Published date : 27 October, 2021
Owing to the extensive trailing that went on in the press beforehand, this Budget contained far fewer surprises than it properly ought to have had. At the outset, I want to take a moment to salute the bravery of the Treasury spin doctor who allowed the Chancellor to be pictured wearing a pair of flip flops in the Evening Standard
before delivering a Budget. If we had had rather more flip flops in the Budget than we had in the Evening Standard
, we might be having a different discussion and one in which I could be more favourable towards it.
The Chancellor posed the question whether we want to be a country where in every crisis people ask, “What are the Government going to do about it?” To put it bluntly, that is the wrong question entirely. The question that we should be asking, particularly of this Chancellor and this Prime Minister, is “How can we stop them making it worse?” Across a range of issues, of which I will concentrate on three—the cost of living, supply and the environment—the Budget is doing nowhere near as much as it should to tackle the crises that we face.
It is a Budget that appears to be marked by short-termism, with a conceit that it is boosting working family incomes, while still imposing levies. I am careful about treading into the friendly fire that has been exchanged, but there is certainly no arguing with the fact that, even with the reduction in the taper rate, anyone who earns an additional £1 will still lose more than if they were paying the higher rate of income tax on it. That is a marginal rate, if you like, but there is also a very high marginal rate of tax on some of the youngest and lowest earners in society, which this Budget does nothing to tackle in the face of the worst cost-of-living crisis in memory.
I know that we have all been busy gathering external reaction from our various electronic devices as best we can, but I draw hon. Members’ attention to an IFS finding:
“Over the next 5 years real household disposable income is expected to grow by 0.8% per year, well below the historical average.”
The director of the IFS, Paul Johnson, has said:
“This is actually awful. Yet more years of real incomes barely growing. High inflation, rising taxes, poor growth keeping living standards virtually stagnant for another half a decade”.
The Chancellor spoke about the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. I heartily concur, which makes it all the more extraordinary that in each year of a child’s first 1,000 days on this earth, the Government will potentially be taking £1,000 away from its family by withdrawing the universal credit uplift. In Scotland, that will mean 20,000 children drawn into poverty and thousands more drawn into hardship, undermining the impact of the Scottish Government’s Scottish child payment to families. Those who are earning at the taper will still lose out to a far greater extent for every additional £1 than any objective analysis would suggest they should.
The costs of energy are soaring, the triple lock on pensions has been removed and—lest we forget—we have seen a 1% hike in national insurance, which breaks a Conservative party manifesto commitment and will bake in geographical and generational inequalities for many years to come, but it has all been made many, many times worse by the rising inflationary pressures as Brexit shortages begin to bite. We are seeing what I believe is the most concerted attack on living standards and hard-working, hard-pressed families.
The rising growth that the Chancellor has been relying on reflects a hoped-for return to trend, rather than anything beneficial that has been happening in the
Budget, but it is a return to a trend that was very sluggish before covid and is even more so as Brexit continues to bite. On covid, we clearly could not do a great deal to prevent the impact as it hit us, but Brexit is an entirely self-inflicted wound. That has not acted as an existential shock to the economy, stimulating new ways of doing things and jolting the Government into action to counteract the immediate damage. The Chancellor or the Government could have announced measures, and not necessarily even fiscal or economic measures; simply allowing more immigration to fill the shortages that we are seeing in certain sectors would have been hugely beneficial in counteracting the adverse impacts that we are seeing in our supply crisis.
The Chancellor has announced measures to increase R&D funding, which may or may not compensate—we will find out when we delve into the figures—for loss of access to European funding streams for research and innovation, but investment in research and development is a marathon rather than a sprint. The UK’s R&D spending of 1.7% of GDP is still languishing well below the OECD average of 2.5%, while Germany is way out in front with 3.2%. It remains to be seen whether or not the modest changes that the Chancellor has announced—even if they were not announced with a huge amount of modesty—will close that gap.
As I have said, we are seeing significant labour shortages, especially in the haulage and agriculture sectors. Of particular concern to me, as a Member representing a rural constituency, is the fact that an animal and potentially human welfare crisis is looming in the pig industry because there are not enough butchers and abattoir workers to deal with the capacity issues. While this Government may not class those jobs as being particularly highly skilled, they are certainly in high demand at present, and it is in no one’s interest for the demand to be as high as it is now. We are also seeing significant shortages in shops, and I do not think that anyone could reasonably be convinced by the Chancellor’s plea in mitigation that they are a result of “global inflation”. We have already seen a CO2
crisis; it seems that we have far too much CO2
where we do not want it and not enough where we do want it. As supply chains continue to be stretched to breaking point, this is a crisis that can only worsen and lead us into a winter of discontent.
The most pressing crisis of all is the environmental crisis. The Scottish Government are set to invest more than half a billion pounds in a “just transition fund” to benefit the north-east of Scotland, and have challenged the UK Government to match that, but I am sorry to say that nothing I have seen in the Budget so far suggests that the UK Government are doing so. In fact, what they have done this week is scupper the Acorn project in Peterhead for carbon capture and underground storage, which was the only scheme in the mix that was scalable and deliverable, using an existing infrastructure, and which could have benefited clusters in south Wales and around the Solent because of its ability to accept imports of carbon dioxide. The contrast is striking, and my constituents will see it very clearly: the UK Government roll out the pork barrel for the north-east of England, while sticking two fingers up to the north-east of Scotland.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There has been £350 billion from the North sea since oil began to be extracted, and when it comes to dealing with the environmental consequences of fossil fuel use, we are potentially not even going to be in the pole position that we ought to be in, and will not be able to take full advantage of our geological, geographical, sectoral and intellectual advantages in that field.
This afternoon we have heard a blizzard of spending commitments, un-baselined, some of them doubtless reheating previous announcements. Together with the new fiscal rules, it put me in mind of another Chancellor who for a long time coveted the role of the gentleman next door, and of his desire to mark his own homework. We are told that today’s announcements will be Barnettised, but experience leads me to say that I need to wait, and that the Scottish Government and people in Scotland would be also be wise to wait and see what actually does come through to the Scottish Government.
This Government have demonstrated eloquently, today and in the days leading up to it, that they have no interest in working with the Scottish Government, or working with the grain of Scottish opinion to respect the democratic choices of the Scottish people. Scotland can do better than this, and shall do better, with independence.
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