We need to devolve skills provision to avoid youth unemployment rising. Photo: Getty
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Government has the wrong approach to tackling the skills gap

With youth unemployment falling to 733,000, it is time for devolving skills to improve the prospects for young people and safeguard against any future rise in the figures.

Centralised power has its merits, but when it comes to skills and training, the status quo is simply not working, and a local approach is desperately needed.

ONS figures due in a couple of weeks are expected to show a slight dip in the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds, but a fundamental disconnect remains between the skills the UK is producing and the skills employers need. Take London as an example - there is no shortage of jobs, but businesses are struggling to fill one in three vacancies because of a lack of suitable candidates. The government's £4bn spend on skills provision in England is not delivering value for money, with too much spent on hair and beauty and health and safety training when the general trend is moving towards more high-skilled sectors such as digital, engineering and science.

Addressing the mismatch in the skills provision has to be a priority or the current and future generations will be unable to compete with a highly-skilled international workforce.  Skills support must follow a demand-led model and be closely aligned with the needs of the local economy.

Whitehall is not best placed to determine the skills needed in Manchester, Newcastle, London or Birmingham. It is local councils that need to take this leadership role as they have the comprehensive local knowledge and relationships with education institutions, employers and training providers in the area. Having central government hold the purse strings is not only inefficient but it is neutering our ability to tackle unemployment.

There is already extremely valuable work being done at a local level with town halls leveraging their strong community links and acting as a broker between learners and businesses. Devolving budget responsibility will enable local governments to take a more long-term view of skills needs. They can then respond effectively to the ever-changing jobs market and ensure residents have the requisite skills to get ahead.

So, how local should the approach go? There is no one size fits all solution, which highlights once again how the UK skills system is misjudged. In London for example, each borough has vastly different business characteristics and economy. Through our charity, the City Bridge Trust, we offered grants of £100,000 to each London borough to support projects run by third sector organisations to reduce youth unemployment, because we recognise the granularity of the capital's jobs market. The money is being used by local councils to fund community projects and skills providers who work with the hard to reach and understand the support and training needed to help their residents find and sustain employment.

In Waltham Forest, which borders the expansive Epping Forest open space, managed by the City of London Corporation, there are a number of opportunities in the booming horticultural industry, while the borough of Hackney is perfectly located to take advantage of jobs in the local digital sector - Silicon Roundabout. In the City, commercial developments such as One New Change have seen more demand for retail experience. This has led to us backing the Cheapside Employment Project - a free service to employers that provides customised training for local residents and matches them with vacancies in the retail, hospitality and construction sectors. Many unemployed or low-paid young people cannot afford to travel outside of their community, so it is vital that there is local training provision aimed at getting those people into jobs close-by. Looking through a national lens, these nuances are missed.

The devolving skills argument is showing no signs of abating because it makes practical sense. Youth unemployment is a complex and long-term problem but the solution is obvious. Councils already have strong community relationships and engage regularly with local businesses and colleges on a strategic level. They facilitate greater collaboration within the community; developing apprenticeships, internships and corporate volunteering partnerships that bolster economic development in the area.

By and large, councils have a good track record with aligning skills support with the needs of employers. They must be given the freedom and funding to enhance skills provision and ensure young people are fully prepared for the labour market.

Mark Boleat is the policy chairman of the City of London Corporation

Mark Boleat, Policy and Resources Chairman, City of London Corporation.

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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?