In the March 2016 budget the government decided to increase total public spending from £681 bn last year, to £694bn this year and to £706 bn next year. For 2017-18 we are going to need a higher total, given the pressures on social care, the NHS and schools budgets.
The argument over the budget is less about the need for some more spending on priorities than on how this will be paid for. Some of us say that as the Treasury will be able to report stronger revenues than the Autumn Statement there is no need to hike individual tax rates or find new taxes to impose. Indeed, some selective cuts in rates on enterprise would be welcome, and likely to augment the revenues. Mr Osborne’s Spring budget last year slashed property transactions with higher Stamp Duties. The revaluation of Business rates will damage some smaller businesses that face high increases with no small premises exemptions.
It is most important that the budget promotes growth, investment and more productive working, rather than taxing it more. Treasury officials are ever minded to look for new sources of income, but the Ministers are there to protect taxpayers and to be a voice of commonsense about how far we can go with increasing tax rates. The UK economy has done relatively well in 2016 and so far this year, but could do better. It will need substantial new investment in broadband, water, electricity, and transport to overcome obstacles to growth and to lift it further. Anything the budget can do to speed these ideas, the better.
With the USA planning major tax cuts and with places like Ireland and Luxembourg also offering an attractive tax package to investors and business, the UK must stay competitive. read more
I have made representations for more money for social care and for local schools in West Berkshire and Wokingham. I have also urged action to reduce excessive business rate rises, where the government has now indicated its intention to take some helpful measures tomorrow. I look forward to the budget to see what results. read more
Yesterday I met Thames Water and reaffirmed the need for more action to be taken to ensure adequate water supplies for the south-east by adding to reservoir capacity. I also urged more retention of water in reservoirs or areas where it can be stored during periods of heavy rainfall and swollen rivers to reduce the flood risk. read more
Today we will hear how non food sales in February fell. This is to take the British retail Consortium figures of sales for non foods on a like for like basis, adjusting for expansions in shop space. The overall true figure is total sales of all items grew by 0.4% on the month, with food especially strong showing growth of 2%. Non food was affected by a later date for Mothering Sunday delaying purchases compared to last year.
Many shops continue to be pessimistic, as more retail spending takes place on line rather than in shops, and as severe competitive pressures keep down prices. read more
The budget is billed as helping drive productivity higher. That would be a good idea. If we work smarter as a country then each person can earn more. The government seems to have in mind labour productivity in its plans, though making productive use of capital, energy and other inputs also matters and can help make a country richer if done well.
The way to encourage smarter working and higher earnings must begin with fair taxation with low rates of tax on enterprise and effort. Politicians of all parties regard work as a good, yet all agree it must be taxed. Given the volume of public service we want as a country, it is true there has to be some tax on work. It is also true that if you tax work too highly you send it abroad, you persuade higher earning people to value leisure time more, you encourage early retirement. I trust the leaks about higher National Insurance for the self employed are just Treasury officials greedy for revenue and not inspired briefing. Starting a productivity drive with a big increase in taxes on some of the most productive people in the economy is not a great idea. Small and new business offers us scope for major adjustments in our economy and improvements in its performance. It is the new fast moving smaller businesses that often pioneer the modern more productive techniques and technologies, offer the new goods and services, and use labour well. Cutting marginal rates of tax on enterprise, employment and business success will encourage more of what we need.
In both manufacturing and clerical work providing more machine power and computer power at the elbow of each employee raises productivity. UK productivity in factories in recent years has surged as elsewhere in the advanced world. What was done by hand and arm power in a sixties factory is now often done by robot or mechanical power. What was done in an office by people on typewriters, calculators and adding machines is now done by computers and electronic programmes with less human intervention. The full internet revolution has further to run to automate and take more of the routine out of office and factory working. The new jobs will be in machine minding, programming, managing and reviewing the output, and in designing and selling.
The waves of change that are often ascribed to imports and foreign competition also have been driven by automation. A more productive economy has to welcome these waves of technical progress and adopt more machine power to compete. It is then equally important that those who have lost their jobs as a result ar helped and trained to undertake the many new roles a machine driven culture produce. What can a Chancellor do to bring this about?
He can and should concentrate on helping the public sector to adopt the new ways of doing things that will be smarter, higher quality and more efficient by using computer power. Productivity performance has been disappointing in the public sector this century. He can and should with the rest of government to do more to ensure the casualties of such changes are also winners, by backing retraining and recruitment into the new more productive jobs investment can spawn. read more