I was talking about how legislative solutions are applied, what is already in place and the charter for budget responsibility. My point was that in non-financial areas of Government activity, we are happy to bind ourselves to long-term targets, because there is the political will. The most obvious instance in recent years was the Climate Change Act 2008, which created an explicit legal requirement for future Governments to reduce greenhouse gases by 80%. If a political consensus can be built for protecting the country against such a danger to our children, why cannot the same be done to prevent economic problems for future decades?
That is where a balanced budget rule could really make a difference, with a legislative requirement to balance our budget over a period, minimising the growth of the debt to be left for following generations to deal with. It is not all that innovative. The OECD estimates that about 100 countries have some kind of fiscal limiting framework. Those can be voluntary or compulsory, and they vary in strictness and the degree to which they are adhered to. None is perfect, but it is at least arguable that over time the focus on fiscal rectitude focuses minds and attention on delivering better outcomes.
Perhaps the most obvious example of a budget rule, and the best known, is Chile’s. In the 2000s, Chile adopted a rule requiring structural surpluses to be run, so that the national debt could be reduced significantly. Broadly, under the structure it created, an estimate was made of the country’s economic potential over future years, and spending was allowed only to match the anticipated growth and revenue.
What was the result? There was a sharp reduction in net debt, surpluses as high as 8% in the years leading up to the economic crisis, and the upgrading of the country’s credit rating. Admittedly, some of that was possibly because of the commodity boom. None the less, the rule permitting appropriate balance to be given to both revenue and spending was important. Even today, after the rule has been challenged and battered a bit more through experience and difficulty, Chile’s debt remains significantly below that of many other countries. It is about 20% of GDP, rather than the 80% that we are grappling with.
Switzerland is another example where a legislative solution has focused minds and improved overall fiscal discipline. The Swiss “debt brake” was introduced in 2001, having been approved in a referendum—something that that country is wont to use for important national policy questions. Integration into the national constitution followed. There is a requirement for structural balanced budgets, through the capping of annual spending with tax revenues, plus or minus some flexibility. Again, the change had a significant impact. A nation whose debt-to-GDP ratio had significantly increased—from around 15% of GDP in the early 1990s to 45% at the time of the referendum—saw a rapid reduction over the succeeding years. Debt to GDP is now about 25%, and is projected to fall.
Switzerland and Chile are not alone. Sweden is another country that learned from overspending, this time in the 1990s, and it has been relatively successful at maintaining surpluses. The Germans have introduced in their constitution a cap of 0.35% on structural deficits. It is not exactly a surplus, but it is a way to prevent large consistent deficits. Other examples that the OECD has highlighted include Argentina, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Hong Kong and the Netherlands, although their arrangements vary with respect to their legislative teeth and their success. Even the French, who have not been able to balance a budget for decades, have made tentative steps in that direction, with the transposition of their fiscal compact in 2012. The fact that that has not gone anywhere is a topic for another conversation, but at least they were moving in that direction for a time.
Of course, legislation is not the only solution, and it does not necessarily guarantee a positive outcome against politicians determined to get around it. The United States’ periodic fights over the debt ceiling—a mechanism that was designed to stop overspending—always have one outcome. In the 1980s, the attempts in the States to balance the federal budget under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, through mandatory sequesters—automatic cuts in spending in the event that politicians could not agree a budget that would fit—were unsuccessful, as resets and changes occurred when the going got tough. Nothing is infallible if we do not want it to be. Creative accounting, redefinition of spending as investment or capital, direct appeals and canny political manoeuvring can all undermine fiscal responsibility if politicians want that to happen.
I do not argue that a balanced budget rule would be a panacea. In Chile in recent years, there have been issues when estimates have not been realised and projections have been undershot. Switzerland also exempts elements of spending, such as social services, from the rules. If people want to get around this stuff they will, and no Parliament can truly bind the hands of a future one. Yet the idea of fiscal responsibility being formally codified beyond aspirations that can be amended by mere ministerial statements creates an impetus and a legal framework that focuses the political mind and public discourse on ensuring that we do something as basic as spending only as much as we raise.
What kinds of solutions should we consider? That depends on the political will and the desire to focus on the issue at hand. First, it is right to fix our immediate problem and finish the job of eliminating the deficit. I support what the Government are doing about that and want to give them gentle encouragement to accelerate it where possible. That is the first step. There is the potential to legislate in the future once we have reached a surplus, or perhaps even when the point is reached at which the deficit is relatively small, which we are starting to get to.
