Neither the pensioners nor the fuel protesters may have got all they wanted out of Gordon Brown a couple of weeks ago, but they did achieve something which one would have thought pretty well impossible; namely putting the pre-Budget report – known as an accountants’ dream of boredom – on to the map. But it raises two thoughts.
First, what is the point of such a set piece occasion? This year something certainly had to be said about pensions and fuel, and indeed to try to re-assert the government’s competence, faced with railways, floods, and a likely winter health crisis. But this could have been done much more briefly. For the rest, the announcements were an uneasy mixture of politics, kite flying, decisions taken and ideas ostensibly for consultation. It looked like, and was, and was described as, a budget.
But we already have a budget in the spring. And we had another set piece in the summer when the chancellor announced his spending plans. We can remember the criticisms made of past chancellors about the multitude of budgets he was said to have produced during a year. It seems an undesirable trend for Mr Brown to seem to adopt it if only because it does nothing to encourage certainty or to see the public finances in the round.
The other thought that occurs apart from the substance, is what is the point of the document itself for those who haven’t read it, and that means pretty well everyone as it’s an amazingly boring, lengthy (over 200 pages) paper?
It does have nuggets which Brown rather carefully leaves out of his oral statement, such as the total cost of what is being done, something one might have thought rather important. And it does bring together a lot of smaller announcements, albeit these will have been covered by departmental press notices.
But it omits things that would have been really useful like the ready-reckoner we used to have, so you can make your own budget, and a meaningful statement of where the money comes from and where it goes to, instead of the slightly Enid Blyton pie charts we’re given.
The chancellor should trim back drastically on the written report, taking out that mass of material which is not needed but including those elements not there which we do need.
He is entitled to a brief oral statement. There is no need for a huge ego trip demonstrating his takeover of domestic government. At this stage in the year he should make minimum changes – this time pensions and fuel duty – and keep the rest for budget time.
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