A winter of discontent

Official figures show that this is the longest, deepest recession since the war

Britain is the last major economy still in recession, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released today.

While the US, Japan, France, Germany and the rest of the eurozone have all come out the other side, we remain mired in recession. According to the ONS figures, the economy shrank by 0.2 per cent in the third quarter of this year (July to September).

Save your tears; there's more. This means that the economy has shrunk by 6.03 per cent in total since early 2008. The key part of that figure comes after the decimal point. That sneaky 0.03 per cent pushes the figure of decline just above the recession of the early 1980s, when there was a 6 per cent decline between 1979 and 1981.

I won't pretend that I remember the agonies of those early days of the Thatcher government, but the symbolism of the lost generation -- the three million unemployed -- and the collapse of businesses small and large still holds strong. It is shocking that this recession, here and now, has surpassed that, however incrementally.

There is another dubious honour, too. This is the sixth consecutive quarter in which the economy has contracted, taking us ahead of the last downturn, when the economy shrank for five quarters between 1990 and 1992. We are now in the longest recession since records began in 1955.

Why it so much worse here? It is difficult to say without falling into a debate that has become increasingly dominated by party politics in the run-up to the general election -- over whether to invest, in the Keynesian model, or to cut and bear the devastating consequences.

The particulars of the crisis that triggered it are fundamental, as are those of our economy. Certainly, Britain is disproportionately reliant on financial services and property investment, and Gordon Brown's comment in January that we are "well placed" to emerge from the downturn appears misguided at best.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope in the figures.

The 0.2 per cent contraction is better than the previous estimate of 0.3 per cent, which could imply that the current quarter -- the fourth of 2009 -- will mark a formal exit from the recession. This is the official expectation of the Bank of England and the government, though it is optimistic, and weak consumer spending may yet throw a spanner in the works.

With some economists predicting that unemployment could reach that three million figure in 2010, we must hope that today's are the last benchmarks that this recession passes.


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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: whatever you hear, don't forget - there is an alternative

The goverment's programme of cuts is a choice, not a certainty, says Jolyon Maugham.

Later today you will hear George Osborne say there is no alternative to his plan to slash a further £20bn from lean public services by 2020-21. He will also say that there is no alternative to £9bn cuts to tax credits, cuts that will hit the poorest hardest, cuts of thousands of pounds per annum to the incomes of millions of households.

But there is.

As I outlined here the Conservatives plan future tax cuts which benefit, disproportionately or exclusively, the wealthy. Suspending those future tax cuts for the wealthy would say, by 2020-21, £9.3bn per annum.

I also explained here that a mere 50 of our 1,156 tax reliefs cost us over £100bn per annum. We don't know how much the other 1,106 reliefs cost us - because Government doesn't monitor them. And we don't know what public benefit they deliver - because Government doesn't check.

What we do know, as I explained here, is that they disproportionately and regressively benefit the wealthy: an average of £190,400 per annum for the wealthiest.

And we know, too, that they include (amongst the more than 1,000 uncosted reliefs) the £1bn plus “Rights for Shares Scheme” - badged by the Chancellor as for workers but identified by a leading law firm as designed for the wealthiest.

Simply by asking a question that the Chancellor chooses to ignore - do these 1,156 reliefs deliver value for money - it is entirely possible that £10bn or more extra in taxes could be collected without any loss of  public benefit

To this £19bn, we might add the indiscriminate provision - both direct and indirect - of public money to wealthy pensioners.

Those above basic state pension age enjoy a tax subsidy of up to 12% on earned income.

Moreover, this Office for National Statistics data (see Table 18) reveals that the 10% of wealthiest retired households - some 714,000 households - have gross pre-tax and pre-benefit private income of on average £43,983. Yet still they enjoy average cash benefits from government of £11,500 per annum.

Means testing benefits to exclude that top 10 per cent of retired households would save £8.2bn per annum. And why, you might wonder aloud, should means testing be thought by the government appropriate for the working age population, yet a heresy for retired households?

Add in abolition of that unprincipled tax subsidy and you'll save even more. 

So there are alternatives. Clear alternatives. Good alternatives. Alternatives that enable those with the broadest shoulders to bear some share of the pain. Don't allow yourself to be persuaded otherwise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.