AS an ebullient Chancellor presented his 2024 Budget, with a smile on his face throughout, there was much head-scratching from businesses across the country – and individuals – watching on screens in offices and home.

Panellists at The Herald post-Budget Breakfast in Glasgow this morning appeared equally perplexed, with Grant Johnston, partner and head of wealth planning at Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie, going as far as describing it as a “non-event”, adding: “We’re back to the good all days with much of it trailed in the press over the last few months and we’re fooling ourselves if we thought anything big was going to come out of it.”

However, the Budget still provoked robust discussion, guided by the sharp-witted Brian Taylor, political commentator, former BBC Scotland political editor and Herald columnist in the chair, with the event – now a much-anticipated fixture in UK Budget week – shining a spotlight on the key points unveiled by Jeremy Hunt with a General Election looming.

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The panel and packed audience agreed that the behaviour of MPs in the House of Commons left little to be desired as the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt made jokes, and members on both sides of the Chamber jeered throughout. Mr Taylor referred to it as a “pantomime”. But jokes and hilarity aside, the Budget was no laughing matter – as each panellist struggled to find any good news in its contents for SMEs.

Sara Thiam, chief executive at Prosper, the influential business network, said: “There was nothing at all here for SMEs. The big guys will be OK – they always are – but neither the UK or Scottish governments are business-friendly at the moment. Retail and hospitality businesses are really struggling.”

Agreeing with Ms Thiam, Grant Johnston said that an “accumulation of many factors is having a compounding effect”, adding: “One of our principal areas of business is hospitality and tourism. Restaurants [in Glasgow] are quieter in terms of what they used to be and there seems to be a disconnect – there is no incentive for businesses to invest.”

Ms Thiam said that for lots of small businesses like hairdressers and nail salons, many run by women making their introduction to business and entrepreneurship in towns and cities across Scotland, were in the midst of an “unfortunate culture” which was preventing them from progressing and supporting the local economy.

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The Chancellor, who spoke about his “Budget for long-term growth” and remained upbeat throughout his performance, was predictable in his widely-trailed announcement that National Insurance contributions for employees are being cut from 10% to 8% from April – impacting about 27 million workers.

While welcoming the reduction in National Insurance and also Mr Hunt’s decision to both extend the freeze on alcohol duty until February 2025 leave the 5p cut in fuel duty announced in March 2022 in place, panellists found it difficult to raise enthusiasm for this spring Budget – even the £300 million in Barnett consequentials for the Scottish Government.

Derek Hanlan, associate tax director at independent chartered accountancy firm Martin Aitken & Co, commented: “I’m completely underwhelmed. There just wasn’t a lot. I sat here at this brief a year ago talking about businesses needing stability and although there has been little change – there is still uncertainty and very little stability.”

Asked by audience member Julie Moulsdale, managing director of PR agency and communications consultancy Perceptive Communicators what he would do if he had the power to make changes, Mr Hanlan, accepting that Scottish income tax differs from England, said: “With the National Insurance cut everybody benefits but I would do something with the tax rates – it’s overly complex.

“For Scotland there are about 20 different rates of income tax. Some of it is policy and understandable, but it also a burden and it will stop attracting people into Scotland.”

Earlier, Emma Congreve, deputy director at the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde, pointed to the economy “still being troubled” with “growth still weak”, adding: “The employment rate has been downgraded by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

Budget 2024: Fraser of Allander on Jeremy Hunt’s Spring Budget

“This is not just people choosing not to work – there are barriers due to ill health and mental health issues. Long Covid is not the reason.”

While the OBR forecasts that output growth will pick up to 0.8% in 2024 “as interest rates fall and real household incomes recover”, it also forecasts a 0.1% fall in GDP per capita this year with its figures at odds with the upbeat economic story delivered by the Chancellor in his Budget speech.

Ms Congreve also placed the lack of levers to support businesses under the microscope. “There needs to be investment in the systems that allow government to understand business more, understand their needs – we need the levers that allow support to be given.”

For Prosper’s Sara Thiam, the solution was blunter. “We have policies coming out of our ears and strategies – but no delivery. But we all need to be part of that conversation. We are not always going to get what we want but we have to be grown-up. Scotland used to be able to do this.”

Discussing the Chancellor’s decision to extend the windfall tax on oil and gas companies by 12 months, despite strong opposition from the Scottish Conservatives and its leader Douglas Ross, Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie’s Mr Johnston said: “This is a political thing, not an economic thing.

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“The UK Government has announced a target of 25% for nuclear power but have we not been going down the clean, green, sustainable route? Our politicians need to get together and say ‘this is what we are going to be doing for the next 20-30 years’.”

Pointing to the need for long-term certainty for businesses – the lack of which means a failure by companies to invest – the Fraser of Allander Institute’s Ms Congreve suggested that there could be an “emergency” Budget later this year if the economic data starts to improve and there are better GDP figures.

The event was sponsored by Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie and Martin Aitken & Co.