To avoid further cuts, Osborne should raise taxes and reduce benefits

Rather than cutting over-stretched public services, the Chancellor should raise more from the wealthy through tax rises and cuts to universal benefits.

In the build-up to the Budget, most of the debate has been on the here and now, with the Chancellor being urged to boost growth through capital investment or temporary tax cuts. But this will also be a critical Budget for the medium term as George Osborne sets the public spending envelope for 2015/16 ahead of June’s spending review. There’s still time for him to avert another historic public spending mistake.

As part of the Fabian Society Commission on Future Spending Choices we analysed the impact of Osborne’s existing plans as implied by the 2012 Autumn Statement. On the basis of his current commitments to protect spending on the NHS, schools and international development, in 2015/16 we can expect another cut to unprotected public services of £5bn. The services affected include defence, police, social care and local government. Across unprotected departmental spending this would be a real-terms cut of 3.8 per cent compared to 2014/15.

The public services at risk have already been the worst hit by austerity and a further year of reductions would bring the total real cut to these areas since 2011/12 to £36bn or 22 per cent. It is surely unwise to plan further cuts to those budgets that have been hit the most already. Indeed, many areas will face significant pressures even if their budgets stand still in real terms, while an aggregate freeze would still mean cuts to many budgets to make space for growth in other priority areas.

The £5bn pounds required to prevent these further cuts could be found in four ways: cutting the NHS, schools and international development; slowing the pace of deficit reduction and increasing the stock of debt; further cuts to social security; or raising taxes.

Cutting spending on the NHS and schools is not attractive given the rising demand both of these areas face as a result of our ageing population and the new baby-boom. International development spending plans, meanwhile, are part of a long-term international commitment which has cross-party support.

Increasing debt to pay for everyday public service spending is also unattractive. On the current economic outlook, more debt-financed spending is needed but to stimulate the economy today through temporary stimulus and capital investment, not for ordinary government activity. Extra borrowing may also be required in the medium-term if economic growth comes in below the OBR’s previous projections, which are likely to be downgraded this week. But this would merely be to achieve George Osborne’s existing spending plans. Since a future government may well need to push its deficit reduction programme beyond 2017/18 simply because of the state of the economy, it would be unwise to plan for extra discretionary debt-funded spending too.

Instead, the £5bn to prevent further public service cuts should be found through tax rises and social security cuts for 2015/16. These changes should be pre-announced but only implemented if the economy has returned to growth by then (and there is nothing to stop this policy sitting alongside temporary tax cuts in the meantime).

Choices regarding tax and welfare changes should be taken together, since they are both financial transfers between citizens and government. Decisions should be made from the perspective of who has the greatest capacity to absorb changes. This means that any reforms should target the top half of the income distribution, who both have the broadest shoulders and have escaped lightly from austerity until now. There is also a case for increasing the burden placed on older people. Relatively speaking, retired households are lightly taxed and have not suffered welfare cuts to the extent of younger families.

In isolation the idea of up to £5bn of tax rises may appear alarming (it is equivalent to 1 per cent on VAT or income tax). But at present the brunt of deficit reduction is being born by public spending, not tax rises. On current plans, the chancellor is expecting to close the deficit through a combination of 85 per cent spending cuts and 15 per cent tax rises, compared to his original 2010 plan for 27 per cent to come through tax rises and Alistair Darling’s plans of 30 per cent.

So it’s time to shift the balance of deficit reduction away from public service cuts. The good news is that another year of public service cuts can be prevented at the ‘low’ cost of £5bn. The Chancellor should announce 2015/16 tax and benefit plans to generate this money from those who can bear the burden best.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on March 18, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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