The austerity vs. growth argument is hotting up

The G8 and eurozone summits show that leaders still have a long way to go.

With a G8 summit one week and an EU summit the next we have the latest act of a seemingly interminable eurozone crisis. The solutions needed now are almost exactly the same as a year ago: Europe's banks, particularly in Spain and France need to be re-capitalised; the European Central Bank needs to maintain its presence in the bond market; and, most importantly, we need a concerted stimulus programme aimed primarily at southern Europe to prevent a deep recession.

So, what’s new, you might ask.

Well, the G8 summit saw the first serious growth vs austerity battle, with Obama and Hollande leading the pro-stimulus camp against Angela Merkel. Although Merkel’s refusal to cave in to demands for, amongst other things, a relaxation of deficit reduction targets, Eurobonds and quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, is clear from the summit communique, she is becoming increasingly isolated. Later this week EU leaders will meet in Brussels for a mini-summit convened by Herman Van Rompuy, and it will be interesting to see whether Merkel’s stance softens or hardens.

The election results in France and Greece made it inevitable, but it is clear that the terms of debate have shifted in the last few weeks as politicians realise that the immediate priority is to escape recession rather than cut deficits.

This is not deficit denial but common sense. A sustainable debt and deficit reduction programme cannot be achieved in countries with shrinking output, and it is an economic nonsense to suggest otherwise. A quick glance across the Atlantic should offer some guidance. Things are not exactly rosy in the US, which is still wrestling with high debt and deficit levels, but, unlike the eurozone, US economic output is rising and unemployment falling. A report published last month by Oxford Economics and the rating agency Fitch claimed that President Obama's stimulus package has been worth an extra 4% of GDP and that, without it, the US economy would still be "mired in recession".

There is also a bit of wriggle room for a targeted stimulus. European Commission officials have been talking about providing an extra €10 billion to the European Investment Bank and allocating about €80 billion in unused structural funds to fund infrastructure projects in the EU. There is also widespread support for setting up joint liability EU ‘project bonds’.

Unfortunately putting these policies into action is still not quite that straight-forward. The G8 communique, with its telling phrase that “the right measures are not the same for each of us”, reveals the divide that still exists on how best to respond.

In fact, had that line been used two years ago Europe would probably have avoided the mess it now finds itself in. The biggest mistake made by the EU’s predominantly conservative leaders has been to insist that austerity and nothing else is the “right measure” for everybody.

But a closer look reveals that the EU countries facing difficulties all have different problems. Ireland was brought down by a property binge financed by its banks which were then left horribly exposed to sub-prime mortgages. Spain does not have high government debt but its banks hold multi-billion euro losses from real estate alongside dangerously high unemployment particularly among young people. Italy has one of the lowest budget deficits in Europe but a high debt to GDP ratio. Only Greece has deep-rooted structural problems. All of them would benefit from a targeted stimulus package which, unlike a diet consisting solely of cuts, would give them the economic stability needed for fiscal consolidation.

The main questions facing the EU are not about the fate of the euro. They are on how eurozone countries can generate the economic output to move towards balancing their books and, secondly, about the democratic legitimacy of applying the terms of the rescue packages.
A situation where unelected technocrat governments push through unpopular economic reforms is a dangerous recipe for civil unrest. Without a democratic mandate to implement the terms of their rescue programmes it is hard to see how they will be successful.

As yet, no country has had a referendum on the rescue programmes their leaders signed up to. Only in Spain and Portugal can it be argued that the governments have a mandate for cuts, while Ireland will vote on the fiscal compact treaty later this month. It might be in everyone's interest - both the creditor and debtor countries- for all the countries needing emergency support to hold national referendums on whether to remain in the euro. This would force politicians at national and European level to candidly weigh up the pros and cons of the recovery programmes and their membership of the euro.

The euro is - as it has been from the start - in the hands of Europe's leaders, who have so far been unwilling or unable to spell out the reality of the options open to their electorates. They need to be clear on three points: the structure of the single currency requires reform if it is to work; debt reduction is not optional; and austerity without growth is a road to ruin. The sooner politicians from creditor and debtor countries swallow their pride and correct their mistakes the better.

The G8 summit Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

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