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An Autumn Statement that works for everyone

Many feel the country isn't working for them—here's what Philip Hammond should announce in November to fix that
October 6, 2016
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First of all, here’s what won’t be in this year’s Autumn Statement—Liam Fox, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove or any other Brexiteer announcing an end to VAT on household fuel bills; or an extra £350m per week for the Treasury to spend on the NHS. And we’re unlikely to see it in the Autumn Statements of 2017 or 2018 either. Why? Because those pledges aren’t deliverable and the Leave supporters knew it.

So, what might Chancellor Hammond be able to say exactly five months after the 23rd June vote which revealed a disunited kingdom, where many feel left behind by the pace of change in the 21st century and that the country isn’t working for them? Now we know we won’t have a surplus by 2020, there should be more room to pay for the things that people care about. But there will first of all be the updated post-Brexit Office for Budget Responsibility numbers to deal with. At the moment, every economic announcement and forecast is being analysed to see if the Leave campaigners’ optimism or the Remainers’ doom and gloom view was justified. As a former Treasury Minster I know how closely those OBR figures will be scrutinised. If the numbers are positive, then attention will shift to the Autumn Statement’s detailed announcements. If they hint at problems then we can expect the Opposition and commentators to keep the focus on the numbers.

Ensuring people keep more of their hard-earned money is an important way to make life easier for those the PM describes as “just about managing.” But “managing” is often about more than cash. It is also the worry that your children won’t get a sustainable job. That if you get sick or lose your job then there is no buffer to help with the bills. That your parents won’t be looked after in their old age. That your grown-up child with a learning disability isn’t getting the support they need. That you are having to deal with endless and pointless bureaucracy everywhere you go.

In previous years we’ve talked a lot about childcare, but a lot less about social care and finally getting it to join up and work as one service with the NHS. Having the Chancellor stand up and empathise with those facing sickness, loneliness, financial insecurity or an uncertain future could change the tone. Building a country that truly—in the Conservative conference slogan, “works for everyone”—would require more apprenticeship schemes and other support, for those who didn’t get the qualifications or good advice at school that make it easy to climb the career ladder. I previously discussed with David Cameron what more we could do to help low-paid women, in particular, to gain the skills and confidence needed to land a higher-paid job. We are providing additional hours of childcare support and there is no reason parents shouldn’t seek new, more challenging jobs while taking advantage of them. A real step-up for female employees will also start to address the gender pay gap.

One thing the Chancellor and his colleagues should confirm is a protected post-Brexit status for EU citizens already living in the UK. The uncertainty caused by not knowing whether employees, employers and spouses can stay is unfair, and undermines business confidence. Workforces ask their bosses, and yet only ministers can give reassurance. Clearly, we in the Remain camp didn’t do enough to address concerns about control of our borders. But if we are going to reduce the flow into the UK, we need to be sure we’ve got enough properly trained people here to fill the gap. This means every pupil must have access to an excellent and academic education. I’ve not disguised my concerns that introducing more selection in our school system could be a distraction from that goal of excellence for all. But if we’re going down that route, support for the careers & enterprise company, re-training schemes and University Technical Colleges (UTCs) become even more important. The Autumn Statement should commit to all this.

The age range for UTCs should also change. Currently, they are for 14-19 year olds, but should be for 11-16 year olds, to ensure they fit with the transition points of other schools. Too few potential UTC candidates change school at 14, and so are lost to the UTC system.

As a Midlands MP I hope the Chancellor will announce some big investments in the so-called “Midlands Engine,” in addition to investments in the Northern Powerhouse. Transport schemes, more housing to buy and to rent, confirmation of enterprise zones and, if we are to have one, more flesh on the bones of an industrial strategy are needed. It is a great shame that George Freeman is no longer Life Sciences Minister because he really understood this sector, which offers such potential for growth.

One perennial area of frustration amongst smaller businesses and particularly our small high street retailers is business rates. George Osborne provided a generous package of business rate support in the March 2016 Budget and giving a long-term commitment to those changes would be warmly welcomed by businesses up and down the country.

An Autumn Statement that works for everyone is a tall order—but at least we don’t have to wait for Article 50 to be triggered before the Chancellor can stand up.