We can't go on like this

17 years of Tory taxing, borrowing, selling-off and spending cost Britain pounds 3,204bn
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The Independent Online
The Government is literally bankrupt - with net wealth declining from nearly pounds 20bn in 1979 to minus pounds 152bn at the end of last year, according to official figures.

High levels of borrowing for most of the past 17 years mean the Government's debts have grown far faster than its assets.

An assessment of the state of government finances going back to 1979, in the newly released official publication Public Finance Trends, makes clear that trends in spending and taxation are unsustainable. Whichever party wins the general election is likely to have to either raise taxes or cut spending - just as the Conservatives did after the 1992 election.

The figures also reveal that the scale of government spending as a share of national income is almost exactly the same as it was when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 because increases in social spending have matched real decreases in other areas of expenditure. Despite their rhetoric, there has been no rolling back of the state under the Conservatives.

Since 1979, the Government has spent a total of more than pounds 3,200bn, financed by the windfalls of privatisation revenues, North Sea taxes, other taxation and high levels of borrowing. Interest payments on government debt, which has nearly quadrupled since 1979, now make up the fourth biggest category of expenditure after social security, education and health.

The national debt has doubled during John Major's premiership alone and now stands at pounds 385.5bn.

The two nearly exhausted windfalls of North Sea tax revenues and privatisation have provided the Conservatives with more than pounds 77bn and pounds 64bn respectively. Receipts from other taxes have amounted to more than pounds 2,800bn, but have grown more slowly than the economy because of tax cuts prior to 1993.

The gap has been plugged by borrowings of nearly pounds 223bn during the 17 years since 1979.

Social security accounts for the lion's share of public expenditure - pounds 77.2bn out of the grand total of pounds 303.9bn last financial year, and pounds 770bn out of the 17-year total of pounds 3,204bn. Although unemployment benefits, along with supplementary benefit and income support, has grown dramatically, other entitlements such as retirement and widows' pensions and invalidity benefit swallow the bulk of the social security budget.

Despite the inducement to opt out of the earnings-related state pension scheme in favour of a personal pension, taken up by millions of people, the state pension bill has increased from pounds 8.6bn in 1979 to pounds 40.9bn last year. The bill for unemployment-related benefits has climbed from just under pounds 3bn to pounds 17.7bn.

In a tacit acknowledgement of the severity of their "fiscal incontinence", Conservatives such as Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, and William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, have talked about the need to scale back the welfare state. One senior Tory said: "There has been a broad change in philosophy among centrist politicians about the need to get the size of government back to early Sixties levels."

The shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, reacting to the figures, said yesterday: "The Tories cannot claim to be the party of economic prudence. These figures prove that they cannot manage the economy ... They tell lies about Labour and tax because they do not want anyone to know the truth about their own policies."

Bill Martin, chief economist at the City investment bank UBS and an adviser to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, said: "The Conservatives have cut taxes too much and they have let the social security budget get out of control. Even without pre-election tax cuts, there is an intractable problem."

Yet the figures also make uncomfortable reading for Labour politicians. In a recent study of the economic outlook for a Labour government, Mr Martin predicted that the Conservatives' failure to control the underlying growth in public spending, and their over-generous tax cuts, could leave Labour with an inheritance of budget deficits in excess of 5 per cent of national income by the end of the century.

To cut this gap to a more sustainable 2.5 per cent would require a rise of 7p in the basic rate of income tax.

David Walton at Goldman Sachs, a City expert who is drawing up the highly respected annual "green budget" with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, was equally gloomy.

"Demand for front-line public services grows at least as fast as the economy," he said. "You have to question whether recent cuts in public spending, achieved by cutting investment and civil service running costs, can be sustained."

Paradoxically, the public sector borrowing requirement could turn out to be better than many economists expect in the run-up to the election. The monthly figures are highly sensitive to the state of the economy, so the consumer recovery engineered by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, will help a cyclical fall in the public-sector borrowing requirement to disguise the long-term problem.

Leading article, page 13