Autumn Statement 2013: Swindler George Osborne’s Biggest Con Yet

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By Shane Croucher | December 6, 2013 4:41 AM EST

Chancellor George Osborne delivers his 2013 Autumn Statement to the House of Commons (Reuters)

Along Westminster Bridge, lurking in parliament's shadows, you will often find gangs of scruffy shysters coaxing gullible passers-by into guessing which of three cups a ball is under.

With sleight of hand, little conscience, and a fool who will soon part from his crisp £20 note, these toe-rags are robbing people blind.

Why choose Westminster? Is it because of the crowds? Or is it because inside the area's most iconic building sits their spiritual leader, the swindler's Dalai Lama - The Right (Dis)Honourable George Osborne MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

"Gather round, gather round," cries Osborne, "for I have a story to tell." And what a story his Autumn Statement was.

Growth! At last! He pointed to the Office for Budget Responsibility's forecasts for the UK economy and, sure enough, he was right. The wonks had said the economy will grow much faster than they had thought back in March. What's more, the deficit will fall faster and so will public debt.

"See," says Osborne. "I was right all along. My little plan worked and everyone who doubted me was wrong."

Except the deficit will still take three years longer to erase than Osborne had originally said it would; debt will fall as a portion of GDP a year later than he first said; and growth will - you guessed it - still be slower than his shattered promises suggested.

What's more, the OBR has itself been warning on the recovery. It's largely being driven by household consumption as we all erode our savings, leverage ourselves with more debt, or wear down our assets to spend, spend, spend. Not on things we want, but things we need. Like food for the family or heating for our homes. In some cases people are so poor it's a straight choice between the two.

Wages

How long can this last? About as long as Osborne would last in a Scouse working men's club. What we need is higher wages so people can afford to consume even the basics and don't have to eat away at savings or turn to unscrupulous payday loan sharks.

Real incomes have been in sharp decline and the OBR says this won't end until 2015.

Osborne has already lifted the personal allowance to £10,000 from April 2014. But as research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) shows, the poorest workers are four times worse off because of the June 2011 VAT rise to 20% than what they get back through this uplift in the personal allowance.

If Osborne doesn't want to use public money to go further on the personal allowance, and put more pennies into people's pockets, he should make the long-overdue move of meaningfully raising the National Minimum Wage. If the economy really is growing as fast as he and the OBR say it is, then let the workers driving this output growth feel the benefit.

If you're going to strip away and slash in-work benefits which support those on low wages - as Osborne has done - the least you can do is make work pay.

Energy bills

In the days leading up to the Autumn Statement, the jewel of falling energy bills was dangled in front of our wide-eyes. Green levies would be shifted away from energy firms - or household bills, which is where they end up - and onto general taxation.

The 'Big Six' energy firms began to freeze or cut prices in anticipation, though only for a year or two at best. According to Osborne his energy policy changes will knock £50 of our bills. But what does his own Autumn Statement document say?

It "confirms that the government will consult on reducing costs" through this proposed shake-up of green levies. It is going to "consult" on how it could do these things. That does not sound like a concrete guarantee that household energy bills will come down. Because it isn't.

How can Osborne say, as he did in the statement, that consumers will not face a penny more tax from these changes? It is a dupe. The money has to come from somewhere and if it isn't a tax rise then it is a spending cut.

More austerity to shift the green levies burden away from energy firms (who, if they had any decency, would absorb these rather than pass them on to consumers) and onto us.

Even then, this green levies shift only accounts for £40 to £47 of the £50 reduction promised. So where does the rest come from?

"In addition, electricity distribution network companies are willing to take voluntary action to reduce network costs in 2014-15," says the Autumn Statement document.

"This will allow a further one-off reduction of an average of around £5 on electricity bills, which energy suppliers will also be able to pass on to their customers."

Firstly, how generous of the electricity distribution network firms to voluntarily reduce costs. Why aren't they doing this anyway? Why does it take pressure from government over their inefficiency, which is ultimately a burden on household finances? It gets worse.

"All of the major energy suppliers have confirmed on the basis of the proposals that they would pass the benefits of this package to their customers," says the document.

"However, the reduction in individual household bills will depend on the energy supplier. Some companies have not yet announced price rises for 2014, or have limited increases until the government's review of green levies has concluded. Others have announced price rises and have indicated that they would reduce their customers' bills as a result of these changes."

So we are working on the basis that energy firms, who answer to their shareholders only, can be trusted. This is like leaving an unlocked bike in London beneath a sign that says "UNLOCKED BIKE. PLEASE DO NOT STEAL."

It is a con, a trick, a sham. If energy firms' costs rise - which they almost certainly will - then bills will go up too and there is nothing, short of nationalising the entire industry again, the government can do about that.

Housing

Then there is housing. Compared to many other western countries, particularly in Europe, we have some of the highest housing costs. Rents and mortgages gorge on our incomes. This is a simple problem. We do not have enough homes to meet demand. Therefore we need to build more homes.

Osborne acknowledged this in his statement. And with a flurry of hands he made the problem disappear up his sleeve.

He announced a couple of measures, including £1bn of loans to unblock stalled housing work in places such as Leeds and Manchester, as well as lifting the borrowing cap on local authorities by £300m so they can invest more in building new homes. Councils will also be encouraged to sell high value social housing to pay for cheaper homes elsewhere.

Shelter, the housing charity, calls this package "a piecemeal, underwhelming approach to tackling a problem - built up under successive governments - that is now so big it demands bold, visionary solutions."

It is not enough. We need comprehensive action to boost housing supply. Heavy public investment (borrowing to invest in an asset, such as social housing, that yields returns will boost the economy and reduce the housing benefit bill); tax incentives for builders; an end to NIMBYism in planning laws.

The longer we kick this down the road - and it isn't just Osborne who's guilty of this - the more expensive it will be to solve in the long run. Our rents and mortgages will soar higher and higher. So will the housing benefit bill. We will be squeezed later by Osborne's inaction now.

Then there was Osborne's abolishing of the employer national insurance contribution for under-21s, lauded by many. Except the OBR, which says this is unlikely to result in any new jobs being created as Osborne intends. It is largely pointless.

This Autumn Statement is just another chapter in Osborne's recovery myth. He can keep telling stories until the next general election, but until we all feel it in our pockets, it's no recovery at all.

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