David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
In a month’s time, Rishi Sunak will have some good news to deliver in his Budget. He will have more money to play with than was forecast at the time of the last as forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility. How he uses these additional resources will tell us a great deal about his priorities and the priorities of the Government.
Before turning to his options, it is worth setting out some context. The overall state of the public finances cannot be described as being particularly cheery, even if they are significantly improved since March.
The debt to GDP ratio will still be nearly 100 per cent, higher than at any point since the early 1960s, and not forecast to fall fast. The Government still has substantial spending pressures in the short and medium term – Covid catch-up, levelling up, net zero and social care – as well as long term demographic pressures that will bite in the 2030s. In response, the Government has this year announced substantial tax increases with the Corporation Tax rise, a freeze on thresholds and allowances in the personal tax system and the National Insurance increase announced earlier in the month. We now have the highest tax burden in our peacetime history.
The tax rises have not taken effect yet, but many people are already facing a squeeze in living standards. Inflation is set to hit four per cent, with energy prices rising much faster than that and six million people are about to see the end of the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift.
So at a time of high debt, high taxes, falling living standards and unfunded spending commitments, a bit of good news does not come amiss.
The good news is that the OBR’s March assessments of GDP growth in 2021 (4 per cent) and of the long term scarring effect of Covid on the economy (or, to put it another away, the capacity for the UK economy to grow in future) of three per cent looks to be pessimistic. With GDP growth this year likely to be approximately seven per cent (although the current supply chain uncertainties may bring it down a little) and scarring as little as one per cent, the difference to the public finances could be low tens of billions – a very handy sum.
Assuming that this is the case, what are Rishi Sunak’s options?
First, he can strengthen the public finances by bringing debt down faster than originally planned. We are getting our debt away cheaply at the moment which, some argue, suggests that there is not an imperative to do make a further reduction. But our debt levels are uncomfortably high in the event of another recession, and even small increases in interest rates could result in us paying a lot more to service our debt. Maintaining market credibility is always important to the Treasury and, by all accounts, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We can assume that he will be keen to ensure that a significant proportion of the improvement in the public finances is put to this purpose. It also means that the Government may have more choices available nearer the time of the general election.
Second, taxes could be cut. This seems very unlikely to be announced in October ,given that the Prime Minister has just announced some tax rises, there remain outstanding spending pressures and it is still relatively early in the electoral cycle. Many Conservative MPs are not happy with the historically high level of taxes, but that is not going to change any time soon.
Third, he could increase departmental spending. The Treasury is downplaying the chances of this option by stating that the spending envelope has been set and is not going to be re-opened, but I am somewhat sceptical that this is quite so hard and fast a position.
There are two conflicting views on the pressures on departmental spending. One view is that the current spending plans assume no Covid costs after 2021-22 which is unrealistic; that generous spending plans for health, education and defence mean that there is precious little left for other departments – to the extent that unprotected departments face a real terms reduction and, if you compare the departmental spending numbers with what was announced in March 2020, there has been a cut.
The alternative argument put forward by the Treasury spending hawks is to point out the extent to which March 2020 signalled a turning-on of the spending taps. The long term trend growth of our economy is forecast to be 1.5 per cent. If departmental spending is to remain constant as a share of GDP, it would also grow at 1.5 per cent but, instead, the plans involved increases of four per cent a year and the capital spending element by seveb per cent a year.
The Treasury gets very annoyed at any suggestion made by the good people at the Institute of Fiscal Studies that there are departmental ‘cuts’ because the current spending plans are lower than those announced in March 2020. It is reminiscent of the trick Gordon Brown used to pull of setting out steep increases in public spending and, when the Conservatives set out slightly shallower increases in spending but increases nonetheless, describing the differences in spending as ‘Tory cuts’.
The bigger point the Treasury will be making is that, for those departments that have much more to spend, they really should absorb the short-term Covid recovery costs because spending is going up fast enough as it is, thank you very much.
(And, by the way, given that we are giving you this extra money, how about some proper efficiency reforms in return? Spending reviews should be the moment when the Treasury and spending departments make some big strategic decisions as to how taxpayer value for money is achieved but, since the Prime Minister has just reshuffled many spending ministers and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, such a development does not seem likely on this occasion.)
The real issue is the position with the unprotected departments. There is a political vulnerability if departments do, in fact, see real term cuts (“the return to austerity”). With regard to two departments of which I have experience, the Ministry of Justice clearly needs more resources to function effectively and, in terms of protecting the public finances, penny-pinching with HMRC is counter-productive. My guess is that, with the exception of overseas aid, the Chancellor at the very least will find the resources to ensure no department faces real term cuts.
The final choice is on welfare. The £20 per week Universal Credit uplift will have gone by the time we get to 27 October and, particularly at a time of rising prices, this is going to be painful for many. Lowering the taper rate will not help the poorest claimants, but it is consistent with the Government’s emphasis on incentivising work by essentially lowering the marginal tax rate. It would also provide a reasonably good answer to what the Government is doing to help people with the squeeze on living standards. Taken in the round, a reduction in the taper rate ticks so many boxes that I would be surprised if it does not happen.
So the Chancellor should have some positive announcements on borrowing, departmental spending and Universal Credit. In what may prove to be a difficult autumn for the Government, Sunak’s October Budget looks likely to be one of its better moments.