Leader: The wrong kind of economic recovery

Even the most depressed economies eventually recover. The return of growth in the UK, after three years of stagnation under the coalition government, is merely a reflection of this truth. With GDP still at 2.5 per cent below its pre-recession peak, in 2007, the economy has yet to make up the lost output from the crisis. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus by cutting taxes and increasing infrastructure spending, the economy is now 5.2 per cent larger. But after convincing much of the public that the post-2010 downturn was inevitable, George Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations.

According to the Chancellor’s account, the surge in growth is a vindication of his decision to pursue austerity after entering office. This claim is faithfully echoed by a media that loudly endorsed his deficit reduction programme in 2010. Not only does this narrative ignore the tardiness of the recovery – the slowest for more than 100 years – it also obscures the sources of the growth we are now experiencing. It is not austerity but its reverse that explains the upturn.

To the extraordinary monetary stimulus provided by the Bank of England, in the form of quantitative easing and record-low interest rates, have been added large-scale state interventions such as Help to Buy. After imposing damaging policies such as the VAT rise and the dramatic reduction in infrastructure spending in 2010, Mr Osborne has also eased the pace of austerity. Rather than sticking to his original deficit reduction timetable, the Chancellor allowed borrowing to rise and extended his programme from four years to seven. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the deficit is still expected to be at least £100bn this year, £40bn more than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2010.

When he entered office in 2010, Mr Osborne pledged to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on property and debt-financed consumer spending, cynically fostered by Labour, and towards investment and exports. But growth is again being driven by the former. Exports fell by 2.4 per cent in the most recent quarter, despite the continuing weakness of the pound, while business investment remains 6.3 per cent below its 2012 level. With wage growth (0.8 per cent) still lagging behind inflation (2.2 per cent), the recovery is being built on consumer credit and rising house prices. Like Gordon Brown before him, Mr Osborne has found the attractions of debt-driven growth impossible to resist. If the economy is not to become permanently reliant on ultra-low interest rates, he must act now to promote both public and private investment. Rather than risking the creation of another property bubble through Help to Buy, he should concentrate on increasing the supply and the affordability of housing.

A programme of the kind pursued by Harold Macmillan as housing minister in the early 1950s, when 300,000 homes a year were built, would stimulate growth (for every £100 invested in housebuilding, £350 is generated in return), create employment and reduce welfare spending. As some MPs in his own party have suggested, the Chancellor should also offer incentives to firms to pay the living wage in order to reduce consumers’ reliance on borrowing to maintain their living standards.

At present, GDP is rising but living standards are not. The north-south divide in England is widening, rather than narrowing. Meanwhile, household savings are falling at their fastest rate for 40 years. The economic cycle may finally have turned but the structural conditions for a repeat of the crash remain firmly in place.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England. Photo: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.