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.

ICAEW chart of the week: US federal budget baseline projections

19 February 2021: Congressional Budget Office expects a decade of trillion-dollar deficits as the US public finances are hit by the pandemic.

The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently updated its ten-year fiscal projections for the federal budget, providing the subject for this week’s #icaewchartoftheweek. 

As the chart illustrates, there was a shortfall of $3.1tn between revenues and spending by the federal government in the year ended 30 September 2020, with a projected deficit of $2.3tn in the current financial year and deficits ranging from $0.9tn to $1.9tn over the coming decade.

The CBO is at pains to stress that its projections are not a forecast of what will happen but instead, provide a baseline against which decisions can be assessed. This is particularly relevant at the moment as Congress debates a potential $1.9tn stimulus plan that would increase this year’s deficit significantly if passed.

On the path shown in the projections, the CBO calculates that debt held by the public will increase from $21.0tn (100% of GDP) in 2020 up to $35.3tn (107% of GDP) by 2031. Will policymakers in the US be comfortable in continuing to run with such a high level of debt compared with pre-pandemic levels of around 80% of GDP and a pre-financial crisis level of less than 40%?

The projections are based on assumed economic growth excluding inflation of 4.6% in the current financial year following on from a fall of 3.5% last year, with the recovery continuing into 2022 with growth of 2.9%. Economic growth over the following nine years to 2031 is expected to average around 1.9%. This is much lower than the average rate of growth experienced before the financial crisis just over a decade ago but may still prove optimistic given the potential for a recession at some point over the next ten years.

The UK counterpart to the CBO – the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – is currently working its abacus quite hard on updating its five-year projections ready for the Budget on 3 March. The OBR’s projections will be extremely useful in understanding the near-term path in the UK’s public finances, including the effect of any tax and spending announcements that may be featured in the Budget. Unfortunately, they will be less useful than the CBO’s projections in that they are not expected to provide a refreshed baseline for the second half of the decade when the hard work of starting to repair the public finances is expected to take place.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: CP Trans-Pacific Partnership

12 February 2021: The UK wrote to New Zealand at the start of this month formally requesting permission to apply for membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. What is the CPTPP and what opportunities would joining provide to the UK?

The #icaewchartoftheweek is on the UK’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a group of eleven countries on the other side of the world. This trade organisation was established to improve trade links between countries surrounding the Pacific, reducing trade barriers between the countries involved and aligning regulations in areas such as intellectual property. 

It is sometimes described as the third largest free-trade area in the world, after the US-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA, formerly NAFTA) and the EU-EEA-Switzerland Common Market, but it is important to understand that it is much less integrated than a customs union (with shared tariffs), a common market (with fuller regulatory alignment) or an economic union (such as the highly integrated EU Single Market with unified standards and regulations). 

According to IMF forecasts for 2021, Japan is the largest economy in the CPTPP with GDP of £3,815bn, while Brunei is the smallest with GDP of £9bn. The other members are Canada (£1,335bn), Australia (£1,125bn), Mexico (£890bn), Malaysia (£280bn), Vietnam (£275bn), Singapore (£270bn), Chile (£220bn), New Zealand (£165bn) and Peru (£150bn). This compares with a forecast of £2,180bn for UK GDP in 2021.

Membership is not exclusive, with CPTPP members involved in a number of other multilateral free trade agreements. Canada and Mexico are also members of USMCA. Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei are members of the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which in turn has free trade agreements with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, China, India and South Korea. Mexico, Peru and Chile are members of the four-nation Pacific Alliance with Columbia. In addition, China is leading the formation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which includes all of the non-Americas members of the CPTPP in addition to China, South Korea and the other members of ASEAN.

The CPTPP replaced the original proposal for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that would have included the US, but the remaining nations decided that it was still worthwhile pursuing a revised trade arrangement even after the US withdrew its application four years ago. A new administration could see the USA change its mind and seek to join the CPTPP after all.

