By Karen Peattie

IT was Jeremy Hunt’s first Budget and he wasted no time in unveiling his plans to get people – including the over-50s, disabled people and parents of young children – back to work. Economic growth, he said, was being stymied by a shortage of workers and bolstering the workforce would create business confidence and investment.

The UK economy, suggested the Chancellor, would avoid a recession and he predicted that recent soaring inflation would more than halve by the end of next year. But does Scotland’s business community agree – and what do the people who own and run the nation’s business really think?

These were among the many issues that came under the microscope at The Herald’s Budget Briefing in Glasgow, a well-attended event chaired by Brian Taylor, former political editor at BBC Scotland, that encouraged robust debate over the first Budget in an 18-month period that has seen two Chancellors take up post then swiftly depart.

Panellist Grant Johnston, Partner and Head of Wealth Planning at Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie LLP, expressed disappointment that much of Mr Hunt’s Budget had been leaked to the press before he left 11 Downing Street – then stated that in his opinion there wasn’t “much for business” in the Budget.

Referring to the Chancellor’s announcement that the UK Government is to scrap the £1 million cap on pension lifetime allowance – the maximum amount of pension savings people can accrue over their career without having to pay an additional charge – Mr Johnston said: “If you are trying to do long-term planning for your retirement then that is something you don’t want to bet on.

“Increasing the annual tax-free allowance on pensions from £40,000 to £60,000 is good – but how many people can actually afford to do that?”

For Bob Hannah, whose job title “Supreme Commander” at The Business Insurance Bureau raised laughter throughout the event space – CoVault, within The Herald’s offices in Bath Street – there was no hesitation. “Brexit and the pandemic have left a gaping hole in the workforce,” he said, “so anything that can help is to be applauded.

“But there are many other things that can be done,” Mr Hannah noted, pointing specifically to the UK Government implementing measures to make it easier for EU citizens to work here. “Hospitality in particular would benefit,” he said.

Maggie Morrison, a Board Director at social enterprise Hi Group, welcomed the Chancellor’s commitment to extend free childcare in England. “I welcome anything that increases participation in the workplace,” she said. “However, the devil is in the detail and I am sceptical but I hope Scotland will go down the same road because the intentions are good.”

In Scotland, where childcare is devolved, all parents can apply for the scheme, while in England both parents must be in work to receive the full 30 hours offered.

The Wise Group’s chief executive, Sean Duffy, described the Budget as having “a veneer of respectability”, but added: “Those who really need the most help have been left wanting.”

Mr Duffy said: “In a move that has shifted the focus of the crisis from the cost of living to the cost of working, the Chancellor’s Budget has left many concerned that they will be worse off in work than out of it. While the Budget has offered some respite, vulnerable groups such as those living in deprived areas and lone parents are finding it increasingly difficult to stay in work.”

Emma Congreve, the Fraser of Allander Institute’s Deputy Director, pointed out that while the Chancellor confirmed Scotland will receive Barnett consequentials as a result of his flagship policy decision to expand free childcare – which Mr Hunt said would be an additional £320 million for Scotland in 2023/24 and 2024/25 – the scale of this was unknown.

Meanwhile, Derek Hanlan, Associate Tax Director at  Scottish chartered accountants Martin Aitken & Co, summed up the mood of the room: “I was somewhat underwhelmed. What we and our clients wanted was a bit of stability but from a tax point of view, nothing happened really.”

In a later discussion, Mr Hannah described UK society and the economy as being involved in a “form of psychological long Covid”, stating: “There is no easy or quick way out. I see it in my work, in trying to get a doctor’s appointment. There are huge, huge issues coming out of the pandemic.”

Agreeing that people are having to contend with “one crisis after another just now to the extent that it seems normal”, Ms Congreve added: “In order to build the economy you need to build the labour market. If economic growth is what you want, you have to be able to participate in that.

“We have a whole wealth of experience – but we seem to be concentrating on one part of that.”

Mr Hanlan said that his clients “want to be bold but they are nervous”, noting: “They want to do more but they need the infrastructure and support to do that.”

Adding his view to this debate, Mr Hannah pointed to issues affecting his hospitality clients that are “much more prosaic” – for example, the deposit return scheme (DRS). “However well intended this Budget is, some of it doesn’t really cut through,” he said. “And for people who run a business, I give them 10 out of 10 for resilience, particularly hospitality people.”

Returning to support for individuals, The Wise Group’s Mr Duffy said he had wanted to see stronger commitment to extend access to unconditional employment support that works. “We can do much more to effectively close the gap between the big programmes that supported so many people and communities through the European Social Fund and the thinking around the new Shared Prosperity Fund,” he said.

The panel agreed that many people who want to work cannot work because there are so many barriers – issues with childcare, for example, and “because the figures just don’t add up”, according to Ms Congreve. “Can they make enough money to pay for their childcare,” she asked. “It’s not that they don’t want to work.”

Reminding the audience that there are 723,000 people in Scotland who are “economically inactive”, Mr Duffy said: “It is an access problem. The Chancellor described it as a ‘participation’ problem but you can only participate if you have access.”

These barriers, added Mr Johnston, were affecting business growth. “Real growth in the economy comes from business and if you remove the barriers you give businesses belief and hope so they take a chance and invest in new kit and new employees, he said.

“What I see is a government not providing the social infrastructure that we need. Businesses have to be confident and thoughtful. Other countries that have also gone through Covid are coming back stronger and faster.”

Agreeing with Mr Johnston, Martin Aitken & Co’s Mr Hanlan added: “What you want is stability and a coherent strategy that will run for five years – then you can plan.”

Meanwhile, the cost-of-living crisis has fast become a cost-of-working crisis, according to The Wise Group’s Mr Duffy. “As our approaches develop and mature, we have the opportunity to deliver a purpose-driven approach, with people at the centre of the recovery effort, to build an economy that is truly inclusive and sustainable. We need to help people who want to work, help people stay in work and we need to make work better.”

Discussing the hospitality industry which has suffered as a result of both Brexit and the pandemic, audience member Malcolm Cannon of the Glasgow Distillery Company described both the imminent DRS and Scottish Government’s proposed ban on alcohol advertising as “two initiatives that have been ill-judged, ill-thought-through and ill-implemented to date”.

Michael Bergson, owner of Buck’s Bar Group in Glasgow, intervened to remind the audience that the hospitality sector continues to experience “rocketing” costs, and called for the “antiquated” business rates system to be reformed.

Fraser of Allander’s Ms Congreve said businesses don’t need to see a 10 per cent-plus rise in alcohol duty due to kick in this August and suggested the Chancellor’s tax relief on draught beer and cider as part of a new “Brexit pubs guarantee” – effectively “wrapping things in banners” – was unhelpful and “really difficult to tolerate”.

On the sector’s stance on DRS, she added: “No-one is listening to their concerns. The devil is not in the detail – it is missing entirely.”

The Herald Budget Briefing was sponsored by Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie LLP, The Business Bureau, The Wise Group, Martin Aitken and co, CoVault, and LocaliQ.