NAO: UK ‘lacked playbook’ for emergencies like the pandemic

National Audit Office says the UK government acted at unprecedented speed to respond to the virus, but needs to build resilience and management capabilities if it is to cope better with future emergencies.

The National Audit Office (NAO) issued a report on ‘Initial learning from the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic’ on 13 May 2021. This attempts to identify key lessons for the government to take if it is to improve the UK’s ability to respond to future emergencies.

The report sets out six themes where the NAO believes that the government could learn from the experience of the covid-19 pandemic, which has involved measures with estimated lifetime costs of £372bn so far.

Risk management

  • Identifying the wide-ranging consequences of major emergencies and developing playbooks for the most significant impacts.
  • Being clear about risk appetite and risk tolerance as the basis for choosing which trade-offs should be made in emergencies.

Transparency and public trust

  • Being clear and transparent about what the government is trying to achieve, so that it can assess whether it is making a difference.
  • Meeting transparency requirements and providing clear documentation to support decision-making, with transparency being used as a control when other measures, such as competition, are not in place.
  • Producing clear and timely communications.

Data and evidence

  • Improving the accuracy, completeness and interoperability of key datasets and sharing them promptly across delivery chains.
  • Monitoring how programmes are operating, forecasting changes in demand as far as possible, and tackling issues arising from rapid implementation or changes in demand.
  • Gathering information from end-users and front-line staff more systematically to test the effectiveness of programmes and undertake corrective action when required.

Coordination and delivery models

  • Ensuring that there is effective coordination and communication between government departments, central and local government, and private and public sector bodies.
  • Clarifying responsibilities for decision-making, implementation and governance, especially where delivery chains are complex and involve multiple actors.
  • Integrating health and social care and placing social care on an equal footing with the NHS. Balancing the relative merits of central, universal offers of support against targeted local support.

Supporting and protecting people

  • Understanding to what extent the pandemic and government’s response have widened inequalities, and taking action where they have.
  • Providing appropriate support to front-line and other key workers to cope with the physical, mental and emotional demands of responding to the pandemic.

Financial and workforce pressures

  • Placing the NHS and local government on a sustainable footing, to improve their ability to respond to future emergencies.
  • Ensuring that existing systems can respond effectively and flexibly to emergencies, including provision for spare or additional capacity and redeploying staff where needed.
  • Considering which COVID-19-related spending commitments are likely to be retained for the long term, and what these additional spending commitments mean for long-term financial sustainability.

The report does not contain any new substantive recommendations as it in effect brings together insights from 17 individual reports conducted by the NAO into different aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic. However, it is helpful in identifying some of the common strands emerging from the NAO’s work, such as the importance of effective cross-government working.

Perhaps the most significant finding is that the government lacked a playbook for many aspects of its response, with pre-existing pandemic contingency planning not including plans for identifying and supporting a large population advised to shield, employment schemes, financial support to local authorities and managing mass disruption to schooling.

Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, commented: “The NAO is careful to balance the negatives it saw in the government’s response to coronavirus with positives such as the design and roll-out at speed of large-scale interventions under huge pressure. However, it is clear that the NAO believes that the UK was underprepared for a high-impact low-likelihood event like the pandemic, and the lack of detailed plans in key areas hampered the government’s response.

“While accepting that no plan can cover all the specific circumstances of every potential crisis, the NAO nevertheless believes that more detailed contingency planning can improve the government’s ability to respond to future emergencies.” 

For more information, the full report is available from the NAO website.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Household savings

Will there be a rush to spend the £7,000 in household net cash savings built up over the course of the pandemic?

Bar chart showing per household net cash savings by month. Apr 2019: -£25, £45, £0; Jul 2019: -£25, £105, £100; Oct 2019: £5, £55, -£65; Jan 2020: -£55, £35, £555; Apr 2020: £1,020, £1,235, £640; Jul 2020: £455, £465, £295; Oct 2020: £315, £275, £475; Jan 2021: £460, £370, £165; Apr 2021: £280.

The #icaewchartoftheweek is on household savings built up over the course of the pandemic, illustrating how households have saved an average of £7,000 over the last fourteen months. A big question for the economic recovery is whether households will splash the cash once restrictions are lifted, providing a consumer-led boost to the economic recovery?

