Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:04 pm on 14th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury 4:04 pm, 14th March 2017

My Lords, it is a privilege to present the 2017 Budget to the House. As your Lordships will be aware, this will be the last spring Budget before we move to an autumn timetable. It is also the first Budget since the referendum and our historic vote to leave the European Union. We want to provide as much certainty as possible and therefore it is only right that we take a cautious approach in our stewardship of the economy. Further, despite the Government’s success in bringing down the deficit by two-thirds, it is still too high at 3.8% of GDP last year. These are two major reasons for prudence.

Accordingly, this Budget is designed to strengthen our financial position still further and prepare the economy for the challenges and opportunities ahead. It invests in making the UK more productive—the best way to raise living standards in the long term—and in the quality public services that we depend on. In short, it gets us ready to make the most of the opportunities ahead by laying the foundations for a stronger, fairer, better Britain outside the EU and to create a truly global Britain to compete internationally.

It is fair to say that in March 2017 we are in a better position economically than many predicted. Growth in the second half of 2016 was stronger than the OBR had anticipated in the Autumn Statement. In fact, last year the UK grew faster than most other advanced major economies, while employment remains at a record high. That is very welcome, but the OBR continues to judge that in the medium term, growth will slow due to weaker growth in consumer demand as a consequence of a rise in inflation. Business investment is also expected to remain subdued as we begin the period of negotiation with our EU friends and partners. The OBR is, however, forecasting that net trade will make a positive contribution to growth, as the recent sterling depreciation supports exports.

As I have said, the deficit remains too high, and a range of factors in the global economy present potential risks. So it is right that we get ourselves in a position of readiness to handle difficulties of any kind which come our way. Accordingly, putting the public finances in good order will remain vital for the foreseeable future. Our fiscal rules to do so strike the right balance between reducing the deficit, maintaining flexibility and investing for the long term. The OBR predicts that we will continue to make good progress, with borrowing forecast to fall to a two-decade low of 0.7% of GDP by 2021-22. As a consequence, we are within sight of bringing to a halt the increase in the national debt as a proportion of GDP. Debt is forecast to peak at 88.8 % of GDP in 2017-18 and then to fall in subsequent years. So we are on track to bring the public finances under control.

I want to address the calls that we continue to hear for a spending splurge. It is true that the OBR has forecast £16.4 billion lower borrowing in 2016-17 than it did at the Autumn Statement, but with the national debt nearing 90% of GDP, and while we spend £50 billion on debt interest every year, this would be unwise. Also, the reduction in predicted borrowing owes much to one-off factors unlikely to be repeated. So we must maintain the momentum of reducing borrowing, and getting debt down. Hence a responsible and balanced Budget of targeted spending, with modest increases in revenue, which more or less cancel each other out.

I turn now to the proposed revenue-raising measures. It has been wisely said that:

“To tax and to please … is not given to man”.

If we want evidence for the truth of this quotation we need look no further than the reaction to this Budget. Taxation is a serious matter. Our principles are that the tax base must be sustainable and fair. That is the only way we can continue to sustain public services. So it was with those principles in mind that we proposed changes to national insurance contributions and to the dividend allowance.

I start with the proposal which has attracted the most widespread comment, that on national insurance. This is about creating a fairer and more sustainable system, and 60% of self-employed people affected—those on the lowest incomes—will actually gain from our reforms by an average of £115 a year. We will also explore the rights and protections for self-employed workers, including on issues like parental rights and maternity pay. Legislation will not be brought forward until the autumn, as the Prime Minister has said.

It is also a fact that within the current system, the self-employed, who represent 15% of the British workforce, pay a much lower rate. There are historical reasons for this, reflecting the difference in contributory benefits received, but it is telling that the number of self-employed has increased markedly in recent years. Some—I would say not all—of these newly self-employed are motivated by the tax advantages. With that trend set to continue, it is simply not a sustainable way to fund the benefits self-employed people receive, which now, importantly, include the same access to the state pension. Lower rates paid by the self-employed—some of whom are on very high incomes—are forecast to cost our public finances over £5 billion this year alone.

We have also reduced the dividend allowance from £5,000 to £2,000 from April 2018. This reduces the incentives for individuals to work through a company. The OBR has estimated that increases in incorporations would cost the Exchequer an extra £3.5 billion a year by 2021-22. This measure also ensures support for investors is more effectively targeted.

All can benefit from the increased personal allowance, for example, which rises to £11,500 this April. Investors will also benefit from the ISA allowance of £20,000 per annum from 2017-18. General investors, typically only those with a share portfolio outside an ISA worth at least £50,000, will pay more tax as a result of this change. Over 80% of general investors will continue to pay no tax on their dividends.

I now turn to business rates, where we have recognised that for some businesses the 2017 revaluation meant a large change in bills. While the revaluation is itself, by law, fiscally neutral, last year the Government set out £3.6 billion of transitional relief to support businesses with rising bills, capping the increases that business could face each year. We have committed to a package of cuts to business rates now worth nearly £9 billion, with 600,000 small businesses taken out of paying rates altogether. And at the Budget, my right honourable friend the Chancellor announced a further £435 million of support for businesses facing the steepest increases in bills, including help for small businesses losing small business rates relief and funding for local authorities to support discretionary relief.

Overall, the changes we have made to the tax system, especially for business, should be seen in the context of the competitive tax environment we have already put in place on corporation tax, capital gains tax and the R&D tax credit regime.

The revenue raised by tax measures in the Budget has enabled the Government to invest more in the public services that people care most about. One of the most significant commitments was on social care and health, where we have taken action to deal with short-term pressures as well as looking to the longer term. We have allocated an extra £2 billion to councils, which will reduce pressures on the NHS and help them provide more social care to people in their communities over the next three years, of which £1 billion will be made immediately available. It is agreed that we face growing pressures for the longer term as populations become older and the costs of complex medical treatments rise.

Noble Lords may recall that the OBR’s Fiscal Sustainability Report in January predicted that without mitigating action, the percentage of GDP spent on social care would double in the next 50 years. We will publish a Green Paper setting out our proposals for dealing with this challenge later in the year, and I believe that this House will play a valuable ongoing role in considering this issue over the longer term. We are also putting an extra £425 million into the NHS for complementary measures to help assess and manage patients waiting in accident and emergency, and to enable local NHS organisations which already have good plans for long-term reform to put those plans into action.

As a nation, we face a major challenge on productivity. It is well established that we lag behind the G7 average by 18%, and we are even more behind leaders such as Germany. Noble Lords who know me know that this issue has exercised me since my very first day in this House. To meet this problem in the Autumn Statement, we announced a new national productivity investment fund, worth over an extra £23 billion and targeted at areas critical to boosting the UK’s long-run productivity, including housing, research and development, and economic infrastructure.

The Budget included further details on how we will use the new fund to make a real difference, improving the UK’s physical infrastructure and keeping up as a leader in global technological progress. I cannot be comprehensive today but examples are the £690 million competitive fund for local authorities in England to unclog the congestion that blocks our urban road networks, and the £113 million to address traffic pinch-points on our roads in the north and the Midlands. Both those measures will help to boost productivity quite quickly. A third example is the £200 million to speed up the rollout of full-fibre broadband and a new 5G mobile technology hub. I am passionate about Britain becoming yet more successful as a digital society. Important allocations were also made to keep Britain at the forefront of global science and innovation, including funding for 1,000 new PhD places.

That brings me to my final point: the importance of investing in people. I know from experience that it is the combination of capital and skills that can transform productivity. Here, perhaps the most important announcement concerned the new T-levels, which will give our students a much clearer system of qualifications and a much more enticing route into skilled careers.

It has long been recognised that our vocational education has been comparatively weak, especially compared with that in countries such as Germany, where I worked as a non-executive director, or Switzerland. It is hoped that the new routes, taken with other measures such as apprenticeships, will finally put us on the right track. We are also helping more people to take their technical skills to the next level, offering maintenance loans to those studying at our prestigious institutes of technology or national colleges, such as the new colleges for nuclear and for high-speed rail. This means that such students can get the same kind of support with their costs that university students can access through student loans.

We have also built on the far-reaching improvements we have made to our schools—improvements that have seen 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than just six years earlier. We are putting an additional £216 million into our existing schools and funding an extra 110 new free schools, which will mean ever more choice for people in finding a good school place for their children or grandchildren.

This is not a large or a flashy Budget but it contains sensible, realistic measures aimed carefully and proportionately at the problems we face. I beg to move.