Autumn Statement: The Chancellor needs to stand up and deliver, or find himself on the end of a punchline

Small Business: RBS should play a bigger social role in helping the recovery

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The Independent Online

With his new Caesar-crop and trimmer figure, George Osborne could easily find himself stand-up work as a spitting image for either Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev or Rowan Atkinson if he ever found himself out of a job. He’s a dead-ringer for both.

But after the Chancellor’s wicked Wallace and Gromit joke at the expense of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband – suggesting that he might be replaced ahead of next May’s election – there’s no doubt that Atkinson wins the toss. 

Thanks to the No 11 spinning machine, we’ve known more or less what was in the Autumn Statement for days – apart from the jokes and his brilliant ruse to bring in his very own ‘mansion tax’.

What a mad world, though, when it’s the Chancellor’s corkers that make the news – although even the most cynical must admit his quip querying whether there is intelligent life yet to be discovered on the opposition’s red benches (Planet Mars) was as naughty as any Atkinson joke; and not badly delivered either.

The big news aimed at helping the UK’s 4.8 million army of small businessmen and women has already been trailed but was nevertheless welcome light relief; the Government is to provide another £900m for the Funding for Lending Scheme for SMEs via the Business Bank, cap and freeze business rates in the medium term and, finally, launch the long- overdue review of our iniquitous business rates to help the high street compete with online retailers.

 

However, while these measures are no-brainers you do wonder why the Treasury – as the biggest shareholder in RBS through the UKFI – doesn’t encourage the bank’s small business arm to do more direct lending.

As Ros Altmann, economist and Government adviser for the elderly, said: “RBS should be made to play a bigger social role in helping the recovery. The FLS scheme is better than nothing but in effect it adds another layer to lending: instead of money going from A to B why does it need to go through C? That costs more money and time.” Quite.

Even so, there were some good surprises, with more relief on R&D credit for small businesses, a £45m support package to help SMEs to export to Africa and Asia, and a national insurance holiday for more companies to take on more young apprentices.

Encouraging companies – and the young – to opt for apprenticeships is a hugely positive step but the mystery is why there aren’t similar tax breaks for SMEs wanting to employ the over 50s – particularly women who are finding it more and more difficult to retrain and find work. The older woman needs a holiday too.

Another great move is the decision to offer more student loans to those who want to pursue post-doctoral academic work. This could turn out to be a big plus for business, particularly those in the manufacturing and engineering sectors that have such shortages of talent.

There were some nice quirky measures; tax breaks for children’s TV producers, theatre tax breaks extended to orchestras, tax relief for social investment and bad debt relief for peer-to-peer lenders that will be a big boost for the alternative finance industry which, at last, the Government seems to be championing with more enthusiasm.

Yet the biggest boost for UK business – and the all-important SME supply chain – could prove to be the Chancellor’s ambition for the new ‘Northern powerhouse’ to encourage investment and innovation into the North’s great cities. It’s clear that ministers, local politicians and the academics are serious about reviving prosperity in the North. About time too: now they have to deliver on their promises or the Chancellor will find himself doing more stand-up.

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