Five questions answered on the shrinking UK economy

How do the figures compare with what was expected?

Figures released this morning indicate the UK could be heading for another recession. We answer five questions on the latest economy figures.

How much has the economy shrank by?

Figures released this morning by the Office of National Statistics show that the economy, or Gross Domestic Product, has shrank by 0.3 per cent in the last three months of 2012.

In the three months prior to this, the economy grew by 0.9% which is believed to have been boosted by the Olympic games.

This is the first estimate of how the economy performed in the fourth quarter, and is subject to at least two further revisions as further data is collected.

What is being cited as the cause of this latest shrinkage?

The ONS are blaming maintenance delays at the UK’s largest oil and gas field in the North Sea, which resulted in a fall of output from the extractive industries. Mining and quarrying output fell by 10.2 per cent, which knocked 0.18 per cent off of GDP.

Another industry that faired badly in the last quarter is manufacturing which fell by 1.5 per cent.

What does this mean for the outlook of the economy?

This means that the country could be heading for a third consecutive recession. Factors such as heavy snow could also hasten the economy into yet another recession. 

How do the figures compare to what was expected?

The figures are said to be worse than expected. Sir Mervyn King, the Bank of England Governnor, has said he only expects a gentle recovery this year, although now even this is looking increasing unlikely.

The International Monetary Fund did cut its 2013 forecast for British economic growth to 1pc from 1.1pc predicted in October, indicating slow growth in the UK economy was anticipated.

What reaction have economists had to these recent figures?

Jonathan Portes, an economist from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, speaking to the BBC said:

"Underlying it, ignoring all the special factors, what we see is the economy is not delivering the sustainable growth that we would normally see at this point in the cycle.”

He added: "This is due to the [UK] government's policies and the failure of governments in the eurozone.

"They should not have cut the deficit so quickly and before the recovery was sustained."

Meanwhile the Treasury said in a statement:

"It confirms what we already knew - that Britain, like many European countries, still faces a very difficult economic situation.

"While the economy is healing, it is a difficult road."

Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.