The inflation hawks were wrong

As NS economics editor David Blanchflower predicted, inflation has plummeted in the last year.

Last year, as inflation rose to more than 4 per cent (it eventually peaked at 5.2 per cent last September), a band of right-wing commentators and economists demanded that the Bank of England hike interest rates in an attempt to bring prices down. Andrew Sentance, then a member of the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), bemoaned "the lack of a substantive policy response to persistent above-target inflation" and warned that "if we do not start to raise UK interest rates gradually soon, we risk having to do so more aggressively in the future". A fearful leader in the Spectator declared: "Inflation is back with a vengeance...Britain is once again in an inflationary cycle...For how much longer can high inflation be described as a blip?"

Others, however, including New Statesman economics editor David Blanchflower, argued that the spike was largely due to temporary factors such as the VAT increase, higher global commodity prices, and the depreciation of sterling, and predicted that inflation would fall back in 2012. In February 2011, in a piece entitled "Stop worrying about inflation", Blanchflower wrote:

Inflation is going to collapse in 2012 when the impact of the one-off increase in VAT, oil and commodity prices and the exchange-rate depreciation mechanically drop out of the inflation calculations. As Mervyn noted in his recent speech, these three items alone account for 3 per cent of the current 3.7 per cent CPI inflation rate.

Well, the results are in and it looks like Blanchflower was right again (as I've noted before, he was one of the few economists to warn that George Osborne's excessive austerity measures would trigger a double-dip recession). Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, was just 2.2% last month, the lowest level since November 2009 (see graph below) and only 0.2 per cent above the Bank's target rate.

Inflation is expected to rise over the next few months as this year's round of energy price increases take effect, but it is still likely to remain close to the 2 per cent target rate (which should, in any case, be raised). This should prompt the Bank to keep interest rates at their record low of 0.5 per cent and consider a third round of quantitative easing. As in the US, where Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has pledged to keep rates near zero until at least mid-2015, sustained monetary stimulus is needed to support growth and employment, not least when the government's fiscal policy remains so determinedly self-defeating. While it appears that the economy returned to growth in the third quarter, the danger of a contraction in the fourth quarter (a triple-dip recession) remains. Had the Bank listened to the inflation hawks and hiked rates, the UK would have suffered an ever deeper double-dip.

It was already clear that the Hayekian right was disastrously wrong about fiscal policy; now it's clear that it was wrong about monetary policy too.

The Bank of England building on Threadneedle Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.