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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.