John Redwood's Diary
Incisive and topical campaigns and commentary on today's issues and tomorrow's problems

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Funny figures

I rely a lot on official statistics to read trends and make policy suggestions to government. The problem is the figures themselves are very unreliable and need careful interpretation. Recent extreme movements caused by lockdown and closures on an unprecedented scale here and in most overseas economies makes it both revealing and hazardous to live by official figures. The experience has also blown apart many official forecasts, as the ranges are extreme and well outside past behaviours.

We have recently been told that there are over 5.5 million EU citizens living in the UK when throughout the referendum we were told it was around 3 million. We do not know how many illegals there are living here from around the globe. It means  that the official figures for the population are likely to be understated by a substantial margin . This affects figures for public service provision. It may depress income per head unless there is an offsetting amount of undeclared income by the unregistered or partially registered. What are we to make of productivity, as clearly there are more workers but maybe more work is being done as well.

The inflation figures have been under stress. They are based on a typical basket of goods and services that people buy. Our buying habits were transformed by lockdown. Gradually the weights and contents of the basket were changed, only now to need changing back as we come out of lockdown. Trying to forecast the inflation index has meant first trying to forecast what will be in it before then trying to forecast price moves of the components.

Official forecasts of the economy went haywire over Brexit as I forecast at the time. A series of grim and stupid negative forecasts were duly proved wrong by events. Then the official forecasters greatly exaggerated the debt and deficits forecasts for the pandemic lockdown period. These were more difficult to get right.

During the pandemic as reported here it was very difficult getting accurate figures for NHS capacity, for death rates and other crucial figures, and difficult getting meaningful comparisons between countries. We need better and more honest data. A hospital admission does not tell us anything about how ill someone is, how long they will stay and whether they will need intensive care. We now learn some people said to be in hospital with COVID caught it in hospital.

We cannot have an informed public debate about health or the economy without better official figures from the state. We need those in the media citing the figures to understand  what the figures are actually counting and how inaccurate they may be. We also need to allow for what appears to be bias in forecasts to underpin a policy choice or establishment opinion of what is happening. The economic forecasts over Brexit and COVID which displayed excessive pessimism might have been the result of bias more than incompetence. Some of the error was baked into assumptions used in models.

Public spending review

This autumn will see a major public spending review. There will be the usual pressure for higher sums for the NHS, for education and other crucial services.There will be some good cuts to announce , as the subsidies and support payments needed during lockdown fall away. There also needs to be some detailed work done on problem areas where expenditure has been rising in ways that are not offering value for money or reflecting preferred policies and outcomes.

I will start examining some of these areas. They include the need to get better control of our borders to cut the costs imposed by illegal migration, as the government seeks answers through new legislation and policing. There is the big question of what should the railway look like post pandemic if as many think there will be a big decline in peak hour commuting which has been the high volume staple of the passenger business.  Whilst the government is wedded to HS2, a very expensive project, there remain other pressures on capital spend to examine. There is the issue of how much money should be spent on housing subsidy at a time when the housing market is awash with private money.Do we need to subsidise the provision of homes given the way we offer financial help to those who cannot afford the homes on offer without benefits?

We need to look at the issue of how much the UK state buys from abroad, and whether there could be cheaper procurement from UK sources when you take into account tax flows on the businesses producing the items. We need to ask why the UK is still sending so much cash to the EU after we have left, with insufficient push back on the EU’s view of the cost of the Withdrawal Agreement. Your thoughts on areas where ¬†reductions in spending could happen would be welcome.

A conservative green revolution

Yesterday I pointed to the dangers of net zero enthusiasts backing ways of life and products they do not adopt themselves abut require others to do. Today I ask, what does make sense and what is a saleable green policy?

The UK has advanced on the road to net zero for electricity generation. This should be one of the easiest ways to journey to less fossil fuel use. It is not however a good idea to do so by coming to rely more and more on imports from the EU, when they in turn rest heavily on Russian gas and German and Polish coal. Our first aim should be to get back to self sufficiency in electrical power for environmental and strategic reasons.

We should also have more uninterruptible renewable power in the mix and less unreliable wind and solar. Another pump storage scheme would greatly help flexibility and avoidance of power cuts. Water power more generally is more reliable and wind by harnessing water flows down rivers or the power of the regular tides and waves. We need much more capacity if the government’s ambition electrical revolution is to sweep on.I doubt we can make do without combined cycle gas, especially now there are difficulties in replacing our old nuclear stations let alone expanding nuclear.

The advance in domestic heating and cooling will come first from better insulation. More help to exclude draughts, include better standards of insulation and ensure hot water systems are well protected would lower costs and demands for fuel to heat. Anything which lowers energy use and energy bills is a very saleable proposition.

