Watching George Osborne at the dispatch box for the Comprehensive Spending Review, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed by the weight of numbers, stats and statements and cuts being pronounced.
Listening to the speech got me thinking about that age old question: when is a cut not a cut?
Like Gordon Brown before him, Osborne has perfected the art of easing the pain by changing the language. Whenever his predecessor but one talked about spending, he used the term investments. Now Osborne talks about savings, not cuts.
I guess it makes it the pain that bit more palatable.
What was wholly unpalatable to business leaders, however, was something that wasn’t even included in the speech – it wasn’t even there in between the lines. So often it is what goes unsaid that matters most.
I am referring to the government’s decision to pocket the revenues from the Carbon Reduction Commitment scheme, causing howls of indignation from the some 5,000 companies that will be hit by the tax.
Previously, the CRC was intended to return all the money it raised back to the businesses participating in the scheme in the form of rebates, with those that achieved the best environmental scores getting the biggest windfall. Poor performers would pay in full.
Now they get nothing. Companies will simply be penalised for the carbon they emit.
The £1bn a year the Treasury will raise to support public finances is fair enough given the pain of reducing the deficit must be shared.
But what really sparked the fury is that the chancellor failed to mention it. And that the tax change appeared to be hidden in the small print of the CSR document.
Reacting to the government’s plan to seize that money, British Retail Consortium director general Stephen Robertson labelled the move “a stealth tax on business” which not only goes back on the commitments given in developing the scheme but removes a major source of incentives to reduce carbon emissions.
“A tax of this size surely merits a mention in the Chancellor’s speech. It is appalling that the government is sneaking this in, introducing a new burden on businesses that are trying to create new jobs to offset the public sector cutbacks and growing the economy to generate the tax base to pay down the debt,” Robertson railed.
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