Government borrowing hit its highest December figure since records began last month, according to official figures.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a total of £27.4bn – a leap of almost £17bn on the same month a year ago.
It blamed £7bn in costs from energy support schemes.
Added to that was interest payments on debt, reaching £17.3bn.
The ONS said that sum was the second largest in any single month behind the £20bn recorded in June 2022.
It added that £13.7bn within the figure reflected the impact of inflation, as many government bonds are linked to the Retail Prices Index measure.
The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that the government’s debt interest bill alone will come in at almost £116bn in the financial year to March.
December’s figure took the total to date to £87.8bn.
The overall net borrowing figure was around £10bn higher than many economists had forecast.
It could be used by ministers to bolster their tough stance over public sector pay increases as strikes continue to cripple many services.
The government has argued that settlements must be affordable as unions representing the likes of nurses, ambulance staff and firefighters continue to demand hikes that will better shield their members from the cost of living crisis.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said in reaction to the borrowing figures: “Right now we are helping millions of families with the cost of living, but we must also ensure that our level of debt is fair for future generations.
“We have already taken some tough decisions to get debt falling, and it is vital that we stick to this plan so we can halve inflation this year and get growth going again – creating better paid jobs across the country.”
Lucy Frazer rebukes Telegraph directors over removal of newspaper bosses
The independent directors appointed to oversee the sale of The Daily Telegraph have been warned that the removal of the newspaper’s two most senior executives breached a government order – and that any subsequent transgression could result in a multimillion pound fine.
Sky News has learned that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) last week wrote to Goodwin Procter, the law firm acting for the independent board members, to say that Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, had concluded that recent management changes at the broadsheet publisher had contravened a requirement that she must consent to the removal and appointment of Telegraph bosses.
According to sources familiar with the letter’s contents, DCMS officials said that Ms Frazer had decided not to pursue further action over the breaches, but warned that “any further breaches may lead to enforcement action, including the imposition of a penalty… [which] may be up to 5% of the total worldwide turnover of the enterprises owned or controlled by the person on whom it is imposed”.
Results for the financial year ending 31 December 2022 showed that Telegraph Media Group recorded a turnover of just over £254m – meaning that a maximum fine levied on that basis alone could amount to over £12.5m.
The letter was sent just over a month after Anna Jones, a former Hearst UK executive, was appointed to replace Nick Hugh as TMG’s CEO.
Cormac O’Shea, the TMG finance chief, left the company just weeks earlier.
Ms Jones’s appointment also constituted a breach of the government’s Pre-Emptive Action Order, imposed last autumn, because the directors had not sought Ms Frazer’s prior approval, the letter is understood to have added.
A source close to the company said they believed that the departures of Mr Hugh and Mr O’Shea were part of the “ordinary course of business”, and were therefore excluded from the original order.
A subsequent order issued by Ms Frazer following the executives’ departures was amended to remove the “ordinary course of business” clause, the source said.
The culture secretary’s latest intervention is the latest twist in a convoluted process that will determine the future ownership of two of Britain’s most influential newspapers.
Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority have been given a deadline of next Monday by Ms Frazer to report to her on whether they believe a takeover of the Telegraph titles by RedBird IMI, a state-backed Abu Dhabi investment vehicle, would impinge press freedom.
The £600m deal is being vehemently opposed by Telegraph journalists and Conservative politicians from both houses of parliament.
RedBird IMI is minority-owned by RedBird, a US media investor headed by former CNN president Jeff Zucker, and majority-owned by IMI, which is funded by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ultimate owner of Manchester City Football Club.
It has sought to defuse controversy over the deal by offering legally binding assurances over editorial freedom, and in January restructured its bid to incorporate a new UK holding company that would own the Telegraph titles and Spectator magazine.
The new entity has the same ownership structure as the earlier vehicle, according to people close to the situation, being 75% owned by IMI and 25%-owned by RedBird.
A spokesperson for RedBird IMI said at the time of its announcement: “This change was made in order to clarify the point that IMI is a passive investor in the company that will own the Telegraph and as such will have no management or editorial involvement whatsoever in the title.”
An initial public interest intervention notice (PIIN) was issued by Ms Frazer late last year which subjected a prospective debt-for-equity swap handing RedBird IMI ownership of the titles to scrutiny by competition and media regulators.
Most observers expect the culture secretary to refer the deal to a Phase 2 investigation by the CMA, which would delay its completion by months – and could lead to it being blocked altogether.
The takeover is viewed as especially sensitive because of its proximity to a UK general election in which the Tories are likely to be at long odds to win an outright majority.
The independent directors of the Telegraph’s holding company were parachuted in by Lloyds Banking Group last year after the lender seized control of the newspapers from their long-standing owners, the Barclay family.
An auction of the titles followed, drawing interest from the Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere and the GB News shareholder Sir Paul Marshall.
However, the sale process was pre-empted by RedBird IMI repaying £1.16bn of loans owed by the Barclays to Lloyds, with £600m used to purchase a call option to buy the newspapers and the remainder as a loan secured against other family assets, including the online retailer Very Group.
