Osborne faces failure on the deficit after 4G auction falls short

Ed Balls set for revenge after 4G auction raises £1.16bn less than expected.

George Osborne wrongfooted Ed Balls at last year's Autumn Statement when he announced that, contrary to expectations, the deficit was forecast to fall, not rise this year. The shadow chancellor was jeered by Osborne and Cameron as he repeatedly stumbled over his pre-prepared attack lines, prompting Osborne to declare: "That was the worst reply to an Autumn Statement that I have ever heard in this house. He said one thing that was true, he said it right at the beginning. He said the deficit wasn't rising. It was a Freudian slip."

As Balls later explained: "The outside forecasters were all expecting a rise in borrowing this year, because it has risen for the first seven months ... it was impossible to work out in that first minute or two what was going on."

It was only after Balls had replied that Osborne's creative accounting emerged. In a trick worthy of Enron, the Chancellor had banked the expected £3.5bn receipts from the 4G mobile spectrum auction - even though it had yet to take place. Had he not done so, the Office for Budget Responsibility would have forecast a deficit for this year of £123.8bn, £2.4bn higher than in 2012. 

But the Chancellor's trickery has now backfired. As Alex reports, the 4G auction raised £2.34bn - £1.16bn less than expected. As a result, when he delivers the Budget on 20 March, Osborne will almost certainly be forced to announce that the deficit will be higher this year than last. Borrowing so far this financial year is £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than at the same point last year, leaving Osborne £4.86bn short after the inclusion of the 4G receipts. Somewhere in Yorkshire, Keynes's rottweiler is already planning his revenge. 

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne attends a press conference at the Treasury in Whitehall on February 6, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital