George Osborne cannot possibly know how long austerity will last

The Chancellor's strategy is based on faulty rules and unproven assumptions about the deficit.

Next week George Osborne will hold forth on the size of the underlying deficit and reveal whether austerity will now extend until at least 2018. When he does, he won’t know what he’s talking about – and he’ll be in good company.  Neither will Ed Balls when he responds, nor will the phalanx of city economists who rush to comment, nor indeed will establishment economic institutions such as the IMF and the OECD.

This isn’t because our current crop of politicians and economists are unusually uninformed. Rather it reflects the fact the debate on fiscal policy is being driven in no small part by an economic concept – the structural deficit - that is very close to being unmeasurable. It’s an example of how what sounds like a sensible idea in theory can go wrong in practice.  

The structural deficit is that bit of the deficit that would still exist even if the economy was running at full capacity: the part that can’t be explained away by the fact that the economy is under-performing.  Giving it consideration is sensible and important. Few would disagree that running a deficit when the economy is stuttering along far below its peak capacity is a very different matter to running one when the economy is booming. The trouble arises, however, when we pretend we can decipher exactly how much of a deficit is cyclical and how much is structural.

Estimating the size of the structural deficit is, to put it mildly, something that sensible people can come to sharply different views on. Last week the Social Market Foundation  think-tank (led by former Treasury official Ian Mulheirn who is no fiscal virgin) published a neat bit of work replicating the methodology used by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to estimate the gap between the economy’s current output and its full potential. They conclude the output gap is pretty modest: under 2%.  If correct, it’s bad news for our economy, as we’ve had a bigger permanent loss in productive capacity than many realise. And it’s bad news for austerity: the return to growth won’t fill the fiscal gap - further painful changes will be needed to meet the objective of eliminating the structural deficit over five years. The SMF estimate that massive extra spending cuts or tax-rises of around £22bn (over and above all of those already planned) would be needed by 2017/18.

Or maybe they won’t be.  Another plausible report – this time by the respected Capital Economics – tells a very different story. It estimates that our flatling economy might be running as much as 6% below its full potential. If that’s the case the structural deficit is far smaller than we are being led to believe – and Osborne may be planning to tighten fiscal policy by too much, way too much – to the tune of around £35bn - in order to meet his own rule.

So that’s all clear then.

In addition to recognising the confusion over the size of the structural deficit it is worth asking whether setting a target that no-one can agree on is likely to result in further economic damage? You’d think so. But the answer depends on whether you believe that the chancellor’s target on eliminating the structural deficit is going to drive new spending and tax decisions that wouldn’t otherwise have been taken.

This question arises because the target is formulated in a way that means, as Jonathan Portes, Director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, has highlighted, it never actually bites. Because it is set on a rolling timetable all the chancellor ever needs to do is demonstrate he plans to get rid of the structural deficit five years from a given point in time. He doesn’t actually need to achieve these plans. Each year the date at which the target will be met can just be pushed back by another twelve months (as happened in last year’s autumn statement). Promises rather than delivery will suffice.

Now, a target without a fixed date is clearly a flexible thing. But I doubt this makes it irrelevant to real decisions.  Politics and the chancellor’s craving for ‘credibility’ are likely to result in the target affecting the cuts Osborne actually makes in the here and now.  He won’t want his target to become a joke – the mañana target. Say, for instance, Osborne announces next Wednesday that an extra £15bn of consolidation is needed in 2017/18 - will that really have no impact on the real choices made about the next few years? He may well believe it is vital that he demonstrates additional fiscal resolve –by implementing extra cuts, not just making more promises.  

But in deciding on the timing of any new cuts Osborne faces contradictory pressures. On the one hand, he may well want to bolster credibility as well as build up the size of spending reductions by acting quickly, for instance freezing spending now on aspects of welfare in order that savings accumulate over the forthcoming years.

Alternatively, there are strong arguments for thinking he’d want to push cuts down the road (as his target allows him to do). Most obviously this is because the economy is currently so weak only a fool would contemplate further undermining it.  But there is another subtler reason for playing it long. If the chancellor has a hunch that the true output gap is actually larger than the OBR currently believes he may want to defer cuts – particularly those cuts that he doesn’t actually want to make – in the hope that over the next few years the OBR revises its view. If this hunch turned out to be correct, then at some point the OBR would end up announcing that the output gap is larger (and the structural deficit smaller) than they previously thought.

The result? A return to growth would solve more of our fiscal problems than we currently expect and Osborne (or indeed Balls) would be in the happy position of being able to scale back some of the cuts that have been pencilled in.  Of course, things could turn out worse rather than better than current OBR assumptions. No-one knows. But in an uncertain world one thing is clear: the current target on the structural deficit magnifies rather than minimises the confusion.      

Nor should we forget that the structural deficit isn’t the only fiscal rule in a spot of trouble. The chancellor’s second target – the commitment to reduce debt as a share of GDP by 2015 - is likely to be breached next week (unless a Treasury accounting fiddle is used to avert this). Either way, the rule is highly arbitrary. If the debt to GDP ratio falls marginally in 2015 but grows thereafter then the rule would have been met but the public finances wouldn’t be sustainable.    

Osborne’s fiscal regime is in a state of disrepair.  The finest minds in the Treasury are currently chasing two faulty fiscal lodestars: a deficit rule which is impossible to accurately measure, resulting in starkly different estimates with very different implications for policy and politics; and a debt rule which is highly arbitrary and tells us very little about the nation’s longer term fiscal health.     

All of which would lead you to think that there would be a major debate – not least on the centre-left - about alternatives to Osborne’s rules. After all, fiscal policy is the issue of our times and will define the next Parliament as much as it has this one. To be fair there are indeed those setting out new and interesting thoughts on the type of framework that might better ensure fiscal sustainability whilst taking account of the strength of the economy  and without falling foul of either false precision or arbitrariness. For now this conversation is only happening at the margins. In the meantime we are stuck with fiscal rules that aren’t fit for purpose. That’s likely to remain the case regardless of what George Osborne says in the Autumn Statement.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Source: Getty

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Workers' rights after Brexit? It's radio silence from the Tories

Theresa May promised to protect workers after leaving the EU. 

In her speech on Tuesday, Theresa May repeated her promise to “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained".  It left me somewhat confused.

Last Friday, my bill to protect workers’ rights after Brexit was due to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Instead I sat and watched several Tory MPs speak about radios for more than four hours.

The Prime Minister and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, have both previously made a clear promise in their speeches at Conservative Party conference to maintain all existing workers’ rights after Britain has left the European Union. Mr Davis even accused those who warned that workers’ rights may be put at risk of “scaremongering". 

My Bill would simply put the Prime Minister’s promise into law. Despite this fact, Conservative MPs showed their true colours and blocked a vote on it through filibustering - speaking for so long that the time runs out.

This included the following vital pieces of information being shared:

David Nuttall is on his second digital radio, because the first one unfortunately broke; Rebecca Pow really likes elephant garlic (whatever that is); Jo Churchill keeps her radio on a high shelf in the kitchen; and Seema Kennedy likes radio so much, she didn’t even own a television for a long time. The bill they were debating wasn’t opposed by Labour, so they could have stopped and called a vote at any point.

This practice isn’t new, but I was genuinely surprised that the Conservatives decided to block this bill.

There is nothing in my bill which would prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  I’ve already said that when the vote to trigger Article 50 comes to Parliament, I will vote for it. There is also nothing in the bill which would soften Brexit by keeping us tied to the EU. While I would personally like to see rights in the workplace expanded and enhanced, I limited the bill to simply maintaining what is currently in place, in order to make it as agreeable as possible.

So how can Theresa May's words be reconciled with the actions of her backbenchers on Friday? Well, just like when Lionel Hutz explains to Marge in the Simpsons that "there's the truth, and the truth", there are varying degrees to which the government can "protect workers' rights".

Brexit poses three immediate risks:

First, if the government were to repeal the European Communities Act without replacing it, all rights introduced to the UK through that piece of legislation would fall away, including parental leave, the working time directive, and equal rights for part-time and agency workers. The government’s Great Repeal Bill will prevent this from happening, so in that sense they will be "protecting workers’ rights".

However, the House of Commons Library has said that the Great Repeal Bill will leave those rights in secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation. While Britain is a member of the EU, there is only ever scope to enhance and extend rights over and above what had been agreed at a European level. After Brexit, without the floor of minimum rights currently provided by the EU, any future government could easily chip away at these protections, without even the need for a vote in Parliament, through what’s called a "statutory instrument". It will leave workers’ rights hanging by a thread.

The final change that could occur after we have left the EU is European Court rulings no longer applying in this country. There are a huge number of rulings which have furthered rights and increased wages for British workers - from care workers who do sleep-in shifts being paid for the full shift, not just the hours they’re awake; to mobile workers being granted the right to be paid for their travel time. These rulings may no longer have legal basis in Britain after we’ve left. 

My bill would have protected rights against all three of these risks. The government have thus far only said how they will protect against the first.

We know that May opposed the introduction of many of these rights as a backbencher and shadow minister; and that several of her Cabinet ministers have spoken about their desire to reduce employment protections, one even calling for them to be halved last year. The government has even announced it is looking at removing the right to strike from transport workers, which would contradict their May’s promise to protect workers’ rights before we’ve even left the EU.

The reality is that the Conservatives have spent the last six years reducing people’s rights at work - from introducing employment tribunal fees which are a barrier to justice for many, to their attack on workers’ ability to organise in the Trade Union Act. A few lines in May’s speech doesn’t undo the scepticism working people have about the Tories' intentions in this area. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, nor should they. 

Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby.