Matthew Lynn Matthew Lynn

Was furlough the worst £70 billion ever spent?

Paying people to sit at home and do nothing is a monumental waste of taxpayer money

Concorde obviously. The Iraq War perhaps? Or Scottish devolution? It is not hard to come up with a list of really terrible ideas that the British government has wasted money on over the last 50 years. Even so, and despite some tough competition, we now have a fresh contender. It looks as if the furlough scheme will top them all.

The scheme ends today, with roughly a million people still collecting a slice of their wages from the Treasury. The total bill is set to come in at around £70 billion. To put that in context, for the same money we could have tripled spending on policing and just about eliminated crime. Or we could have suspended student loans for four years and made university free again. Or we could have taken a year’s holiday from business rates and council tax, which would have helped out lots of small businesses, as well as giving everyone else some extra money. 

Lots of furloughed staff won’t get their jobs back, but, given the shortages elsewhere, they could easily switch to something better paid

We could have done all kinds of stuff and while you could debate the merits of each one, they all have something to be said for them compared to what we actually did with the money — which was to pay companies to keep people at home doing nothing, while at the same time the labour market was desperately short of people.

In fact, there were two big problems with the furlough scheme. First, it went on for far too long. Sure, it was right to support firms and individuals during the first lockdown. We hoped it was just a three or four-week emergency and afterwards everything would get back to the way it was before.

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