Inflation up by 0.1 percentage point, real wages down by 1%

RPI sent out to the great big spreadsheet in the sky.

The ONS has announced this month's inflation statistics:

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) grew by 2.8% in the year to February 2013, up from 2.7% in January 2013. The change in the rate follows four consecutive months when it stood at 2.7%.

This is the first month without RPI as a headline statistic; following its decision to choose consistency over accuracy, RPI is no longer a designated "National Statistic". Its annual growth is still reported, however, and it has fallen from 3.3 to 3.2 per cent between January and February.

The new replacement for RPI, RPIJ (which is calculated using the same data but a different, and more accurate, formula), showed the same change, dropping 0.1 percentage point, to 2.6 per cent.

The ONS has introduced a second new measure of inflation, CPIH, which aims to include the housing costs of owner-occupiers – something historically lacking from the CPI. It's currently experimental, but with the housing costs weighted at 12 per cent of the total index, it could well show a more realistic measure of the cost of living for the average Briton.

For all of the last seven years, CPIH has actually been lower than CPI:

(The green line shows inflation in the cost of housing). That's a surprising statistic, but may come from the fact that the measure for the cost of owner occupied housing is "rental equivalence":

Rental equivalence uses the rent paid for an equivalent house as a proxy for the costs faced by an owner occupier. In other words this answers the question “how much would I have to pay in rent to live in a home like mine?” for an owner occupier.

Obviously, if you are paying rent, you are probably aware that it's not quite as simple as asserting that the value of owning a house is no more or less than paying rent on the same house. Nonetheless, valuing the monthly "cost" of living in a house you own is notoriously tricky, and this is one of the most accepted ways of doing so. It will be a measure that is worth keeping an eye on.

Of course, the most important measure to pair inflation with is wage growth. And there, the news remains unfortunate. Regular earnings grew just 1.3 per cent in the last year, meaning that real wages continue to shrink at an alarming rate. That's a trend which shows no sign of abating, and it is the biggest point in favour of the hard-money inflation hawks. We are all getting poorer, and have been for a while.

A house, probably owner occupied. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.