According to Bank of England statistics released on 2 June 2021, since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 up to April 2021 households have saved or repaid debts in the order of £195bn or an average of £14bn a month. This compares with £4.8bn or £0.4bn a month in the 11 months to February 2020, when cash savings were mostly offset by borrowing on consumer credit or mortgages.

With approximately 27.8m households in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics, this means that families have saved an average of just over £7,000 or £500 per month since the first lockdown in March 2020, compared with approximately £175 or £15 a month in the eleven months prior to the pandemic.

This reflects many lost opportunities for spending, with fewer holidays and nights out possible because of lockdown restrictions. Uncertainty about future economic prospects is likely to have also played a part, with many individuals cutting back on discretionary spending ‘just in case’.

Of course, there is no such thing as an average household. More prosperous families will have saved up a lot more than the £7,000 average and so are likely to have the capacity to spend a lot more if they want to, while many individuals will have run down savings or borrowed to survive through a difficult period.

For those fortunate families who are in a better financial situation, the big economic question is whether they will take the money they have saved from not going on holiday or going out over the course of the last year and put it into their pensions or other forms of investment – or will they choose to splurge on enjoying themselves once restrictions are fully lifted?

The (almost) £200bn question.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Source detail

Source data from Bank of England, Money and Credit – April 2021 (published 2 June 2021) divided by an estimated 27.8m households in the UK per the Office for National Statistics.

Household net cash savings = Seasonally adjusted changes in household M4 bank and building deposits plus changes in National Savings & Investments holdings (together ‘cash savings’), less seasonally adjusted changes in consumer credit and less seasonally adjusted changes in mortgage debt.

Total for 11 months to Feb 2020: cash savings £62.6bn less increases in consumer credit £11.5bn less increase in mortgage debt £46.3bn = £4.8bn or £175 per household.

Total for 14 months to April 2021: cash savings £235.2bn plus net repayments of consumer credit £23.1bn less increase in mortgage debt £63.5bn = £194.8bn or £7,005 per household.

April fiscal deficit drops to £31.7bn as new financial year gets underway

The latest public sector finances reported a deficit of £31.7bn for April 2021, as COVID-related spending continued to weigh on the public finances.

Although an improvement from the £47.3bn deficit reported for the same month last year during the first lockdown, the figures are still significantly higher than the £10.6bn reported for April 2019.

The Office for National Statistics also revised the reported deficit for the year ended 31 March 2020 down by £2.8bn from £303.1bn to £300.3bn, still a peacetime record. The ONS has yet to include in the order of £27bn of bad debts on COVID-related lending in this number and estimates will be refined further over the next few months.

Receipts in April 2021 of £64.6bn were £7.8bn or 14% higher than a year previously, but this was still £1.1bn or 2% below the level seen a year before that in April 2019. At the same time, expenditure of £83.3bn was £9.3bn or 10% lower than April 2020, but £18.7bn or 29% higher than two years before.

Ultra-low interest rates continued to benefit the interest line, which at £5.3bn in April 2021 was £0.2bn or 4% lower than April 2020 and £1.5bn or 22% lower than April 2019.

Net public sector investment, as planned, has continued to grow with £7.7bn invested in April 2021, up £1.7bn or 28% from a year before and £2.8bn or 57% from two years ago.

This combined to produce a deficit for the first month of the 2021-22 financial year of £31.7bn, £15.6bn or 33% below that of the same month a year previously, but £21.1bn or 199% higher than April 2019.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,171.1bn or 98.5% of GDP, an increase of £33.6bn over the course of April, reflecting £1.9bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, principally to fund coronavirus loans to businesses and tax deferral measures. Debt is £304.6bn or 16% higher than a year earlier and £410.2bn or 23% higher than in April 2019.

The net cash outflow (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the month was £34.5bn.

Commenting on the figures, ICAEW’s Public Sector Director Alison Ring said: “It is difficult to read too much into the first month’s numbers in a new financial year, but the Chancellor is likely to be relieved that the gap between receipts and spending is narrower than that seen last year during the first lockdown. But the public finances are not out of the woods, with tax receipts still below pre-pandemic levels and COVID-related spending continuing to drive up borrowing. 

