Duncan Smith has created a ticking social time bomb - and we'll pick up the bill

Pushing the poorest people to borrow money to pay their rent, and far beyond their means, forces our social problems under the carpet.

Last week, in its annual assessment of major government projects, the Cabinet Office sounded a warning to the Department for Work and Pensions over its flagship policies: Universal Credit and the £500 cap on benefits. No wonder; evidence against the policy is mounting up.

In Ashton, Greater Manchester - the only area where the government’s fated Universal Credit welfare system has already been rolled out - personal debt is rising, leaving families in a precarious position as welfare reform kicks in.

New Charter Housing Trust, which manages social housing within the pilot area, reports a 29 per cent rise in the number of people contacting its financial support team in the last year. More worryingly, it also records a 19 per cent rise in the total amount of debt held by tenants contacting them for support. On average, tenants who ask for help come to them owing £8,400.

This is not housing debt; it is not rent arrears. It is consumer debt: credit cards; loans; pay day lending; ‘emergency cash’ provided by high street money shops.

Although the trend for rising debt began before the start of the welfare reform pilot, New Charter says it is on an upward curve.

Meanwhile there has been an explosion in the number of high cost ‘money shop’ lenders opening on our high streets.. Planning changes which came into force this week mean that high street premises can be turned over to payday lenders without a public consultation or a change in planning permissions. As the bad times roll, easy money has never been more widely available to the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society..

When the bedroom tax kicks in and benefits are capped, tenants struggling to make ends meet will prioritise food and rent over other costs, and at any lengths. Despite support from local food banks (Oxfam revealed this week that almost half a million people in the UK are now depending on handouts for survival - most of them working), sometimes the money just doesn’t go far enough.

Tenants who have never missed a rental payment in their life now risk building up arrears - with the threat of eviction from their home - or turning to the proliferation of under-regulated high street and online money to plug the gap. Many, out of pride and desperation, will take the latter route.

Pushing the poorest people to borrow money to pay their rent, and far beyond their means, forces our social problems under the carpet only for the bulge to rise up and burst forth - at great expense to the taxpayer - later.

And so to housing debt. At the end of last month law firm Winckworth Sherwood did a few quick calculations, estimating the rise in arrears after the roll out of welfare reform. It claims Universal Credit will lead to an average increase in arrears of £180 per tenant.

Rent arrears, and the associated threat of eviction, are complex problems for society. Housing associations can only afford to develop much-needed new homes by borrowing against their income streams, historically guaranteed by payment of housing benefit. Now their income is plummeting.

Some social landlords have decided to risk their own balance sheets to protect their residents, finding ways around the ‘bedroom tax’ by reclassifying bedrooms as box rooms or cupboards. Others have made a commitment not to evict over arrears caused by welfare reform.

But not every social housing provider can afford to do this, and private landlords will not be so understanding. Welfare reform will lead to arrears followed by eviction - costly legal procedures in themselves - and finally an exorbitant rescue package including emergency housing, crisis payments and the cost of supporting vulnerable children.

If you think this is a hyperbolic vision of the future, just look to Oxford, where the council’s emergency housing department is already so stretched that it is placing families in a local Travelodge until temporary accommodation can be found.

This is the paradox: tenants will either find a way to cover their rent, or they won’t. And either way we have a ticking social time bomb just waiting to go off, at vast cost to the public purse.

Work is underway to prevent this social meltdown. In Lewisham, the local housing organisation has set up a relationship with the credit union which means as soon as a tenant falls into arrears they are contacted and offered help by the union, before they have time to seek other more expensive financing. Yet these relationships are rare; it’s a postcode lottery.

The lifetime cost of welfare reform won’t be understood for decades, as children made homeless during their education fail to find stability and families now racking up huge personal debts plunge towards a lifetime of poverty and dependency. No doubt Iain Duncan Smith will be praying for a Labour victory by 2015 as the impact of his policies unravel our communities.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives to attend the government's weekly cabinet meeting at Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hannah Fearn is contributing editor of the Guardian local government, housing and public leaders networks

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?