A recipe for a U-turn

Government should talk to experts earlier.

This morning the CBI boss John Cridland has moaned to the Financial Times that the government’s growth plans have fallen into something of an implementation black hole. Having announced major plans to get the economy back on track last November the plans are now, says Cridland, mired in bureaucracy and sitting gathering dust on ministers’ and civil servants’ desks.

While this is not a new problem, the time lag between announcement and action does seem to have worsened under the current government. Some observers put this down to cuts in departmental budgets, with fewer civil servants able to jump to it and get new initiatives moving. Others claim its down to a lack of joined-up thinking across government departments.

In particular, the growth plan is apparently suffering from the emasculation of business secretary Vince Cable, since BIS should be a key co-ordinating ministry in this area. Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same. Months have passed without, as Cridland puts it, us seeing “diggers on the ground”. Cridland’s own view is that members of the government appear to be “dazzled in the headlights”.

I wonder if the reality might be something simpler. This expectation of early action has been caused by a tendency to rush into making announcements for political expediency, rather than weighing up the practical considerations.

A senior banker told me last week that following George Osborne’s Mansion House speech the week before, at which several key new policies around stimulating lending to small businesses were announced, his firm received a flurry of phone calls from Treasury officials asking exactly what those policies might mean in practice and how they might be implemented. To re-cap, that’s officials working out the practical details of implementing policies after they have been announced.

If nothing else that sounds like a recipe for a series of sudden and unexplained policy U-turns. As the omnishambles budget unfolded, George Osborne told the Today programme that the only worse than listening was not listening.

I’d suggest that it would make more sense to do that listening – to professionals and industry experts in particular – before announcing key policies rather than after.

This article originally appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.