“The focus over the next few months is likely to be on the next Spending Review, which will decide on future public spending and investment with the long-awaited social care funding strategy now anticipated to be announced later this year. However, the need to address the long-term unsustainability of the public finances shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Image showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit, other borrowing, changes in net debt, and net debt for April 2021 public sector finances, together with variances against April 2020 and April 2019.

For a readable version of the table click on the link to the ICAEW article at the end of this post.

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 twelve months ended 31 March 2021 from £303.1bn to £300.3bn.

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

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK inflation

This week’s chart takes a look at UK inflation following news that the annual rate of inflation more than doubled in April to 1.5%, more than twice the 0.7% reported for the previous month.

Chart: CPI increasing from less than 0.5% in Apr 2016 to over 3% in Oct 2017 before falling to close to zero in Oct 2020, zigzagging to 0.7% in Mar 2021 and then jumping to 1.5% in Apr 2021. 

Compared with five year annualised rate gradually increasing from 1.5% in 2016 to close to just under 2% now.

The headline rate of inflation doubled this week from 0.7% to 1.5%, giving rise to concerns about the economic recovery. Economists aren’t getting worried just yet, but are they right to be so sanguine? 

This scale of this jump partly reflects the timing of the first and current lockdowns, as inflation is typically measured by comparing prices with the same month a year previously, with significant changes both this year as the UK started to emerge from its third lockdown and a year ago as it was entering its first. Some commentators have pointed out that the temporary cut in VAT on restaurant food and leisure activities help prevent the jump from being even higher.

Our chart compares the annual rate of Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation with a more stable measure, which is the annualised rate of CPI inflation over a five-year period. This is less susceptible to short-term swings in the economy, but as the chart shows, medium-term inflation has been gradually rising over the past five years even as headline rates on an annual basis fell over the last four years before the pandemic.

This perhaps explains some of the relaxed responses from economists about the sudden burst in inflation in the last month, given the annual rate of increase still remains below the medium-term trend, despite the current extraordinary economic circumstances.

Of course, that is not to say that inflation might not become a problem as the UK emerges further from lockdown. Many businesses have closed over the last year, particularly in the retail sector, while those that have survived will be looking to repair their balance sheets – a recipe for higher prices as constrained supply meets higher post-lockdown demand from consumers. Only time will tell whether this will feed into sustained higher levels of inflation or will jump be a temporary adjustment that falls out of the headline rate again in a year or so’s time.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK monthly GDP

This week’s chart takes a look at the rebound in UK gross domestic product in March 2021, despite the country remaining in lockdown.

Chart showing GDP between Mar 2019 and April 2021: from approximately £195bn a month for the first year, before dipping to just over £145bn in April 2020 and then recovering to around £185bn, then falling to just under £180bn and return to almost £185bn in April 2021 with a monthly increase of +2.1%.

UK GDP jumped 2.1% in March 2021 according to the Office for National Statistics. A positive sign but, as our chart of the week illustrates, there is still a long way to go to get back to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity. 

The #icaewchartoftheweek is on the economy this week, taking a look at how the latest economic statistics from the Office for National Statistics indicate a rebound in GDP in March 2021 even as the country remained in lockdown. This is a positive sign as the UK starts to emerge from the pandemic and people start to return to ‘normality’, albeit a new normal that is likely to be different to what came before.

However, the chart also makes clear how far the UK still has to go to return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, with the anticipated square-root shaped recovery stopped in its tracks in the last quarter of 2020 as COVID-19 resurged and restrictions on daily life were reimposed. The 2.1% real-terms growth in GDP in March follows a pattern of ups and downs in recent months with a fall of 2.2% in November, an increase of 1.0% in December, a fall of 2.5% in January, and an increase of 0.7% in February.

With the progress made in combating the virus over the last few months enabling lockdown restrictions to be progressively lifted across the UK, the hope is that March will be the second month on a more sustainable upward curve.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: G7 economies

Our chart this week illustrates how in representing more than half of the world economy, decisions taken by the G7 can have a significant impact on the entire planet.

