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U.K. Treasury chief juggles budget as outlook dims
LONDON — Britain’s Treasury chief George Osborne said Wednesday that the recovery of the U.K. economy is taking longer than he had hoped and warned more spending cuts will be needed to get public finances under control.
With official growth forecasts cut, Osborne had little room for maneuver but said he was trimming departmental spending to generate more investment in infrastructure.
“It has taken time, but the British economy is healing,” Osborne told the House of Commons, though the latest estimate from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts a 0.2 percent contraction in the economy this year.
In his scheduled update to budget policies, Osborne essentially stuck to his plan of cutting government deficits to promote recovery. But he did accept to increase investments to stimulate employment and demand, as called for by the opposition Labour Party.
Osborne said the paltry recovery in the U.K. and a recession in the 17 European Union countries that use the euro will mean Britain’s economy would only grow by 1.2 percent next year, down from the 2 percent it predicted in March.
Osborne confirmed that his target for public sector debt to start dropping as a percentage of GDP by 2015-2016 has also been pushed back a year.
“Today was the day (Osborne) started to acknowledge that this is a long-tail recovery rather than a trampoline bounce back to good times,” said Scott Corfe, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Business Research.
As a result of the revised forecasts, government spending will be cut a further 1 percent next year and 2 percent the year after. As well as spending cuts, Osborne also announced a cut in tax relief on the pensions of higher-rate tax payers and a cap on welfare payments.
The taxation and spending measures announced Wednesday were forecast to yield an additional 3.9 billion pounds ($6.3 billion) to government income this year. Some 3.5 billion pounds of that sum is expected from a one-time auction of 4G mobile telecoms licenses.
Osborne announced that the government would crack down on tax avoidance, increase infrastructure investment by 17 percent, raise tax deductions for capital investment by businesses 10-fold and cut corporation tax to from the current 22 percent to 21 percent in 2014-15. Osborne said this compares with corporation tax of 40 percent in the U.S., 33 percent in France and 29 percent in Germany.
Economists noted the investment projects would help to create jobs, though some suggested the overall impact on the economy would be negligible.
Toby Ryland at HW Fisher & Co. chartered accountants said Osborne was supporting the corporate sector at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. “The reduction in corporation tax is being funded through below-inflation increases in (personal) tax bands and the restriction of pension tax relief,” he said.
Households were promised an increase in the personal exemption from income tax and, for the elderly, a 2.5 percent boost in the basic state pension to 110.15 pounds a week.
Banks were excluded from the lower corporation tax, and the government is increasing the Bank Levy — a tax on the balance sheets of banks — to 0.13 percent to keep annual revenue at 2.5 billion pounds.
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