Chancellor Philip Hammond has unveiled upgraded projections for growth and predicted falling inflation, debt and borrowing in his Spring Statement.
He claimed the UK economy had reached a turning point and there was “light at the end of the tunnel”.
He ruled out an immediate end to austerity but hinted at possible spending rises in the future.
Labour accused him “astounding complacency” in the face of the worst ever public sector funding crisis.
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The chancellor told the House of Commons growth was forecast to be 1.4% this year, 0.1% higher than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility in November, with the forecast for 2019 and 2020 unchanged at 1.3%, he said in his 26 minute statement.
In his 26 minute statement he also said debt would fall as a share of GDP from 2018-19, which would be the start of “the first sustained fall in debt for 17 years, a turning point in the nation’s recovery from the financial crisis of a decade ago”.
The chancellor resisted calls from Labour and some Tories to use the extra cash from an unexpected boost in tax receipts to ease the spending squeeze.
But he hinted at possible spending increases to come, in his autumn Budget, when he will “set an overall path for public spending for 2020 and beyond” with a detailed spending review in 2019.
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “Does the chancellor really believe the NHS can wait another eight months for the lifesaving funds it needs? How many people have to die waiting in an ambulance before he acts?”
Mr McDonnell also raised concerns over funding for schools, the emergency services and local councils.
He said “austerity was a political choice not an economic necessity”, adding: “We were never all in this together as they claimed.”
Mr Hammond unveiled a series of consultations on future policies:
- A reduction in tax on for the least polluting vans to “help the great British white van driver go green”
- A possible tax on single use plastic
- A new VAT collection mechanism for online sales to ensure that the VAT that consumers pay “actually reaches the Treasury”
- How online platforms can help their users to pay the right amount of tax
- A call for evidence “on whether the use of non-agricultural red diesel tax relief contributes to poor air quality in urban areas”
- Inviting cities across England to bid for a share of £840m to deliver on “local transport priorities”.
- A plan to make the least productive businesses learn from the most productive
- Measures to end late payments for firms
- The future of cash and digital payments
The OBR’s background papers confirm the final amount the UK expects to pay to divorce from the EU as 41.4bn euros (£37.1bn).
The BBC understands the government has been discussing how to direct more money to the NHS in future.
Senior government figures have told the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg that cabinet ministers have been discussing ways to funnel more money to the NHS in England, including potential future tax rises or a specific tax for health.
While No 10 has publicly maintained the service has what it needs, one senior minister told Kuenssberg “we all accept” more cash is needed, while another said “it’s hard to see” how current funding levels could remain.
In a break with recent tradition, the chancellor did not use the financial statement midway between Budgets to present a “mini-Budget” or pre-Budget report.
Mr Hammond began his speech with a joke about Mr McDonnell:
And he accused Labour of talking the economy down, comparing them to the gloomy character from Winnie the Pooh he has himself been likened to in the past.
“If there are any Eeyores in the chamber they are over there. I meanwhile am at my most positively Tiggerlike today, as I contemplate a country which faces the future with unique strengths.”
The next revaluation for business rates has been brought forward to 2021, after which the government will move to revaluations every three years, the chancellor said.
Mr Hammond also announced that London would receive an additional £1.7bn to deliver 26,000 affordable homes – including homes for social rent, taking the total number to more than 116,000 by the end of 2021/22.
Ahead of Mr Hammond’s statement, the OECD said the UK economy will grow at a slower pace than any other major advanced or emerging nation this year, as it raised its growth forecast to 1.3% in 2018.