George Osborne stands on the brink of failing one of his golden fiscal rules

Autumn Statement wishlist.

With borrowing up, growth negligible for the last two years and rising under-employment highlighting the fragility of the labour market, the economic outlook facing the Chancellor is bleak.

He stands on the brink of failing one of his golden fiscal rules – having debt fall as a proportion of GDP by 2015. The narrative up to now has been whether he can still meet this rule. But this ignores the far bigger issue that it is one of the main causes of the UK’s economic problems.

So rather than fudge the figures to appease the deficit hawks on his backbenches, the Chancellor should abandon his beloved fiscal target that he’s going to miss anyway.

This would mean no longer needing to make another £10bn raid on the welfare budget. Freezing and cutting benefits will life harder for families living – and working – in poverty. And the cuts will not help a single person back into work.

Most importantly, abandoning his self-defeating austerity targets will allow the Chancellor to start again with a fresh plan for growth.

This new plan should include a new State Investment Bank that can help fill the credit void left by our failing banking sector. The Chancellor could also reassert the government’s green credentials by giving the Green Investment Bank powers to borrow.

Capital spending cuts should be cancelled and replaced by more infrastructure investment. Modernising our transport network and energy needs can help deliver high-quality skilled jobs in the short-term and provide longer-term economic gains.

The Chancellor says that reducing the deficit is the biggest challenge the government faces. It is not. Preventing a lost decade of economic stagnation is our biggest challenge. And unless we tackle this by starting a new plan focused on generating jobs and growth we will never get to grips with the public finances.

Frances O’Grady is the TUC General Secretary Designate.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.