Britain’s inflation rate eased away from a 41-year high on Wednesday, but the slowdown brings only limited relief to a nation gripped by a deep cost-of-living crisis.
Consumer prices in Britain rose 10.7 percent in November from a year earlier, bringing the rate of inflation down slightly from 11.1 percent in October, which was the highest annual rate since 1981, the Office for National Statistics said.
Despite this tentative sign that inflation may have peaked, British households are being squeezed by high energy bills, food costs and mortgage rates, while wage growth is failing to keep up with inflation. Based on data that goes back to the mid-1950s, Britons are facing the sharpest decline in living standards on record over the next two years. That is prompting a growing wave of labor unrest. Railroad and postal workers are on strike on Wednesday over demands for higher pay, while nurses are set to walk off the job on Thursday.
On a monthly basis, prices rose 0.4 percent in November, easing the torrid pace of October when they climbed 2 percent in a single month because of higher energy costs, despite billions spent by the government to cap household gas and electric bills.
Core inflation, which excludes energy and food prices, slowed to an annual rate of 6.3 percent, from 6.5 percent in October. Economists had expected core inflation to hold steady, according to a survey by Bloomberg. A slowdown in transportation prices, particularly for fuel, as well as clothing and recreation services, all contributed to the lower overall inflation rate, while rising prices in restaurants and for groceries partially offset that. Food and drink prices climbed 16.4 percent in November from a year earlier.
As a whole, Wednesday’s inflation data are “undoubtedly welcome,” Sandra Horsfield, an economist at Investec, wrote in a note. But “at 10.7 percent consumer price inflation is still running well ahead of average income growth, causing pain that households can readily attest to.”
“There is still a long way to go before the all-clear on inflation can be sounded,” she added.
The deceleration in the overall inflation rate will be encouraging for Bank of England policymakers who have sharply raised interest rates to try to tamp down inflation. Inflation also slowed more than expected in the United States, data released on Tuesday showed.
But this isn’t enough for central bankers to declare victory, as they target a 2 percent inflation rate. Policymakers want to ward against the risk that high inflation lingers for years to come. They are alert to how much businesses pass on price increases to customers and how much wages rise in response to the higher cost of living and a tight labor market.
Data published on Tuesday showed that average pay in Britain, excluding bonuses, rose an annual rate of 6.1 percent in the three months to October. Even though that’s slower than the rate of inflation, policymakers argue that this pickup in wages is still too high to be sure inflation can sustainably return to target.
On Thursday, Bank of England policymakers are expected to raise interest rates for a ninth consecutive time, to 3.5 percent from 3 percent. The half-point increase is expected to match rate changes by the Federal Reserve on Wednesday and the European Central Bank on Thursday. All three central banks are expected to decelerate from previous increases in interest rates of three-quarters of a point.
Policymakers are expected to slow the pace of rate increases as they assess the impact of months of tighter monetary policy in damping economic demand to squash inflationary pressures. In Britain, the central bank’s rising benchmark rate, which has climbed from 0.1 percent a year ago, has already led to a notable increase in mortgage rates, with millions of households facing sharp increases in payments next year, and house prices falling.
While the inflation outlook is uncertain, the Bank of England predicts that the rate of price increases will slow sharply from the middle of next year as past jumps in energy prices drop out of the annual calculations.
But the cost of high inflation won’t fall away so quickly. The British economy is likely already in a recession that the central bank predicts to last all through next year. Household finances will be under “significant pressure” from below-inflation wage gains, higher mortgage costs and an expected increase in unemployment, according to a financial stability report by the Bank of England published on Tuesday.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a nonprofit, said on Wednesday that more than seven million households were “going without essentials,” which meant they had reported going hungry or skipping meals or didn’t have adequate clothing, based on a survey. Just under five million households were said to be in arrears on at least one household bill.
“I know it is tough for many right now, but it is vital that we take the tough decisions needed to tackle inflation — the No. 1 enemy that makes everyone poorer,” Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor of the Exchequer, said in a statement in response to the inflation data on Wednesday. “If we make the wrong choices now, high prices will persist and prolong the pain for millions.”
This tough stance comes as government ministers have been embroiled in debates with unions over improving pay offers following a long history of below-inflation wages. Recently a large gulf has opened up between pay growth in the private and public sectors. Before accounting for inflation, private-sector pay rose at an annual rate of 6.9 percent in the three months to October, but just 2.7 percent for workers in the public sector, data published on Tuesday showed.
Pat Cullen, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nurses, the union whose members will go on strike on Thursday and again next week, accused the government of “belligerence” as talks broke down.