Ahead of every recent budget and autumn statement, the right-of-centre think tanks have come out with a set of recommendations that support the broad thrust of government policy and argue for more of the same. True to form, earlier this week Reform made the case for sticking to Plan A on deficit reduction, abolishing the 50p tax rate and cutting workers’ employment rights.
But, with the economy having grown by just 0.5 per cent over the last year, and the Prime Minister hinting in a recent speech to the CBI that the government’s deficit reduction plan is being blown off course, more of the same is the last thing the economy needs.
In an attempt to show there is a real alternative to the government’s approach, IPPR has published its ‘10 Ways to Promote Growth’. These range from short-term measures that address the lack of demand in the economy right now to longer-term measures designed to address structural weaknesses that threaten to hold back the economy in the medium-term.
These measures include an overhaul of the deficit-reduction plan, first to spread it out over a longer period (something that may well be forced on the government in any case) and second to make it responsive to growth in the economy. Quite simply, there would be a set of rules that meant deficit reduction would be speeded up when growth was strong and slowed down when, as now, growth is weak.
This would create some flexibility for the Chancellor to guarantee the long-term young unemployed a job (matched by an obligation to take up the offer); to follow the CBI’s advice on introducing capital allowances; and to announce an immediate increase in public infrastructure spending, amounting to £10 billion by 2012/13. It would also allow the government to extend free childcare to make it easier for parents to return to work, as a first step towards a system of universal childcare.
Eventually, this will require offsetting action to make the deficit reduction arithmetic add up. Spending cuts and tax increases are not appropriate now, while the economy is so weak. But, when it is stronger, options for additional revenues include abolition of the winter fuel allowance, introducing a capital receipts tax to replace inheritance tax and restricting tax relief on pensions to the basic rate of income tax.
The Chancellor is expected to announce a policy of ‘credit easing’ in his Autumn Statement. This should focus on ensuring small companies are getting the funding they need to survive and expand in the current tough climate. Large companies already have large cash surpluses, and so are in less need to help in this regard. There has also been talk of seeking investments from pension and insurance funds to finance infrastructure projects. Past experience suggests this is a lost cause. Instead, the Green Investment Bank should be developed into a fully-fledged National Investment Bank, designed to raise capital to finance infrastructure spending.
The government also needs to offer firms more support for innovation – through the creation of ‘innovation zones’ – and for exporters – through an expansion of the Export Credit Guarantee Scheme. It also needs to encourage employers to lift productivity levels by making greater use of the existing skills in the workforce and to place skills centre-stage in its growth strategy.
Finally, the government should reverse its clampdown on students, who bring revenues to the higher education sector, and on skilled migrants from outside the EU, who businesses say are needed if they are to maximise their potential. The economy cannot be ‘open for business’ while also being closed to those who want to study and work here.
The government’s plan for growth is based on a set of miscellaneous policies agreed in coalition negotiations. This is the wrong approach. Instead, it needs to identify what is needed for the economy to grow: more demand in the short-term and increasing supplies of capital, labour, skills and land, together with better ways of utilising them, in the medium-term. Then it can work out how best it can help to deliver them.
* Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at IPPR
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