The Spring Statement

The Spring Statement is the Chancellor’s lesser Parliamentary set piece of the year, behind the Budget in the autumn. But today’s was overshadowed to a much greater extent by the ramifications of MPs rejecting the Government’s Brexit deal for a second time the night before. Another headache for Philip Hammond was the impossibility of knowing what the UK’s balance sheet will look like next month or the month after that, or the month after that, as a result of the Brexit uncertainty. The statement today was therefore a bit of a damp squib but did include some welcome announcements on an investment in genomics and the treatment of researchers in the immigration system. We also found out that, subject to Brexit, the Spending Review will kick off before summer and cover three years.    

 

A growing economy in the shadow of Brexit

 

Hammond began with a positive statement on the economy, noting the fastest wage growth seen since the financial crisis. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) continues to predict the UK economy will grow each year over the next five years and 600,000 more jobs will be created by 2023.   He said the UK’s future was dependent on “investment in the future” and that is why the Government has committed £20bn additional funding to the NHS (which was announced last year).

 

However, he said all this would be threatened by a no-deal exit from the EU and urged MPs to back the Government’s deal (which they’ve refused to do twice). He said that the Government has put in place no deal mitigations for the financial services sector and at the borders to ensure products can continue to flow in and out of the country (something the BIA has been heavily involved in for medicines transport). But he emphasised a no deal would reduce short and medium-term economic performance, and there is “no fiscal fix” that will protect against it. Hammond finished by repeating his claim that a Brexit deal would deliver a private investment boom, which would make more tax revenue available for public investment.

 

Investment in the UK’s genomics capabilities

 

This Chancellor has been an advocate for investment in science and he didn’t miss this opportunity to make an announcement. “To maintain the UK’s technological edge”, he committed £45m to the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) near Cambridge to enable the UK to continue its lead in genomics research, £79m for a super computer in Edinburgh,  and £81m for a laser facility in Oxford. These were all trailed in the press on Sunday.  

 

The EBI on the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton

Improvements to the immigration system

 

In a nice surprise, the Chancellor announced a small but significant change to the immigration system that will benefit our sector. From Autumn 2019, PhD-level occupations will be exempt from the Tier 2 (General) cap, and the Government will update the immigration rules on 180-day absences so that researchers conducting fieldwork overseas are not penalised if they apply to settle in the UK. This is closing a discriminatory rule that has impacted many researchers over the years, as the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has highlighted in the past and lobbied for change. Hammond also said that from June 2019 visitors from America, Canada, Japan, Singapore and a number of other counties will no longer need to fill in paper-based immigration cards when coming into the country and will be permitted to use the E-Gates at the border, alongside European Economic Area (EEA) citizens.

 

Spending Review confirmed, almost…

 

The Chancellor also confirmed that, “subject to getting a deal to leave the EU”, the Government will hold a spending review which will conclude alongside the Budget in the Autumn. This will set departmental budgets, including 3 year budgets for resource spending. This will determine important science budgets through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as well as the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR). As at the past three Spending Reviews, the government will run a Zero-Based Review of capital spending where each programme or project will be scrutinised from the bottom up. The Spending Review will also have a renewed focus on the outcomes achieved for the money invested – supporting a high-growth economy with public services that work for everyone. For more on the Spending Review and the BIA’s preparations, see our blog.

 

A consultation on R&D tax credits in the coming months

 

At the 2018 Budget in November, the Chancellor announced a 3-times PAYE cap on SME R&D cash credits. This represents a significant threat to the UK’s burgeoning biotech sector and the BIA has been engaging with Treasury officials to help them understand the potential impact of the proposal. Today’s statement didn’t provide any reassurance but did commit to a public consultation “in the coming months”, which will “focus on how the measure will be applied, to minimise any impact on genuine businesses”. The BIA will continue to work closely with our members and the Government to develop the proposal in a way that will protect our sector whilst meeting the need to prevent abuse of the system where it exists.

 

Author

Dr Martin Turner

Head of Policy and Public Affairs

BIA

Martin joined the BIA in April 2016 as Policy and Projects Manager and was promoted to Head of Policy and Public Affairs in January 2019. He is responsible for the BIA's policy outputs and public affairs activities. He also leads on innovation and industrial strategy policy and provides the secretariat for the BIA’s Finance and Tax Advisory Committee and the Intellectual Property Advisory Committee.

Martin has eight years’ experience in policy and public affairs and has worked at the Royal Society, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and the Association of Medical Research Charities. Before embarking on a career in policy, Martin completed a PhD in molecular biology at the University of Sheffield, where he also co-founded and was director of an award-winning science communication charity called Science Brainwaves. He has a BSc in molecular biology from the University of Manchester.