So the latest economic statistics show that a broadly based recovery is taking hold in the UK. Phooey!
Even with the best gloss on the percentage growth figures, total GDP remains below that before the crash of 2008.
And the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has been casting about for a form of words to explain why interest rates cannot rise even when unemployment falls below 7%.
Of course, the latest jobless statistics were published before a couple of high street banks announced a further cull of staff.
You only have to look at continuing falls in house prices in regions such as the North-east of England to know that recovery is still to arrive outside London and the commuter belt.
But that’s all right. Transport for London has been told to expect treble the predicted number of commuters to arrive daily at stations such as Farringdon when Crossrail opens. That means more house price rises in the South, boosted by the Help to Buy scheme that has already delivered more Stamp Duty to Treasury coffers. Yes, with one hand George Osborne gives, with the other he takes away.
Meanwhile, the rest of the nation suffers a brain drain of the brightest and best. And small- and medium-sized companies still cannot borrow the money they need to expand, which just exacerbates the problem.
At least the government has a policy on that issue. What goes unmentioned in ministerial comments about the economy is any policy to deal with the drag on recovery, and the personal tragedies, represented by household debt of £1.4 trillion. There are nine million people living with serious debt, according to the government’s Money Advice Service.
It’s not as if ministers don’t know the scale of the problem. I imagine Iain Duncan-Smith still reads the reports published by his Centre for Social Justice. The staggering figure above came from Maxed Out, a report written by a Labour former minister, Chris Pond, which put the average household debt at £54,141 compared with £29,000 a decade ago.
That figure might well have increased after the Christmas spending enabled by payday loans. During Debt Awareness Week this month, the StepChange debt charity reported that it was approached by new clients owing £230 million.
In the absence of a policy, the top result on Google when you search for ‘UK government policy personal debt’ is headlined Options for paying off your debts. We all paid to bail-out the banks and endured the so-called Great Recession from which the wealthy appear to be recovering considerably faster than the rest of us, helped along by a cut in the top rate of income tax. But there’s no bail-out for families trapped by debt that they were encouraged to accumulate, nay had thrust upon them by the banks and credit card companies during the last credit-propelled ‘recovery’.
So what’s the government’s answer? A rise in the minimum wage to restore its lost value. Peanuts compared with the national wealth squandered on saving the RBS group etc etc. Oh, and more cuts to benefits to drive people into Mac jobs on zero hours contracts.
But the bankers must have their bonuses, or the service economy of the capital might suffer. Heaven knows what hardship City traders might suffer if all the Polish plumbers and Bulgarian baristas went home.
What won’t happen soon is any meaningful reduction in household debt, and particularly the consumer debt that has trebled since 1993 to reach £158 billion. That’s bad news for the high street and bad news for manufacturers looking for domestic sales growth. It will also mean more family breakdown and more personal insolvencies. Perhaps it’s time for a national policy on debt forgiveness for families.
I don’t doubt that jobless statistics will shortly record a reduction to below 7%. But how many of the people losing their jobs in the months ahead will be joining those scraping a living in the growing army of the self-employed? Or eking out an existence on a pension taken too early, because some employers just don’t take on older workers.
And what’s ahead for those in work? Not much in the way of pay rises so far, with increases in wages running at 0.9% while inflation under the Consumer Prices Index is at 2.1%. I don’t know whose cost of living that index records, but it doesn’t match the increases in my energy, food or travel bills.
Still, the dwindling band of full-time staff can make up some of the shortfall by working longer hours, filling the gaps in the workforce by those let go, under contracts of employment that invite you to ‘be helpful’ with catch-all job descriptions. Oh, and don’t forget to clear the kitchen sink before you go home.