Osborne called out for holding "two Budgets" a year

The Autumn Statement was never meant to become a "second Budget" but Osborne has made it one. And the Treasury Select Committee is right to say so.

It's easy now to forget that George Osborne scrapped the pre-Budget report (introduced by Gordon Brown in 1997) in the belief that major decisions on tax and spending should be reserved for the Budget itself. The new slimmed-down Autumn Statement was designed to include little more than the OBR's latest forecasts on growth, borrowing and jobs. But confronted by the failure of his economic plan, Osborne has turned it into a second Budget in all but name. His most recent statement, for instance, included a freeze in fuel duty, an increase in the personal allowance to £9,440, a cut in corporation tax, a reduction in the tax-free pension allowance and the abolition of national pay bargaining for teachers.

So it's good to see the Treasury Select Committee calling the Chancellor out on his U-turn. In its report on the 2012 Autumn Statement, the committeee, which is chaired by Conservative MP Andew Tyrie, notes:

The OBR is required by statute to issue two economic and fiscal forecasts a year. The Chancellor’s own Autumn Statement, however, has now grown to be virtually a second Budget. There are good reasons for having a single substantial annual review of  the fiscal and economic state of the country, not least to enable the subsequent  presentation to Parliament of proposed tax measures and of Estimates of expenditure.  The Treasury should  re-establish the annual Budget as the main  focus of fiscal and economic policy making.

Tyrie said: "The autumn statement is not, nor should it be, a second budget. In recent years it has come to read like one.

"The case for two budgets is weak. An additional one can create uncertainty and carries an economic cost. Only in an emergency would it be likely to carry long-term benefit. The primacy of the budget as the main focus of fiscal and economic policy making should be re-established."

OBR forecasts "biased to over-optimism"

Another concern raised by the committee is that the OBR's forecasts so far have been "biased to over-optimism". It states: "This would not be a cause for concern but for the fact that the OBR’s forecasts have implications for decisions on public policy. This is because the fiscal mandate is defined with direct reference to a forecast, and because the OBR’s is at present the only official forecast against which the fiscal mandate can be measured."

Osborne reliant on "uncertain" 4G and Swiss tax windfalls

MPs also criticise Osborne for placing so much reliance on the anticipated windfall from the sale of the 4G  mobile spectrum and Swiss tax repatriation to meet his borrowing forecasts. 

The sums expected from the sale of the 4G spectrum and Swiss tax repatriation represent the majority of the additional receipts the Treasury intends to offset against the tax reductions and investment announced in the Autumn Statement for 2012–13 and 2013–14. Both are subject to uncertainty. In the case of the tax repatriation from Switzerland, the proceeds may not meet expectations if assumptions about the potential tax liabilities and expected behaviour of those affected prove not to be valid. 
As I noted at the time of the last Autumn Statement, it was only Osborne's inclusion of the expected £3.5bn receipts from the 4G auction that allowed him to claim that borrowing would fall this year, rather than rise (the boast that famously threw Ed Balls). If we strip out the £3.5bn, the forecast deficit for this year is £123bn, £1.4bn higher than last year.
 
And with borrowing currently £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than at the same point last year, it's no surprise that Osborne was so keen to bag the 4G receipts early.
George Osborne poses for photographers outside 11 Downing Street before presenting his annual budget to Parliament on March 21, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle