Gazette & Herald column: Spreadsheet Phil steers a neutral course in budget

It’s Budget Day in the House of Commons as I type my column and those expecting rabbits out of the Chancellor’s hat today will have been disappointed.  That is not his style (although there were some very good jokes) as he is known to focus on the financial detail rather than the political flourishes.  I think that being savvy about spreadsheets is a great quality to have in a Chancellor and given the choppy waters ahead it is only right that he should focus on steadying the ship in what is likely to be the last Budget before we start to exit the EU.   

So, we had a calm, sober budget that was “fiscally neutral” as the saying goes (which means that net spending and tax rises are equal) and underpinned by solid economic growth and a steadily decreasing budget deficit which means we have room to manoeuvre in the future – unlike the parlous situation when we came into office in 2010 when public spending was out of control and the record peacetime budget deficit meant our options were severely limited. 

Despite the sensible tone there were some very welcome announcements such as an even greater focus on cracking down on tax evasion and illegal tax avoidance; £2 billion of new money for social care and £100 million more for new pilots in the NHS like co-locating GPs at Accident and Emergency departments to help to offset some of the pressures on hospitals. There was more money for schools, both for new schools where places are limited and for improvements to existing schools, taking the total investment in school buildings and conditions to well over £10 billion in this Parliament. 

We heard of a commitment to the most ambitious post-16 education reforms since A-levels were introduced 70 years ago with money to double the number of training hours for 16-19-year-old further education students and new T-levels to provide more robust and comparable qualifications for those taking a vocational path into the workplace.     

Businesses got some welcome help on rates including a £1,000 discount for 90 per cent of pubs across the country and almost £300 million to back research and development in world-beating industries like Artificial Intelligence and robotic systems, battery technology and electric vehicles.   

The budget was delivered on International Women’s Day and it was wonderful to see £20 million made available for work to prevent violence against women and girls which has long been an area of focus for the Prime Minister.  Steady as she goes – but some good things to celebrate.