ICAEW chart of the week: personal taxation by legal form

ICAEW’s chart this week compares the differences in the tax payable depending on legal form – an area ripe for reform in theory, but much more difficult in practice.

Chart showing tax payable on £80,000 of business earnings:

Employee - income tax: 20.0%, employee NI 6.6%, employer NI 10.7% - take home pay 62.7%.

Self-employed - income tax: 24.3%, employee NI 5.5% - take home pay 70.2%.

Company owner - income tax 9.9%, corporation tax 16.9% - take home pay 73.2%.

Comments by the Chancellor last year suggested he might tackle one of the thorniest challenges in the UK tax system – the differences in tax paid by individuals depending on the legal form through which they conduct their business activities. However, as the controversy over IR35 has demonstrated, a significant amount of political capital is likely to be needed if changes are to be made.

The #icaewchartoftheweek provides an illustrative example of just how significant the differences can be, with £80,000 in business earnings attracting an effective tax rate of 37.3% if paid to an employee on a salary of £71,460, 29.8% if paid to an individual who is self-employed or in a partnership, or 26.8% if earned through a company and distributed as dividends. 

(It is important to note that this is a theoretical illustrative example for a single person with no other earnings and not paying any pension contributions, with the company owner in the example paying a salary equivalent to the secondary threshold for national insurance before paying the rest as dividends. Actual amounts of tax paid will of course depend on both business and individual circumstances, which can vary significantly.)

The last decade or so has seen a significant increase in the numbers of people becoming self-employed or conducting business through their own companies, and the tax authorities have been concerned about the loss in tax that has followed. One way they have sought to tackle this is by removing the tax benefits of being self-employed or operating through a company from some people, which is the approach adopted by IR35. Coming into force this month, IR35 in effect creates a new legal status of ‘deemed employee’ for tax purposes, reclassifying individuals back into the scope of employment taxes. This has proved highly controversial, accompanied as it is by extensive compliance requirements and general unhappiness by those determined to be subject to it.

Another potential approach would be to change the taxes and tax rates applying to three different forms – either by reducing the taxes on employees or by increasing them on the self-employed or those operating through companies. The former seems unlikely given the state of the public finances, but the challenge in increasing rates can be extremely politically difficult, as former Chancellor Philip Hammond found a few years ago when he proposed a relatively modest increase in the amount of national insurance to be paid by the self-employed.

Whether current Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will take forward a suggestion he made last year when he announced the self-employed income support scheme last year that taxes on the self-employed might rise is yet to be seen. However, what is likely is that this and future Chancellors will continue to look at this particular aspect of the tax system and wonder how they might collect a little more from the ranks of the self-employed and company owners. 

ICAEW chart of the week: Metropolitan France

This week’s chart examines how France inserted a layer of regional administration between the national government in Paris and the 96 departments in mainland France and Corsica.

Map of Metropolitan France divided into 12 mainland regions and Corsica, subdivided into departments.

Île de France 12.3m people
Auverne-Rhône-Alps 8.1m
Hauts-de-France 6.0m
Occitanie 6.0m
Nouvelle-Aquitaine 6.0m
Grand Est 5.5
Provence-Alpes-Côte D'Azur 5.1m
Pays le la Loire 3.8m
Brittany 3.4m
Normandy 3.3m
Burgundy-Franché-Comte 2.8m
Centre-Val de Loire 2.6m
Corsica 0.3m

France’s regional tier of government was created in 1982 with 22 regions in Metropolitan France (ie mainland France and Corsica) and has generally seen to be a success. However, it was concluded that there were too many regions, resulting in a consolidation in 2015 into the current 13 regions, as illustrated by the #icaewchartoftheweek.  

The regions range in size from the 12.3m population eight-department Île de France that includes Paris, to the 2.6m six-department Centre – Val de Loire region in mainland France and the 0.3m two-department Corsica region. This excludes the five overseas one-department regions of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique and Mayotte. 

Regional councils in mainland France and the assembly in Corsica can raise taxes and control substantial budgets, in particular over education and infrastructure investment, as well as having some regulatory powers (but not statutory law-making powers). Elections are on a proportional representation system, with regional presidents chosen by the elected councillors or assembly members.

The establishment of the regions has been part of a process of devolving power from the central government, moving away from the highly centralised control exercised since the French Revolution, which saw the establishment of departments, broadly equivalent to county councils in England. Although each of the 96 departments in Metropolitan France has an elected departmental council and president, many responsibilities for local administration (such as policing) still sit with departmental prefects and subprefects that are appointed by the central government. The lowest tier of local government comprises 36,552 communes, each with an elected council and mayor, with the exception of central Paris, Lyon and Marseille that are further divided into municipal arrondissements.

The comprehensive reforms adopted in France for regional government contrast with the patchwork approach in England, where regional authorities in the form of metropolitan councils were abolished in 1986, only to see a regional tier return in 2000 with the creation of the Greater London Authority. This has been followed over the last decade by the establishment of 10 regional combined authorities, comprising Greater Manchester (2011), Liverpool City Region (2014), Sheffield City Region (2014), North East (2014), West Yorkshire (2014), Tees Valley (2016), West Midlands (2016), West of England (2017), Cambridgeshire & Peterborough (2017) and North of Tyne (2018).

The stop-start approach in England has involved a process of negotiation between central and local government on whether to establish regional combined authorities in particular areas, with a number of proposals across the country under consideration. However, even if they are approved, this will still leave many parts of the country without a regional tier of government. The elections in May in England will therefore see elections for regional authorities only in some areas (including the first-ever elected mayor of West Yorkshire), for between one and three different tiers of local government, and for police & crime commissioners outside of Greater London and Greater Manchester. A rather complex picture!

Back in France, the regional elections scheduled for March have had to be postponed. Instead, a new set of regional administrations across the entirety of Metropolitan France are expected to be elected in June 2021.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Tax Day

26 March 2021: ICAEW’s chart this week is in honour of Tax Day, the newest fiscal event in the government calendar where reforms of the tax system under consideration are opened up to consultation.

Chart showing components of tax receipts of £732bn in 2021-22 and changes to the £928bn projected in 2025-26.

Numbers for chart elements included in the text below.

The #icaewchartoftheweek starts with the Spring Budget forecast tax receipts of £732bn for the coming financial year from 1 April 2021 and how these are expected to increase to £928bn in 2025-26 through a combination of economic growth, inflation and higher receipts principally from corporation tax, income tax, VAT and business rates. 

The chart illustrates how the ‘big three’: income tax (£198bn in 2021-22), VAT (£151bn) and national insurance (£147bn) together comprise 67.8% of the total tax take, with corporation tax (£40bn), council tax (£40bn), fuel duties (£26bn), business rates (£24bn), alcohol & tobacco duties (£22bn), stamp duty (£12bn) generating a further 22.4%. The next 5 taxes – environmental levies (£10bn), capital gains tax (£9bn), insurance premium tax (£7bn), vehicle excise duties (£7bn) and inheritance tax (£6bn) – generate 5.3%, while all other taxes (£33bn) comprise the balance of 4.5%.

With the Chancellor constrained by a commitment not to raise the main rates of income tax, VAT and national insurance, the principal focus of both the Spring Budget and Tax Day has been on improving the tax take from existing taxes, for example by looking at tax reliefs and tackling tax avoidance, and on raising more money from smaller taxes.

This is reflected in the Office for Budget Responsibility projections for tax receipts that accompanied the Spring Budget, which indicate that receipts from most taxes are expected to rise broadly in line with economic growth (generating £80bn in higher tax receipts) and inflation (£46bn) between 2021-22 and 2056-26. This reflects anticipated economic recovery from the pandemic as well as a boost from stimulus measures announced by the Chancellor in addition to existing plans to increase public investment.

The biggest incremental change is an expected increase in corporation tax receipts of £38bn over and above economic growth and inflation. Some of this rise is recovery to a more normal level, as businesses will be able to reduce their tax bills in the coming year by offsetting losses incurred during the pandemic and using the temporary ‘super deduction’ of 130% of qualifying capital expenditure, but the principal driver is an increase in the corporation tax rate on larger businesses from 19% to 25% in 2023.