The G7 summit hasn’t formally started yet, but Group of Seven (G7) ministers and their guests have already started to meet ahead of the main event next month, albeit subject to quarantine restrictions.

The #icaewchartoftheweek illustrates how important this gathering is by highlighting how the seven major democratic nations and the European Union that together comprise the G7 represent more than half the global economy – and even more than that, once four invited guest nations are included.

Circular 'sunburst' chart showing G7 nations (USA, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Italy and Canada plus remaining EU nations), G7 guest nations (India, South Korea, Australia and a spoke for South Africa) and the rest of the world (China, Russia and Brazil followed by all the rest).

Overall, the G7 economies are forecast by the IMF to generate £35.9tn of economic activity in 2021 at current prices, 54% of forecast global GDP of £66.8tn. This comprises the economies of seven individual member nations: the USA (£16.3tn), Japan (£3.8tn), Germany (£3.1tn), the UK (£2.2tn), France (£2.1tn), Italy (£1.5tn) and Canada (£1.3tn), together with the 24 other EU member states (£5.6tn).

The guests invited to the 47th G7 summit in Cornwall are expected to generate a further £4.9tn or 7% of global GDP in 2021, bringing the total economic activity represented at the summit to £40.8tn or 61% of the total. They are India (£2.2tn), South Korea (£1.3tn), Australia (£1.2tn) and South Africa (£0.2tn).

Not represented at the G7 are China (£12.2tn), Russia (£1.2tn) and Brazil (£1.1tn) and around 160 other nations across the globe (£11.5tn in total).

The G7 summit presents an opportunity for the 11 national leaders and 2 EU representatives involved to shape the direction for much of the world, with discussions expected to range from saving the planet through to transparency in financial and non-financial reporting.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

What COVID-19 means for the future of tax

This article features in the May 2021 edition of TAXline, ICAEW Tax Faculty’s monthly magazine. One article is freely available each month.

With the pandemic increasing pressure on public finances, could this prompt overdue discussions on tax reform? ICAEW’s Head of Tax Frank Haskew and independent adviser Martin Wheatcroft reflect on recent announcements and challenges facing the Chancellor.

With the UK’s deficit set to increase to £2.5tn by 2023, the fact that tax revenues do not cover public spending is starker than ever. However, the problem of balancing the books far predates COVID-19

An aging population coupled with funding and tax administrative decisions made many decades ago have meant that the gap has been slowly but inexorably widening. Frank Haskew, Head of Tax at ICAEW, says: “Since the turn of the century, we have been running deficits almost every year. The fact is that we’re not raising enough tax meet to our day-to-day spending commitments.”

Martin Wheatcroft, an independent adviser and author on public finances who works closely with ICAEW, explains: “People are living longer which is a good thing, but it has a financial impact. For example, the NHS spends an average of £80 a month on 18-year-olds, while for 80-year-olds that cost is more than £500. The perennial issue is that we don’t have a clear long-term strategy for how the government, or any government, plans to deal with that.”

To balance the books, the primary strategy of governments has been to grow the economy and have a moderate level of inflation to inflate away debt. However, financial crises and recessions have meant that in the past decade growth has been a lot weaker than expected. George Osborne, for example, was forced to leave the Exchequer without fulfilling his pledge of eliminating the deficit due to the underperformance of the economy. “When you combine the demographic pressures with slower economic growth then it’s a difficult situation,” says Wheatcroft.

Paying for coronavirus

Into this strained situation enters a global pandemic and its huge financial repercussions. Alongside the severe and prolonged impact on economic activity, stimulus and support packages are expected to add between £0.5tn–£1tn onto UK debt in the next few years. 

Ahead of the Budget in March, the expectation was that the Chancellor would be looking for ways to raise revenues to help cover the costs of COVID. However, the measures announced will not do so – in the short term at least.

“It’s fair to say that there was no serious attempt to tackle a growing fiscal deficit in the Red Book,” says Haskew. “The 2019 manifesto pledge that there would be no rise in VATincome tax or national insurance means that the Chancellor is prevented from the most obvious, and quick, ways in which to raise revenues.”

