trade deal, but in the OBR’s forecasts we can clearly see the cost: GDP will be some 4% lower over the next 15 years. With such profound risks to the global economy from the pandemic crisis, the fiscal policy response will come at huge cost to the Exchequer while tax revenues collapse, inevitably significantly widening the fiscal deficit. Indeed, a deficit of between 6% and 10% now seems likely.
While the Government are right not to focus on the deficit now, the Chancellor and his Budget presented not a sound platform from which to respond but already rapidly deteriorating public finances. As a result of the failed economic strategy of the past 10 years, UK net debt has doubled from £1 trillion to £2 trillion. In just five years, the Government’s ambition has swung wildly from trying to shrink the state in order to run an absolute budget surplus to growing public spending to almost 41% of GDP and actively aiming to borrow more than £60 billion each year.
The Chancellor set out unfunded spending commitments growing twice as fast as the economy, and debt was already forecast to rise relative to national income. If growth turns out even worse than expected, as it now surely will, debt will begin to move decisively upwards, now clearly heading to over 100% of GDP. To paraphrase a former Chancellor, the risk is that they did not fix the roof while the sun briefly shone.
As the Government shape their immediate and longer-term response to this crisis, policy could reasonably be governed by three guiding principles: sustainability, fairness and consistency. The Chancellor made clear in the Budget that he has no attachment to the existing fiscal rules. He maintained very little headroom against the current budget balance target, despite huge economic uncertainty, and in practice jettisoned the goal of debt falling over time, so it was no surprise that he announced a review of the fiscal framework. While maximum flexibility should govern his response to the immediate crisis—providing the economy with whatever support it needs—ultimately reviewing the fiscal framework should not lead to the removal of all fiscal anchors nor the abandonment of the idea that, in the end, day-to-day public service spending should be financed from taxation rather than borrowing. Here, ensuring that the burden is borne fairly must be paramount. Looking back, the austerity of the years after 2010 hit the most vulnerable disproportionately hard. While some of the richest working-age families gained £1,000 a year, the poorest lost £3,000 a year—15% of their income.
In this Budget, despite the Government signalling that austerity is over, the signs are not encouraging that their distributional approach will be significantly different. As a result of the tax and benefit changes announced in this Budget, the poorest decile is worse off in cash terms, while the eighth and ninth-richest deciles are the biggest winners, gaining over £100 a year. Despite significant increases in spending, the Budget did nothing to off-set the welfare cuts put in place by George Osborne in 2015, so child poverty is now set to reach record highs.
Finally, the Government’s response to coronavirus requires an unparalleled consistency of purpose. It is inconceivable that the Government have the time or capacity to respond adequately while also seeking to renegotiate the UK’s entire economic relationship with our closest trading partner. Reports that the negotiation period may now be extended are therefore welcome. This is an argument not about Brexit but about the pandemic crisis. Unless the Government are able to devote their entire attention to what is happening now, they will fail to produce an adequate response.
This does not feel like an economy in a robust position, capable of coping with the profound shocks it is now experiencing. The Chancellor’s forecasts will clearly need to be downgraded further, and he will need to reassess much more of his fiscal strategy than appeared to be the case just one week ago.