The next highest increases are from income tax (+£16bn) and VAT (+£9bn) where a combination of fiscal drag from freezing tax allowances (income tax) and registration thresholds (VAT) will bring more transactions into the scope of both taxes and hence generate more revenue. Both taxes are also the focus of efforts to make taxes easier to pay and to tackle tax avoidance as addressed in several of the Tax Day consultations. 

The other significant increase is in business rates (+£7bn), although this mostly reflects pandemic related reliefs in the coming financial year that are not expected to continue into subsequent financial years. In practice, there are some questions as to whether this increase will be deliverable, with the Tax Day consultation on business rates suggesting that levels are too high and a reduction could help bricks and mortar businesses survive against online competition and so ‘save the high street’. The dilemma for the Chancellor is that if he were to cut business rates as some hope, then what tax lever he would need to pull to make up for that lost revenue?

Much of the focus of this first Tax Day has been on the efficiency and effectiveness of the tax system and how it can be made to work better. Perhaps future Tax Days will tackle some of the bigger questions surrounding the role of taxation in the long-term sustainability and resilience of the public finances – and whether some bigger tax levers might need to be pulled at some point in the future?

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Fiscal deficit on course to exceed £300bn in 2020-21

The UK reported a £19.1bn fiscal deficit in February 2021, bringing the total shortfall over eleven months to £278.8bn. Public sector net debt is up by £333.0bn at £2.13tn.

The latest public sector finances released on Friday 19 March reported a deficit of £19.1bn for February 2021, as COVID-related spending continued to weigh on the public finances. This brought the cumulative deficit for the first eleven months of the financial year to £278.8bn, £228.2bn more than the £50.6bn reported for the same period last year.

The reported deficit for the eleven months excludes £27.2bn in potential business loan write-offs that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has included in its forecast deficit of £354.6bn for the full financial year.

Falls in VAT, corporation tax and income tax receipts and the waiver of business rates were the principal driver of lower tax revenues over the last eleven months, while large-scale fiscal interventions have resulted in much higher levels of expenditure. Net investment is greater than last year (mostly as planned), while the interest line has benefited from ultra-low interest rates.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,131.2bn or 97.5% of GDP, an increase of £333.0bn from the start of the financial year and £347.2bn higher than in February 2020. This reflects £54.2bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, much of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to businesses and tax deferral measures.

The cash outflow (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the month was £11.4bn, increasing the cumulative total cash outflow this financial year to £322.3bn. This is a significant swing from the cumulative net cash inflow of £10.9bn reported for the equivalent eleven-month period in 2019-20.

The combination of receipts down 5%, expenditure up 27% and net investment up 21% has resulted in a deficit for the eleven months to February 2021 that is around five times as much as the budgeted deficit of £55bn for the whole of the 2020-21 financial year set in the Spring Budget in March, despite interest charges being lower by 27%.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director said: “Today’s numbers are in line with expectations, with the deficit for the past 11 months reaching £278.8bn. This means we are on track for public sector net borrowing to exceed £300bn for the full year once a potential £27bn in bad debts that have not yet been recorded are factored in.

“Our eyes are now focused on what possible tax measures, in addition to the planned corporation tax rise, the government might use to start rebuilding the public finances.”

Table: public sector finances month ended 28 February 2021. Analyses deficit of £19.1bn for month and variances from same month last year.

Click on link at the end of the post to ICAEW article for a readable version of the table.
Table: public sector finances 11 months ended 28 February 2021. Analyses deficit of £278.8bn and change in net debt of £333.03bn and variances from same period last year, together with net debt of £2,131.2bn or 97.5% of GDP.

Click on link at the end of the post to ICAEW article for a readable version of the table.
Table: month by month analysis of receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the fiscal deficit for the 11 months to 28 February 2021.
 
Click on link at the end of the post to ICAEW article for a readable version of the table.
Table: month by month analysis of receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the fiscal deficit for the prior year.
 
Click on link at the end of the post to ICAEW article for a readable version of the table.

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates and changes in methodology. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit in the first ten months from £270.6bn to £259.7bn and increasing the reported deficit for 2019-20 from £57.1bn to £57.7bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: global military spending

19 March 2021: The UK’s Integrated Review is the inspiration for this week’s chart, illustrating the 20 countries around the world that spend the most on their militaries.

Chart showing global military spending in 2019 led by USA (£526bn) and China (£200bn) followed by 18 other countries - see text below the chart for details.

The UK Government launched its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy on 16 March 2021, setting out a vision for the UK’s place in the world following its departure from the European Union and in the context of increasing international tensions and emerging security threats.

At the core of the Integrated Review is security and defence, and ICAEW’s chart of the week illustrates one aspect of that by looking at military spending around the world. 

The chart shows spending by the top 20 countries, which together comprise in the order of £1.2tn of estimated total military spending of around £1.4tn to £1.5tn globally in 2019 – an almost textbook example of the 80:20 rule in action.

More than a third of the total spend is incurred by just one country – the USA – which spent in the order of £526bn in 2019 converted at current exchange rates. The next biggest were China and India at £200bn and £50bn respectively, although differences in purchasing power mean that they can afford many more soldiers, sailors and aircrew for the same amount of money. This is followed by Saudi Arabia (£45bn), Russia (£41bn), France (£38bn), the UK (£38bn), Germany (£38bn), Japan (£34bn), South Korea (£33bn), Australia (£21bn), Italy (£20bn), Canada (£17bn), Israel (£16bn), Brazil (£14bn), Spain (£13bn), Turkey (£11bn), the Netherlands (£9bn), Iran (£9bn) and Poland (£9bn).

Exchange rates affect the relative orders of many countries in the list, for example between Russia, France, the UK and Germany which can move up or down according to movements in their currencies, while there are a number of caveats over the estimates used given the different structures of armed forces around the world and a lack of transparency in what is included or excluded in defence budgets in many cases.

In addition, the use of in-year military spending does not necessarily translate directly into military strength. Military capabilities built up over many years or in some cases (such as the UK) over many centuries need to be taken into account, as do differing levels of technological development and spending on intelligence services, counter-terrorism and other aspects of security. Despite these various caveats, estimated military spending still provides a useful proxy in understanding the global security landscape and in particular highlights the UK’s position as a major second-tier military power – in the top 10 countries around the world.

Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy sets out some ambitious objectives for security and defence, which it summarises as follows: “Our diplomatic service, armed forces and security and intelligence agencies will be the most innovative and effective for their size in the world, able to keep our citizens safe at home and support our allies and partners globally. They will be characterised by agility, speed of action and digital integration – with a greater emphasis on engaging, training and assisting others. We will remain a nuclear-armed power with global reach and integrated military capabilities across all five operational domains. We will have a dynamic space programme and will be one of the world’s leading democratic cyber powers. Our diplomacy will be underwritten by the credibility of our deterrent and our ability to project power.”

The estimates of military spending used in the chart were taken from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s Military Expenditure Database, updated to current exchange rates.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Debt to GDP ratio

12 March 2021: This week’s chart illustrates how an expected increase of £1tn of additional public debt between 2020 and 2026 translates into the debt to GDP ratio.

Chart showing public sector net debt increased from £1,798bn (84.4% of GDP) at March 2020 to £2,747bn (109.7%) at March 2024 and £2,804bn (103.8%0 at March 2026.

This week’s #icaewchartoftheweek illustrates how a trillion pounds of extra public debt translates into the debt to GDP ratio. This rises from 84.4% last March to a forecast peak of 109.7% in 2024 before falling to 103.8% in 2026, according to the medium-term economic and fiscal forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that accompanied the Spring Budget. These forecast a rise in public sector net debt from £1.8tn at 31 March 2020 to £2.8tn at 31 March 2026.

Most of the additional borrowing is expected to occur in the period to March 2024, with £781bn (equivalent to 35.2% of a year’s GDP) borrowed to fund four years of deficits – an estimated £355bn (16.9% of GDP) in the current financial year and forecast deficits of £234bn (10.3% of GDP), £107bn (4.5% of GDP) and £85bn (3.5% of GDP) in 2021-22 through 2023-24 respectively. A further £168bn (7.5% of GDP) is needed over that same period to fund lending and working capital requirements.

