Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:56 pm on 14th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative 5:56 pm, 14th March 2017

My Lords, what kind of economy do we in the United Kingdom intend to foster? Do we want policies that will encourage growth, investment, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, hard work, family values and responsible rather than reckless spending? That is certainly what I believe are core Conservative principles, and I wholeheartedly endorse them. In addition, the Prime Minister has talked of fairness and helping those who are “just about managing”, and I absolutely echo those sentiments too. However, this Budget contains some measures that, in the overall context of our long-term economic interests, seem to send confusing messages about those core principles.

I start by welcoming the Chancellor’s reaffirmed commitment to fiscal responsibility. Yes, tax revenues have been stronger than expected in the past year, but just using that windfall to boost current spending would not be sensible. Huge budget deficits and ultra-loose monetary policy are not sustainable over the medium term. I urge my noble friend to encourage the Treasury to take more seriously the opportunity to harness the power of pension funds and long-term insurance assets to stimulate growth directly and invest in infrastructure and housing.

As we negotiate an exit from the EU, we cannot assume that the economy will keep surprising on the upside. Lower immigration is a risk to our growth prospects. The Minister mentioned the importance therefore of investing in people. The new T-levels are welcome, but that needs to apply to older people too, so I warmly welcome the Chancellor’s decision to spend £5 million on returnships. Such initiatives could certainly provide much-needed help for older adults to help them extend their working lives. Pilot schemes helping people to return to work could particularly benefit older women wanting to work again after taking time out for caring. Leaving the EU means that it is increasingly important to help Britons keep working if they want or need to, taking advantage of our home-grown skills and talents to boost economic growth. Each extra one year later that the average British person delays retirement is estimated to add 1% to GDP. The economic benefits of fuller working lives need to be much better appreciated.

Another welcome measure that could help some older people is the Chancellor’s £2 billion boost to help councils fund social care. However, this is just a sticking plaster. Demand for care and costs of delivery have risen sharply, and cash-strapped councils are leaving too many frail elderly people without the care they need. This is already creating havoc in the NHS and the crisis has hit while the current cohort of older people is relatively small, before the baby-boomer generation reaches more advanced old age. If our economy is to support a health system that can cope with rising numbers of elderly people, reduced immigration and smaller cohorts of working people, clearly much more needs to be done on social care.

It is astonishing that, with a rapidly ageing population, there is absolutely no money set aside, either in the public accounts or at the private sector level, specifically to cover care costs. Previous politicians have just kicked this issue into the long grass. I welcome the Chancellor’s Green Paper later this year, but it must lead to action. Will my noble friend the Minister recognise the urgency here? The Budget was another missed opportunity to kick-start the extensive reform programme that is so urgently needed, including proper integration of health and care, helping families to prepare for care costs, new tax-favoured saving products, incentivising employers to help individuals fund care—perhaps elderly care vouchers, similar to the principle of childcare vouchers—and even auto-enrolment into care saving plans.

That brings me to my next point. The Chancellor specifically ruled out the so-called death tax to fund social care, so money will not be recouped retrospectively from people’s homes or estates to pay for care, but at the same time the Government will introduce precisely such a death tax. However, this one is what we might call a stealth death tax. It comes in the form of the massive rise in probate fees. Some 97% of the respondents to the Government’s own consultation were firmly against this. The Ministry of Justice seems to have landed the Chancellor with a little bit of a problem here. I suspect that, having admitted that this money is actually supposed to be there to fund other parts of the court system, because the current probate fees fund the cost of delivering the probate registry, many families might prefer to have a death tax to pay for social care rather than to help the Ministry of Justice.

The most surprising news in the Budget was of course the hit to the self-employed. These are the very people who will keep our economy going and growing. They have no maternity pay, holiday pay or sick pay and nobody else to fund a pension for them. I must admit that I fail to understand the urgency of introducing a rise to class 4 national insurance rates. The manifesto commitment not to raise national insurance was clear and we knew at that time about the rises in self-employed people’s state pensions. I was not surprised, when I took the tax-lock legislation through this House, that it related only to class 1 national insurance because we were reforming class 2 and we knew there would be reform of class 4. I would not have expected an increase in rates at this time, hitting the self-employed directly. The Chancellor talked about the need to create the growth that will underpin our future prosperity and his ambition for the UK to be the best place in the world to start and grow a business. I do not quite understand how this is ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders bear the heaviest burden. This measure fails that test.

Indeed, the cut to the dividend tax allowance is another tax on risk-taking and equity capital. It will hit not only small investors but those people who are trying to start a business and want to take a dividend out of that company. Our dividend taxation and the tax on risk-taking is out of line with the tax on debt instruments, yet economic growth can usually benefit more from equity risk-taking than debt finance. People who set up their own businesses are being hit twice in this Budget. I do not believe that is sensible for the future growth of our economy, and I hope the Chancellor will rethink these plans.