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Chancellor Philip Hammond: The end of tinkering?

In 1993, then-Chancellor Ken Clarke combined spending and tax announcement in the Budget and created a separate summer statement.

In 1997, then-Chancellor Gordon Brown moved it to the autumn with a pre-budget report and ramped up its political importance.

In reality, it became a second budget and a way for the government to dominated the agenda for a few weeks in the autumn.

When George Osborne took over in 2010 he said he was downgrading the pre-budget report to an autumn statement but it filled the same role.

Osborne used it to pull off big surprises and major policy changes such as an instant remaking of stamp duty in December 2015.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Philip Hammond made his own mark and scrapped it all. And, this time, I think he means it.

Instead, he proposes an policy-free response to the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts in the spring. The Budget will take place in the autumn as the only setpiece occasion to change policies.

There have been murmurs coming from the Treasury that the Budget itself will be politically downgraded as a staid affair and major policy announcements will be made by department heads.

It is a potential disaster for a profession such as financial advice that relies on uncertainty, constant tinkering and headline grabbing politics.

Osborne and Brown were political showmen who would shock and surprise the nation by trimming pension tax relief here or abolishing compulsory annuities there.

It meant weeks of leaks and counter-leaks in the press with raging uncertainty playing right into the hands of advisers.

If a cut to the pensions annual allowance was on the agenda – as it has been at every budget and autumn statement for a decade – then clients called up with their concerns.

Sure, advisers have said for years that they hate tinkering and prefer steady policy that allows predictable long-term investing.

A more predictable approach with fewer changes could lead to better outcomes and more certainty for clients. Of course, Hammond could be removed at any movement and one day he will be out of the Treasury so there is only so much certainty he can provide.

The contents of the final autumn statement were minor changes with some important consequences such as the reduction of the money purchase allowance scheme.

He cut the amount savers can contribute to defined contribution pensions after they have accessed pension freedoms from £10,000 a year to just £4,000 from April 2017.

The clear intention is to increase the penalty for accessing freedoms and further turning the screws on George Osborne’s savings legacy.

It is crystal clear that Hammond is not as big a supporter of the freedoms as the previous administration and it will interesting to see how else he chips away at them.

The hint at scrapping the pensions triple lock is another sign that Osborne’s’ consensus has been shattered by Hammond (although it is easier to hint at cutting cash to pensioners, not as easy to actually do it).

Hammond bottled bigger changes to salary sacrifice by exempting pensions from his reductions for employee benefits.

He told us he wouldn’t in the summer consultation but after years of Osborne and Brown, we are so trained to expect surprises that we just ignore any pre-statement assurances.

Hammond also stuck to promises to raise income tax thresholds to £12,500 for the first band and £50,000 for the second band. Predictable again.

Hammond’s dull approach has come into contact with Prime Minister Theresa May who is more keen for gimmicks to help her electoral constituency in the lower middle classes.

We saw that in the announcement before budget day to scrap letting agent administration fees. A bureaucratic headline-grabbing change that targets the right voters but could mean little in practice.

That was more Osborne and Brown. And we will wait to see if May’s approach prevails in the long-run. There will be media and electoral pressures to bear in the next few years when the desire for catchy proposals could become too much to resist. It gets them all in the end.

But for now, it is limited and Hammond’s solid economic management was dominant. He has set the tone of his tenure.

After six months, the themes of a Hammond Treasury are now clear. Steady policy, few changes and a gentle rewinding of pension freedoms and laissez-faire savings policies. Is it really the end of tinkering?

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