We can do more to recycle and control waste, to protect farmland and woods and to look after our landscape. Conserve and recycle is good. Forcing premature replacement of existing heating systems and vehicles with new products that are dear or not so good may not even help to net zero, given the resource cost of scrap and replace.

Advocates of net zero need to live the brand

It is not a sensible approach to green matters to impose more and more rules and restrictions on the lives of the many, only for the establishment to show scorn for such rules in the way they themselves behave. I think all those who preach the green revolution should ask themselves two things before saying anything. The first is, have they done themselves what they are telling others to do? If not it is hypocrisy, and will damage their cause. The second is to check that their advice to everyone else offers practical and sensible ways of conforming with their views that people can afford and accept.

I remember attending a presentation on the need for electric cars sometime ago before the pandemic in Westminster. The person presenting on how we all needed to switch to electric vehicles invited questions at the end. I asked him the simple question of when had he bought one, what was it and how had it worked out for him. It was not meant to be a trick question and it never occurred to me that such a devoted advocate would not have bought one, but he confessed he had not yet made the purchase. I asked the supplementary of when would he, and he still fluffed it, refusing to commit!

I still have not met people with a heat pump on their wish list and when I last made enquiries of heating engineers  they guided me off any such idea on grounds of high cost and poor effectiveness. Sales of diesel and petrol cars are down as people have grasped the government intends to make owning them dearer and more difficult, but sales of electric cars are far from replacing the lost sales. People are not reassured about range and battery performance, and think the products are still dear.

The Green revolution needs popular good value products promoted by people whose own lifestyles conform with their net zero doctrine. Creating a Tesla class and seeing the ultra rich flying around in private jets does not help create a popular green revolution.

Foreign travel and the dangers of overseas infection

There has been much criticism both ways of world and UK policy towards international travel. All those who like travel or need to travel across frontiers have been very critical of the big hit airline travel has taken, as many countries have closed their borders or greatly restricted flying. Meanwhile many others have been very critical of countries including the UK who have not closed enough air borders quickly enough with signs that a major source of infection could come¬† from overseas, as CV ¬†19 did originally from China. Surely people ask, isn’t a quick and full close down of air and shipping routes ¬†the best way of stopping spread, and wouldn’t such a lockdown allow much less internal damage through internal closures?

We have ended up globally with a prolonged closure of much of the international travel system. It has not proved possible to reach global agreement, so sometimes your country allows you to travel to another but the other country does not want you to, or vice versa. Rules change rapidly and often, making it a very unappetising idea to go on a foreign holiday as you may get stranded there, or you may be forced into a long  sojourn at your expense in a non holiday hotel in your return. All this implies that maybe being tough on global travel for any individual country is sensible, as travel patterns will be disrupted anyway by other countries and most of the new virus strains originate elsewhere and need to travel to your country.

In order to save the rest of the hospitality and travel sector the market did need to adjust to the idea that this year  many more UK people would take holidays in the UK and foreign visitors would not. The industry needed to show flexibility to offer sufficiently attractive UK holidays to locals to replace the type of tourism they sold to foreign visitors.I wish the UK industry well in serving the many UK holidaymakers keen to have a domestic holiday. Maybe it will win more people over to UK holidays in future.

Restoring our freedoms

After many months of looking to the state to guide or control our actions we need to rebuild individual and family responsibility quickly and comprehensively. We should not need to ask the state permission to go to a cafe or entertainment. There should not be special rules about trips to the supermarket. Public sector facilities from libraries to toilets should be reopened fully and available for use. Social distancing and mask wearing should be a matter for individual decision.

Of course people will still value medical advice, and many will want to listen to experts about how they can keep themselves  and their families  safe. We all might learn more about cleaning, airflows and exposure to possibly infected groups of people to the benefit of our health. It would be good if we pressed on with an airflow revolution in health settings and public places as it is not just CV 19 we can pick up from such exposure. It is a good idea to keep hands and home surfaces clean to cut our risk of catching something.

What surely we now wish to avoid is missing out on so much normal life, particularly the things we do with friends and family and for our entertainment. These are the things that makes life worthwhile and more enjoyable.

State borrowing

In the year to March 2021, the pandemic year, the UK state borrowed an extra £298bn. This was well down on the original forecasts that the state would borrow almost £400 bn extra, and well down on the budget forecasts just four months before the year end of an extra £354bn. State debt as a percentage of GDP has hit 100%, a level breached in many other advanced countries. I would normally be concerned about such a level of borrowing. On this occasion there are two large offsets which means so far it has been fine. The first is interest rates remain near zero, so the cost of servicing the debt has actually fallen despite the rise in the amount borrowed. Second ,the state is busily buying up £875bn of it. In practice therefore the state debt to GDP ratio has actually fallen to around 60%, a level which the EU and many Central Banks think is just fine.

