National: UK slips back into recession

THE UK is officially back in recession following a 0.2% fall in output during the first quarter of 2012.

The figure, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), represents a second consecutive quarter of contraction – the widely accepted definition of recession – following a 0.3% decline in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the final three months of 2011.

The further decline so far this year was driven by the biggest fall in construction output for three years, while the manufacturing sector failed to return to growth, the ONS said.

The preliminary estimate, which confounds City expectations that the economy would scrape growth of 0.1%, is subject to revision with more than half of the data for the first quarter yet to be gathered.

Even if confirmed, the downturn is expected to be nothing like as severe as the previous recession of 2008/09 which spanned more than a year.

But the return to recession will heap more pressure on the Government and fuel criticism that Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity measures are choking off the recovery.

Economists and business leaders have warned that a technical recession would hit confidence and could cause businesses to rein in spending at a time when they are being encouraged to invest to stimulate growth.

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Mr Osborne said today: “It’s a very tough economic situation. It’s taking longer than anyone hoped to recover from the biggest debt crisis of our lifetime, even after the recent fall in unemployment. But over many years this country built up massive debts, which we are having to pay off.”

He added that the recession in much of the rest of Europe was hampering the recovery, but pledged not to abandon his “credible plan” to cut the budget deficit.

But David Ellesmere, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Ipswich, said: ““George Osborne and David Cameron have repeatedly been warned that cutting too far and too fast would take Britain back into recession. Their entire economic strategy is now in tatters and the Government needs to urgently think again.”

He added: “One of the main reasons for the drop in GDP is a contraction in the construction sector. This isn’t surprising as the Government cancelled Building Schools for the Future and slashed money for housing.”

The services sector, which accounts for around three-quarters of the UK economy, saw growth of 0.1% in the quarter, after a decline of 0.1% in the final quarter of 2011.

Retail sales were boosted last month by panic-buying of petrol amid fears of a tanker drivers’ strike and a heatwave encouraged people to buy summer clothes.

But the industrial production sector declined 0.4%, with manufacturing down 0.1% after a 0.7% decline in the previous quarter.

The continued fall in manufacturing will come as a blow to the Government, which is hoping the sector will lead the recovery.

The construction sector was the biggest contributor to the decline in GDP, with a 3% fall in the quarter, its biggest contraction since the first quarter of 2009.

However, economists have said the ONS’s reading of the economy may be too gloomy, as recent industry surveys for both the manufacturing and construction sectors have pointed to growth.

Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, said: “The underlying strength of the economy is probably much more robust than these data suggest.

“The danger is that these gloomy data deliver a fatal blow to the fragile revival of consumer and business confidence seen so far this year, harming the recovery and even sending the country back into a real recession.”

There are also fears that the extra bank holiday for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee will hit the current quarter, and it is not known what impact the Olympics will have in the summer.

Vicky Redwood, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, said even without the fall in construction, “output would have done no better than stagnate” and forecast that GDP will contract by about 0.5% this year.

She said: “The main disappointment was the meagre 0.1% rise in services output; the surveys had pointed to services growth of 0.5% or more.

“Even if the underlying picture is stronger than the official GDP figures show, there is no guarantee that the recent pick-up will continue.”

Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King recently warned that the economy might “zig-zag” in coming months.