Seems like we’re “generation debt”: all we hear is student loans, overdraft and stuff about UK’s budget deficit – which is apparently around £90 billion… but what does this actually mean?
The deficit is the gap between the amount the government spends and what it receives in taxes. It’s different to the national debt which is the total £££ the UK owes to investors from the UK and other countries.* (FYI we owe a lot to America).
Each year the government spends money on things like schools, the NHS, the army and benefits. This money mostly comes from taxes collected by HM Revenue and Customs.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (currently George Osborne) is in charge of the country’s finances. They set the budget each year which outlines how much we pay in tax, and what gets spent where (we explained how the budget works here).
If one year the government collects £100 in tax but spends £150, then the deficit would be £50.
Alternatively if £100 is collected but only £80 is spent then the government would have £20 left over at the end. This is called running a budget surplus.
In real life we’re talking a lot more money than this. The UK deficit is currently around £90 billion.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008, “deficit” and “borrowing” have become dirty words. Understandably, the public don’t seem to like the idea of irresponsible governments overspending.
How the financial crisis happened;
Financial crisis in a nutshell; the banks ran out of money – the government had to lend them money.
The Conservatives claim that the current deficit is all Labour’s fault, as the previous Labour government was running a deficit at the time of the financial crisis. Expect to hear this a lot around election time.
Considering all this, it may surprise you that running a deficit is the norm for a lot of countries.
Whilst it is true that Labour was running a deficit before the crash, they had previously ran a budget surplus between 1998 and 2001. Before that point the UK (under Conservative rule) had run deficits each year since 1975 (with the exception of three years between 1988 and 1990 where there was a small surplus).
Many well-respected economic experts like former Bank of England governor Mervyn King and senior Treasury official Nicholas Macpherson suggest that the banks are more to blame for the current situation, rather than Labour overspending.
However, increased government borrowing during the crisis (partly to save the banks, partly to pay for benefits as more people lost their jobs) meant the UK deficit shot up from around £34.5 billion to £90 billion and continued to climb. Ouch.
The Conservatives promise to cut the deficit and deliver a budget surplus by 2020.
Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity programme was supposed to bring the deficit down. In simple English: lowering government spending. Some of the austerity measures have proved controversial; such as cutting tax credits.
Rather than making cuts, some argue there are other methods to reduce the deficit. This include closing loopholes so that big businesses and non-doms pay the right amount of tax, and investing in public services.
The economist JM Keynes suggested something similar during the Great Depression of the 1920s. The idea was use unemployed workers to work on public projects. The workers would start spending their wages, which would get the economy moving again.
Is the Conservative 2020 deadline achievable? George Osborne’s original plan was to eliminate the deficit by 2015, but missed this target; managing to reduce the deficit by half.
This means that although public spending is coming down, the UK is still overspending and doing nothing about our national debt. Are you sitting down? The UK national debt is currently around £1.5 trillion. Wowzers.
Don’t panic though – the International Monetary Fund thinks the UK can survive with high levels of debt forever. Phew.
Current Chancellor George Osborne has created the Fiscal Charter. It’s a proposed new law which bans the government from creating a deficit in “normal” circumstances. This is defined as when the economy is growing healthily.
On paper this sounds like a sensible idea, no?
However, if the charter is passed it would make it harder for governments to borrow money for public investment. Why is this bad? Labour List explains in language we can understand:
“No one thinks it is wise to max out the credit card to pay for the weekly grocery bill, but just as families have a mortgage to pay for their home, so it makes sense to borrow for the infrastructure – like broadband, transport, scientific facilities for universities – which will increase our economic productivity and growth.”
However, perhaps it’s not a good idea to compare economics to your household budget;
So, what’s the answer? Suggestions on a postcard, please.
It’s hard to know who to believe. It’s even more confusing when politicians disagree over whether spending more than your income is good or bad.
What we do know: lending and borrowing is risky, so you had better be sure people can pay it back.
Will the Fiscal Charter work? Think we’ve missed something? Let us know in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org