Bad news for Hollande as austerity bites

Hollande's focus on cutting deficits with revenues hasn't saved him from the downsides.

The French economy is on the rocks, in a move which threatens to derail president Hollande's economic reforms. The Observer's Kim Willsher reports:

The French leader has been hit by soaring unemployment figures, further factory closures and job losses, and plummeting popularity on top of growing fears that he and his Socialist government are failing to address the country's problems. Members of the opposition right-of-centre UMP have accused them of being "amateurs".

The news is bad, both for Hollande, and for proponents of revenue-side austerity. It is probably too soon to write-off the effects of the controversial 70 per cent tax rate – the pernicious effects of which are supposedly flight of high-net-worth individuals, rather than just a retardation of growth per se – but at the same time, it is clear that Hollande's agenda is, at best, no better than Sarkozy's was.

Despite the unpopularity of those revenue-raising measures amongst the economic elite, a meeting with members of various international organisations today – including the IMF and OECD – will reportedly focus on supply-side reforms "to improve France's competitiveness on the world market and restore confidence at home and abroad". The French labour market, with its ring-fenced working hours, worker protections, and strong unions, is frequently seen as being counter-productive to economic health.

The other major reason why the OECD and IMF are unlikely to press too hard on the question of high marginal tax rates is that, despite the fact that it has led to Hollande's government being seen as a standard-bearer for the left, they still fit very strongly into the narrative of "austerity".

The socialist government has made much the same pledges to be "realistic about the deficit" and practice "fiscal restraint" as we are used to hearing from all the parties in the UK. Where it has differed is in the method by which it has tried to reduce the deficit, focusing on increasing revenue rather than decreasing spending.

While this has driven some economists, like GWU's Veronique de Rugy, mad, it is a perfectly fair application of the principles behind austerity. What it also does, though, is expose the contradictions between those who genuinely desire to reduce deficits, pay down debt and "win the confidence of bond markets", and those who have used those as a convenient excuse to argue for shrinking the state.

Whether-or-not revenue-based austerity is as effective as spending-based austerity, however, it is clear that both are austerity. To those who have argued that, in a recession characterised by depressed consumer confidence and low aggregate demand, the state needs to temporarily push for deficit-funded spending, the bad economic news for France is yet more evidence in favour.

François Hollande. 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 Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation