Osborne almost choked halfway through his speech. Let’s hope the rest of us don't do the same.

Budget 2013

As last year’s Budget proved only too well, the devil is always in the detail. And while according to opposition leader Ed Miliband this was a Budget from a downgraded Chancellor, there was substantially more in George Osborne’s fourth outing than many observers expected, with the possible exception of the Evening Standard, which broke an embargo on most of the proposals

There were changes to the remit of the Governor of the Bank of England, a new employment allowance to encourage entrepreneurs and small businesses to employ more people, new initiatives to encourage more mortgage lending and stimulate the housing market and even an unexpected one penny drop in the price of beer.

The Budget Book will be less digested (and less digestible) than his speech (Osborne’s knack of almost filibustering through his Budgets means it is quite hard to pick out the important announcements), and it might be there that details will be found on the costing of announcements such as reducing corporation tax for large companies down to a flat rate of 20 per cent for all companies regardless of size and the abolishing of stamp duty for shares traded on smaller markets, such as AIM. These were both welcome as part of a wider plan to make the UK the most attractive place to start and run a business.

But the government’s ease with the idea that it’s OK for multinationals to seek to reduce their tax bill by picking the best place to locate is slightly at odds with an apparent disgust at other forms of sensible tax planning. Osborne claimed that they will be naming and shaming those who advise companies and/or individuals how to avoid tax (which means accountants as much as tax lawyers and others) and suggested that the already heavily-trailed General Anti-Abuse Rule (GAAR) would raise £3bn, with £1bn coming from offshore avoidance.

This matches the amount by which Osborne claimed to be boosting infrastructure spending, with the usual focus on broadband internet and odd projects such as Battersea Power Station singled out for the nod.

The truth is that Osborne had as little room for growth as expected with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) again downgrading growth forecasts for several years to come. Osborne made much of the international picture and placed much of the blame for this year’s forecast rate of 0.6 per cent growth on the eurozone. In truth if the uncertainty in Cyprus continues or spreads, even that anaemic rate will look optimistic.

All government departments will be forced to make further cuts to their budgets, in total a further £1.5bn on top of the £10bn announced in December. These will be achieved through greater efficiency and better financial controls, so at least it seems Osborne does see a positive role for accountants after all.

Perhaps more disappointing was that the detail of how the government intends to get money out to SMEs remained unclear. There was a brief mention of the Business Bank early on but no more detail in the speech.

Osborne almost choked halfway through delivering the Budget speech. Let’s hope there is nothing in the detail that makes the rest of the country do the same.

This article first appeared on economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR