As in previous years, I spent Wednesday lunchtime sitting at my desk listening to the Chancellor deliver his Autumn Statement. As it went on, a feeling of panic began to come over me. ‘This is so dull – what am I going to write about?’ Janet Daley in The Telegraph summed it up well for me: ‘not so much a breath of fresh air as a lungful of ether.’ But I am probably doing the Chancellor a dis-service, and he did include a number of chuckle-worthy jokes at his predecessor’s expense (something about rabbits I recall).
This was our first chance to test the mettle of our new Chancellor, he having decided not to offer an emergency budget following the EU Referendum in June.
And he has already told us that this will be his last Autumn Statement, moving the main Budget to November and introducing a Spring Statement. I may be missing something here, but I can’t see how that changes much – apparently it will allow more time for Parliamentary scrutiny, although you would have thought he wouldn’t want to offer the more rebellious elements extra time to scrutinise things!
The Brexit issues have not unexpectedly had an effect on the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, shaving percentage points off forecast GDP in 2017 and beyond, and the OBR has said that leaving the European Union will reduce UK growth by 2.4%. But in this year when pollsters have so dramatically shown that forecasting is becoming something of a suspect art-form, you have to wonder how much we can rely on these OBR figures.
There seemed to be something of a ‘building’ theme to the Statement. A £2.3bn infrastructure fund will open up sites to build 100,000 homes; there will be a further £1.4bn to build 40,000 new affordable homes; £1.1bn for English local transport networks; a commitment to build the new Oxford to Cambridge Expressway; and more money will be heading to the other home nations via the Barnett formula for infrastructure spending.
One measure that will attract a lot of scrutiny is the move on Salary Sacrifice. This is a mechanism that employers and employees use to structure remuneration so that they both pay less in National Insurance. For example, the employee gives up some of his salary and gets instead a mobile phone contract. It’s treated as a Benefit in Kind and taxed accordingly, but he pays less in National Insurance, as does the employer, so the exchequer loses out. These are the types of arrangement the Chancellor is going after, and it will be interesting to see how extensive these measures will turn out to be.
Well there you are, 450 words later I have found something to write about after all – panic over! I like to end these commentaries with a quick look at one of the more quirky moves, such as George Osborne’s pothole fund that you may remember from last year. But it seems the new Chancellor is living up to his dour and serious image and I couldn’t find anything (and by the way Mr Osborne, there are still too many potholes on my cycle to work). So I’ll regale you with a related fact instead. The Government will step in and save the little-known Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham. Apparently, if you married in the chapel at Wentworth you could put Wentworth in front of your name – Philip Wentworth Chandler: has a certain ring, don’t you think?
Philip Chandler APFS, CFPTM, Chartered MCSI
Chair of Aspinalls Technical and Investment Committee