What do we already know about today's Budget?

Today's Budget is one of the most leaky ever. Here is a breakdown of the measures already trailed.

You would be forgiven for thinking that George Osborne's Budget speech today is simply a formality, given the amount of material that has already been leaked. Here is a summary of what has already been trailed, in what must be one of the most leaked Budgets ever.

50p tax

It looks nearly certain that the Chancellor will scrap the top rate of tax, which applies to those earning over £150,000. Rather than abolishing it outright, it will be reduced from 50p in the pound to 45p. This lays the groundwork for getting rid of it entirely next year, and reverting to 40p as the highest rate of tax.

Tax avoidance clampdown

To offset this tax cut for the rich, Osborne has promised to "come down like a ton of bricks" on those who avoid stamp duty. The annual charge on non-domiciled residents will also be upped from £30,000 to £50,000. It's worth noting that the higher rate was floated last year but did not materialise. In today's FT, Martin Taylor says we should not expect this tax clampdown to work.

Stamp duty

In a small victory for the Lib Dems, who have long been lobbying for some form of property tax, stamp duty is to be raised from 5 per cent to 7 per cent on properties worth more than £2m. This measure should raise £2.2bn to help fund the increase in the income tax threshold.

Raising the income tax threshold

Osborne will accelerate plans to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000. This move, heavily touted by the Liberal Democrats, will apply to all 23 million basic tax-rate payers and many higher earners, too. Osborne is likely to announce a large short-term increase, with plans to reach the £10,000 mark by April 2014, long before it was scheduled.

Regional pay deals

Public sector workers in poorer areas of the country will be paid lower salaries - in some cases, as early as next month. Osborne will argue that the public sector should be more like the private sector and reflect local economies, but critics say it will accentuate the economic divide between north and south. It was unclear whether the new rates would apply only to new staff or to existing staff as well. The Treasury insisted that no current employee would suffer a pay cut - rather, rates would be adjusted over time.

Sunday trading hours

The Chancellor will force through emergency legislation lifting the six-hour limit on opening hours for larger stores, in a bid to boost the economy. The restrictions will be lifted on eight weekends over the summer, to coincide with the Olympics and Paralympics. This could open the door for the restrictions to be scrapped altogether.

Tax transparency

Taxpayers will be given a breakdown of where their tax money is going, from the NHS, to defence, to unemployment benefits.

TV tax breaks

The government will launch a consultation on tax breaks for high-budget British television dramas, such as the wildly successful Downton Abbey.

Royal Mail privatisation

In a radical move, the government will take on all the assets and liabilities of the Royal Mail's pension fund, taking responsibility for paying postal workers' pensions for decades to come. This will open the door for the privatisation of the postal service: the pension fund, which has a shortfall of £9.5m, would make it impossible to attract a private sector buyer.

Planning laws to be relaxed

Osborne has said he is "deeply frustrated" with the slowness of the planning process, and will announce new legislation to make it easier to build in the countryside. This will clear the way for more homes and infrastructure to be built - but it may further undermine the coalition's claim to be "the greenest government ever". Regulations protecting wildlife are expected to be scrapped as part of this drive.

International aid

It looks as if the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid will be maintained.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.