British minister says cuts may be scaled back: report

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Britain's government could scale back public spending cuts aimed at reining in a record deficit if the economy starts to deteriorate, a minister said in a newspaper interview published Saturday.

Energy Minister Chris Huhne told the Daily Telegraph the reductions set to be unveiled on October 20 by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which took power in May were not "lashed to the mast."

Finance Minister George Osborne meanwhile said that the cuts, currently due to come into effect in April, would be phased in over four years, the Financial Times reported.

The coalition has pledged to tackle a record deficit of 154.7 billion pounds (188 billion euros, 242 billion dollars) and says spending cuts will average around 25 percent over four years in many departments.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron insisted on Wednesday there was "no other responsible way" to firm up the economy than to introduce the austerity measures.

But when asked if the cuts could be scaled back if the economy started to decline, Huhne, of the centrist Liberal Democrats, said he was not "lashed to the mast with a particular set of numbers."

"It is a bit like setting sail," he says. "If the wind changes, you have to tack about to get to (your destination). Global growth could be either higher or lower," he said.

"We just don't know, and it's not sensible, outside the Budget period, for governments to make speculations about what is going to happen," he added.

A double-dip recession is "not impossible", he said.

The government has faced criticism from the opposition and from businesses that the planned cuts could undermine economic recovery.

The Financial Times quoted Osborne, from the centre-right Conservatives, as saying that the government was "trying to sustain a steady and sustainable recovery."

"We are talking about a staggered plan that takes place over four years and does not take place overnight," said Osborne, who was in Washington on Friday for the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

© 2010 AFP

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