Why does the UK want to join a trade pact on the other side of the world? The immediate trade benefits are likely to be relatively modest given the distances involved and which are likely to be secured through bilateral trade agreements already under discussion.

One reason is likely to be geo-political, as membership would strengthen relationships with allies in the Pacific, advancing the UK Government’s ‘global Britain’ agenda. There may also be an advantage in being directly involved in the development of international trade policy in the Pacific region which contains the two largest individual economies in the world (the US and China), potentially influencing trade policy across the planet.

Of course, part of the motivation might be less about trade in the Pacific and more about trade across the Atlantic. After all, if the US were to join the CPTPP, the UK’s membership might provide a base from which to eventually develop a more comprehensive bilateral free trade agreement. This could fulfil a key strategic objective of improving trade ties with the USA by going around the world, albeit in a lot more than 80 days!

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Japan Budget 2021-22

5 February 2021: This week’s chart focuses on the Japanese economy as it seeks to return to relative fiscal normality in the year commencing 1 April 2021, following multiple supplementary budgets in its current financial year.

The #icaewchartoftheweek is full of anticipation for the UK Budget next month and so decided to take a look at how the Japanese central government plans to borrow ¥28.9tn (£205bn) in the year to 31 March 2022. Together with taxes and other income of ¥63.0tn (£450bn), this will be used to fund ¥86.9tn (£620bn) of spending and a ¥5.0tn (£35bn) COVID-19 contingency.

This follows a significant amount of borrowing in the current financial year, with the 2020-21 Budget amended by three supplementary Budgets in response to the coronavirus pandemic. If temporary and special measures are excluded, the 2021-22 Budget reflects a 0.7% increase in spending over the previous year’s ¥86.3tn (£615bn) pre-COVID budget.

Spending comprises ¥35.8tn (£255bn) on social security, central government spending of ¥26.1tn (£185bn), and other spending of ¥16.5tn (£120bn), with the latter principally relating to transfers and grants to local government. Interest of ¥8.5tn (£60bn) is only marginally higher than the previous year’s ¥8.3tn, despite a 9% increase in the level of government bonds outstanding to ¥990tn (£7tn) – equivalent to 177% of GDP – at March 2022.

Borrowing has increased over pre-pandemic levels, with net borrowing of ¥28.9tn (£205bn) in 2021-22 compared with the 2020-21 pre-pandemic budget of ¥18.0tn (£130bn, not shown in the chart). This is principally driven by a 10% decline in anticipated income, with taxes and other income of ¥63.0tn (£450bn) falling from the ¥70.1tn (£500bn) originally budgeted for the current year (but not actually received).

The chart does not include the substantial amounts of taxation raised and spent by its 47 regional prefectures and so does not provide a complete fiscal picture for Japan. However, it does provide an indication of how the Japanese public finances have been able to respond to the pandemic.

The Japanese government will be hoping that there will be no need for supplementary Budgets in the coming financial year, as no doubt will UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak as he prepares for his government’s Budget on 3 March.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

PAC demands improvements in the Whole of Government Accounts

4 February 2021: The Public Accounts Committee has said production of the WGA should be speeded up and a better commentary is needed on the government’s financial position and exposure to forward-looking fiscal risks.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) recently issued a report on the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA). The PAC says that while the WGA is a world-leading document in helping the public understand both how government has used taxpayers’ money and what challenges face public finances in the future, the focus on the WGA being a backwards-looking document considerably hampers its usefulness as a tool for information, accountability and planning.

In 2018-19, the WGA reported public sector assets and liabilities of £2.1tn and £4.6tn respectively, equivalent to approximately £75,000 and £165,000 per household.

The PAC is particularly concerned about how the WGA sets out the Government’s financial position and its exposure to financial risks, including:

  • How income and expenditure are expected to change in the future and what this means for the sustainability of the public finances
  • How fiscal sustainability risks are being managed by HM Treasury, including from EU exit, covid-19 and other emerging risks
  • HM Treasury’s role in managing specific risks in the balance sheet, in particular the £152bn nuclear decommissioning obligation and the £85bn clinical negligence liability
  • What analysis and scenario planning has been done, for example, to address the impact that increases in interest rates might have on the economy and government spending
  • What HM Treasury is doing to address the fiscal sustainability of local authorities, particularly in the light of concerns over local authority investment in commercial property and the weaknesses in local audit and transparency of local authority financial reporting identified by the Redmond review.

The PAC was critical of the lack of more detailed disclosures in particular areas, such as the cost of exiting the EU where more information on the EU exit settlement and cross-government spending on preparations was needed. COVID-19 spending will need to be fully captured to assess both the true cost to the government and whether government can deliver.

The PAC acknowledges that improvements have been made in the quality of analysis in the WGA and work on better categorisation of expenditure across government to improve analysis is underway. In particular, there are plans to implement a new chart of accounts and a new financial consolidation system (OSCAR II) in 2021.

The 2018-19 WGA took 15 months to produce and the PAC highlights how pandemic-driven delays in producing departmental and local government financial statements last year will present significant challenges in producing the 2019-20 WGA in less than 14 months. 

The timetable remains significantly more than the two to three months typically taken for large multinational listed companies to produce audited financial statements, the five to six months taken by New Zealand, Canada and Australia, or the six to nine months that might be reasonably possible given the WGA incorporates local as well as central government.

The PAC concludes by commenting that the WGA still does not provide Parliament and the public with the information needed to understand the government’s financial position and exposure to fiscal risk. 

Using the annual report to give the reader an understanding of the development, performance and position of an organisation’s business, including a consideration of how forward-looking risk is managed, is standard practice across the private and public sector. The WGA falls significantly below this standard and is not meeting the needs of its users.

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, external advisor to ICAEW on public finances, commented: “The PAC is right to highlight how far HM Treasury still needs to go in improving the WGA to provide Parliament and the public with the comprehensive overview of financial performance, position and risks that a good quality annual report and financial statements can do. 

HM Treasury should be applauded for putting the UK at the forefront of international developments in public sector financial reporting when it introduced the WGA a decade ago. However, progress since then has been hampered by inadequate internal reporting systems and underinvestment in financial analysis. The WGA remains far behind best practice.

Speeding up production and improving the clarity and quality of analysis will not only make the WGA much more useful to Parliament and citizens, but it will help improve the decision-making within government that is needed to put the public finances onto a sustainable path.”

ICAEW chart of the week: IMF world economic outlook update

29 January 2021: The UK economy is expected to shrink over the three years from 2020 to 2022, compared with flat growth in the Eurozone, modest growth by the USA and relatively strong growth by China.

The IMF released updated economic forecasts this week, estimating the world economy shrank by 3.5% in 2020 with output projected to increase by 5.5% in 2021 and 4.2% in 2022. World output over the three years is now expected to see an average annualised growth rate of 2.0%.

The UK’s economy has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, shrinking by an estimated 10.0% in 2020. Growth prospects are weak, with forecasts of 4.5% and 5.0% in 2021 and 2022 respectively bringing the annualised average growth rate over three years to a negative 0.4%. This contrasts with the 1.4% average growth forecast last year in the Spring Budget 2020, meaning that the UK economy is now projected to be around 4.7% smaller in 2022 than pre-pandemic expectations.

Prospects for the Eurozone countries are also disappointing, with forecast growth in 2021 and 2022 expected to bring their economies back to where they started and substantially below where they might have expected to have been without COVID-19. 

The USA economy appears to be more resilient, with growth in 2021 expected to offset the decline experienced in 2020 by a modest amount, bringing annualised growth over the three years to 1.3%.

In contrast, China expects to see annualised growth of 5.3% as it recovers from much slower than normal growth in 2020 as a consequence of the pandemic. While this is relatively strong compared with most other countries, China itself will consider this to be a relatively modest level of growth compared to the recent past. 