The flagship measure for revenue raising in the Budget was the increase to corporation tax rates. However, as the change will not come into effect until 2023, this will not provide a quick cash injection. Haskew also argues that the fiscal impact may not be significant. “The potential corporation tax revenues over the forecast period are pretty much balanced by the cost of the super deduction. In overall terms any difference is probably loose change,” he says.

Wheatcroft believes the measure gives an indication of the government’s medium-term plans. “One of the more positive things you can do in the medium term to get your public finances under control is encourage stronger economic growth. By taking action on corporation tax the government wants to try and at least stabilise the situation.” 

Reallocating spending

Evidence for where the Chancellor is securing finance in the short term can be seen in the integrated defence review published on 16 March, which confirmed that the size of the army would be further reduced by 2025. “Since the 1950s the UK has cut defence spend from 10% of GDP down to 2%. Reallocating that finance to healthcare that has helped successive governments avoid increasing taxes,” explains Wheatcroft. “However, with defence spend now just above the NATO minimum, there’s no further capacity and taxes are going to have to go up at some point.” 

Haskew agrees: “The measures announced so far are just nibbling at the edges of the problem. The UK has a strategic question as to whether it tackles the deficit and if so how. Since the start of the pandemic there’s been suggestions from some commentators that capital gains tax and inheritance tax might rise, and other have proposed wealth taxes, but we saw none of those suggestions in the Budget. It shows just how hard it is to raise taxes.”

The need for change

There are a number of areas of the UK tax system that have been ripe for reform for many years, including the differences between the taxation of the employed and self-employed. “We’ve had a position of significant difference between these two types of taxpayer for 20 years and more. Successive governments, of every political hue, have identified it as a concern but never successfully addressed it,” says Haskew. 

He cites Philip Hammond’s attempt to make relatively modest changes to national insurance contributions for the self-employed in 2017, which were reversed within a week. 

Wheatcroft, meanwhile, points to the perennial thorny issue of business rates and the interim review published as part of HM Treasury’s Tax Day announcements on 23 March. “Everybody was in total agreement that it’s a bad tax and needs reform, but they were also very unhappy about the main alternative option,” he says. “There’s definitely an inertia bias when it comes to changing taxes because it is so difficult. It’s much easier to stay with the current ones, simply because they already exist and they are collecting revenue, however imperfectly.”

Haskew agrees: “These cases highlight that a lot of the structural problems in the tax system have become so ingrained that trying to change them is almost impossible.”

Catalyst for reform

Decisions on how to balance the books have been getting increasingly difficult year on year, but could the dramatic impact of the pandemic provide the impetus for the government to set out a long-term vision of how to tackle the deficit and for Rishi Sunak to make some brave choices?

“From a public support point of view, this past Budget was politically the best possible time to raise taxes, with everyone understanding the financial impact of the interventions that the government has had to take,” says Wheatcroft. “However, from an economic perspective it would be the worst time. At the moment the government wants to do everything possible to encourage a strong economic recovery. This is probably why the government took the opportunity to pre-announce raising corporation tax rates now, rather in three years’ time immediately prior to a general election.”

Wheatcroft suggests that the Chancellor has potentially another 12 months of political goodwill in which to implement changes and suggests that Tax Day is a good indication of travel. “The very fact of having a Tax Day announcing the consultations and setting out a 10-year strategy, which it did last year, is a positive sign of longer-term thinking,” he says.

Haskew believes that now is the time to start having a national conversation about the future of tax and cites a Treasury Committee report, Tax after coronavirus, published on 1 March as a step in the right direction. “It’s a really interesting report because there was a consensus among the cross-party members about proposals to try and address some of these issues,” he says. 

“The deficit and tax reform are more than political issue, so reaching a consensus was really encouraging,” he says. “We have this growing problem as a nation, so what are we going to do about it? These things need to be debated, to see whether we can reach some consensus about the best way of raising tax without harming productivity.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: The debt of G7 nations

This week’s chart looks at how the pandemic has driven government debt levels higher, a topic that will be on the agenda at the G7 summit in Cornwall in six weeks’ time.

2019 General Government Net / GDP plus forecast change over 2020 and 2021:

Canada 23% + 14% = 37%
Germany 41% +11% = 52%
UK 75% + 22% = 97%
France 89% + 17% = 106%
USA 83% + 26% = 109%
Italy 122% + 22% = 144%
Japan 150% + 22% = 172%

The #icaewchartoftheweek is on the topic of government debt, looking at the indebtedness of the seven nations that comprise the G7 together with the EU. 

