Britain cuts spending, hikes taxes in emergency budget

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Britain on Tuesday launched an assualt on its mountain of debt as its new coalition government set out plans to raise taxes and slash public spending by 17 billion pounds (25 billion dollars).

Finance minister George Osborne announced that he would slap a levy on banks, ramp up taxation on goods and services, freeze public sector pay and slash benefits spending in an attempt to curb the huge public deficit.

"This emergency budget deals decisively with our country's record debts. It pays for the past and it plans for the future," said the chancellor of the exchequer, a key member of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

"Yes, it is tough, but it is also fair," he told parliament.

He added: "Because the structural deficit is worse than we were told, my budget today implies further reductions in departmental spending of 17 billion pounds by 2014-15."

Osborne said that the structural deficit -- the level of borrowing which can only be cut by tax hikes and spending cuts -- would be eliminated within five years.

"We are on track to have debt falling and a balanced structural current budget by the end of this parliament" in 2014-15, he added.

Value-added tax (VAT) on goods and services would be lifted to 20 percent from the current level of 17.5 percent in January 2011, Osborne announced.

"The years of debt and spending made this unavoidable. This single tax measure will generate 13 billion pounds of extra revenues," he said.

The lion's share -- 77 percent -- of the deficit reduction measures will stem from lower spending, with the remainder coming from higher taxes.

The government will meanwhile freeze public-sector pay for two years, and slash child and housing benefits.

"The truth is that this country was living beyond its means when the recession came and if we don't tackle pay and pensions, more jobs will be lost," he said.

"That is why the government is asking the public sector to accept a two-year pay freeze. But we will protect the lowest paid."

As a result of the new budget measures, British economic growth forecasts were downgraded to 1.2 percent this year and 2.3 percent next year. That compared with prior estimates for expansion of 1.3 percent and 2.6 percent.

Banks operating in Britain will meanwhile, from January next year, be subjected to a levy that is to raise two billion pounds a year. France and Germany were to announce similar moves Tuesday, Osborne said.

Osborne set out his emergency budget against the backdrop of soaring debt levels in the eurozone and concerns that Britain's top-rated AAA credit rating could be at risk.

"Fear about sustainability of sovereign debt is the greatest risk to the recovery of European economies," said Osborne, who also highlighted the government's recent round of cost-cutting.

State borrowing is forecast to reach 155 billion pounds (230 billion dollars, 185 billion euros), or 10.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), in the year to March 2011.

The public deficit soared to a record 156 billion pounds in the 2009-10 fiscal year which ended in March, as a severe recession hit tax revenues and the erstwhile Labour government spent billions bailing out banks.

After British Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition took power last month, it announced plans to axe 6.2 billion pounds of spending in the year to March 2011.

In addition, it last week axed or suspended projects that would have cost 11.0 billion pounds.

"This is early, determined action, and it has earned us credibility in international markets," said Osborne on Tuesday.

"Unless we deliver ... that credibility will be lost," added Osborne, who at the age of 39 is the youngest chancellor for almost a century.

Labour, ousted at the May 6 general election after 13 years in power during which the economy thrived, has warned that moving too swiftly with cuts could endanger a fragile economic recovery.

© 2010 AFP

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