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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 Lord O'Neill of Gatley Lord O'Neill of Gatley The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury 3:39 pm, 25th November 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, for their interesting and detailed responses to the Autumn Statement and the spending review. One of the unfortunate consequences of their detailed response is that I have only three minutes or so to respond.

Let me start by trying to make some overall comments. An important backdrop to today’s Autumn Statement and spending review is that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has become more optimistic about our economic growth than it was previously, consistent with other respected domestic institutions. Importantly, in line with that, it has become more optimistic about our modelling of the path and profile of tax receipts.

As highlighted by the Chancellor, the OBR now calculates that this means a £27 billion improvement in our overall public finances over the forecast period. This allows the Government to borrow £8 billion less than forecast and, importantly, and in contrast to what the noble Lord, Lord Davies, suggested, spend £12 billion more on capital investment and cut less in the early years, while still achieving a budget surplus consistent with what was previously projected. In fact, that surplus will be slightly higher, by £100 million, by 2019-20.

In practical terms, this means: a £10 billion real-terms increase in the NHS budget; investment in our national security; real-terms protection of the police budget—I will have to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, on the technicalities of her question; doubling the housing budget; the largest ever investment in free childcare; a 50% increase in transport capital spending; extra support in science and innovation, in contrast to what was widely expected by the media; the biggest real-term; increase to the basic state pension in 15 years; and, of course, avoiding the need to lower the tax credit thresholds.

Through the spending review, the Autumn Statement also sets out the details of the Government’s commitment to deliver £12 billion of savings to the cost of governance. It delivers the economic security on which our future growth is based and protects national security, which it is, of course, the first duty of any Government to provide.

I shall quickly try to respond to some of the key specifics. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, as he has done in previous debates in this House, referred to a number of aspects of the economy. I have probably had more access and time to look at some of the things presented in the Autumn Statement and, crucially in this regard, by the independent OBR. With respect to, for example, the never-ending references to our balance of payments deficit, as significant as that has been, one of the sources of the upward revision by the OBR is the improvement in the balance of payments position that has recently occurred. As I pointed out in the Chamber a week or so ago, the trade part of the current account balance of payments has been improving for some time.

With respect to other specific asks, I am particularly pleased with some aspects of this in the context of what the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said, both from the northern powerhouse perspective and in terms of our broader energy dependency. In that regard, I should like to highlight the announcement of £250 million towards research for small nuclear reactors, which will benefit a considerable number of parts of the north of England. In addition, there is £250 million for a devoted potholes fund.

With respect to the ongoing and crucial issue of skills, the Autumn Statement spells out specifically how the apprenticeship levy will be funded. While some are making reference to that being some form of tax, as we have discussed here before—and as I have been among those most prominently pointing out—it is important for our corporate sector, which is at the forefront of pointing out our skills shortage, that it takes ownership in providing the necessary skills. It will apply only to the largest employers and anyone who achieves their target will get their funds returned in any case.

I have already touched on answers to some of the interesting comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, but I want to start by bringing us back to universal credit. I will refer to what the Chancellor himself said this morning and then make additional comments. He said with respect to tax credits:

“Because I have been able to announce today an improvement in the public finances, the simplest thing to do is not to phase these changes in, but to avoid them altogether. Tax credits are being phased out anyway as we introduce universal credit”.

He concludes the section of his wonderful presentation by saying that the House—that is, the other place,

“should know that helping with the transition obviously means that we will not be within that lower welfare cap in the first years, but the House should also know that, thanks to our welfare reforms, we will meet the cap in the later part of this Parliament”.

With respect to the observations about the role played by this House, it is important to remember that the Chancellor said the day before our debate that he was prepared to listen and there was on offer an alternative Motion that could have been respected.