Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I Condemn This Budget To The Bin

So, at 12:30pm George Osborne stood up in the House of Commons and told us all straight.

His target for reducing the national debt - missed.

His growth forecast - halved.

Government borrowing - up on one measure, only down on another due a freak underspend by Government departments.

Not a great start. Still, now these things are all out in the open we can get back to putting the ship back on course, right?

Apparently not.

Despite the cupboard being bare, apparently there was just enough left to play belated Santa.The rise in the income tax personal allowance to £10k has always been on the cards. It was a Lib Dem commitment at the last election and will lift a lot of people who are working part time out of tax altogether.

Based on previous rises in the personal allowance however, it will be accompanied by a lowering of the point at which the 40% tax rate kicks in. So while some will be taken out of tax altogether, others will find their take home pay falling.

Not those with income over £150k of course, who will benefit from the 5% lowering of their tax rate already announced, having already managed their income in such a way as to avoid the 50% rate.

There was also enough in the cupboard for the government to start underwriting mortgages and lending money for deposits. To cut the main rate of Corporation Tax to 20%. To put an extra £15bn into road, rail and other construction projects. To give tax breaks to the shale gas extraction industry, despite their dubious environmental credentials. To compensate those who lost money on Equitable Life policies.

Not everyone got a gift under their tree from George this year however. Most government departments are finding their budgets cut by 1% in each of the last two years. At a time when their fixed costs are rising (utilities, transport, consumables) these savings are going to have to come from more "efficiencies". It cannot be done without there being some effect on services.

The level of cuts in public spending is going to be deeper than originally planned, an additional £1.5bn on top of the £10bn scheduled. Again, how can this be achieved without an adverse impact on public services?

Public sector staff find their wage rises capped at a level well below the rising cost of living again. Those who we rely on to provide essential services are being denied the opportunity to earn a living wage.

Still, if you drive a car (which we're all supposed to be doing less of to be "green") or like a pint of beer (which we're all supposed to be doing less of to avoid putting strain on the NHS) then good news. The planned fuel duty escalator increase has been canned, and duty on beer has actually been reduced by 1p per pint - a decision that may find Osborne in conflict with the European Courts of Justice, who ruled in 2008 that treating beer and wine differently for duty purposes offers indirect protection.

From the outside, this is a budget that lacks focus. It's as if a whole load of different policies have been placed in a National Lottery machine, and the first few out have made it into the speech. Carrots have been dangled, sticks wielded but with not with the intention of getting the donkey that is the economy to go in any one particular direction.The acid test is whether in 12 months time when Osborne stands up again, he has the better news to report that the "independent" OBR forecasts suggests he will.

I won't hold my breath.

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