What do we already know about today's Budget?

Today's Budget is one of the most leaky ever. Here is a breakdown of the measures already trailed.

You would be forgiven for thinking that George Osborne's Budget speech today is simply a formality, given the amount of material that has already been leaked. Here is a summary of what has already been trailed, in what must be one of the most leaked Budgets ever.

50p tax

It looks nearly certain that the Chancellor will scrap the top rate of tax, which applies to those earning over £150,000. Rather than abolishing it outright, it will be reduced from 50p in the pound to 45p. This lays the groundwork for getting rid of it entirely next year, and reverting to 40p as the highest rate of tax.

Tax avoidance clampdown

To offset this tax cut for the rich, Osborne has promised to "come down like a ton of bricks" on those who avoid stamp duty. The annual charge on non-domiciled residents will also be upped from £30,000 to £50,000. It's worth noting that the higher rate was floated last year but did not materialise. In today's FT, Martin Taylor says we should not expect this tax clampdown to work.

Stamp duty

In a small victory for the Lib Dems, who have long been lobbying for some form of property tax, stamp duty is to be raised from 5 per cent to 7 per cent on properties worth more than £2m. This measure should raise £2.2bn to help fund the increase in the income tax threshold.

Raising the income tax threshold

Osborne will accelerate plans to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000. This move, heavily touted by the Liberal Democrats, will apply to all 23 million basic tax-rate payers and many higher earners, too. Osborne is likely to announce a large short-term increase, with plans to reach the £10,000 mark by April 2014, long before it was scheduled.

Regional pay deals

Public sector workers in poorer areas of the country will be paid lower salaries - in some cases, as early as next month. Osborne will argue that the public sector should be more like the private sector and reflect local economies, but critics say it will accentuate the economic divide between north and south. It was unclear whether the new rates would apply only to new staff or to existing staff as well. The Treasury insisted that no current employee would suffer a pay cut - rather, rates would be adjusted over time.

Sunday trading hours

The Chancellor will force through emergency legislation lifting the six-hour limit on opening hours for larger stores, in a bid to boost the economy. The restrictions will be lifted on eight weekends over the summer, to coincide with the Olympics and Paralympics. This could open the door for the restrictions to be scrapped altogether.

Tax transparency

Taxpayers will be given a breakdown of where their tax money is going, from the NHS, to defence, to unemployment benefits.

TV tax breaks

The government will launch a consultation on tax breaks for high-budget British television dramas, such as the wildly successful Downton Abbey.

Royal Mail privatisation

In a radical move, the government will take on all the assets and liabilities of the Royal Mail's pension fund, taking responsibility for paying postal workers' pensions for decades to come. This will open the door for the privatisation of the postal service: the pension fund, which has a shortfall of £9.5m, would make it impossible to attract a private sector buyer.

Planning laws to be relaxed

Osborne has said he is "deeply frustrated" with the slowness of the planning process, and will announce new legislation to make it easier to build in the countryside. This will clear the way for more homes and infrastructure to be built - but it may further undermine the coalition's claim to be "the greenest government ever". Regulations protecting wildlife are expected to be scrapped as part of this drive.

International aid

It looks as if the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid will be maintained.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.