Plastic is the future for cash – one way or another

22 September: Physical cash use is declining fast, leaving the fixed cost base for processing cash transactions at risk of stranding. As cards and digital forms of payment become more prevalent, what will happen to those who still need access to cash?

The National Audit Office (NAO) issued a report on 18 September 2020 on the production and distribution of cash. It looks at what the Bank of England, the Royal Mint, HM Treasury and financial regulators are doing in response to a 59% decline in the volume of cash transactions between 2008 and 2019, as well as efforts to improve the efficiency of cash production and reduce counterfeiting.

According to data from UK Finance, cash payment values fell from £267bn in 2008 to £141bn in 2019 and were (prior to the pandemic) forecast to fall to £59bn by 2028.

Coin production has fallen significantly, with 383m coins manufactured for circulation in 2019-20 compared with 1.1bn in 2010-11. Notes in circulation have continued to increase (to 4.4bn notes with a monetary value of £76.5bn in July 2020), but only around 20%-24% of these are used for cash transactions and 5% used for savings, leaving over £50bn whose location is uncertain – a point which the NAO believes deserves further investigation.

A key finding from the report is that there is no single body in government responsible for overseeing how well the cash system is performing, despite the establishment of a Joint Authorities Cash Strategy Group (JCAS) focused on access to cash for those that need it, in particular for the million or so UK adults who do not have a bank or building society account.

The UK’s entire cash infrastructure across the public and private sectors is estimated to cost around £5bn a year, with many of these being fixed costs that with declining usage are putting pressure on the cash system. 

The number of ATMs fell by 12% over the two years to December 2019 to around 60,000, with a fall of 17% in the number that were free-to-use to around 45,000. The Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) has been working with the industry to maintain free-to-use ATMs in geographic areas where provision is most limited, although the NAO recommends greater attention is given to more deprived areas.

Demand for notes and coins declined by 71% between early-March and mid-April 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown but has since recovered. The NAO believes it is still too early to assess the longer-term impact on cash access and usage but moves amongst some retailers to suspend acceptance of cash during the pandemic could further accelerate the switch to non-cash forms of payment.

The NAO is positive about the steps the Royal Mint and the Bank of England have taken against counterfeiting. In 2016, about one in 30 £1 coins was a counterfeit, but surveys since 2018 have found very low counterfeiting rates for the new £1 coin. The introduction of the polymer £20 note, traditionally the denomination favoured by counterfeiters, should also help reduce the cost of fraud to consumers and businesses.

The Royal Mint reported a reduced loss of £3.9m on its coin-making activities in 2019-20, with actions to improve efficiency including a 22% headcount reduction within its currency division and the mothballing of two of its six plating lines. The Bank of England has also worked with De La Rue to improve efficiency, albeit each polymer banknote costs 60% to 80% more than a paper one, even if they are expected to last at least 2.5 times longer. 

The NAO recommends that HM Treasury takes another look at the roles and responsibilities of the bodies involved in the cash system, setting out more clearly the specific outcomes it wants to deliver for consumers and small businesses and how this should be balanced against the cost of doing so. It also believes that a plan is needed to take action if some groups become left behind as the cash system changes.

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, adviser to ICAEW on public finances, commented: “The NAO has provided some extremely useful insights into how the UK’s cash system is coping with declining usage and it makes a number of sensible recommendations for improvements. 

“However,” continued Wheatcroft, “the report does not answer the more fundamental issue of whether cash has a long-term future at all, and in particular whether the multi-billion costs of running cash and other legacy payment systems could be better deployed.

“Ultimately, is it now time to look beyond a managed decline of the cash system and explore more radical options?”

Front cover: NAO report 'The production and distribution of cash'. Click on the image to go to the NAO website.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

Magnox contract exit cost: a small price to pay?

16 September: The National Audit Office has issued a report on the £20m cost of exiting the failed Magnox contract to decommission nuclear research sites and power stations.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report covers the handling by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) of the failed Magnox contract to decommission two nuclear research sites and 10 Magnox power stations and the estimated £20m cost incurred on exiting the contract.

The NDA is a statutory body established in 2005 to take ownership of the decommissioning programme for the UK’s oldest fleet of nuclear power stations and other nuclear facilities. At 31 March 2020, the NDA had an estimated liability of £135bn in its accounts for the costs of decommissioning still to be incurred.

The NDA has awarded a series of contracts to clean up nuclear sites and deal with radioactive materials, including fuel. This includes the 14-year Magnox contract awarded in 2014 to Cavendish Fluor Partnership (CFP) which the High Court decided was wrongly awarded, with the NDA agreeing a £97m settlement with a bidder in 2017.

The NDA then decided to terminate the contract with CFP nine years early, and an earlier report by the NAO stated how £122m had been lost by that point. The Public Accounts Committee reported in 2018 that the NDA needed to improve its understanding of the state of the sites, its ability to monitor work carried out on them, and the capability and expertise of its executive team.

Since 2017, a revised contract has been agreed with CFP and further litigation avoided, with £2.7bn of decommissioning work completed before the contract ended in August 2019.

The NAO says there have been further costs to the taxpayer, including an estimated termination cost of £20m to negotiate the early exit from the contract and incentivise a smooth handover of sites without further legal challenge. This is a relatively small amount in the context of the £6.9bn to £8.7bn estimated cost for decommissioning the Magnox sites.

The NAO report stated: “With the NDA now taking more direct control over the management of its sites, it will be critically important that it builds and retains better knowledge of the condition of its sites to enable it to plan and deliver decommissioning work efficiently and effectively. The NDA considers that it will be better placed to achieve this under its revised delivery model, but it is too early for us to assess the effectiveness of these arrangements.”

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, adviser to ICAEW on public finances, commented: “The huge sums being spent on decommissioning nuclear facilities can hide many sins, but we are fortunate that the National Audit Office is able to dig around and analyse what is going on.

“On this occasion, the £20m cost of exiting the Magnox contract appears a relatively small price to pay for a second chance at getting the decommissioning of the Magnox fleet right. There are much larger sums – in the billions – riding on the as-yet unproven new delivery model being put in place by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.”

Image of front cover of NAO report 'Progress report: Terminating the Magnox contract'. Click on the image to go to the NAO website to download the report.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: Whole of Government Accounts

24 July: Liabilities of £4.6tn exceeded assets of £2.1tn at 31 March 2019 in the latest set of consolidated financial statements for the UK public sector.

UK public sector balance sheet at 31 March 2019: liabilities £4,555bn, assets £2,099bn, taxpayer equity -£2,456bn.

The topic for the #icaewchartoftheweek is the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) published on Tuesday. Despite taking 15½ months to prepare (way too long, even with the additional delays caused by the pandemic), this is still one the most important documents published by the Government each year.

The good news is that the UK is one of the leading countries in the world in providing fiscal transparency, with this being the tenth WGA, incorporating the financial results of over 9,000 public bodies for the 2018-19 financial year. While many countries are working to adopt accruals-accounting for their public finances, the UK is still the only major economy to publish a full set of accounts covering all levels of government in accordance with internationally recognised accounting standards.

The bad news is the financial position presented by those financial statements, highlighting the weaknesses in the public finances that existed even before the coronavirus pandemic. Total liabilities of £4.6tn at 31 March 2019 were substantially higher than the £1.8bn reported for the headline measure of debt in the National Accounts, prepared in accordance with statistical standards.

To find out more, ICAEW has put together a summary analysis of the Whole of Government Accounts 2018-19.

Alternatively, the full 200 pages of accounting and disclosure goodness that constitutes the WGA can be found here.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.