The strength (or otherwise) of public finances will underlie many of the discussions at the upcoming G7 summit in Cornwall in June as countries decide how best to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, achieving net-zero carbon and the COP26 goals, strengthening defence and security, and economic recovery. All of these are likely to require significant public investment at a time when public finances have been hit hard from a combination of the financial crisis just over a decade ago and the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.

Perhaps best-placed amongst the G7 are Canada and Germany, with stronger public balance sheets than their peers putting them in a better position to fund public investment. Canada’s general government net debt to GDP ratio (the net debts of the federal government, provincial governments and local authorities combined compared with Canadian GDP) is forecast to increase from 23% at 31 December 2019 to 37% at 31 December 2021, while Germany’s general government net debt to GDP ratio is forecast to increase from 41% to 52% over the same period.

The UK is next with its general government net debt up from 75% of GDP to a forecast 97% of GDP, followed by France with its net debt increasing from 89% in December 2019 to a forecast 106% of GDP for the end of 2021. The USA is expected to overtake France with its major stimulus packages seeing debt rise from 83% as a proportion of GDP to 109% by the end of this year. The biggest ratios within the G7 are Italy, which is expected to increase from 122% to 144%, while Japan is expected to rise from 150% to 172% of GDP.

Not shown on the chart are G7 guest nations this year: Australia (up from 26% to a forecast 49% of GDP) and South Korea (12% to 23%) are both in relatively strong public finance positions, while India (74% to 99%) is in a more challenging fiscal situation.

Despite the differences in debt levels, there will be a commonality amongst all the nations present in needing to find money to deal with increased pressure on public services and social security systems as populations age, for public investment in achieving net zero and in infrastructure more generally, to fund defence in an increasingly unstable global security environment and in economic stimulus to restart economies as they reopen, not to mention the need to replace tax income on fossil fuels as they are eliminated over the coming decades.

The signs are that tax reform will play a larger part in discussions than it may have done previously, with the USA’s suggestion for a minimum corporation tax indicative of a move to limit tax competition between nations and work more collaboratively to capture tax receipts from increasingly mobile global corporations and individuals.

Hence while many of the headlines from the G7 summit are likely to be focused on the heads of government talking about the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, the global security situation and global plans to deliver net zero, the side room containing finance ministers discussing global taxation and global public investment may be just as consequential. 

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

March fiscal deficit hits £28bn as departments rush to spend capital budgets

The UK reported a £28.0bn fiscal deficit in March 2021, bringing the total shortfall for 2020-21 to £303.1bn. The last month of the financial year saw net investment of £10.3bn, up from a monthly average of £4.0bn over the previous eleven months.

The latest public sector finances released on Friday 23 April reported a deficit of £28.0bn for March 2021, as COVID-related spending continued to weigh on the public finances. This brought the cumulative deficit for the financial year to £303.1bn, £246.0bn more than the £57.1bn reported for the same period last year.

The combination of receipts down 5%, expenditure up 27% and net investment up 25% has resulted in a deficit for the twelve months to March 2021 that is more than 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 25%.

The deficit is smaller than the £354.6bn forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in March as the economy has been less damaged than was feared, despite the extended lockdown during the final quarter of the financial year. However, some of this difference relates to spending that has been deferred into the following financial year, while the provisional numbers also exclude £27bn of bad debts on COVID-related lending that were included in the OBR forecast.

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 twelve 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 expense line has benefited from ultra-low interest rates. March 2021 saw a return to the traditional end-of-financial-year rush to get capital budgets spent, with net investment spending of £10.3bn in March contrasting with an average of £4.0bn over the previous eleven months.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,141.7bn or 97.7% of GDP, an increase of £344.0bn from the start of the financial year. This reflected £40.9bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, much of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to businesses and tax deferral measures. Although net debt was reported as exceeding 100% of GDP at various points during the financial year, slightly improved GDP numbers have kept the ratio below that point.

