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.

£31 billion charge shines spotlight on £2.2tn pounds public sector pension liability

21 August 2020: Ministers insulated older employees from public sector pension reforms in 2015, despite advice saying not to. The courts found this was age discrimination, resulting in a £31bn charge in the Whole of Government Accounts.

When the Hutton review on public sector pensions reported in 2011, it recommended retaining the defined-benefit pensions provided to public sector employees. However, it wanted to reform how public sector pensions are calculated to reduce the cost to taxpayers, while at the same making them fairer for lower-paid employees. 

Recommendations included switching from final salary to career average for calculating pension entitlements, aligning the retirement age for most public sector employees with the state pension age, and increasing employee contributions.

The Hutton reforms followed a major cost saving already achieved in switching from RPI to CPI-linked increases for pensions in retirement, which resulted in a one-off gain of £126bn in the 2010-11 Whole of Government Accounts (equivalent to a 10% reduction in the gross pension liability at that time) as well as reducing the cost of providing pensions going forward. 

To protect existing employees, Hutton recommended that accrued rights at the date of the switch should still be calculated on final salaries, with only subsequent years of service accruing on an average salary basis. Retaining existing rights meant there was no significant gain or loss recorded when the reforms to existing pension arrangements were implemented in 2014 and 2015, with any cost savings arising in future years.

Despite the Hutton report explicitly stating that “age discrimination legislation … means that it is not possible in practice to provide protection from change for members who are already above a certain age”, the Government decided to provide transitional protection for older members. Full transitional protection was offered to workers 10 years or less away from retirement in 2012, with partial protection on a sliding scale tapering away to zero for those with 14 or more years to go until retirement at that point.

As might have been expected, given the clear advice in the Hutton review that this would constitute unlawful age discrimination, the UK Government lost in the Supreme Court in 2019 in the McCloud and Sargeant cases. As a consequence, employees that have lost out because the transitional protections did not apply to them will receive an uplift in their pensions when they reach retirement.

Illustrative example

To illustrate the issue, consider the case of fictional civil servants Sarah and Maxine who were 20 and 10 years away from retirement respectively in 2012 and who were moved into the new career-average ‘alpha’ pension scheme in 2015. Each is expected to retire with 30 years’ service on a final year salary of £80,000, following rapid promotions in their final 10 years of service.

Image of table with worked example. Click on link at the end of this post to for the article on the ICAEW website containing the table itself.

In this illustration, Maxine, who in 2012 had 10 years to go before retirement, should receive an initial pension of £40,000 a year when she retires in 2022, including a £500 transitional protection uplift. 

Without transitional protection, Sarah would expect to receive £34,000 a year when she retires in 2032. Although the precise details of the remedy in response to the court judgements is still being worked out (see HM Treasury consultation), it is likely that Sarah will now receive a transitional protection uplift covering the period from 2015 to 2022, potentially adding around £4,000 (based on our illustrative assumptions) to her pension on retirement, but still below what she would have received without the changes.

The court ruling will only affect employees who would have got more under the final salary arrangements. For a significant proportion of public sector workers, the faster accrual rate on a career average basis will provide them with a higher pension than they would have received under the slower accrual rate applied to final salary under the old arrangements. They will not have lost out from not having had transitional protection.

Spotlight on the £2.2tn public sector pension liability

The £31bn past service cost recorded in the Whole of Government Accounts in 2018-19 added 1.4% to the amounts owed to current and former public sector employees for their accrued pension rights, increasing the gross liability recorded to £2.2tn at 31 March 2019. (The Government separately reported that the court judgements would cost £17bn but did not explain how this number reconciled with the £31bn reported in the accounts.)

£2.2tn is a huge amount of money, equivalent to around £80,000 for each household in the UK. Most public sector schemes are unfunded (£1,756bn out of the £2,244bn gross liability) with pension payments funded out of future taxation. Local authority and other funded public sector schemes (£488bn) do have pension fund investments (£350bn at 31 March 2019) set aside to pay pensions, but they will need to increase their contributions to those funds to cover the cost of extending transitional protections to affected employees. 

There are no doubt many morals to be drawn from this story, but what it does highlight is the sheer scale of the pension obligations that public sector employers have built up over the years, and just how much a single ministerial decision can end up costing taxpayers.

This article was originally published on the ICAEW website.