Looking back on the Autumn Statement doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. It was a pretty lacklustre affair, more noticeable for its depressing OBR statistics and predictions than any headline grabbing policy changes. Philip Hammond’s delivery of the statement was relatively well received, but very much in the vein of the ‘steady hand at the wheel’ than because of any dazzling performance. However, stick with me and I reckon we can just about to pull out a few interesting bits and bobs…
First off: It’s the last ever Autumn Statement you’ll ever have to consider! But before you get too carried away, this is more of a rebranding than a substantive change. From 2017 the Budget will take place in the Autumn there will be a Spring Statement instead. So actually that one’s much of a muchness. Not only that but it means 2017 will have two budgets in it: One in Spring to conclude the current system and one in Autumn marking the start of the new system. Joy of joys.
In terms of new plans of specific significance here in Scotland, the Chancellor did announce work on a Stirling City Deal... meaning a city deal could be agreed for each of Scotland’s cities, with the Aberdeen deal officially signed last week. At this stage, plans for a Stirling deal include the creation of a Digital District, work to harness the leisure and tourism potential of the River Forth, the establishment of a new civic and harbour quarter and a new park. The Edinburgh and Tayside city deals are already progressing along. (In case you think we've missed any, the Inverness and Glasgow City Deals have already been agreed.)
Given the call from the Scottish Government to the Chancellor to recommit to progressing the Tay and Stirling City Deals the more politically naive might be forgiven for thinking that on the surface the Scottish Government should be pretty happy with what the Mr Hammond had to say. Of course, that is not the case, with Derek Mackay, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance & Constitution, describing the day’s announcements as “a missed opportunity”. When he stepped up to give his response to the Autumn Statement in the Scottish Parliament it was pretty much everything you’d expect it to be. The OBR figures were painted as a clear indication of the impact of Brexit (an interpretation that, admittedly, doesn’t take a very heavy brushstroke) and the need for Scotland to set out its own route post-Brexit was presented. The Cabinet Secretary did seek to quell concerns about the impact of Brexit on Scotland, suggesting the “underlying resilience” of the markets and work by the Scottish Government would offer protection he did not expect to see south of the border. While many welcomed the abandonment of George Osborne’s focus on the deficit, Derek Mackay felt the statement had only contained the “rhetoric of resetting fiscal policy”. He continued along the lines set out by the SNP in the immediate wake of the statement by stressing that the discretionary budget of the Scottish Government would be lower than levels in 2010-11. The £800m of capital investment announced by the Chancellor, which will result in additional consequentials for Scotland, did little to remedy his wider feelings.
There were of course other areas where Derek Mackay, who will step up to the mic to deliver his own draft budget on Thursday 15th December, felt the Chancellor had been lacking. Support for low-income families, which had come mostly in the form of an increase to the personal allowance, was critiqued for not going far enough; like many others, the Scottish Government had hoped to see the UK Government postpone its planned reduction of the benefit cap. North Sea oil and gas was another area the Cabinet Secretary felt had been ignored by the Chancellor, although Liam Kerr – a Conservative MSP for the North East – was keen to point out that Oil & Gas UK welcomed the Autumn Statement.
When Conservative MSPs stepped up to respond to the Cabinet Secretary it looked as though the session must have been on two separate topics, so distinct were the takes on the Chancellor’s statement. The Conservative Finance spokesperson, Murdo Fraser, said the UK economy was the “fastest growing economy in the G7” and the gap in rhetoric only widened from there. The personal allowance lift, national living wage increase, fuel duty freeze and the city deal were among the areas lauded from the Conservative benches. Labour joined the Scottish Government in condemning the “cut, cut and cut again” policy of the UK Government but Kezia Dugdale did not let the SNP off the hook, suggesting the devolution of tax powers meant a different approach should be outlined in the Scottish draft budget.
All in all, for me the whole thing felt a bit ‘same old, same old’ for a statement taking place in an unprecedented time in UK politics: and that goes as much for the response from the Scottish Parliament as it does for the House of Commons.
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