The way out forecasts by the Treasury of much higher borrowing numbers over the last year than happened show how difficult it has proved to forecast how the UK economy would respond to the extreme damage of the pandemic polices on various sectors. It also shows the tendency to pessimism by officials. From here assuming we press on with a proper recovery and do not lapse back into closures and restrictions on business the deficit should tumble. Spending will plunge as furlough and social business schemes end, and revenues will surge as more money is spent and flows through business tills. The best way of getting the deficit down is faster recovery. That needs tax rate cuts, not rises.

As the economy recovers we should look to private business and families spending more and to public intervention less. More state spending cannot be on sufficient scale or wide ranging enough to level up most people and areas. It will take strong private sector growth in better paid jobs and more business success to achieve that. The richer parts of the country are the ones where there are more businesses and more better paid private sector jobs.

Funny money

During the pandemic a Conservative government presided over a major expansion of state debt offset by a major purchase programme of that debt by the Bank of England, itself owned by the same state. This mirrored a similar exercise by  Labour and the Coalition 2008-12 to overcome the banking crash the authorities engineered in 2007-8.

It looks as if on both occasions the state has got away with it. By the end of this year The Bank o& England will own £875bn of UK government debt which is therefore no longer a debt the state owes to overseas investors or to UK savers, but to itself. Normally states cannot get away with effectively just printing money to spend because it is inflationary. In the conditions of collapsed demand both brought on by the banking induced recession and then by pandemic closures creating so much fiat money was not inflationary. Whilst the Bank observed the nicety of buying up second hand government bonds instead of just giving the new money to the government to spend, it underwrote the government borrowing at close to zero interest and has removed the need to repay the debt to third parties.

Some say the pandemic printing may yet prove inflationary. It is true that like the Great Recession printing it has proved inflationary for financial assets and houses but so far general inflation stays around target. It could get more inflationary if wrong decisions are now taken about carrying on printing and borrowing too much. This is happening in the USA where inflation is already at 5% but the Bank of England has wisely announced an end to money printing this year. There still needs to be a stronger recovery before undue  monetary tightening.

A return to Conservative values

The government response to the pandemic here and in most countries around the world damaged the free enterprise parts of economies, boosted state spending and borrowing and greatly increased state control. In the next few blogs I am going to look at where this is now unhelpful and how it can be reversed as economic recovery advances and as pandemic controls are dismantled. I am conscious that some officials in government posts and most MPs in Opposition parties will see the special measures for countering the pandemic as desirable in themselves and an advance they wish to consolidate and extend . The Opposition parties have been ever keen to vote for more restrictions and more state spending, and reluctant to countenance relaxation or tapering of special financial support. There have been few voices speaking up for the many small businesses that supply so many of our needs.

Whilst people were prepared to accept direction of where they worked or whether they worked, when and where they could go out and which if any friends and family they could meet in order to defeat a killer disease, there is no reason to carry on with such draconian controls with the death rate massively down thanks to vaccines. Government should expect increasing opposition to lockdown and growing resistance to the advice on how to lead our lives. We cannot still claim to be a free society if we carry on with the very detailed controls and regulations we experienced during the various lockdowns. The first necessity is for government to reassure us we will not be going back to lockdown if cases rise again of a disease that usually now remains mild thanks to vaccinations.

The economic cost of lockdown must remain a one off for 2020-21, not a recurring scarring of our economy matched by a progressive build up of state debt. The sooner furlough is no longer needed, the sooner the labour market finds the people to fill the many vacancies there now are, the better. The remarkable thing is how many businesses are ready to go and wish to recover quickly despite all the obstacles of lockdown and the long delay in removing controls.

Getting on with the neighbours

The EU Treaty contains the following:

 

Artic1e 8.1 The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming
to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of
the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation.
2. For the purposes of paragraph 1, the Union may conclude specific agreements with
the countries concerned. These agreements may contain reciprocal rights and
obligations as well as the possibility of undertaking activities jointly. Their
implementation shall be the subject of periodic consultation.‚ÄĚ

The EU is very bad at getting on with its neighbours. This is despite the clear legal requirements it has imposed on itself through the Treaties to have good relations with neighbouring countries and to advance free trade with them. The EU has led Turkey and Ukraine to believe they could become full members, enticing them into signing up to very restrictive Association Agreements that have caused them problems. The EU has allowed a lot of fences and walls to b e put up from Ceuta in the west to Hungary  in the east to try to stem the flow of migrants as it struggles to control its own borders.

Since the UK left the EU and its single market the EU has gone out of its way to try to drag the UK back into membership by its excessive and unfair interpretation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. France has taken UK money to assist in stemming the people smuggling across the Channel but delivered limited results. The EU as a whole keeps sending large bills which it claims we still owe even though we are no longer members and no longer receive any money back from their general budget. Many other countries around the world have found it difficult or impossible to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU.

The UK has been too tolerant of EU behaviour, and needs to be more independent to deliver the Brexit the majority voted for.