Even with a Budget now delayed, the Government faces questions over how its fiscal policy will develop over the long term. A new report published by the OECD this week has highlighted the risk of the UK running a structural deficit, and suggests that spending items such as the state pension triple lock should be cut back. It also recommends that the Government continues to invest in skills training. In many respects, these are easier political choices; investment in skills is politically popular, and the triple lock has long had its critics across the spectrum. The harder decisions relate to sensitive spending like public sector pay – where the Government has already laid the ground for future restraint – or timing of tax rises. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that the Government will need significant tax increases just to keep the national debt at below 100% of GDP by 2024, but warned against instituting them over the next 18 months.
This week has seen a significant shift in Keir Starmer’s approach to opposition in the context of COVID-19. The Labour leader’s backing for a so-called circuit break national lockdown ends his tacit support for a range of lockdown measures introduced by the Government, and exposes the differing views in Number 10 and the Treasury over what to do next. Starmer’s position is likely at least to be modified by the Government, if not rejected outright. The new tiered system introduced this week is intended to allow for stricter national measures to be introduced while maintaining a regionally targeted approach, and the Government is likely to continue to favour this strategy. The Treasury is known to oppose a return to nationwide lockdown measures along the lines that Labour has proposed, with the compromise likely to be that a wider range of locations are either subject to the highest lockdown tier or have more ad-hoc restrictions placed upon them.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson delivered a speech on adoption reform this week, stating that it would his priority to bring forward new measures on improving adoption services in this parliament. It is the first hint of what the focus will be of the planned review of children’s social care to be led by the Department for Education, which Williamson has promised for several months but is yet to materialise. Having been a particular focus of the DfE under Michael Gove’s leadership, culminating in a number of measures in both the Children and Families Act and Education and Adoption Act in 2014 and 2016 respectively, it appears that adoption services are back on the Government’s agenda. It remains to be seen how this work will progress and whether any other areas of children’s care – whether special schools, residential care, fostering or others – take on an equal priority for Ministers as they consider reform of children’s care services again.