George Osborne's Autumn Statement: 10 things to look out for

Including, when will living standards start to rise, will there be new money for the NHS and how much more austerity is Osborne planning?

George Osborne will deliver his Autumn Statement at 11:15am today but, as so often with these events, it feels as if much of it has already been announced. The imposition of capital gains tax on foreign property owners, the freeze in business rates, the scheduled rise in the state pension age to 70 (in the 2060s) and the scrapping of employers' National Insurance for workers under 21 have all been pre-briefed to the media. 

One reason for this is that Osborne wants as much attention as possible to be focused on the OBR's improved forecasts for growth, employment and borrowing. Having responded to Labour's cost-of-living offensive by reducing green levies on energy customers, his other main aim is to shift the debate back towards the deficit and austerity, issues on which the Tories continue to out-poll Miliband's party. This being Osborne, he'll also have held at least one headline announcement back to triumphantly flourish at the end of the speech. And there's much more to look out for too

1. When will living standards start to rise? And by how much?

At present, while the economy is growing at its fastest rate for six years (and faster than any other G7 country), real wages, as Labour relentlessly points out, are still in decline, with earnings growth of just 0.8% in the most recent quarter compared to inflation of 2.2%. The Treasury's hope and expectation is that this will begin to change next year. How strong the OBR expects earnings growth to be will do much to determine the extent of any pre-election feelgood factor. 

2. More money for the NHS?

With ministers suffering sleepless nights at the prospect of a winter A&E crisis, one persistent rumour in Wesminster is that Osborne will announce additional money for the NHS. As well as helping to prevent the health service from collapse, this would offer the Chancellor a chance to reaffirm his party's commitment to the NHS and to (falsely) allege that Labour would be cutting it. 

3. How big is the output gap? (How much more austerity is needed?) 

One wonkish measure worth keeping an eye on is the output gap: the difference between actual and potential growth. The size of this will determine how much more austerity will be required to eliminate the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that exists regardless of the level of economic output) in the next parliament. 

4. Benefit cuts for under-25s

At every Budget and Autumn Statement he delivers, Osborne always finds a way to put welfare centre stage and today is likely to be no exception. One issue on which the Chancellor is expected to give more details is the coalition's plan to remove benefits from under-25s who are not "earning or learning". 

5. What's happening to income tax threshold?

Having already announced that the coalition's pledge to raise the personal allowance to £10,000 will be met by next April, there's room for Osborne to go further. Nick Clegg has urged him to raise it to at least £10,500, while David Cameron is said to be eyeing a £10,750 threshold. Osborne may well choose to keep his powder dry until the Budget but look out for a hint of further action today. 

6. When will a budget surplus be achieved?

The most significant announcement in Osborne's Conservative conference speech was his pledge to run a budget surplus by the end of the next parliament. With the OBR's updated forecasts, we'll find out when this might be achieved (today's FT suggests 2018-19). Expect Osborne to use this as his essential test of whether Labour is prepared to be fiscally responsible and as a signal of when greater tax cuts may become possible. 

7. Will Osborne halve the deficit by the election? 

Despite borrowing billions more than expected, Osborne is fond of reminding us that the deficit has still fallen by a third since the general election (from £159bn in 2009-10 to £115bn in 2012-13). If the numbers fall right today, he may well boast that he'll have halved it by the time of the general election (the Darling plan, in other words). 

8. Another cut in corporation tax?

Osborne has used almost every one of his Budgets and Autumn Statements to announce that he'll be cutting corporation tax by even more than expected (it is currently due to fall to 20% in 2015-16 from its 2010 level of 28%, giving the UK the joint-lowest rate in the G20). Today he'll publish new Treasury research showing that, in the next 20 years, the cuts are forecast to add around 0.7% to GDP (merely suggesting, as Richard Murphy puts it, that Osborne has finally discovered the multiplier), so it would be unsurprising if he chose to combine this with an annoucement that the rate will fall even further - to 19%. 

9. More public sector job losses?

As well as publishing new forecasts for growth, inflation and borrowing, the OBR will release its new estimate of how many public sector jobs will be lost over the course of the austerity programme. In the most recent Budget, this figure was put at 1.2 million but with Osborne planning further spending cuts to pay for tax cuts and benefit increases (free school meals), it could rise today. 

10. A cut in fuel duty?

The Chancellor has already vowed to freeze fuel duty for the remainder of this parliament but with the improvement in the public finances will he go further and deliver an outright cut? If Osborne is looking for a headline announcement designed to show that the government is not indifferent to the "cost-of-living crisis" this is the most likely candidate. 

George Osborne inspects material during a visit to AW Hainsworth and Sons on October 25, 2013 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.