Thursday, December 6, 2012
Before the autumn statement yesterday, the general expectation in Westminster was that it would be a bad afternoon for George Osborne.
When he stood up to speak in the Commons, everyone already knew he was going to announce the coalitions’s painful austerity programme would last an extra year.
They knew he would have to endure the embarrassment of admitting he would miss his target to ensure debt fell as a share of GDP from 2015.
But despite that, by 3pm the chancellor appeared to have avoided what was expected to be a far harsher ordeal on the Commons floor.
Meanwhile, there was just about enough to be positive about for his supporters in Norfolk – scrapping a fuel duty rise and the prospect of money for our life sciences sector for example.
Broadland MP Keith Simpson told the EDP: “Expectations are everything, and most people, up to the moment he stood up, thought this was not going to be good for him.
“But this will not only go down well with our people, but also across the coalition. Compare and contrast that with how the budget was handled when it seemed to come apart and led to bad press.”
Forecasts from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) showed the economy would grow 1.2pc next year and steadily increase after that, growing by 2.8pc in 2017.
The figures were passable, though optimistic. Independent consensus put growth in 2017 closer to 2.1pc. However, the OBR saved the chancellor’s blushes by blaming the lower than expected figures on the Eurozone crisis rather than his policies.
Borrowing, too, had been worse than predicted. But the OBR figures allowed Mr Osborne to say it would still fall next year and then in each one after that.
In 2009/10 the country was borrowing £159bn, but this year that figure had fallen to £108bn. It would, said the OBR, fall to £99bn next year and to £31bn in 2017.
Even the deficit, which highlighted Mr Osborne’s broken rule, was at least falling said the OBR – from 6.9pc of GDP this year to 1.6pc in 2017.
Employment figures offered hope too.
The OBR predicted unemployment would peak at 8.3pc, rather than the previous 8.7pc estimate – considerably lower than rates in European countries.
However, the chancellor’s attempt to put the country’s sticky economic situation in a better light did not convince critics.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls highlighted that over the past two years the economy had grown by just 0.6pc compared to the 4.6pc once promised. Borrowing so far had been £212bn higher than expected, he argued, due to slow growth and low tax revenues.
Mr Balls said: “Today, after two-and- a-half years, we can see, and people can feel in the country, the true scale of this government’s economic failure. Our economy this year is contracting. The chancellor has confirmed government borrowing is revised up this year, next year and every year.”
Labour later argued that a working family with children on £20,000 would lose £279 a year from next April due to benefit and tax credit changes announced. In particular benefits, which were due to be uprated by more than 2pc, would now only be uprated by 1pc over the next three years. Even that rise was down to pressure from the Liberal Democrats, with the chancellor originally wanting a freeze.
In a bid to balance the pain for low earners Mr Osborne raised the tax-free personal allowance by a further £235 to £9,440 in 2013/14 and, to hit the wealthy, cut annual pension savings tax relief allowance from £50,000 to £40,000.
But Mr Osborne did just about enough arguing that slow progress was being made to push some attention on to the sweeteners in his speech.
A planned 3p-a-litre rise in fuel duty due in January was scrapped and there was the £5bn for infrastructure investment and school places.
Meanwhile Mr Osborne announced there would be £600m to fund science facilities, some of which may soon find its way to the life sciences sector in Norwich.
Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, pictured, the government’s life sciences adviser, said after the speech: “Although the debt is going to take longer to reduce we have every reason to be confident about Britain’s economic prospects.”
There was also a further cut in corporation tax to 21pc, small business rate relief was extended and a significant temporary increase in the Annual Investment Allowance, from £25,000 to £250,000, to allow firms to develop facilities more cheaply.
Meanwhile the suggestion in Michael Heseltine’s recent report, to push billions of Whitehall funding into a pot from which Local Enterprise Partnerships, such as New Anglia, could draw was also adopted.
It is not yet clear how much money LEPs may end up with, but business secretary Vince Cable told the EDP yesterday it would be “substantial”.
A further £350m will also be provided to the Regional Growth Fund which will now be open for a fourth round of grants for growth-boosting schemes.
Another announcement which could prove controversial amongst teaching unions was the government’s decision to allow schools to negotiate their own pay deals, rather than adhere to national bargaining.
But South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss, an education minister, said: “I’m delighted by today’s announcement that schools will have flexibility to set their own pay for teachers. This is particularly relevant in rural areas like South West Norfolk which quite often struggle to attract suitable teachers.
“Giving schools the freedom to establish their own pay scales will assist in drawing the most able teachers to the area.”
The chancellor will feel he survived the autumn statement without severe political damage. Then again, he probably thought that the morning after his last budget too.
For more see our eight page pullout