A Chancellor hoping something will turn up

Ignore the fuss about whether or not the economy is technically in recession. Economic stagnation lo

No sooner had the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced last Wednesday that the UK economy had fallen back into recession than economists starting lining up to denounce the figures as wrong. Having predicted that the economy would have expanded at a modest rate in the first quarter of 2012, they refused to believe the ONS has got it right when it said that real GDP contracted by 0.2 per cent, after a fall of 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2011.

However, this debate over whether the economy grew or shrank by 0.1 or 0.2 per cent in the most recent quarter should not distract from the bigger picture. When the coalition government was formed, the economy had grown by 2.5 per cent over the preceding year - not a strong recovery from recession, but at least a recognisable one. In the subsequent seven quarters, real GDP has increased by just 0.4 per cent according to the official data. Even if the ONS has got the latest quarter wrong and the true figure is a little higher, this is a pretty dismal performance.

In part, this is down to bad luck - in particular the effect of higher food and energy prices on spending power and the Eurozone crisis – but government policies and rhetoric are also to blame.

The hike in VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent added to the squeeze on households’ spending power and massive cuts in government capital spending have hit activity in the construction sector.

There is a sharp contrast with the United States, where there has been less urgency about tightening fiscal policy and which also released a preliminary estimate of first quarter GDP this week. There output increased by 0.75 per cent in the final quarter of 2011 and 0.55 per cent in the first quarter of this year. So while the UK economy contracted by 0.5 per cent over the last two quarters, the US economy expanded by 1.3 per cent.

The government’s rhetoric about the need for austerity in the public sector has also not helped. When they took office, Cameron and Osborne believed in the idea of an ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’: that cutting the budget deficit sharply would so boost confidence in the private sector that companies would step up their investment and recruitment programmes and the economy would grow faster than if the deficit had not been cut. It followed that the tougher they were on the deficit, the greater would be the boost to confidence and the stronger would be economic growth.

After almost two years, the idea of expansionary fiscal contraction has been shown to be patently false. As many economists warned at the time, the most likely result from public sector austerity is economic stagnation. The more the government increased taxes and cut public spending and the more it talked about austerity, the more companies worried about the outlook for demand. This made them understandably reluctant to invest and recruit. The government’s cuts mean there were 350,000 fewer jobs in the public sector in December 2011 compared to June 2010, but the private sector only created 320,000 jobs over the same period.

Despite this evidence, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are sticking to the line that any deviation from their plan to cut the deficit would make matters worse. 90 per cent of the cuts in public spending are still to be implemented, meaning many more jobs will be lost in the public sector, and there is little to suggest the private sector is willing to step up recruitment to fill the gap.

George Osborne is simply left hoping that something turns up to change the situation. Or rather that something specific – inflation – turns down, so that real incomes start to increase again. Unfortunately, the latest figures, showing inflation of 3.5 per cent and an annual increase in regular earnings of just 1.6 per cent, are not encouraging.

Ignore the fuss about whether or not the economy is technically in recession, the economic stagnation that began in the middle of 2010 looks set to extend for some while yet.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at the IPPR 

Source: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

Photo: Getty
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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University