Osborne will struggle to debate the IMF head-on

Without being able to turn to now-slain canards, the chancellor's arguments fall apart.

George Osborne is to make one of the most direct responses yet to the IMF's interventions into UK politics this week, according to the Guardian's economics editor Larry Elliot:

The Treasury intends to reject the IMF's call for an easing in the pace of deficit reduction and will insist that any change in the strategy is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Alarmed at the flatlining of the British economy in 2011 and 2012, the IMF said last month it was time for Osborne to do more to boost economic growth and urged that he should rethink plans to cut the government's structural budget deficit by 1% of national income in 2013-14.

The chancellor was stung by the criticism, which was seized upon by shadow chancellor Ed Balls as evidence the government had damaged the economy with an over-aggressive austerity approach.

It's an argument which the chancellor is ill-equipped to take public, since the IMF is pushing the one policy which Osborne has no real response to: apolitically arguing for a modest increase in deficit-funded investment.

Elliot reports that Treasury officials will be relying on the time-worn "credibility with the financial markets" response. That's one which might play well with the public, but has little-to-no relation to the real world. In fact, Britain's Bond yields are depressed, just like the rest of the non-Eurozone developed world's, by the financial climate. Investors, scared of the prospect that they might lose everything in another bank run or stock market collapse, buy up bonds in countries which control their own currency just to have a safe place to store money. The situation has even been called a "reverse sovereign debt crisis", to reflect that fact that, in many cases, yields are so low that governments are being effectively payed to look after money.

(The rush to safe assets is also likely what prompted Apple to issue its own $17bn worth of bonds; multinational companies are safe enough that investors are happy to park their cash there, too.)

The Chancellor and Treasury are more at easy arguing within the British political context, where the mantra "more debt is bad" is so ingrained into the debate that they don't have to try to justify it. That's why the Conservative party feels they can torpedo any of Labour's plans just by pointing out that they are aiming to "borrow more to borrow less" (despite the fact that that's an entirely reasonable suggestion, as anyone who has consolidated debts, installed double glazing, or taken a season ticket loan will tell you): the opposition flounders in the face of such an attack, unsure whether to argue that they aren't really borrowing; that they are borrowing, but it will result in less future debt; or that they are borrowing and that's better than the alternative.

The IMF has no such qualms. It is telling the UK that borrowing more is good, and challenging the government to actually go back to first principles and explain why its debt reduction program must take eight years, compared to the initial plan of five. Why not nine? Or ten? Or 12?

Faced with having to justify his most basic beliefs, the chancellor is forced to retreat to canards long since slain. The "financial markets" are not rewarding the UK for austerity, nor will they punish it for slowing the pace of fiscal consolidation. In the meantime, the UK economy is very definitely feeling the hit of the lack of any coherent plan for growth over the last three years; and it feels like that pain will last a lot longer.

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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.