The cash outflow (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the month was £16.4bn, increasing the cumulative total cash outflow for 2020-21 to £339.0bn. This is a significant increase over the cumulative net cash outflow of £17.2bn reported for 2019-20.

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 eleven months from £278.8bn to £275.1bn and the reported deficit for 2019-20 from £57.7bn to £57.1bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Biggest peacetime deficit caps extraordinary year for UK public finances

Huge economic shock combined with unprecedented fiscal interventions results in a provisional fiscal deficit of £303bn or 14.5% of GDP for the year ended 31 March 2021.

The Office for National Statistics today published its first estimate of fiscal history, reporting a provisional fiscal deficit of £303bn or 14.5% of GDP for 2020-21 and a £344bn increase in public sector net debt from £1.8bn to £2.14tn at 31 March 2021, breaking peacetime records for the public finances. This compares with an official forecast for the deficit of £55bn presented by the Chancellor just prior to the start of the financial year last March, admittedly together with the first in a series of mini-fiscal announcements that saw spending soar to tackle the pandemic at the same time as tax revenues collapsed.

The damage is less than had been feared at some points during the past year, with the provisional deficit coming in below the £355bn estimated by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) at the time of the Spring Budget 2021 last month and substantially below their forecast of £394bn in November 2020 at the time of the Spending Review. While some of this is down to better economic performance as lockdowns have been less harmful than anticipated, there has been an offsetting increase in the forecast deficit for the 2021-22 financial year starting this month to £234bn compared with the pre-pandemic projection of £67bn. The provisional deficit of £303bn also excludes somewhere in the region of £27bn for bad debts on covid-related lending that will need to be accounted for at some point.

The deficit is only part of the story, as the government has borrowed significant amounts to finance tax deferrals and lending to business to help them survive. As a consequence, public sector net debt has increased by more than the deficit, with an increase of £344bn to a provisional £2,142bn or 97.7% of GDP at 31 March 2021. Debt is expected to rise over the next couple of years to in excess of £2.5tn.

While the numbers for both the deficit and debt are likely to be revised up or down over the next few months, the big picture won’t change – debt as a proportion of GDP has increased from 35% in March 2008 before the financial crisis to around 80% of GDP a couple of years ago before climbing to in the region of 100% of GDP today. These numbers don’t include other significant liabilities in the government balance sheet such as public sector employee pension obligations, nor do they include future financial commitments such as for welfare benefits. Despite that they still provide an indication of just how significantly the UK’s fiscal position has changed over a period of less than a decade and a half.

Fortunately, interest rates have been coming down even faster than debt has been going up, enabling the Government to reduce its interest bill over the course of the year. However, higher leverage comes with a greater exposure to movements in interest rates going forward, a concern for the Chancellor in mapping out his plans for the next few years.

While the Spring Budget last month provided some indications on how the Chancellor aims to stabilise the public finances through a combination of higher investment spending, short-term economic stimulus and a corporation tax rise, there is as yet no indication of his longer-term fiscal strategy to address the unsustainability of the public finances identified by the OBR before the pandemic.

While the government has been taking steps to set the foundations for better management of the public finances, for example through the National Infrastructure Strategy released last year, the soon to be launched National Data Strategy and actions coming out of HM Treasury’s recent Balance Sheet Review, there is no clear plan for how the government intends to fund pensions, health and social care over the next quarter of a century. These costs will continue to grow as many more people live longer in retirement and the working age population shrinks, just at a time that huge investments are needed to achieve net zero and pressures on public spending are unlikely to disappear. At the same time the government needs to work out how it can ensure the public finances are more resilient and better prepared for future crises – from whatever corner they may come.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “Today’s numbers cap a dramatic year for the UK’s public finances, and show this is the biggest deficit since the end of World War Two. However, the damage is less than had been feared, with the shortfall lower than the OBR had forecast.

Ultra-low borrowing costs have provided the government with the room it needed to provide unprecedented spending to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, protect jobs and prevent the economy from crashing, as well as the opportunity to invest for growth in the coming years.

However, even as the economy starts to recover, the legacy of higher debt and a greater exposure to changes in interest rates will be with us for years, if not decades to come. The public finances were already on an unsustainable path before the pandemic, and the government will need a long-term strategy for rebuilding them.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.