Despite borrowing the equivalent of 42.7% of GDP, the debt to GDP ratio is expected to increase by a smaller amount – 25.3% of GDP from 84.4% at 31 March 2020 to 109.7% of GDP at 31 March 2024. This reflects an increase in the denominator for GDP, as a combination of inflation and economic growth ‘inflate away’ the debt by the equivalent of 17.4% over four years. This effect appears quite large, given the annualised growth of 0.7% a year forecast over the four years (comprising a 12% fall during the current financial year followed by growth of 10% in the coming financial year, 5% in 2022-23 and 1.5% in 2023-24) and an average GDP deflator inflation rate of 1.8%, but the magic of compounding, combined with timing differences in the value for GDP used in the calculation all multiply up.

The following two years see the forecast debt to GDP ratio decline to 103.8%. Debt is only expected to increase by £57bn (or 2.2% of GDP) over these two years because lending to businesses during the pandemic is expected to be repaid, reducing the £148bn (5.7% of GDP) needed to fund deficits of £74bn (2.9% of GDP) in 2024-25 and £74bn (2.8% of GDP) in 2025-26 by a net cash inflow of £91bn (3.5% of GDP). As a consequence, the debt to GDP ratio is forecast to drop by 5.9% overall once 8.1% of ‘inflating away’ is taken into account.

As with all forecasts, the reality will be different. A stronger economic recovery would both reduce the need for borrowing and increase the size of GDP at the same time, accelerating the decline in the debt to GDP ratio. A weaker recovery combined with higher spending in response to pressures on public services and/or higher interest rates might do the reverse. Either way, the debt to GDP is likely to remain at a significantly higher level than the pre-financial crisis 34% seen in 2008 for many years, if not decades, to come.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Spring Budget cutting the current deficit

5 March 2021: The Budget provides the basis for this week’s chart, which illustrates government plans to achieve a current budget surplus to meet a new fiscal rule that hasn’t yet been formally announced but was hinted at.

Chart showing receipts, net investment and the current deficit from 2019-20 to 2025-26, showing very large current deficit in 2020-21 falling to almost zero by 2025-26.

The Chancellor will use a corporation tax rise and spending cuts to cut the current deficit over the next five years, but this relies on the economy recovering as expected and being able to restrain pressures on public spending.

The current deficit – the difference between receipts and expenditure excluding net investment – is expected to go from £14bn in 2019-20 to £279bn in the current financial year before falling to £172bn in 2021-22, £40bn in 2022-23, £15bn in 2023-24, £3bn in 2024-25 and just under £1bn in 2025-26 – almost, but not quite meeting the anticipated fiscal rule hinted at by Rishi Sunak in his Budget speech.

This will only be achievable if the pandemic can be brought under control so that support measures are no longer needed, in addition to depending on the strength of the economic recovery. The government will be hoping that the economic stimulus it plans to provide over the next two years will help drive that growth, with the hope of higher corporate profits to pay a higher rate of corporation tax over the rest of the period.

Despite the uncertainties around the numbers, the Chancellor felt it necessary to trim £4bn a year from public spending to get within touching distance of meeting his non-target – signalling his commitment to ‘fiscal responsibility’ and helping to achieve his other main non-target, which is to see the debt to GDP ratio start to fall after peaking at 110% of GDP in 2024. However, a number of commentators have suggested that this appears unlikely to be achievable, given both pre-existing pressures on public spending and a likely need to provide additional post-pandemic support to the NHS, social care and education in particular.

This provides a challenging context for the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review later this year, especially as the longer-term challenges facing the public finances remain unaddressed. In the nearer term though, the Chancellor will be hoping for a bigger bounce back to the economy over the summer to provide him with more room for manoeuvre in the autumn.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Long-term vision for public finances unclear in a Spring Budget focused on recovery

4 March 2021: The UK economy is set to be 3% smaller than expected before the pandemic, with public sector net debt forecast to peak at 110% of GDP in 2024.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s second Budget on Wednesday 3 March 2021 was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and how the economic recovery can be accelerated through stimulus measures.

The estimated deficit for the current financial year of £355bn is now expected to be £39bn smaller than was forecast in November. This reflects a slightly better economic performance than had been anticipated, despite the extended lockdown, as well as unused contingency within the budget for COVID-19 spending.

