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The OBR’s evidence is clear: the Autumn Statement has done nothing to end the living standards and growth crises

In 2023-24 the increased budget is allocated for public sector pay increases (£3.9 billion for the NHS in 2023-24, and £0.4 and £1.4 billion for other departments in 2023-24 and 2024-25, respectively). Overall, the OBR have departmental spending growing by 0.9 per cent a year in real terms, down from 1.1 per cent at the March Budget.  

Given the government’s political priorities on spending, the OBR stress that unprotected departmental spending is projected to fall by between 2.3 and 4.1 per cent a year in real terms from 2025-26. They wryly observe this (austerity) would “present challenges” and cite the Institute for Government’s recent report finding that “performance in eight out of nine major public services has declined since 2010”.  Plainly there is no intention to resolve the crisis in public services and public service recruitment. And ultimately

The public finances overall

For the public finances as a whole, the government has enjoyed a momentary windfall – with less bad than expected growth outturn and higher inflation meaning tax gains (especially with tax thresholds not being uprated) outweighing higher interest and other costs. This has been spent on the NI cut and expensing.

But the Chancellor has made hollow boasts about the improved condition of the public finances. The overall management of the economy for 13 years has meant a disastrous failure for them. Immediately less bad GDP outcomes (next section) have meant marginally improved ratios for this statement. But overall the Conservatives have presided over a huge increase in debt from 65 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 to 98 per cent of GDP in the current financial year. This is an unprecedented deterioration relative to all economic cycles for more than a century.

Growth crisis unended

At the end of his speech the chancellor proclaimed an “Autumn Statement for Growth”. But nothing announced yesterday changed the bottom line. While the forecasts reflected ONS revisions to GDP data and a less bad than expected 2022, growth over the next two years is revised steeply down. And on a medium term view the OBR warn:

"we have revised DOWN our estimate of the medium-term potential GROWTH rate of the economy to 1.6 per cent, from 1.8 per cent in March" (our emphasis)

The worse growth performance for the UK economy in a century just got worse again.

“Full expensing”

Of the onslaught in policy measures, the most prominent was making permanent the full expensing of business capital investment. The Chancellor chose to disregard OBR analysis showing both precursor measures (the super-deduction and temporary full expensing in the March 2021 and March 2023 Budgets) had a lower impact on investment levels than predicted (see OBR, Economic and Fiscal Outlook, November 2023, pp 33 – 34).

Introducing full expensing is forecast by the OBR to lead to an increase in business investment of £14 billion between now and 2028-29 and to cost £29.5 bn over the same period. This would appear then to be an extremely inefficient means of increasing business investment, reflecting huge ‘deadweight’ effects, whereby businesses gain generous tax relief on investment that would (likely) have taken place anyway.

The OBR estimates that the measure will raise the capital stock by 0.2 per cent by 2028-29 – a positive, but small, and very costly impact.

Pension saving

The chancellor also had high hopes for the role workers’ £2.5tn of pension savings could play in boosting our flagging economy. But while there were some welcome steps such as setting up a new growth fund through the British Business Bank the plans rely mostly on merging pension schemes in ways that are unlikely to be in the interests of their members, and leaning on funds to put more money into global private equity. These measures were also over shadowed by a poorly thought through proposal to upend the workplace pension system. See our fuller commentary here.  

Industrial strategy?

As the Chancellor noted, the lack of long-term certainty over policy decisions (including industrial strategy, taxes, and climate commitments) is a drawback to business decisions to invest. But there was no reassurance in the Autumn Statement that the Government would provide that certainty. While reannouncements of investment commitments to support the automotive, advanced manufacturing, and energy sectors – amounting to £4.5 billion are welcome, this represents only a small proportion of the investment requirements of the Biden-style industrial strategy that the UK needs.

Ending the failure  

The failure – as Labour have repeatedly identified – is still a failure of growth. The government need to invest in a stronger economy where growth and fairness go hand in hand, where decent pay means workers spend and businesses produce to meet that spending.  A virtuous cycle comes when businesses invest in the face of expansion and optimism, and stronger public services re-enforce the upward dynamic. Fairer and sustainable growth will then support the public finances. Yet the government continues to take us in the wrong direction. Yesterday’s Autumn Statement showed more strongly than ever why it is time for a change.