Jeremy Hunt kicks off by telling MPs the British economy is “proving the doubters wrong”, and the OBR is now forecasting there will be no recession, after the gloomy projections made in the autumn. “We are following the plan and the plan is working,” he says.
Aubrey Allegretti, political correspondent: Hunt has the weight of his party and the country on his shoulders.
The first budget in 18 months – when the UK has had two chancellors come and go – carries huge implications for people struggling during the cost of living crisis, businesses concerned about economic stability, and the Conservatives’ polling deficit.
He nods to “difficult decisions” taken in the autumn and seeks to cajole grumpy Tory MPs by telling them “the plan is working”.
To try to boost their spirits, he declares “inflation has peaked” and gets huge cheers for declaring a recession looks likely to be avoided.
After a vigorous campaign from the consumer rights champion Martin Lewis and many charities, Hunt confirms that the energy price guarantee will remain at £2,500 until July – it had been set to rise to £3,000.
The chancellor says: “Some people remain in real distress, and we should always remain ready to help when we can.”
He says the measure would save the average family £160.
As expected, Hunt extends the 5p cut to fuel duty made by Rishi Sunak last March, for another year.
He also announces extra help for those with prepayment meters, saying he will “bring their charges in line with comparable direct debit charges”.
He also announces a £63m fund to help leisure centres and pools afford their energy bills, and £100m extra for charities facing soaring costs.
Aubrey Allegretti: Aware that energy prices are a big contributor to people feeling the strain, Hunt knows news that the energy price guarantee being kept at £2,500 from April until July will be welcomed. But he struggles to avoid smiling as opposition MPs laugh at his support for swimming pools – after this Guardian story.
Hunt says this will be a budget for “long-term, sustainable, healthy growth”, and it will deliver “prosperity with a purpose”.
He says the OBR expects inflation, at 10.7% in Q4 of last year, to be 2.9% by the end of 2023 – meeting Sunak’s target of halving it.
Since the autumn statement, the OBR, along with many other forecasters, has become slightly less gloomy about the prospects for 2023. It is now expecting GDP to contract by 0.2%, instead of the 1.4% it predicted in November.
Hunt says that will be followed by growth of 1.8% next year, 2.5% in 2025 and 2.1% in 2026.
That compares with November forecasts of 1.3% for 2024, 2.6% for 2025 and 2.7% for the year after – so the OBR is expecting stronger growth in the next two years, but a slower recovery thereafter.
Aubrey Allegretti: While Hunt quietly sets as much distance between this budget and Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget last September, he still needs to demonstrate a commitment to Liz Truss’s watchword – growth.
It is a key target of Labour’s, and restless Tory backbenchers need to be convinced they are not just propping up a government engaged in managed decline.
Hunt says growth is one of the PM’s five priorities, but defends his commitment to returning inflation to the 2% target and says it now looks poised to diminish to 2.9% by the end of the year.
There are some who think the inflation cut would have happened anyway and that Hunt and Sunak are giving themselves a pat on the back for something more dictated by global headwinds. Hunt will have to prove his plan is partly responsible for the positive news.
Hunt boasts that by the end of the forecast period, the government’s current budget deficit – day-to-day spending minus tax revenues – will be in surplus.
He says the OBR is expecting that he will meet his fiscal rule of keeping public sector net borrowing below 3% of GDP, with £39.2bn to spare, by the end of the forecast.
Public sector net debt was previously expected to peak at 97.6% of GDP in 2025-26, falling to 97.3% two years later.
It is now expected to hit a somewhat lower peak of 97.3%, falling to 94.6% by 2027-28.
As in the autumn statement, he says day-to-day spending will rise by 1% a year in real terms from next year to the end of the forecast period.
Aubrey Allegretti: The wind is in Hunt’s sails here, because of a higher-than-expected tax take providing some extra fiscal headroom.
This is well known, and Tory MPs expect the chancellor to make the most of it.
In a nod to it, Hunt says this will provide “more money for public services and more money for future generations” – something he calls “deeply held on values that we put into practice today” that earns him some cheers from Tory MPs.
It might not be as jazzy as the more retail spending commitments, but reducing debt was a hallmark of the coalition government – and Hunt is keen to stick at it.
The chancellor draws attention to the economy inherited by the Tories in 2010, seeking to rouse the backbenches and as an attack on Labour’s performance in government.
Hunt says the government plans to create a dozen new investment zones that could become “12 potential Canary Wharfs”.
He says areas including the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Teesside had been identified as possible hosts, and they will need to develop proposals centred on universities or research institutes.
Successful applicants will be given £80m of support as well and allowed to retain some local taxes.
Hunt also announces an extra £400m for “levelling up partnerships” in areas including Redcar and Cleveland and Rochdale, as well as confirming the next round of city region transport settlements, which will be worth £8.8bn over five years.
He confirms that the West Midlands and Greater Manchester will get new multi-year devolution funding deals, and be allowed to retain business rates.
Aubrey Allegretti: It was the Boris Johnson government’s raison d’etre – but levelling up gets far fewer mentions these days.
Wary that it was a key part of wooing the 2019 winning coalition of voters that helped the Tories shatter the “red wall”, Hunt knows it remains a vital mission.
Truss-era ministers are understood to be frustrated with only 12 investment zones in higher-education hotspots going ahead. They believe the number is too low and that they will no longer fulfil “levelling up” in more deprived parts of the country.
Hunt’s nod to key constituencies such as Redcar and regions such as Teesside show there is still ambition to fight to keep the Conservatives’ hold in those areas.
