How Osborne manipulated spending to claim the deficit is falling

The IFS warns that the £10.9bn underspend is not an "economically optimal allocation of spending".

One of the biggest surprises in George Osborne's Budget speech was his announcement that the deficit is forecast to fall this year (although excluding all "special factors" it's actually set to rise). With borrowing so far this year £5.3bn higher than in 2012, it seemed there was no escape for the Chancellor. 

For the first time since he entered the Treasury, he would be forced to announce that the deficit was expected to rise in annual terms and Ed Balls would have his revenge (Osborne memorably bamboozled the shadow chancellor in last year's Autumn Statement by banking the 4G auction receipts early).

But yesterday, against expectations, he was able to announce that the deficit was forecast to be £120.9bn this year (2012-13), £100m less than last year (2011-12). So how did he do it? The answers are becoming clearer today. First, Osborne is forcing government departments to underspend by a remarkable £10.9bn in the final months of this financial year (including a £2.2bn NHS underspend). While some of this underspend is permanent, the rest, as the OBR document noted (see p.93) has been moved forward into future years. Public spending, it appears, has been manipulated in order to allow Osborne to boast that the deficit has fallen again. 

At its traditional post-Budget briefing, the Institute for Fiscal Studies called the Chancellor out on his financial trickery. Noting that the £10.9bn was around double the average of the previous five years (see graph), IFS head Paul Johnson said

There is every indication that the numbers have been carefully managed with a close eye on the headline borrowing figures for this year. It is unlikely that this has led either to an economically optimal allocation of spending across years or to a good use of time by officials and ministers.
 
That the deficit is forecast to shrink by the minimum amount required for Osborne to claim that borrowing has fallen (£100m) is clear evidence that the underspend was motivated by political calculations, rather than economic ones.
 
As well as squeezing Whitehall spending, Osborne also saved money by, in the words of the OBR, delaying payments to some "international institutions" until next year. When I spoke to the Treasury press office, they cited the example of a £15m payment by the Department for International Development to Green Africa Power. The spokesman refused to confirm whether the institutions affected included the UN and the World Bank. Regardless, it is now clear that Osborne's creative accounting puts Gordon Brown to shame. 
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves number 11 Downing Street in central London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.