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Spending Review and Autumn Statement — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:39 pm on 25th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 3:39 pm, 25th November 2015

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, but I confess that he disappointed me today. He did not throw anything, so we have missed out on the drama of the other place. I was also somewhat disappointed in the Budget. It is less generous than it appears on first viewing: we still have a £12 billion cut in welfare. If I understand it correctly, that will now happen as people transfer into universal credit. I am sure that the Minister will advise noble Lords about that—it would be good to understand how it will work. Of course, I am absolutely delighted that the Chancellor reversed his plans to cut tax credits for poor working people. I think, with some interest, that had the Chancellor been a Member of this House a couple of weeks ago, when the relevant statutory instrument was debated, he would have supported neither the Conservative nor the Labour Motion, but the Liberal Democrat fatal Motion.

We are also pleased with the upfronting of money for the NHS in this Budget, especially the investment in mental health. That is welcome, but can the Minister confirm whether that £600 million is new money for mental health and does not contain any former promise within it? We are supportive of stamp duty on buy to let and very supportive of the increased spending on infrastructure. We note that the Chancellor partially explained that that was because borrowing is now cheap. That is what we have been saying for weeks, so we are very glad that he has listened to that argument.

However, if I lived in a deprived community, I would be exceedingly concerned today. Perhaps the Minister can help us. Although the Government have said there will be no cuts in the policing bill, I am somewhat confused. Does that mean that the grant levels for policing will continue to be the same from central government, or is part of the money to be replaced by a precept raised locally, by police and crime commissioners? I did not follow that and therefore do not understand what might be happening. If I am in a deprived community and find that I have an additional bill on my council tax for policing, I am almost certainly going to have an additional bill on my council tax for social care, because, as Members of this House will know, the most vulnerable elderly tend to live in the most deprived communities, with the narrowest council tax base. Therefore, paying for social care through an additional precept on council tax will be very tough for those communities. I would indeed be worried.

I would also be worried in another sense. The Chancellor significantly slashed the revenue side—that is, the operations budget—of the Department for Transport. Immediately in my head went up the warning sign that much of that is spent on bus grant. Again, with local authorities under great financial pressure, are we looking at either losing a lot of our bus services outside the big urban centres, where the systems can wash their face themselves, or are we looking at additional council tax being raised to pick up bus services?

The repatriation of business rates is something that we have always supported in principle, but I did not quite follow that; again, perhaps the Minister can help us. If I understood the Chancellor correctly, the equalisation will disappear. As this House will know, business rates have been centrally collected and then redistributed on the basis of need. As that is eliminated, will we again find that our most deprived communities, with the least capacity to generate new business and new business rates, will be the ones that suffer, while somewhere such as Kensington and Chelsea or

Westminster will be in heaven? I hope very much that the Minister can support us, because one knows that, with Budgets, the devil is very much in the detail.

Perhaps the Minister can help us also on further education. What I heard was a real-terms cut in the further education budget, which will be protected only in cash terms. In this House, we have all discussed—indeed, the Minister himself has discussed—the significant problem of the lack of skills that is holding back economic growth. Especially now, as we are constraining migration, it is really important that British people have lifelong learning. Apprenticeships and universities have a huge role to play, but the underpinning in our ever-changing world, where people constantly need to update their skills, means that further education is absolutely critical. Have we just heard a cut in that sector?

Perhaps the Minister can help us with this policy of equalising per pupil spending in schools. It sounds on the surface not to be an issue, but does this mean that schools, for example, in London, in some of our most difficult communities and which have delivered outstanding success, are about to have a cut in their per pupil spend based on this equalisation? We really need to know and understand the detail of that.

I will make just two more comments. Although there were many measures to support new ownership, the private rental sector was ignored. We have 1.6 million people on the waiting list for social housing who will obviously not be helped, and so many in generation rent, who spend half their income on rent, have not been helped either.

My last point is that this Budget relies on a £27 billion fine by the OBR in increased tax receipts and low interest rates. I point out that both could change or disappear. Given the constraints of the fiscal charter, what are the consequences for this Budget if that should happen?