IMF World Economic Outlook Update – summary and selected countries

  2020 2021 2022 Average
 World output (1) -3.5% +5.5% +4.2% +2.0%
 World growth at market exchange rates -3.8% +5.1% +3.8% +1.6%
 Emerging and developing economies -2.4% +6.3% +5.0% +2.9%
 Advanced economies -4.9% +4.3% +3.1% +0.8%
 Eurozone -7.2% +4.2% +3.6% +0.0%
 Argentina -10.4% +4.5% +2.7% -1,3%
 Australia -2.9% +3.5% +2.9% +1.1%
 Brazil -4.5% +3.6% +2.6% +0.5%
 Canada -5.5% +3.6% +4.1% +0.6%
 China +2.3% +8.1% +5.6% +5.3%
 Egypt (2) +3.6% +2.8% +5.5% +4.0%
 France -9.0% +5.5% +4.1% +0.0%
 Germany -5.4% +3.5% +3.1% +0.3%
 India (2) -8.0% +11.5% +6.8% +3.1%
 Indonesia -1.9% +4.8% +6.0% +2.9%
 Iran (2) -1.5% +3.0% +2.0% +1.1%
 Italy -9.2% +3.0% +3.6% -1.1%
 Japan -5.1% +3.1% +2.4% +0.1%
 Kazakhstan -2.7% +3.3% +3.6% +1.4%
 Korea -1.1% +3.1% +2.9% +1.6%
 Malaysia -5.8% +7.0% +6.0% +2.2%
 Mexico -8.5% +4.3% +2.5% -0.7%
 Netherlands -4.1% +3.0% +2.9% +0.5%
 Nigeria -3.2% +1.5% +2.5% +0.3%
 Pakistan (2) -0.4% +1.5% +4.0% +1.7%
 Philippines -9.6% +6.6% +6.5% +0.9%
 Poland -3.4% +2.7% +5.1% +1.4%
 Russia -3.6% +3.0% +3.9% +1.0%
 Saudi Arabia -3.9% +2.6% +4.0% +0.8%
 South Africa -7.5% +2.8% +1.4% -1.2%
 Spain -11.1% +5.9% +4.7% -0.5%
 Thailand -6.6% +2.7% +4.6% +0.1%
 Turkey +1.2% +6.0% +3.5% +3.5%
 UK -10.0% +4.5% +5.0% -0.4%
 USA -3.4% +5.1% +2.5% +1.3%

For more information, read the IMF World Economic Outlook Update.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: BBC finances

22 January 2020: The BBC’s finances are in the spotlight for this week’s chart, as it struggles to generate the income it needs to fund its public service broadcasting mission.

National Audit Office report out this week on the BBC’s strategic financial management highlights the financial pressures facing the BBC as it seeks to deliver on its universal public service broadcasting obligation in the face of a rapidly changing media landscape.

The #icaewchartoftheweek illustrates how the BBC generated revenue of £4.9bn in the year ended 31 March 2020. This is less than the £9bn or so generated by Sky in the UK & Ireland each year, but more than ITV’s £3bn or Channel 4’s £1bn. 

The principal source of income is the TV licence fee, which generated £3.2bn in 2019-20 from 21.2m households. This excludes 4.5m households that received free licences, with the government providing £253m to cover this in addition to an £87m grant for the World Service. Other income generated by the public service broadcasting arm amounted to £0.2bn, while BBC Studios and other commercial activities had external revenues of £1.2bn.

Expenditure of £5.0bn included £4.0bn incurred on public service broadcasting, paying for eight TV channels and 60 radio stations in the UK, radio services around the world in more than 40 languages and extensive online services – most notably BBC iPlayer. 

The BBC’s domestic TV and radio channels cost £1,609m and £494m respectively, while £238m was spent on BBC Online and £315m on the BBC World Service, of which £228m was funded from the licence fee. £204m was incurred on other services (including a contribution to S4C), while distribution, support and other costs incurred amounted to £1,070m, excluding £119m of licence fee collection costs.

