Autumn budget 2021: what do we already know about Rishi Sunak’s plans?

·5 min read

For all the traditional protestations by Rishi Sunak that he cannot talk about budget or spending measures before Wednesday, the Treasury has sent out more than a dozen announcements in recent days, with others leaked to friendly newspapers. Here is what we know – or think we might know – so far:

Taxation

The big change to taxes – the increase in national insurance contributions to provide more money to the NHS and, potentially in the future, to social care – has already been announced. A lot of Conservative MPs would like to see tax cuts, and Sunak still officially styles himself as a tax-cutting Tory. Speaking on Sunday, the chancellor said that cutting tax was “what my instincts are”, adding: “But you also have to take a step back and think, what have I and the government had to grapple with over the past year and a half? We’ve had the biggest economic shock that we’ve experienced in 300 years.” Thus, even a trim to business rates has reportedly been ruled out by the chancellor given the Covid-hit public finances.

Pay and wages

Sunak confirmed on Sunday that public sector pay would be covered by the spending review, which will take place alongside the budget – and hinted at an expected increase. While Sunak told the BBC that the ongoing public sector pay freeze was “reasonable and fair”, he added: “Now, going forward, we’ll have to set a new pay policy.” The chancellor imposed the freeze last November and it came into force in April. At the time, he said it was unfair for public sector workers to get a pay rise while many of their private sector counterparts were being furloughed or losing their jobs. Separately, there has been speculation that the minimum wage for those aged 25-plus could increase from £8.91 an hour to £10 before the next election.

NHS and health

There have been two major announcements on this before the budget. One would see £5.9bn committed to tackling NHS backlogs and providing more funding for diagnostic services and elective surgeries, with £2.1bn going to improve IT across the NHS, and much of this cash is seemingly new. Another commitment is for £5bn on health research and development over three years, with some of this going to the government’s Genomics England offshoot for a genomic sequencing project aimed at detecting rare diseases in newborn babies.

Education and skills

Another double announcement, with £3bn going on measures to, as the Treasury puts it in very Sunak-esque language, “turbo-charge post-16 education” and boost skills. It is meant to quadruple the number of places on so-called skills bootcamps, give more teaching for 16- to 19-year-olds taking vocational T-levels, and create 24,000 traineeships. A separate £560m commitment would aim to see up to 500,000 people receive free personal tutoring or digital training in maths through a scheme known as Multiply.

Transport

Described by the Treasury as a “local transport revolution to level up commutes and journey times” outside London, this is billed as £6.9bn in total, the bulk of it going on train and station upgrades and the expansion of trams, with £1.2bn for bus services. Asked about the money on Sunday, however, Sunak conceded that of the money announced, only £1.5bn was new. Sunak is also expected to overhaul air passenger duty to reflect the environmental damage wrought by long-haul flights.

Families and early years

Totalling £500m – though it remains unclear how much of this is new – this covers funding for schemes such as family hubs, a Sure Start-style family assistance programme; mental health support for new and expectant parents; and £200m for the supporting families programme, which helps families facing challenges and disadvantage across England. About £150m of the total, used to train early-years staff, will come from the existing £1.4bn post-Covid education recovery fund.

Borders and crime

Another big-ticket item already announced is £700m for border services, £628m of which would go on the existing future borders and immigration system (FBIS), a scheme to digitise and improve entry systems that is intended to improve security and cut border waiting times. The rest would be used to replace the existing, 20-year-old Border Force patrol vessels with a fleet of 11 new boats. Both programmes are already in existence, and it is not clear how much of the money is new. There is also £435m committed to a range of criminal justice measures, including to help victims of domestic and sexual assault, and money for the Crown Prosecution Service for rape and sexual assault cases.

Arts and sport

Yet more big spending; yet again, some of it new, some not. A total of £850m is described as a “post-pandemic funding boost to breathe life back into our world-renowned cultural and heritage hotspots”, such as the British Museum, Tate Liverpool and York’s National Railway Museum. There is an additional £42m promised to revitalise town centres across England. Separately, there is £700m for sports facilities and youth clubs, including a promise to create or improve up to 8,000 football pitches, tennis courts or other facilities, with the press release containing the obligatory mention of Emma Raducanu.

Investment

The Treasury has said it is spending £1.4bn to “spur a wave of investment in the UK’s most innovative sectors”, with examples cited being life sciences and the automotive industry, including investments connected to the production of electric vehicles in regions such as the north-east and the Midlands. A parallel commitment would see money spent to bring “the best foreign talent” to the UK. This latter scheme was first unveiled in January last year, and only part of the money for investment is new.

Military veterans

Relatively small in budget terms, at £5m, this would pay for a new veterans’ health innovation fund, intended to develop new treatments both for physical injuries and mental issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

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