Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Will George throw more benefits on the bonfires?

Next week, George Osborne might bring some clarity to the saga over Northern Ireland's corporation tax rate. The Treasury is refusing to say whether the Chancellor's Autumn statement (so-called in spite of taking place on December 5) will include an announcement on devolution of powers to Stormont.

That was the indication we were given after the final talks in October, but after being told that a decision by David Cameron was imminent, we've heard nothing.

So while we're waiting, what else might Mr Osborne have?

Speculation is mounting that there could be action on fuel prices - which would delight Northern Ireland's MPs.

A backbench rebellion was averted earlier this month, when the Government said it was "determined" to help struggling taxpayers. This was taken as a strong hint that the planned 3p rise in the New Year could be postponed.

This week the Institute of Fiscal Studies set the scene with a gloomy warning of more austerity if the Chancellor is to hit his fiscal targets.

It said another £23bn of cuts would be needed if Mr Osborne is to meet his fiscal mandate by 2018.

Yesterday manufacturers urged the Chancellor to do more to get finance to small businesses and there may be more on the 'small business bank' promised by Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. The DUP, among others, will be calling for action to stimulate the flagging construction sector.

We can expect the rich to have to shoulder some of the burden, with pressure on tax-avoiders.

The Lib Dems have made no secret of their desire for a 'mansion tax', but the Tories don't want to clobber 'people who have worked hard and saved up to buy a home'.

At the other end of the income scale, benefit recipients will be watching nervously. Mr Osborne could well announce more cuts to welfare, either immediately to be reinvested in other projects, or long-term ambitions after 2015.

There is also the tricky issue of perks for well-off pensioners - last week a group of Tory MPs published a report urging the Government to be 'brave enough' to scrap bus passes, winter fuel allowances and free TV licences for those earning more than £50,000.

There's no way Mr Cameron can sanction this now, because he promised to save them during the last election's TV debates, but the measure could be considered in the next parliament.

One thing we can be sure of is that, even if a corporation tax decision is delayed yet again, there will still be plenty to talk about.

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