UK Budget 2021: The Chancellor’s Challenge

Like those before him, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, faces the twin challenge of dealing with the here and now while also planning the path for Government policies in the years ahead as he prepares for the March Budget.

With the exception of the post-war eras, few will have faced anything like the challenge in front of the Chancellor as he struggles to cope with the impact of Covid (not to mention Brexit) in the short term, while planning routes to economic growth and retrieving some of the vast sums of money that have been spent during the pandemic to keep the country afloat.

As we have already seen over the past twelve months, some sectors of the economy have maintained business and some have enjoyed growth while others have stagnated completely.

Online retail has seen huge revenues but one obvious challenge for the Treasury comes in the catastrophic collapse of High Street retail.

With the loss of one-time giants such as Debenhams and Topshop, and with them thousands of jobs, Mr Sunak must work out how to recover revenues while also leaving room for companies across all sectors to re-establish themselves.

The hospitality and travel industries also face significant struggles after a year of virtually negative trading. Without room to breathe, and imaginative incentives to retain and recruit staff, the scope for generating tax revenues is severely restricted.

Business organisations in general have been calling for schemes that reward investment and encourage firms to seek growth. It is more or less unthinkable at this stage that Mr Sunak would contemplate any increase in Corporation tax, though success now will give more opportunity later.

Business rates have long been a bone of contention and, with the threatened disappearance of the traditional High Street, there is going to be huge pressure firstly to support the remaining bricks and mortar retail sector and, more importantly, to adequately tax the online retail industry which has enjoyed free reign during the past year of uncertainty and lockdown. Many will also be hoping that Mr Sunak adopts VAT as a tool in the armoury to give retail and other sectors a shot in the arm.

On a personal taxation level, the Chancellor needs to find money from those relatively unscathed by the pandemic while offering support for those whose livelihoods have, in some cases, simply disappeared.

It seems certain that he will begin the process of ending the furlough scheme even though that threatens to strap a rocket to the benefits bill.

However, the CBI has warned that ending the scheme will need careful handling to prevent further damage to business.

CBI director-general Tony Danker has warned that the transition to an open economy must be as smooth as possible, adding: “Sudden stops and cliff edges really don’t help.”

On a positive note, more than half of UK firms plan to hire new staff while the latest statistics suggest that the fewest number of firms are planning jobs cuts since planning began. However, figures suggest unemployment has seen the largest annual increase since the financial crisis of 2008 and younger people have borne the brunt of that rise.

These are the people the country needs to be contributing to UK economic activity both in terms of tax from income and in spending on consumer goods

In Northern Ireland, the implementation of the Protocol has cast a shadow beyond the impact of Covid and, while political and legal wrangling continues, the need for a swift resolution to the uncertainty and some good news from the Chancellor has never been more apparent.