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Does the government care that household debt is soaring?

November 29th, 2013

We often hear politicians refer to the national debt, at which point Fraser Nelson will republish his chart showing the latest figures the government owes and that either the Chancellor or Prime Minister is telling fibs. This week Nelson added ‘although I hate to say it, the Labour Party has a valid point to make. If you don’t adjust for inflation, Osborne has borrowed more in under four years than the Labour Party borrowed over 13 years.’ Although national debt is the subject of political tug-of-war, it household debt that should be a cause of worry and political attention.

This week The Centre for Social Justice published a report showing 3.9 million British families do not have enough savings to cover their rent or mortgage for more than a month. Half of low-income households have literally nothing put by. Personal debt in the UK is now approaching £1.4 trillion. The report concluded  

“With falling real incomes and increasing costs of basic essentials, many – especially the most vulnerable – are sliding further into problem debt. The costs to those affected, in stress and mental disorders, relationship breakdown and hardship is immense. But so too is the cost to the nation, measured in lost employment and productivity and in an increased burden on public services.”

Labour has made most of the running on wages and living standards, but the Coalition caught them flat-footed this week in pledging to cap the costs of payday loans. Is this the height of government ambitions in this area or will we see ministers talk about household debt more? For most people it’s credit cards and overdrafts then pick up the monthly shortfalls and not the Wongas of this world.

The Chancellor wants to encourage confidence and spending on the high street and create something of a feelgood factor having spent 3 years preaching the country was teetering on a Greek-style financial precipice. As consumer confidence picks up, someone in the Treasury should be asking ‘where’s their money coming from?’ With wages in real terms decline spending is not sustainable if living costs keep rising. It also reveals a worrying characteristic about our economy and perhaps even our country. As Jeff Randall wrote last year:

“We are in the unenviable position of having constructed an economy that expands only when consumers borrow beyond the limits of prudence and blow the lot on instant gratification.”

What’s worse is the rise in household debt isn’t an unplanned shock. In 2011 the Office for Budget Responsibility ‘increased its prediction of total household debt in 2015 by a staggering £303bn since late last year, in the belief that families and individuals will respond to straitened times by extra borrowing.’

Surely ‘austerity’ should be aiming to reduce household debt, not increase it? Is this something for the Chancellor to contemplate ahead of the Autumn Statement or not of national concern and only a matter for individuals and their families?

Henry G Manson