Autumn Statement: Jeremy Hunt warns of challenges as living standards plunge

Media caption,

Jeremy Hunt: Sound money has to come before tax cuts

By Kate Whannel

Political reporter, BBC News

Families face “real challenges”, Jeremy Hunt has warned, as government forecasters predict the biggest drop in living standards since records began.

The Office for Budget Responsibility says household income will fall by 7% over the next 18 months.

The chancellor said tax rises and a spending squeeze in his Autumn Statement would help tame inflation which he said had caused the drop.

But Labour said fairer choices about tax could have been made.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves described the emergency budget measures as “an invoice for the economic carnage” created by the policies of former Prime Minister Liz Truss.

In a sombre statement lasting just under an hour, Mr Hunt undid much of the tax-cutting mini-budget unveiled by his predecessor as chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, only 55 days ago.

It was deliberately stripped of surprises and political theatre, with many of the announcements having been trailed in the media beforehand.

Mr Hunt told the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason his plan would bring down soaring prices, while protecting public services.

“These are real challenges for families up and down the country,” he said, adding: “I’m not pretending these aren’t going to be difficult times, but there’s a plan, there’s hope – and if we follow this plan, if we stick with it, we can get through to the other side.”

In the next two years, before the next general election is due, there will be further support for households and extra money for schools, the NHS and social care in England.

But after 2025 spending cuts are set to kick in for many departments.

  • Tax thresholds will be frozen until April 2028, meaning millions will pay more tax
  • Spending on public services in England will rise more slowly than planned – with some departments facing cuts after the next election
  • The state pensions triple lock will be kept, meaning pensioners will see a 10.1% rise in weekly payments
  • The household energy price cap has been extended for one year beyond April but made less generous, with typical bills capped at £3,000 a year instead of £2,500
  • There will be additional cost-of-living payments for the “most vulnerable”, with £900 for those on benefits, and £300 for pensioners
  • The top 45% additional rate of income tax will be paid on earnings over £125,140, instead of £150,000
  • UK minimum wage for people over 23 to increase from £9.50 to £10.42 an hour
  • The windfall tax on oil and gas firms will increase from 25% to 35%, raising £55bn from this year until 2028

The Resolution Foundation think tank said the Autumn Statement piled further pressure on “the squeezed middle” earners.

But it said increasing benefits in line with prices would make a “huge difference to those on low-to-middle incomes”.

Mr Hunt denied that he had been forced to raise taxes and reduce spending because of the turmoil caused by Ms Truss’s mini-Budget.

He said there had been mistakes, but insisted the government had “corrected those within weeks”.

He argued that other countries, such as Germany, France and America were all facing similar problems as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and rising energy prices.

However, Mr Hunt denied he had postponed difficult decisions, with the squeeze on government departments to come.

Lean years ahead

The Chancellor’s tone was sober; the facial expressions of Conservative MPs business-like rather than emblazoned with smiles.

Even the opposition parties were relatively muted too: times are and will continue to be very difficult for millions of households.

For all of the numbers, the forecasts, the rhetoric, the standout statistic comes from the government’s independent analysers, the Office for Budget Responsibility: Living standards are falling further right now than at any point since the 1950s.

Add to the mix a chancellor wrestling with a recession; responding with tax rises – taxation levels are their highest for 75 years – and government spending below what it was expected to be.

He argues that protecting the state pension, benefits, and the announcements on spending for education and health shield the government against the suggestion this is another era of austerity.

But lots of government departments face lean years, inflation pickpocketing their spending power.

And Mr Hunt has also postponed the big spending squeezes until after the next election.

That could turn out to be a hospital pass to the future and, after an election, to the next government, whatever its political colour.

The OBR, which produced an economic forecast to accompany Mr Hunt’s statement, says high inflation and rising interest rates will lead to consumers spending less, tipping the UK’s economy into a recession “lasting just over a year”.

It predicts the economy will shrink by 1.4% in 2023 before growth slowly picks up again.

The forecaster also says that as a result of Mr Hunt’s decisions, the tax burden would rise to its highest level since the end of World War Two.

Mr Hunt described a target to reduce government debt in five years time as one of “two new fiscal rules”. But speaking on BBC Newsnight, OBR chairman Richard Hughes suggested the plan could end up only being an aspiration because the end date can be extended every year at the budget.

Attacking Mr Hunt’s plans in Parliament, Labour’s Rachel Reeves said he had introduced “a Conservative double whammy that sees frozen tax thresholds and double-digit inflation erode the real value of people’s wages”.

She accused the government of increasing taxes by “stealth” arguing that freezing the personal allowance – the amount of income someone does not have to pay tax on – would cost an average earner more than £600 per year.

Speaking to the BBC on Friday, Ms Reeves said “fairer choices around tax could have been made”, criticising the Tories for not abolishing non-dom status and instead going to the “pockets of the ordinary working man and woman”.

Media caption,

Watch: Rachel Reeves on 12 weeks of “Conservative chaos”

The Liberal Democrats said people were “being forced to pay the price for this Conservative government’s incompetence”.

The SNP’s Treasury spokeswoman Alison Thewliss said: “This is a UK so weak that no-one would wish to join it – Scotland cannot be forced to stay in broke, broken, Brexit Britain.”

There was also an attack from the chancellor’s own side with former cabinet minister, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg arguing that the measures announced were based on unreliable economic forecasts.

“I’m particularly concerned about the tax rises, when an economy is going into recession,” he said.

Meanwhile, a Conservative MP is seeking assurances from the chancellor that he will not increase fuel duty.

The tax is suppose to rise in line with inflation, but has repeatedly been frozen. The Treasury has said a final decision would not be taken until the next Budget in spring 2023.

Writing to the chancellor, Conservative backbencher Jonathan Gullis warned that a “substantial number” of Tory MPs would be opposed to a rise.