What Osborne won't admit: growth has increased because of slower cuts

The Chancellor's claim that "the pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed" is not supported by any of the available data.

Many others – perhaps Fraser Nelson does it best – have poked fun at the most Panglossian elements of the Chancellor’s speech on Monday. But I’d like here to address the substantive arguments he makes about what the path of the UK economy over recent years says about the impact of fiscal policy on growth.

The Chancellor doesn’t deny that growth has been much weaker than forecast, although it’s worth repeating the scale of this underperformance. In June 2010, the Office of Budget Responsibility predicted that by now the economy would be about 7 per cent larger, driven by a sharp rise in business investment and exports, while the deficit would have fallen by two-thirds. What has actually happened? In fact, GDP has grown at less than a third of that rate, business investment has fallen, and the path of deficit reduction bears no resemblance at all to the original projections (which is, as I'll elaborate below, a good thing).    

But, the Chancellor argues, this underperformance has nothing to do with fiscal policy:

the composition and timing of the slowdown in GDP growth relative to forecast is better explained by external inflation shocks, the eurozone crisis and the ongoing impact of the financial crisis on financial conditions. 

The Chancellor claimed his analysis was supported by many "independent economists" - although, oddly, he failed to mention the IMF, which has been the most prominent independent organisation to argue the contrary. Of course, the IMF and those of us who thought the fiscal consolidation plan was too aggressive never denied that these other factors played a par (and that their reversal will indeed help boost recovery).  As I put it here:

it now seems clear that the negative impact of ‘Plan A’ on growth has been significantly greater than expected, although matters have also been exacerbated by even more damaging policy mistakes in the eurozone, as well as high commodity prices.

Coincidentally, on the same day the Chancellor made his speech, other "independent economists" (Oscar Jorda and Alan Taylor) published a widely reported paper suggesting precisely the opposite (an earlier, non-technical summary is here). They find, as shown in their chart:

Without austerity, UK real output would now be steadily climbing above its 2007 peak, rather than being stuck 2% below. 

And they conclude:

Fiscal contraction prolongs the pain when the state of the economy is weak, much less so when the economy is strong....Keynes is still right, after all: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.

However, despite the weight of academic research, the Chancellor goes on to claim that current developments support his interpretation of recent past history:

Proponents of the ‘fiscalist’ story cannot explain why the UK recovery has strengthened rapidly over the last six months. The pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed, government spending cuts have continued as planned, and yet growth has accelerated and many of the leading economic indicators show activity rising faster than at any time since the 1990s.

But this is an obvious sleight of hand.  The claim that "the pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed" is not supported by any of the available data. Here is the OBR’s own chart. As Robert Chote, the OBR’s Chair puts it, "deficit reduction appears to have stalled".

Indeed, the OECD, the government’s favourite of the international forecasting bodies (since, as noted above, the IMF shares my interpretation of the impact of fiscal consolidation on growth) goes even further. According to its calculations, the UK is actually expanding its structural deficit in 2013. In other words, the government is engaging in fiscal stimulus.  Personally I find this implausible - the OBR's estimate is that the structural deficit was broadly flat in 2012-13 - but the data hardly seem consistent with the Chancellor's view.

How did this happen? As I explained earlier this year:

So what's going on? As I noted earlier, most of the deficit reduction has come from cutting public sector net investment (spending on schools, roads, hospitals, etc) roughly in half. Pretty much all the rest came from tax increases (note that the investment cuts and tax increases were both, to a significant extent, policies inherited from the previous government). And we can see when it happened - between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

But these sources of deficit reduction stopped in 2011-12, because the government belatedly realised that cutting investment was a major mistake and that the economic imperative was actually to do precisely the opposite (not that there was much investment left to cut); and it stopped putting up taxes overall. So we can see also what's happened since - with the impact of the weak economy on tax receipts reducing revenues, the deficit has been flat and is projected to stay flat.

So the Chancellor’s argument is simply a non sequitur, supported neither by the research evidence nor the data. 

As I wrote here at the turn of the year, we should give the government credit for not digging us further into a hole by trying to stick to its original plans. Fiscal consolidation has slowed, at least for the time being, and as a consequence it is playing a considerably smaller role in driving economic developments than it did two years ago. Meanwhile, the eurozone and global environment is, at least at present, considerably more favourable. Poor policy and bad luck has delayed recovery, relative to NIESR's original forecasts and everyone else's, but has not removed the ability of the UK economy to generate growth. 

