Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Autumn statement will tell us how miserable winter will be

By the end of today, we will know just how badly off we all are. And what, if anything, the Government is going to do to ease the pain.

It's the day that George Osborne takes centre-stage with his one-date-only parliamentary show - the autumn statement.

The supporting act comes courtesy of gloomy economic forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility. Smoke, mirrors, rabbits and hats will all feature.

The stakes could not be much higher - record youth unemployment, spending cuts accused of choking off the recovery - and on the eve of the biggest strike since 1979.

Recent figures show that whatever the MP for wealthy Tatton in Cheshire announces today will be felt hard across the Irish Sea.

One in five young people in Northern Ireland is out of work and, although public spending per head is still higher than anywhere else in the UK, wages are lower than everywhere else - at £18,494, fully 50% below the London average.

The cupboard might be bare, but that won't stop Mr Osborne from grasping for a headline-grabbing stunt. Scrapping the 3p rise in fuel duty scheduled for January will be music to the ears of motorists in Northern Ireland, where prices at the pump outstrip the rest of the UK.

It will cost £1.3bn, which could be found by squeezing tax credits, or benefits. Both would lead to howls of criticism from Labour and the SDLP, who want to see welfare payments untouched.

Today we should also find out where Mr Osborne found the £1bn which Nick Clegg conjured up to pay for subsidised jobs for unemployed young people.

Northern Ireland should get its share. Although employment matters are devolved to Stormont, under the UK's complex funding formula, the province will be given cash to make up for the extra investment in England.

The DUP is unlikely to get its wish of a reversal of cuts to the Winter Fuel Allowance. But Mr Osborne will need to address soaring energy costs - a pertinent point in Northern Ireland, with its reliance on home heating oil.

We're unlikely to hear anything about the devolution of Northern Ireland's corporation tax rate - the Government has still not responded to the consultation that ended in September and the new working group unveiled almost two months ago has yet to meet.

Some £40bn has been found to underwrite loans to small businesses and we'll hear more about a string of infrastructure projects that will get a shot in the arm.

But we do know that it will be a grim day for taxpayers.

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