With every fare rise and fee increase, the government decides to defy the inflation hawks

This year and next, a full 0.6pp of inflation will be because of direct government decisions.

Last week, I wrote about how inflation is worst for those who spend a large proportion of their income on essentials. The cost of essentials, defined as food, housing, energy and travel, increased by 3.7 per cent last year, well above CPI's 2.8 per cent increase. Since the recession, essentials have increased in price by more than 33 per cent, while nominal incomes have gone up by just 10 per cent.

A large driver of that increase, however, is the direct effect of government policy. For instance, council tax, road tax and almost all public transport fares are set by the state, as are most of the costs of highly-taxed goods like alcohol, tobacco, fuel and heating and power.

Now, the weekly briefing note produced by Deloitte's Chief Economist, Ian Stewart, makes clear that a similar effect is happening to the headline rate of inflation. Stewart writes:

In its latest Inflation Report, the Bank noted that one of the reasons behind persistently high inflation was higher 'administered and regulated prices', i.e., prices affected by government or regulatory decisions. Of these, a key contributor has been the rising price of education, largely reflecting rises in undergraduate tuition fees. Another contributor is higher domestic energy prices as a result of current climate change and energy policies and further investment into the UK's gas and electricity distribution networks.

According to the Bank, these two drivers have, together, amplified UK inflation by 0.4 percentage points last year and will do so by 0.6 percentage points this year and the next.

The latter reason is something you hear a lot about from inflation hawks, given the frequent coincidence of climate scepticism and fear of inflation; the former, not so much. When it comes down to it, one way to keep inflation low would be to fund essential public services through general taxation or deficit spending, neither of which tend to be routes advocated by inflation hawks.

Stewart also pokes the Bank of England about whether or not it is strictly applying its mandate. Technically, the Bank has only one role: to keep inflation as close to its 2 percentage points target as possible, and certainly within one percentage point either side. But instead, under both Mervyn King and, it is expected, Mark Carney, the bank has refused to take actions to bring down inflation if they would harm growth. Stewart writes:

This approach has led some analysts to point out that the Bank now seems to place greater emphasis on growth than on its explicit inflation target. It is not just that, in the words of the Bank's governor Sir Mervyn King "policy is exceptionally accommodative to growth". A debate is underway as to whether the Bank of England, and indeed other central banks, should run even easier monetary policy, possibly risking higher inflation in the long term, in order to bolster growth. In December, the US Fed set itself an additional target of bringing down the US unemployment rate to below 6.5%, before it considers raising interest rates.

Mark Carney, the next governor of the Bank of England, has recently said that central banks should consider radical measures, including commitments to keep interest rates on hold for extended periods of time or scrapping inflation targets, to boost growth.

Needless to say, the fact that the Bank of England is not crushing our already anaemic growth to bring inflation down from around 3 per cent to around 2 per cent is a feature, not a bug, in the system. Regardless of what the inflation target actually is, the fact that the Bank tends to be run by extraordinarily talented individuals who are working for the financial health of the country means that they are prepared to make sensible decisions even if they aren't necessarily the prescribed ones. But the choices raise further questions about whether the monolithic inflation target is the right way to run a central bank in the 21st century.

A hawk. 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.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.