Sunak speech: Chancellor doesn't rule out tax rises and suggests Universal Credit uplift will go

ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana on how the topics missing from Sunak's speech may be more important than what was in it

Rishi Sunak has indicated the planned cut to the Universal Credit uplift will go ahead this week and did not rule out further tax rises in his speech at the Tory Party conference - but he did announce an extension to a number of employment schemes.

The chancellor told Conservative members that programmes such as the Kickstart scheme, announced under the coronavirus 'plan for jobs’, will be extended until next year.

He said he was focused on helping Britons get "better skills and higher wages", but in a blow to struggling families desperate for support, he said the answer was not to provide more benefits.

In a comment that suggests this week's planned cut to the £20 Universal Credit uplift will go ahead, the chancellor asked "is the answer to [struggling families'] hopes and dreams just to increase their benefits?"

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He also used much of his speech to bash Labour, saying the party's commitment to bolstering the welfare state does "not work in practice" and is "a desperately sad vision for our future".

In a bid to pit his party as financially responsible, he said: “I believe in fiscal responsibility. Just borrowing more money and stacking up bills for future generations to pay is not just economically irresponsible, it is immoral.

“Because it’s not the state’s money, it’s your money."

Mr Sunak said he does "want tax cuts but in order to do that our public finances must be put back on a sustainable footing" - a line which suggests taxes could rise further, after a recent announcement that National Insurance will increase.

He said: "There can be no prosperous future unless it is built on the foundation of strong public finances. And I have to be blunt with you. Our recovery comes with a cost.

“Our national debt is almost 100% of GDP. So, we need to fix our public finances. Because strong public finances don’t happen by accident.”

He added: "I know tax rises are unpopular, some will even say un-Conservative - I’ll tell you what is un-Conservative: Unfunded pledges reckless borrowing and soaring debt."

Which employment schemes is the government extending?

  • The Kickstart scheme - this is funding to encourage employers to take on 16 to 24 year olds who receive Universal Credit, with the government covering the cost of 25 hours of work per week for a total of 6 months, as well as the employer's national insurance contributions.

  • Job Entry Targeted Support scheme - people who have been on Universal Credit for more than 13 weeks can get employment support for 6 months, which includes a personal careers adviser.

  • Apprenticeship Incentives - this encourages employers to take on apprentices, with a payment of £3,000, in addition to the £1,000 already on offer.

The senior Tory also announced plans to create 2,000 “elite AI scholarships”.

The chancellor said: “If artificial intelligence was to contribute just the average productivity increase of those three technologies, that would be worth around £200 billion a year to our economy.

“So, today, I am announcing that we will create 2,000 elite AI scholarships for disadvantaged young people and double the number of Turing AI World-Leading Research Fellows – helping to ensure that the most exciting industries and opportunities are open to all parts of our society.”

The Confederation of British Industry backed the chancellor’s plan but said higher investment and growth was needed to improve productivity.

CBI president Tony Danker said: “The only way to achieve the high-wage, high-skill economy we all want is to unlock productivity through higher investment and growth.

"All must rise together to avoid a further squeeze on living standards and to realise a better decade than the last.”