The measures in the Autumn Statement, one of two “fiscal moments” in the political calendar that sees taxation and spending measures announced, will not just be about tax.
The Chancellor ordered his team to start working on ideas to boost the fundamental drivers of economic growth just one day after his Spring Budget, according to a Treasury insider.
One long-term plan in train is forcing the public sector to focus on how it can become more efficient, in part through embracing artificial intelligence, to drive up productivity.
The Treasury shared new statistics with The Telegraph on efficiency. An internal Government review has found scores of public sector employees spend eight hours every week on administrative tasks.
The Chancellor’s idea is to use the purse strings to incentivise efficiency projects, expressing willingness to sign off new money for proposals that will lead to workers spending more on the front line.
And so the Home Office has put forward recommendations which would supposedly save an estimated 750,000 hours of police time.
The Education Department, too, is aiming to reduce teacher workload by up to five hours each week within three years via changes in areas such as data or marking.
Determination to boost productivity
It is, of course, much easier said than done – chancellors for decades have been banging on about improving the UK’s internationally lagging productivity. But Mr Hunt is projecting determination.
He says: “If we can increase productivity growth in the public sector by just 1 per cent then we can start to bring down the tax burden, even with the higher cost of the NHS and social care system because of an ageing population.
“Now anyone in the private sector would say increasing productivity growth by 1 per cent is eminently achievable. I’ve got a fantastic new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Laura Trott. She and I are going to be working to deliver at least that.
“If you look at fantastic institutions like the NHS, police, our state school system, even their biggest supporters would say that they are rife with inefficiency.”
He singles out “the amount of time it takes police officers to fill out forms, nurses who have to be hunched over an IT system, putting in data instead of looking after patients, teachers who spend more time marking homework, and doing non-teaching tasks than actual teaching tasks”.
Another of the drives is already public: A tightening of the unemployment benefits regime to tilt the balance of incentives towards taking up work.
One change will see people who flout requirements to look for work six months into claiming unemployment benefits lose perks like free prescriptions and free bus passes.
Mr Hunt defends the changes, talking up the positive impact a job can have on people’s lives. It is notable that the Labour Party has also talked about reforms in this space.
But the Chancellor declines to confirm whether benefits will be increased in line with October rather than September’s inflation. The smaller inflation figure would save the Treasury an estimated £3 billion.
On another specific, whether he will end a three-year freeze on the Local Housing Allowance that homelessness charities are calling for, there is no indication the answer will be yes.
Hunt denies new version of ‘austerity’
Mr Hunt also defends existing plans to increase public services spending later this decade by just 1 per cent above inflation a year, way below the 3.3 per cent current level.
He denies it amounts to a new version of “austerity” but appears to accept it would mean real terms cuts in unprotected Government departments.
Away from the economic measures, there is the small matter of politics, and the threat of electoral defeat that looms over the Tories, who sit a whopping 22 percentage points behind Labour on the latest opinion poll averages.
Does the Chancellor agree a 1997-style wipeout is coming for the Conservatives?
“Not at all. And there’s two reasons I don’t share that view,” he says.
“First of all, the big difference between now and the run-up to 97 was that voters had made up their mind. They wanted Tony Blair and there was very little John Major or Ken Clark could do about that.
“We know that about 20 per cent of voters say they will vote but they have no idea who they’re going to vote for. And if you look over the last decade, the only thing you can really conclude about politics is that it is incredibly volatile.”
Before time is called on the chat around the train cabin table, there is a chance to briefly probe an aspect of Mr Hunt’s life little-known to the public.
This week the Chancellor revealed on Classic FM that when he was a newer MP he loved Latin dancing so much he would wear a T-shirt under his shirt and, “like Superman”, switch costumes after rushing to a dance club following later Commons votes.
So, is this still happening now he is at the Treasury? “I used to be a very enthusiastic Latin dancer,” Mr Hunt finally says, a train announcement giving him time to think before an answer can be delivered.
“In fact, I used to dance a Brazilian dance called the lambada and I went to the [Rio de Janeiro] carnival three years in a row.
“But – there is a but here – that was before I was married. And I found a married life, politics and Latin dancing are not compatible so I’m afraid I’ve left my dancing years behind me.”
So the dancing shoes are hung up, for now at least. Both he and the Tories will be hoping next year does not prove to be their last tango.
William Turner is a seasoned U.K. correspondent with a deep understanding of domestic affairs. With a passion for British politics and culture, he provides insightful analysis and comprehensive coverage of events within the United Kingdom.