This has been more than offset in the current budget by a continuation of support to businesses and individuals affected by the pandemic, including extending the furlough scheme, the self-employed support scheme and the Universal Credit supplement during the first half of 2021-22, together with further support to businesses, such as on business rates relief.

There were no major spending decisions, as the one-year Spending Review in November had already set departmental budgets for non-COVID-related expenditures for 2021-22, while decisions about subsequent years will be made in the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review planned for the autumn.

Tax decisions mainly comprised economic stimulus measures in 2021-22 and 2022-23, primarily the super-deduction for private sector capital expenditure that the government hopes will bring forward investment and boost the economic recovery. This is followed by tax rises over the following three years, principally from higher corporation tax on larger businesses’ profits.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic forecasts remained similar to its central scenario set out in November, with the economy on track in their view to be 3% smaller than their pre-pandemic expectations. As a consequence, economic forecast changes (net of the indirect effect of government decisions) were relatively small as illustrated in Table 1.

Image of table showing government decisions and forecast changes for 2020-21 through 2025-26. Click on link to ICAEW article at end for a readable version.

The forecast deficit for 2021-22 of £234bn is expected to be the second-largest peacetime deficit ever recorded after the current financial year, emphasising just how significant a hit the economy has suffered as a consequence of the pandemic and the restrictions on economic activity that have been necessary. 

Higher corporation tax receipts are expected to reduce the deficit in the second half of the forecast period and start to stabilise the level of public debt in relation to the size of the economy. However, deficits are still expected to remain higher than pre-pandemic forecasts, with the Chancellor confirming that eliminating the deficit was no longer a government objective.

The Chancellor did not announce any new fiscal rules during his speech, although he hinted strongly they would feature targeting the deficit to be no higher than the level of public sector net investment and a stable or falling debt to GDP ratio. He stated that it made sense to use borrowing to invest while interest rates remained very low.

Although there was an indication that the Chancellor believes action is needed to deliver sustainable public finances, there was little of this action in his statement beyond the rise in the rate of corporation tax and the freezing of tax allowances from 2022-23 onwards.

Image of table showing debt and deficit forecast for 2020-21 through 2025-26. Click on link to ICAEW article at end for a readable version.

Commenting on the March 2021 Budget Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “While the deficit for the current financial year will come in £39bn below what was previously expected, this is forecast to be offset by an increase to the deficit of £70bn in 2021-22. This increase reflects both the continuation of support schemes for people and businesses, as well as sizeable stimulus measures to support economic recovery.

“The additional resources being provided to HMRC to tackle fraud will be needed to provide proper scrutiny of claims for the Help To Grow and super-deduction schemes in particular.

“While the Chancellor did take action to restrain the growth in debt over the next five years, he did not fully address how he plans to deliver sustainable public finances in the longer-term. The Chancellor chose to focus on an alternative metric of ‘underlying debt’ in his speech, rather than the official measure for public sector net debt which is predicted to peak at close to 110% of GDP in 2024. Whichever measure is used, further difficult choices will be needed in future Budgets to address the fundamental challenges facing the public finances.”

For more information on the March 2021 Budget visit ICAEW’s Budget page.

This article was originally posted on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: an unsustainable path

26 February 2021: The Chancellor needs to build a bridge to economic recovery in his first Budget on Wednesday, focusing on jobs, exports and investment. But with the OBR’s official projections showing public debt to be on an unsustainable path, what vision will he set out for the public finances in the long-term?

The Spring Budget announcement on Wednesday will primarily be about the government’s fiscal budget for the financial year commencing 1 April 2021. The UK is still in the midst of a major health emergency and in a difficult economic situation, and the announcement is likely to provide for an extension of support measures for businesses and individuals affected by the pandemic, funding for under-pressure public services and stimulus measures to drive economic growth once restrictions are lifted, particularly in the second half of the financial year. 

In the absence of a formal fiscal strategy event in the Parliamentary calendar, the Budget is also the main forum the Chancellor has to discuss the medium and long-term prospects for the public finances. This includes considering the five-year fiscal forecasts prepared by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), as well as setting out any medium-term fiscal rules the government might want to use in determining its tax and spending plans and in demonstrating financial credibility with debt investors and citizens.

