Charlotte Pickles is Deputy Director and Head of Research at the Reform think tank.
The Chancellor’s economic statement next week may be his biggest test yet. During the last few days, UK firms have announced 12,000 job losses. John Lewis, Upper Crust, Topshop, Airbus, WH Smith, TM Lewin, Easy Jet, Accenture are just some of the household names cutting jobs. Small businesses will be doing the same; you just won’t hear about them.
This is the start of the wave of redundancies Reform predicted back in April when we called on the Government to extend the furlough scheme and make it more flexible. The Government stepped up then; they need to do so again. The alternative is the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression.
Some readers will be sceptical. Great swathes of the economy reopened this weekend. Across the pond, the American economy added almost five million jobs in June, and the rise in the Eurozone’s unemployment rate in May was lower than expected.
At home, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, announced that consumer spending had “risen both sooner and materially faster” than predicted, meaning the GDP hit could be half that predicted in May. Very good news indeed.
However, underneath these headline green shoots is a much starker picture. Haldane also says that the labour market outlook is not as encouraging – that unemployment could be worse than the Bank’s May forecast. As in much of Europe, where more than 40 million people remain supported on furlough schemes, we have no idea if furloughed workers will return to work or join the unemployment rolls.
So while it is promising news that the UK economy appears to be bouncing back, it would be dangerously foolish to assume a jobs recovery at the same pace. Indeed, vacancies last week were down 24 per cent on the previous week.
Next month, businesses are required to start contributing to the cost of their furloughed workers. That’s reasonable, over nine million people have had their wages subsidised and the Government cannot continue this £10 billion-a-month support indefinitely – not least as it risks keeping people in ‘zombie jobs’, delaying their move into new roles and damaging the economy further.
But the phasing out of the furlough scheme will trigger more redundancies. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have gone for three months with little to no revenue. The Government’s loans and grants provided a lifeline for many, but social distancing measures and people’s fear of the virus will mean suppressed revenues for some time.
Expenditure will have to be cut if businesses are to stay afloat – half of companies expect to make redundancies in the next few months.
Which is precisely why the Chancellor must use his statement on Wednesday to announce a comprehensive and ambitious plan for averting mass unemployment.
Because while it might be reasonable to see how consumers respond to the further lifting of lockdown before taking a decision on something like a VAT cut – which would be pointlessly costly if the issue isn’t demand – delaying decisions about investment in employment and skills could be catastrophic.
In a new report this week, produced jointly by Reform and the Learning and Work Institute, we estimate that around ten million people are potentially at risk of unemployment. Those at greatest risk are in areas that already had high unemployment, have low qualification levels and are currently in low paid work. In other words, they will be least resilient to losing their jobs. The result of inaction, even delayed action, will be a levelling down.
The Conservative manifesto pledged to undo the decade-long underinvestment in skills; to help workers “train and retrain for the jobs and industries of the future”.
This recession is unique for its sectoral nature, meaning a large number of workers will not only need to find new jobs, but to switch careers. But it is also unique in that the Government has a direct line to those most vulnerable to unemployment – the furlough scheme.
The Prime Minster should deliver on his manifesto promise with a bold offer to anyone on furlough, or in an at-risk sector like retail or hospitality. This should include universal entitlement to funding for a qualification, or modules of a qualification, up to and including level three, as well as online advice and support.
For those needing to change careers, which we estimate will be up to 200,000 people, the Government should provide a £5,000 learning account for accredited training. They should also receive a time-limited, means-tested maintenance grant to help mitigate wage drops as they start over in a new sector. Eligibility could be linked to an individual’s history of National Insurance contributions.
And to incentivise employers both to hire apprentices and career changers, and to pay living wages, the Government should allow firms to use a proportion of their apprenticeship levy to support wages, with an equivalent grant for SMEs.
On Wednesday, the Chancellor must show the same bold thinking that delivered the furlough scheme. Failure to act now could mean mass unemployment with its sky-high social and economic costs. That’s a legacy the Government should do everything to avoid.