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  1. Business
  2. Economics
1 April 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 2:31pm

On April 28, the Government will start borrowing more to borrow less

With Universal Credit, the Government is trying to invest in the future. Why can't it do that elsewhere?

By Alex Hern

You wouldn’t know it from their criticism of Labour, but for the last year, the Government has been borrowing more to borrow less.

If its plans for Universal Credit come to fruition, spending on welfare will be reduced by millions, both through efficiency savings and reduced payouts. There will be a knock-on effect, too, from the changed incentives Universal Credit creates. With a smoother phase-out of benefits as claimants’ income increases, the hope is that fewer people will find themselves in the situation where working more leaves them with less disposable cash. More people in employment means more tax revenues, fewer benefit payouts and faster growth.

But Universal Credit, the first “pathfinder” of which is starting in Manchester this month, has required an enormous outlay to get off the ground. Because it integrates six different benefits, the software required to calculate the correct payout is costly, and has had to be specially commissioned at great expense. It’s made more complex by the fact that it is supposed to synchronise information out-of-work benefit claimants with Job Match, a job-search site. On top of that, the commissioning appears to have been done ineptly; as the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour writes, “suspicion remains that the software is not ready”.

But even if it’s been performed ineptly – and incorporates a number of punishing reductions in transfers to poor people – the idea behind Universal Credit is sound. A massive initial outlay to modernise the infrastructure which underpins our social safety net, which will lead to reduced expenditures in the following years, ultimately contributing to the deficit reduction programme. Or, in simpler terms: Borrowing more to borrow less.

The Conservatives know that reducing the economy to glib talking points plays well in PMQs and TV interviews, and so can’t quite drop that handy stick with which to beat Labour. But they also know, and demonstrate through their actions, that borrowing more to borrow less is an entirely sensible course of action for an economy like ours. Some infrastructure is falling apart; some more has glaringly obvious modernisation opportunities; and yet more won’t be fit for purpose when (if?) the economy begins to return to growth.

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Investment is a sound economic strategy. It’s what the Government is trying to do with Universal Credit, and it’s what they should be doing with a lot more projects.

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