What is often less discussed is the long-term path for the public finances, which – as the #icaewchartoftheweek illustrates – is on an unsustainable path according to the official 50-year fiscal projections prepared by the OBR last July.

These projections indicate that, in the absence of government action, public debt will rise steadily over the next fifty years as public spending grows in line with anticipated demand, and increasing amounts of borrowing will be needed to cover the shortfall between that spending and the amount collected in taxes. It is important to understand that these projections were already on this path before the pandemic arrived and the principal difference between the OBR’s 2020 and 2018 projections is that the initial level of debt has increased from in the order of 80% to just over 100% of GDP. The starting point may be higher, but the fundamental issues haven’t changed.

This financial backdrop permeates every Budget and is the reason the Chancellor finds himself constrained in the choices he can make, despite ultra-low interest rates that currently permit him to borrow huge sums for one-off expenditures at almost no cost. He doesn’t have the same freedom when it comes to permanent increases in spending, whether that be on health, social care, welfare, education, defence or other public services, especially if he wants to minimise the scale of any potential tax increases. Of course, higher economic growth would help – but as successive Chancellors have found that is not so easy to deliver.

So while much of the focus on the Budget on Wednesday will be on the short-term extension of the life support package for individuals and businesses while restrictions remain in place and the economic stimulus thereafter, the Chancellor’s words will also be scrutinised for his vision on the direction of travel for the public finances beyond the end of the next financial year.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

No public sector finance surplus in January as pandemic spending rises

22 February 2021: The UK reported an £8.8bn fiscal deficit in January, bringing the total shortfall over ten months to £270.6bn. Public sector net debt is up by £316.4bn and now exceeds £2.11tn.

The latest public sector finance figures for January 2021, published on Friday 19 February 2021 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), reported a deficit of £8.8bn in January 2021, a contrast from the surplus typically reported in most years as expenditures outpaced the extra taxes that come with self-assessment filings. This brought the cumulative deficit for the first ten months of the financial year to £270.6bn, £222bn more than the £48.6bn reported for the same period last year.

Falls in VAT, corporation tax and income tax receipts and the waiver of business rates continued to drive lower tax revenues, while large-scale fiscal interventions resulted in much higher levels of expenditure. Net investment is greater than last year (mostly as planned), while the interest line has benefited from ultra-low interest rates.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,114.6bn or 97.9% of GDP, an increase of £316.4bn from the start of the financial year and £328.6bn higher than in January 2020. This reflects £45.8bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, much of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to business and tax deferral measures.

Cash funding (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the month was a net cash inflow of £22.3bn, reflecting self-assessment and corporation tax receipts in the month. This reduced the cumulative total cash outflow this financial year to £311.1bn, still a significant change from the cumulative net cash inflow of £16.0bn reported for the same ten-month period in 2019-20.

The combination of receipts down 6%, expenditure up 28% and net investment up 31% has resulted in a deficit for the ten months to January 2021 that is almost six times as much as the budgeted deficit of £55bn for the whole of the 2020-21 financial year set in the Spring Budget in March, despite interest charges being lower by 28%.

The numbers reported by the ONS exclude £29.5bn in estimated bad debts from coronavirus lending that is expected to be reflected in the deficit for the full year, which is on track to end up somewhere between £350bn and the £393.5bn as forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility in November.

Commenting on the numbers, Alison Ring OBE FCA, public sector director at ICAEW, said: “Although a little lower than some had expected, the sheer scale of the public borrowing undertaken in the first ten months of this financial year remains unprecedented in peacetime. 

The upcoming Budget will provide an opportunity for the Chancellor to outline a vision for how to repair the public balance sheet and put the public finances onto a sustainable path over the coming decade, even if 2021 is not the time for major tax changes.

We want to see the Budget focus on building a bridge to economic recovery, getting people back into work, help for exporters, and greater investment in digital technology to make our businesses competitive in the 21st-century economy.”

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates and changes in methodology. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit in the first nine months from £270.8bn to £261.8bn and increasing the reported deficit for 2019-20 from £57.0bn to £57.1bn.

For further information, read the public sector finances release for January 2021.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.