On the size of the coalition’s spending cuts

The home page of the TUC‘s campaign against the coalition’s spending cuts describes the campaign as being “against the Government’s deep, rapid cuts in public spending” (emphasis added). A blog called “A Thousand Cuts”, dedicated to critiquing the coalition’s plans has “The slashing and burning of Britain’s public services” as it’s sub-title. The BBC claims the Institute of Fiscal Studies described the cuts as “longest, deepest, sustained period of cuts to public services spending at least since World War II”.

In other words, we’re being told by various sources that the cuts to public spending are going to be larger and more severe than we’ve seen in recent decades. But what are the numbers behind these claims?

The Adam Smith Institute (ASI) summarises the figures on total managed expenditure as follows:

Year TME (£ bn) Nominal change (%) Real change (%)
2010-11 696.8
2011-12 699.8 +0.43 -1.54
2012-13 711.0 +1.60 -0.39
2013-14 722.0 +1.55 -0.44
2014-15 737.5 +2.15 +0.14
2015-16 757.5 +2.71 +0.70

Meanwhile they summarise current spending (covering the vast bulk of “front line services”) as in the following table:

Year Current Ex. (£ bn) Nominal change (%) Real change (%)
2010-11 637.3
2011-12 651.1 +2.17 +0.16
2012-13 664.5 +2.06 +0.06
2013-14 678.6 +2.12 +0.12
2014-15 692.7 +2.08 +0.08
2015-16 711.4 +2.70 +0.69

From these tables we see that under both measures of spending, the budgets will increase in nominal terms every year, and current spending will increase overall in real terms. Note that these figures come from the budget documents themselves and assume inflation of 2%. The ASI conclude:

Now, OK, these are not exactly big rises – but nor are they swingeing cuts that will (a) have any significant effect on the economy or (b) on the public services-using population at large. What the coalition’s spending plans really amount to is a five-year, real terms freeze of current expenditure, combined with three years of significant falls in capital expenditure. The overall impact of that is a a very small, real terms drop in TME (roundabout 1.5%) between now and 2015-16.

I’m not so certain the cuts will be quite as small as that in real terms. Current official measures of inflation are significantly higher than 2%. According to the BBC, the Consumer Price Index was last measured at 3.1% whilst the Retail Price Index (which used to be the main official measure of inflation) was measured at 4.7%. At 3.1% inflation, the current expenditure of £637.3 billion would rise to £742.40 billion by 2015-16 in real terms. The projected £711.4 billion would thus represent a 4.18% cut in spending in real terms rather than a 0.69% increase. At 4.7%, the £637.3 billion would rise to £801.82 billion and the projected £711.4 billion would represent a more significant 11.27% cut.

All of these figures are a far cry from the picture of “deep, rapid” cuts or “the slashing and burning of Britain’s public services” offered by some. Of course, a freeze or small reduction in spending represents a major shift compared to the constant increases in spending under the previous government. Also, it may be that within individual departments there will be more severe cuts than this picture represents since e.g. health spending is being protected.

Nevertheless what we’re actually getting is something in between a freeze and a modest reduction in total spending in real terms.

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