A colour TV licence in 2019-20 cost £154.50, equivalent to £12.88 per month and the BBC estimates that £6.83, £2.22, £1.24 and £1.24 of each licence fee went on TV, radio, BBC Online and the World Service respectively, while £1.35 paid for other services, distribution and support, licence fee collection and other costs.

Commercial activities contributed £176m to the bottom line, providing a small subsidy to licence fee payers, with attempts by the BBC to start a global subscription service for British TV content in partnership with ITV (Britbox) yet to bear much fruit. The principal commercial revenue stream remains sales by BBC Studios to broadcasters around the world, together with advertising from the seven UKTV channels now wholly owned by BBC Studios and declining amounts from DVD sales. 

At the bottom line, the BBC incurred a loss of £119m in 2019-20, following on from a loss of £69m in the previous year and a profit of £180m in 2017-18. An improved contribution from commercial activities was not enough to offset the cut in the government funding for free TV licences for over-75s, which fell from £656m in 2017-18 to £253m in 2019-20. This funding has now ceased and from 1 August 2020 the BBC reintroduced licence fees for around three million over-75s households, retaining free licences for 1.5m or so over-75s households receiving pension credit (a welfare benefit for pensioners on low incomes).

There is a lot of debate both inside and outside the BBC about the future of the licence fee model and whether it can survive in a landscape of global streaming services. As it approaches its 100th anniversary in October 2022, the BBC will be hoping it can find a way to extend its public service broadcasting mission for a second century.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

NAO says £190bn Defence Equipment Plan 2020-30 is unaffordable

21 January 2021: The National Audit Office (NAO) says additional funding provided in the November 2020 Spending Review will still not be enough to plug shortfalls in the 10-year Defence Equipment Plan.

The NAO has issued a report on the £190bn Defence Equipment Plan for the 10 years from 2020 to 2030. For the fourth consecutive year, the NAO reports that the plan by the Ministry of Defence (MoD or the Department) to procure and support defence equipment is unaffordable.

The Equipment Plan is a rolling 10-year set of programmes that currently comprises £87bn in planned procurement, £97bn in support costs and £6bn for contingencies, with the total of £190bn representing a £9bn increase over the previous year’s plan. Excluding contingencies, the plan includes £44bn for the Defence Nuclear Organisation, £35bn for Air Command, £33bn for Army Command, £31bn for Navy Command, £29bn for Strategic Command and £12bn for Strategic Programmes.

The MoD’s forecast assessment is that the 2020-30 plan will cost £214bn if delivered as expected, with £17bn in adjustments and planned savings to bring that down to £197bn, some £7bn more than the allocated budget. The NAO also notes that the Equipment Plan is fully allocated to existing and planned programmes, with no headroom for potential new projects that may be identified over the next few years, although there may be £9bn potentially available from other parts of the MoD’s budget between 2025-26 and 2029-30. 

The primary finding of the report is that not only is there an identified budgetary shortfall of £7bn, but there are potential cost pressures of at least £20bn that put delivery of the plan at significant risk. This includes significant uncertainty as to whether planned efficiency savings can be achieved as well as concerns about escalating costs on major procurement programmes and the impact of fluctuating exchange rates on long-term forward purchases.

The NAO states in the report that the Department “has still not established a reliable basis to assess the affordability of equipment projects and its estimate of the funding shortfall in the 2020–30 plan is likely to understate the growing financial pressures that it faces. The plan does not include the full costs of the capabilities that the Department is developing, it continues to make over-optimistic or inconsistent adjustments to reduce cost forecasts and is likely to have underestimated the risks across long-term equipment projects. 

In addition, the Department has not resolved weaknesses in its quality assurance of the plan’s affordability assessment. While the Department has made some improvements to its approach and the presentation of the plan over the years, it has not fully addressed the inconsistencies which undermine the reliability and comparability of its assessment.”

