Budget 2017: Experts respond

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Philip Hammond has delivered his first budget as Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer. Here our panellists give their take on what it means for the UK economy.

Economy

Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics, Cambridge Judge Business School

The chancellor delivered an upbeat assessment of the economy – upbeat but rose-tinted. The economy is currently being sustained by debt-driven consumption and a low exchange rate, and Hammond has done little to address the long-term challenges.

We were given another glimpse of the chancellor’s actuarial tendencies as he repeated the favoured mantra of his predecessor that he will “not saddle our children with ever-increasing debts”. However, what the country needs is an entrepreneurial chancellor who will invest to ensure our children inherit a prosperous economy.

On the plus side, Hammond has announced some modest investment in technical and vocational training with the introduction of T levels, combined with a hotchpotch of piecemeal initiatives to conceal the lack of a strategy. But there are important areas that were largely ignored. First, how is the economy going to develop robust trade links outside of the single market? Things may look rosy at the moment because of low exchange rate, but this is not sustainable.

Second, the British economy’s long-term record on investment has been poor and is likely to deteriorate if overseas companies decide that the UK is a less attractive option outside the EU. Offering subsidies and other sweeteners is not a coherent industrial policy. Innovation is one of the key mainsprings for long-term growth, but this requires companies to invest in the UK and for the economy to be open to talent from all countries.

The rhetoric was strong and the jokes were feeble. What was required – and what was lacking – was a long-term plan on how to deal with the challenges ahead.

Productivity

Geraint Johnes, Professor of Economics, Lancaster University

Productivity is very much at the heart of the budget, with specific projects being allocated funding from the £23 billion fund previously announced in the 2016 Autumn Statement. These include investment in STEM research, support for disruptive technologies, help with the high-speed broadband roll out and further transport projects to relieve local congestion.

But the main announcements made today concern the country’s education and skills infrastructure. New funding will be made available to support the creation of 110 free schools. These will, controversially, include new selective schools and specialist maths schools. While it is widely recognised that students attending selective schools can benefit from the experience, average performance across all students in areas served by such schools is not enhanced.

The chancellor also announced a long overdue and welcome tidying up of vocational and technical qualifications, replacing more than 13,000 qualifications by some 15 new T levels. Here the devil will be in the detail – we know that the job market has been polarising and that routine jobs will face challenge from continued advances in automation. To prevent a situation where we train people to do jobs that robots will soon do, technical education will need to emphasise adaptability, a high level of creativity, and the ability to learn how to learn. Finally, a relatively small investment – but an important one – addresses the issue of lifelong learning. Hammond has announced £40m to be spent on pilot projects in this area.

Pensions and savings

Jonquil Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Economics and Personal Finance, The Open University

The budget confirmed that reform of national insurance for the self-employed will go ahead from 2018. Class 4 national insurance contributions will be increased in stages over two years, taking the standard rate to 11% from its current level of 9% (compared with the 12% paid by employees). The original rationale for the lower rate for the self-employed was mainly that they were not entitled to the old additional state pension. With the introduction of the flat-rate state pension since April 2016, the self-employed now build up the state pension at the same rate as employees. The remaining 1% point gap compared with employees reflects the self-employed’s lack of sick pay and contributory unemployment benefits, although the government has said it will consult on parental benefits for the self-employed.

There will also be measures to reduce the tax advantage for working through an owner-managed company, starting with a reduction in the Dividend Tax Allowance (only introduced in April 2016) from £5,000 to £2,000 from April 2018. This will also affect investors with large shareholdings (around £50,000 or more).

A new National Savings & Investments 3-year bond will be introduced from April. Offering 2.2% a year (taxable); it is among the best rates currently available. But, with inflation forecast to rise to 2.4% this year, competing returns may prove better.

Social care

Catherine Needham, Reader in Public Policy and Public Management, University of Birmingham

Social care needs a big idea – long-term, carefully developed, cross-party – and today’s budget was never going to deliver on that. What it did deliver was £2 billion for the care sector – with half of this coming in 2017-18. That will come as a great relief to local authorities who manage desperately strained care budgets and to health leaders who can’t discharge people from their hospitals because care services are not in place to help them in the community.

Care providers – the vast majority of whom are in the for-profit or not-for-profit sectors rather than public sector – are nervous that the money will get stuck in local authorities and they won’t see the cash they need to keep services viable. But at least we don’t have the outrage and disappointment that followed the 2016 Autumn Statement, when high hopes for a response to the care crisis were dashed.

Hammond talked of the need to be strategic about the long-term challenges facing the care sector – he announced that a green paper would be published on funding challenges later this year. A “big idea” for care has eluded recent governments, none of whom have quite worked out how to get enough money into a care system designed for the problems of 1948 at the beginning of the welfare state. The Cabinet Office is working on a paper about long-term options for care reform – let’s hope it’s a good one.

Education

Andrew Gunn, Visiting Fellow at the School of Education, University of Leeds

Several of Theresa May’s ambitions to improve education through increased choice are funded in the budget, most prominently £320m to create an additional 110 new free schools. Some of these schools will be sponsored by universities and, more controversially, many will be allowed to select pupils based on attainment.

Disadvantaged pupils will be offered free transport to these newly selective free schools. But critics will still claim grammar schools are socially divisive and are contrary to the prime minister’s goal of making “Britain the world’s great meritocracy”.

To deliver the biggest reform of further education in 70 years, £500m a year from 2019 has been committed to improve technical education. The current complex and vast range of technical qualifications will be streamlined into 15 routes, offering students T level vocational qualifications of equal value to A-Levels. The chancellor sees these investments as a way to address the “productivity gap” caused by the UK’s enduring weakness in technical skills.

In higher education, the government will fund 1,000 new PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The budget also confirmed the terms of doctoral loans of up to £25,000 each for doctoral study, and maintenance loans for part-time undergraduates.

More reaction to follow…

Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics, Cambridge Judge Business School; Andrew Gunn, Researcher in Higher Education Policy, University of Leeds; Catherine Needham, Reader in Public Policy and Public Management, University of Birmingham; Geraint Johnes, Professor of Economics, Lancaster University; Ian Greenwood, Associate Professor in Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management, University of Leeds; Jonquil Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Economics and Personal Finance, The Open University, and Michael Devereux, Professor of Business Taxation, University of Oxford

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