There are various options. We could try to act voluntarily. That, to some extent, is what we have done already, and it is absolutely better than nothing, but we can in truth see that that approach has shortcomings—for some of which there are good reasons. I shall not provide a running commentary on Government policy, which, as I have said, has been positive overall. Plans are moved, for good and bad reasons. The conveyor belt of politicians calling for more spending and pushing their own hobbyhorses—holding Westminster Hall debates—continues. Many such ideas have merit and value, but we have effectively created a pressure cooker in Parliaments such as ours, with a desire just to ask for more and do more, and seek out new ways to spend money on fixes. When one parliamentarian does it, others follow suit. We remain addicted to spending and voluntarism goes only so far.
How, then, can we formalise the approach I am outlining? We could, as happens in the United States, make it a formal requirement to vote on increasing debt when it approaches established ceilings, or when there is a question of its exceeding them. The Government debt is fixed and capped and politicians have to make a clear decision in front of their electorate to change it. That is useful but probably, as in the US, it would not focus the minds of politicians too much. Often people’s eyes glaze over when they see big numbers. That is one of the reasons why my party should stop trying to win the public services spending arms race with the spendthrifts on the Opposition Benches and focus instead on what the money is actually doing to improve outcomes. A debt ceiling has limitations, but it would send a clear signal.
Taking things further, we could establish a simple balanced budget rule that we would not spend more than we took in over a defined year or over the course of a few years. That could be done through adept forward estimating or by linking spending to the trajectory of past revenue growth. The Government would have a formal responsibility not to overspend, and to set out their plans clearly, on a short-term basis, showing how they intended to avoid overspending. In some ways, that would be the simplest solution—a clear understandable position and a clear understandable requirement to ensure that the budget is balanced. It might also improve public understanding of and support for the proposal.
Such rules, however, are often clunky and inflexible. Absolute requirements to budget on an annual or near-annual basis will significantly reduce headroom and the flexibility to deal with short-term shocks and recessions when there is at least an arguable case for fiscal stimulus in certain circumstances. That is probably one reason why such strict rules do not apply in many places around the world.
Alternatively, we could think about a more flexible approach that achieves the overall objectives, but that relies more heavily on estimating being correct, and on the Government not delaying hard decisions through a lack of political will. The requirement to balance a budget over an economic cycle would seem a strong starting point, although identifying the start and end point of that cycle will be difficult and reliant on guesswork that would no doubt not be correct in a number of cases.
Flexibility could be introduced through various mechanisms. For example, the Swiss debt brake accepts that at times the Government will need to amend their approach due to external factors. To accommodate that, it applies a model of debits and credits, so if a Government fail to achieve a balanced budget in one year, they carry over that failure to another year through a fiscal debit that needs to be made up. Similarly, fiscal credits can be built up in a bank in readiness for future problems. To avoid future debts being run up too heavily, once debits exceed 6% of total Government spending, an automatic requirement kicks in to eliminate them within three years. An exceptional rule also applies so that in times of genuine emergency or need, both Houses of the Swiss Parliament can approve spending on an exceptional basis that breaks the rules. Even then, however, the Swiss have found a way to accommodate that, and automatic amortisation of that exceptional spending must be dealt with within six years.
The challenge of the Swiss model is its relative complexity—try explaining that down the pub after a few pints or during hustings at the next election—but its beauty is that bygones cannot be bygones, which is often the flaw in attempts to regulate deficit spending and debt growth. If Chile gets its estimates wrong, it tries harder next time. If the Swiss get them wrong, they have to find a way to compensate, and all the while the cost of servicing debt remains low and does not threaten the financial health of the next generation.
Despite Brexit sucking the oxygen out of the room, and despite the challenges that the UK faces in the coming years—including from that B-word—we have to make a choice. The Government have been consistent and clear that they believe in fiscal responsibility and discipline. We have had success in restoring the UK’s financial health after such difficult times 10 years ago, and the trajectory continues—albeit a little slowly for my liking—to get us back to balance. Nevertheless, we need to talk about what we do when we get there. As some politicians occasionally point out, dealing with the deficit does not mean that we have dealt with the debt, and the conversation needs to move on to that.
Balanced budgets, fiscal rules and the promotion of fiscal discipline will be the weapons and constraints—perhaps we could call them the backstops—for when the next generation of politicians, whoever they are, are tempted to spend, spend and spend again. Indeed, some of the current generation are quite tempted to do that at the moment. Having balanced budget rules and the codification of fiscal discipline is one way to do that. It is not a perfect solution, but the status quo is far from perfect in this regard. Perhaps as a nation we should start to think more about how we create frameworks for future success, and how we address the fundamental challenge in western democracies of celebrating the money we want to spend—whether necessary and virtuous, or inefficient and virtue signalling—while not paying sufficient attention to the cost of it all. We cannot and must not keep spending today on the backs of our kids and grandkids tomorrow. If politicians are not willing voluntarily to adopt restraint, perhaps it is time to harden our resolve.