A spokesman for the independent directors said: “It is the fiduciary duty of the independent directors to act in the best interests of the Telegraph Media Group and we will continue to do so”.
The independent directors are led by Mike McTighe, a company turnaround veteran, with the others being Stephen Welch and Boudewijn Wentink, who also have experience of corporate restructurings.
Under the terms of the public interest intervention notice (PIIN) issued by Ms Frazer, RedBird IMI is prohibited from exerting any influence over the titles while investigations by the competition and media regulators are ongoing.
The DCMS declined to comment.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt considering further public spending cut to boost tax giveaway in budget
Jeremy Hunt is considering a last minute further cut to public spending to boost the tax giveaway in Wednesday’s budget.
The Politics At Jack And Sam’s podcast, out now, sets out how Number 10 and 11 have spent recent days finding as many different ways of raising future revenue as possible to increase the size of Wednesday’s tax cuts.
National insurance could be cut by 2p again in the budget if the chancellor succeeds in finding the right mix of revenue-raising measures and spending cuts.
Currently, spending is due to rise 1% above inflation after next year. However, if this was cut to 0.75% above inflation, that would raise £5-6bn.
The chancellor would hope to resist questions about where he would cut, saying he is doing an efficiency drive and decisions would be outlined at a future spending review post election.
The decision on whether to cut future spending was live in the Treasury as recently as Friday, and this morning the chancellor was arguing about the importance of finding efficiencies.
This is likely to boost Labour’s charge that the government is “maxing out the credit card” to keep its own supporters on side.
However, most Tories in government believe this is a necessary trade-off to allow the party to go into the next election presenting themselves as the low-tax party.
Some senior Tories disagree, however, worrying that the public is more worried about the state of public services than tax cuts.
The budget is likely to have cuts or the abolition of non-dom status, which could raise £2-3bn, plus other small loopholes being closed, generating a few hundred million in revenue.
The Politics At Jack And Sam’s Podcast also reveals how delaying Contaminated Blood compensation payouts has helped deliver tax cuts.
In January, the Treasury was worried those payments might reduce the amount the chancellor could spend before he reached the borrowing limits from his fiscal rules.
However, the inquiry will not report until later and the government is resisting calls for interim payouts.
Any tax cuts will need to be ‘undone’ after election, economist claims
Any tax cuts made during this budget will “one way or another be undone after the election”, according to one economist.
Speaking to Sky News, Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, explained that – if it were not an election year – it is unlikely that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt would be looking to trim the tax burden.
Speaking to Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips, Mr Hunt said his budget would be “prudent and responsible” – but added that he wanted to “make some progress” on the “journey” started by the two pence cut to National Insurance announced in the autumn statement six months ago.
The chancellor is facing pressure to cut taxes to try and shift the polls in favour of his own party, which is languishing well behind Labour.
Mr Johnson said: “I think this is going to be a political decision in an election year. If this weren’t an election year, I don’t think we’d be talking about tax cuts at all.”
He added: “If we weren’t looking at an election, I think he would be saying, let’s steady as she goes, let’s see where we are in a year or two.
“But given it is an election, I suspect we will get some tax cuts.
“My guess, though, is that those will, one way or another, be undone after the election.
“The state of public finances, the state of public services, the shortage of money for everything from the health service to local government to social care indicates to me, we’re going to need more money over the next five years rather than less.”
Changes to income tax and National Insurance have been mooted as potential options, as well the government taking Labour’s policy of scrapping the non-dom tax status.
But with the budget itself not due until Wednesday lunchtime, Sky News understands decisions are still being made in Downing Street about what to include.
The tricky financial picture means there has been limited space to make pre-budget announcements.
The tax burden is reaching record levels, with it expected to rise to its highest point since the Second World War before the end of this decade as the country looks to pay back heavy borrowing used for support during COVID-19 and the energy spike in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Hunt has already announced plans for an £800m package of technology reforms which government hopes will free up public sector workers.
Mr Hunt claims that “we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking more spending buys us better public services” – and that the £800m investment will yield £1.8bn in benefits by 2029.
Torsten Bell, the head of the Resolution Foundation, worked in the Treasury as a civil servant before going to work for chancellor Alistair Darling in the financial crisis.
He explained to Sky News why Mr Hunt is having difficulty “rolling the pitch” – preparing the ground for the announcements in the budget.
Mr Bell said: “The reason why the chancellor is finding things quite difficult is two reasons; One is the difficult economic circumstance.
“We’re obviously coming out of a high inflation period, but we’re not seeing a lot of economic growth.
“And then on top of that, we’re in a world where they’re talking about tax cuts, but everybody around the country, everybody watching this knows that, the reality is this is an era of taxes going up.
“So it’s a difficult situation.”
Mr Hunt said he wants to cut taxes as it helps faster growth as seen in North America and Asia.
“But it would be deeply unconservative to cut taxes in a way that increased borrowing that wasn’t fully funded,” the chancellor said.
“If I think of the great tax-cutting budgets of the past – Nigel Lawson’s budget in 1988.
“The reason that was so significant is because those tax cuts were permanent and people need to know that these are tax cuts you can really afford.
“So it will be responsible and everything I do will be affordable.”
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