Hunt says he wants to create “the most pro-business, pro-enterprise tax regime anywhere”, despite confirming that he will go ahead with the planned increase in corporation tax – first announced by Sunak – from 19% to 25% in April.
He announces a new £9bn policy of “full capital expensing”, initially for the next three years, which allows firms to write off all investment against their tax bills.
Hunt says the OBR believes this will boost business tax by 3% a year.
He also announces a new “enhanced credit” for research-intensive businesses, worth £27 for every £100 they invest.
Hunt also extends “draught relief”, so that the duty paid in pubs will be up to 11% lower than elsewhere. He calls this a “Brexit pubs guarantee,” saying it would not have been possible inside the EU.
He also says he will put in place a new medicine regulator, which will give “rapid, often near-automatic approval for medicines and technologies already approved by trusted regulators in other parts of the world such as the US, Europe and Japan.
And he says he will offer a £1m a year prize for the next 10 years for the most innovative research in AI.
Aubrey Allegretti: The corporation tax rise is perhaps Hunt and Sunak’s weakest flank with Tory MPs. Former cabinet ministers Simon Clarke and Priti Patel have been breathing down the government’s neck on this.
The chancellor defends the rise, by saying it will still leave the UK with the lowest headline corporation tax rate in the G7.
His “tax cut” for capital expensing will give ministers another key line of defence – and comes with a hefty price tag of £9bn a year. It is a short-term boost for business investment, as Hunt acknowledges it won’t be made permanent until it is responsible to do so.
Hunt announces £20bn of investment in carbon capture and storage, which he says will kick off with projects including Merseyside and Wales.
He says nuclear power will be classed as environmentally sustainable, giving it access to investment incentives.
Hunt also announces the creation of what he calls Great British Nuclear, which he says will help to bring down costs, and says the government will launch a competition for the design of small modular reactors – which could be co-funded by the government if they prove viable.
Aubrey Allegretti: There are two big reasons for this focus on energy. It has become more politically salient since gas prices shot up after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and as the net zero target looms closer.
Boosting nuclear is a way for the Conservatives to bash Labour, and Hunt acknowledges this – saying it is a “shame” the main opposition party did not champion the energy source when they were in government.
We get what might be the first gag by the chancellor this budget – something that is usually peppered more frequently in such statements. Hunt jokes that energy security is so important because “the sun doesn’t always shine – even under a Conservative government”.
“Conservatives believe work is a virtue,” Hunt says, as he confirms a significant package of measures aimed at tackling economic inactivity, in what he calls a “back to work budget”. These include:
Scrapping the much-derided work capability assessment – though details of its replacement are not yet clear.
Introducing a new voluntary employment scheme for disabled people, universal support, worth £4,000 for up to 50,000 people.
A £400m scheme to make more support for mental and physical health available to workers with health problems.
For those on universal credit without a health problem, Hunt says benefits sanctions will be “applied more rigorously” to force claimants to search for work. “Independence is always better than dependence,” he says.
Focusing on the over-50s, Hunt says he will increase the number of people who get “mid-life MOTs” from the Department for Work and Pensions, helping them assess their financial situation.
There will be a new apprenticeship, called “returnerships”, for over-50s wanting to return to work in a new sector.
And Hunt says he will lift the annual limit on tax-free pension contributions from £40,000 to £60,000 and abolish the lifetime cap, to tempt higher-paid older workers, such as doctors, to remain in the workplace. “No one should be pushed out of the workplace for tax reasons,” he says.
Aubrey Allegretti: Given the number of people who are unable to work because of long-term sickness, retiring early, or unable to go back to work because of spiralling childcare costs, boosting employment is an important focus for the Treasury.
Overhauling disability benefits has been a long-trailed plan. Doing so is hoped to incentivise people to return to the workforce.
The tougher sanctions for those that fail to meet work search requirements or don’t take up a reasonable job offer are designed to head off any concerns from Tory backbenchers about “handouts”.
Increasing the pensions annual tax-free allowance and scrapping the lifetime allowance was a key ask of some Tory MPs, who said they were driving NHS workers to quit. Hunt’s pledge that the long-delayed health service workforce plan is to be published “shortly” will be closely watched. But such promises have been made before.
Hunt says he wants to reform a childcare system he says is “bad for children, and damaging for the economy”, and suggests the overhaul could get 11 million more women into work.
As revealed in the Guardian, he says parents of children aged nine months to three years will be offered 30 hours a week of free childcare in term time – as long as both parents are working at least 16 hours a week.
The change will be phased in gradually, by September 2025 – Hunt says this will allow for new provision to be available.
Universal credit claimants will be able to receive childcare funding upfront, instead of in arrears, and the amount available will increase.
Local authorities will be given more funding for wraparound care, from 8am-6pm, with an ambition that all schools will offer it by September 2026.
Hunt says he will increase the funding for free nursery places, by £204m from September, and £280m next year – an average increase of 30%.
Aubrey Allegretti: Sorting out the mess of unwieldy childcare issues is something Tory MPs have been pushing for quietly in the background.
A campaign has been led by the “Next Generation Tories” group to push this up the political agenda, because of fears it is driving younger voters away from the party.
Changing minimum staff ratios was also part of the supply-side reforms championed by Truss, so this section of Hunt’s speech will go down well with them.
However, there are cries of disbelief when Hunt says that he aims to have wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm rolled out for all schools by September 2026. That is a long way off and means it will have to be a pledge in the Conservatives’ next election manifesto.
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