So it is perfectly reasonable to ask economic forecasters (including both the OBR and us at NIESR) why we appear so far to have underpredicted the strength of the current upturn. But claiming that this improvement vindicates the earlier damaging mistake the government made by going for front-loaded fiscal consolidation in 2010 just doesn’t make any economic sense. 

George Osborne makes a speech on the economy at a construction site in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

Photo: Getty
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From war and slavery to prison – life inside an immigration detention centre

David spent five years locked in a house in Britain. Then he spent two years in immigration detention centres. 

Visitors at the immigration detention centre are met by Sid the Sloth, balancing an acorn just as he does in the family film Ice Age. The picture is one of the brightly coloured murals adorning the otherwise bare walls of the visitor's entrance. The lurid paintwork sits in stark juxtaposition to the barbed wire outside, and the metal detector and eight sets of doors which visitors must pass through.

It is a thin veneer which fails to mask a system containing institutionalised abuse from top to bottom. It isn't surprising, then, that one of the conditions of my visit was not to identify the centre - the volunteers I joined fear having visiting rights withdrawn by the company in charge.

Once inside I met Sivan, a 32-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker who came to Britain clinging to the underside of a lorry. He had been tortured by the Turkish authorities. For Sivan the children’s cartoons in the visitor’s entrance held a particularly cruel irony. Detainees at the centre are not allowed smartphones, and with no access to email Sivan’s wife, also a Kurdish asylum seeker, is unable to send her husband pictures of their first child. The couple have not seen each other in the two months since Sivan was detained. That day, in the visitor’s lounge, Sivan saw his son for the first time. Holding photographs of the little boy in his hands, Sivan’s face momentarily lit up as it split with joy and then sorrow.

Sivan does not know when he will be able to see his young family - or if they will ever be able to be together.

Across Britain more than 3,000 people, many fleeing war and torture, are locked up indefinitely in immigration centres. They arrive in Britain seeking refuge. But are shut away in privately-run prisons before being forcibly removed. Often with little or no English, detainees rely on volunteers to help them navigate Britain’s complex immigration system.

At the volunteer hub, which helps 80 of the 500 men in the centre each week, I met former detainees who all had one thing in common: the mental torture that indefinite detention inflicts. Like David, a quiet Ghanaian who has never really been free. He was kept as a slave on a plantation until traffickers brought him to Britain aged 13. Here he spent five years locked in a house, when not being forced to work 14-hour days in a warehouse. He finally escaped only to spend 11 years waiting for his asylum application to be processed - still ongoing despite clear medical evidence of his torture during imprisonment. He has spent two years in immigration detention centres. And as he waits he now has to register his presence with the authorities every Tuesday. He is terrified that when he does he won’t return to his four-year-old daughter, but instead be returned to captivity by the Home Office, without explanation.

Another former detainee Daniel, a tailor from Iran who fled five years ago, spent five months in detention when he first arrived in Britain. He describes being locked up with no time limit as "one of the worst times of my life", and still needs anti-depressants. “It really damaged my mind,” Daniel told me. “You don’t know when the process will be finished and you’re just waiting, waiting. You don’t know what’s going on.”

I heard from detainees who have had medical appointments they have waited months for cancelled because the centre wouldn’t pay for transport. Some kept three in a room with a toilet between the beds. Others woken in the middle of the night to see their friend dragged from their bed and assaulted by guards before being taken for deportation. Detainees employed to clean the centre for an exploitative £3 a day, just to afford necessities like toiletries. Or they stay trapped by fear in their rooms because they are afraid of the ex-prisoners, many who have committed serious crimes, locked up around them. I heard too of solitary confinement used routinely as a punishment for those considered not to be compliant. More than one detainee said immigration centres are worse than prisons. And they are right.

Britain is the only place in Europe which still locks people up with no time limit. Despite the government’s promise to reduce both the numbers - and the time spent there - progress is still far too slow. Last year 27,819 people entered detention. Some have been there more than five years.

Barely a week passes without a new report of violence or suicide or rape or abuse, inflicted on those who came to our country for help. The government should hang its head in shame. The Home Office must stop turning a blind eye to what it must know what is happening to those in its care. It’s clear that this is a broken and barbaric system. After seeing it for myself, I’m more convinced than ever that the use of indefinite detention has to end.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed for this article.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party.