Osborne will need even-bigger cuts to stick to his plan

The Chancellor must find £48bn in extra spending cuts or tax rises to meet his main deficit target.

The Autumn Statement is now just over three weeks away and a sense of déjà vu hangs over the scene. In the run up to the same event last year it was plain that poor economic performance meant that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) would be the bearer of bad news for the Chancellor. And so it is again.

After a grotty economic performance in 2011, last year’s Autumn Statement was always going to deliver bad news. The Chancellor announced the need for a £15bn reduction in overall spending by 2016-17 in order to meet the government’s fiscal mandate of eliminating the structural deficit in five years.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Much social security spending is driven by things beyond the government’s control: rising rents push up the housing benefit bill, and retiring baby boomers raise the overall cost of the basic state pension. So to constrain overall spending in the face of a rising benefits bill, the Treasury was implicitly seeking a further £11bn of savings. In total, the plan was then to find some £26bn in spending cuts – since tax rises weren’t part of the plan – by 2016-17 in order to achieve the government’s aims.

Unfortunately, this year things seem depressingly familiar. At the Budget, the OBR predicted that economic growth would be 0.8 per cent this year, but independent forecasters now think it will be more like a 0.3 per cent contraction. As a result, public borrowing is running 10 per cent above the OBR’s March forecast. None of this is great news, but it wouldn’t be so bad if the higher borrowing was a temporary reflection of the weakness in the economy that would resolve itself once things get back to normal. Unfortunately, the Social Market Foundation’s analysis – part of a joint report produced with the RSA yesterday - shows that this doesn’t seem to be the case. At least not according the models the OBR uses.  

Unemployment has been falling for most of this year. While that’s a good news story in itself, it implies that the economy may have moved closer to its capacity. But with less far to bounce back, a bigger chunk of this year’s £122bn underlying annual government borrowing will remain when output finally does reach its full capacity. And the only way to fill that hole is to close the gap between revenue and spending.

Our analysis, using the OBR methodology, suggests that getting the government’s Budget 2012 plans back on track would require a further £22bn of spending cuts or tax rises by 2017-18. The Chancellor has some room to ease up on his plans and still hit his mandate, but whatever way you look at it, the OBR’s models suggest that a lot more fiscal pain is on the way. Combined with the cuts already planned, the total size of the task after 2014 could be £48bn by 2017-18.

If the Chancellor sticks to his plan to keep taxes unchanged and cut £10.5bn from the social security budget, most of the work will be done by cuts in public services. That would require 11 per cent real-terms budget reductions in every department over the first three years of the next parliament. And if health, education and international development spending were to be protected, the impact elsewhere would rise to an eye-watering 23 per cent.

All of this would come on top of the spending squeeze that’s already underway and planned to run until 2015. The consequences of the eight years of cuts would be to decimate spending in some areas, with some departments over 40 per cent smaller once the public finances are back to balance.

It must be hoped that the OBR’s models are wrong in their implications and that the economy is in fact still some distance from its potential level. But if the OBR’s advice follows it past form, the news will be grim, requiring cuts that will run deep into next parliament. Against a background of four years’ unprecedented cuts, a further squeeze on anything like the scale implied by the SMF’s analysis will represent the central issue at the next election, forcing on the electorate stark decisions about the kind of public services we want in the UK.

But we mustn’t have a re-run of the 2010 election, in which the three parties connived in presenting vague plans and disingenuous language to mask the scale of the problem. Osborne made a bold decision in setting up the independent OBR. Perhaps, before the next election he should make another, and require it publicly to adjudicate on the detail and viability of each of the main parties’ plans. If the electorate is to choose, it must be informed.

Ian Mulheirn is director of the Social Market Foundation

George Osborne will deliver the Autumn Statement on 5 December. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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Nobody's bargaining chips: How EU citizens are fighting back against Theresa May

Immigration could spike after Brexit, the Home Affairs select committee warned. 

In early July, EU citizens living in Scotland received some post from the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. The letters stated: “The immediate status of EU nationals living in Scotland has not changed and you retain all the same rights to live and to work here. I believe those rights for the longer term should be guaranteed immediately.”

The letters were appreciated. One Polish woman living on a remote Scottish island posted on social media: “Scottish Government got me all emotional yesterday.”

In reality, though, Sturgeon does not have the power to let EU citizens stay. That rests with the UK Government. The new prime minister, Theresa May, stood out during the Tory leadership contest for her refusal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens. Instead, she told Robert Peston: “As part of the [Brexit] negotiation we will need to look at this question of people who are here in the UK from the EU.”

As Home secretary in an EU member state, May took a hard line on immigration.  As PM in Brexit Britain, she has more powers than ever. 

In theory, this kind of posturing could work. A steely May can use the spectre of mass deportations to force a hostile Spain and France to guarantee the rights of British expat retirees. Perhaps she can also batter in the now-locked door to the single market. 

But the attempt to use EU citizens as bargaining chips may backfire. The Home Affairs select committee warned that continued policy vagueness could lead to a surge in immigration – the last thing May wants. EU citizens, after all, are aware of how British immigration policy works and understand that it's easier to turn someone back at the border than deport them when they've set up roots.

The report noted: “Past experience has shown that previous attempts to tighten immigration rules have led to a spike in immigration prior to the rules coming into force.”

It recommended that if the Government wants to avoid a surge in applications, it must choose an effective cut-off date for the old rules, whether that is 23 June, the date Article 50 is triggered, or the date the UK finally leaves the EU.

Meanwhile, EU citizens, many of whom have spent decades in the UK, are pursuing tactics of their own. UK immigration forms are busy with chatter of UK-based EU citizens urging one another to "get your DCPR" - document certifying permanent residence - and other paperwork to protect their status. More than 1,000 have joined a Facebook group to discuss the impact of the referendum, with hot topics including dual nationality and petitions for a faster naturalisation process. British citizens with foreign spouses are trying to make the most of the "Surinder Singh" loophole, which allows foreign spouses to bypass usual immigration procedures if their British partner is based in another EU country. 

Jakub, a classical musician originally from Poland, is already thinking of how he can stay in the UK, where there are job opportunities for musicians. 

But he worries that although he has spent half a decade in the UK, a brief spell two years ago back in Poland may jeopardise his situation.“I feel a new fear,” he said. “I am not sure what will happen next.”