Additional funding of £16.5bn over four years announced in the Spending Review in November 2020 should, in theory, plug the gap. However, the MoD has indicated it intends to use a substantial proportion of this new money to invest in improving military capabilities, with investments in cyber warfare and drones at the top of the list. This likely means the Equipment Plan remains under significant pressure, with several major new procurements expected to be added this year, many of which will involve untested new technologies with their own set of risks.

This will require some tough decisions to be made as part of the Integrated Review expected to be published shortly. There are rumours this may see cuts in the size of the Army to free up resources for other priorities, with MoD officials informing the Defence Select Committee they were actively looking to “disinvest” from a number of existing capabilities they considered would not be needed in the future.

The NAO concludes, “The Department faces the fundamental problem that its ambition has far exceeded available resources. As a result, its short-term approach to financial management has led to increasing cost pressures, which have restricted top-level budget holders from developing military capabilities in a way that will deliver value for money. The growing financial pressures have also created perverse incentives to include unrealistic savings and to not invest in new equipment to address capability risks.

The recent government announcement of additional defence funding, together with the forthcoming Integrated Review, provide opportunities for the Department to set out its priorities and develop a more balanced investment programme. The Department now needs to break the cycle of short-termism that has characterised its management of equipment expenditure and apply sound financial management principles to its assessment and management of the Equipment Plan.”

Martin Wheatcroft, adviser to ICAEW on public finances, commented, “The Ministry of Defence has made significant strides over the last decade to improve how it procures and supports defence equipment, but there remain significant weaknesses in financial management that need to be addressed. It is concerning that issues highlighted in four successive NAO reports are still not resolved.

However, even the strongest financial management at the MoD would struggle to deliver on the UK’s current ambition to be a global military power on a limited budget. Managing complex procurement programmes effectively will continue to be extremely challenging without a major change in strategy – either to scale back the UK’s defence capabilities to a more modest level or to allocate a much larger share of public spending to defence.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Crown Consultancy gains traction as UK government spending soars

19 January 2021: Plans for an in-house government consultancy sound sensible, but will insourcing really deliver value for money for taxpayers?

The UK government spends hundreds of millions of pounds on consultants each year for services ranging from strategic advice to service delivery. While ministers and senior civil servants often comment they feel too much is spent on consultants, there continues to be a stream of new contracts awarded to the major professional service firms and consultancy practices.

This is a particularly high-profile issue in the context of the huge amounts of pandemic-related contracts awarded over the course of the last year.

Recent examples include bringing in procurement specialists and forensic accountants to sort out the audit trail for panic purchases of personal protective equipment or using a range of IT consultants to help rapidly design and build new border and customs systems following the UK’s exit from the EU Customs Union and Single Market.

In practice, there are many reasons why a government department – or any organisation for that matter – might want to engage external consultants. They can provide expertise not available in-house, as well as providing a flexible resource that can be mobilised quickly to achieve critical objectives. After more than a decade of tightening budgets in the public sector, it is unsurprising there is a limit to how many of the existing team can be diverted from day-to-day activities in order to (say) implement a major new IT system, transform the organisation or respond to a global crisis such as a pandemic.

Partly that is sensible human resource management. It does not make sense to employ hundreds, if not thousands, of staff across the civil service ‘just in case’ their expertise might be needed on a future project. At the same time, it also makes sense to bring in experience gained elsewhere from experts who know what works and what doesn’t.

Using external service providers also enables resources to be mobilised quickly and at scale. Again, a capability most organisations will not have – or normally need to have – internally. There are also other benefits, such as the ability to change team members at will, charge contractual penalties for non-performance or the ability to sue over poor service or bad advice: options generally not available when employing in-house teams.

However, those benefits come at a cost. Not only are salaries for consultants generally higher than those of staff in the public sector, but there is a premium on top to cover technical resources, overheads, insurance and margin that together mean than the per-hour rate can be a significant multiple of the cost of in-house staff, even when the civil services’ own overheads are factored in. 

Justifying this premium can be difficult, particularly in major projects involving very large teams of consultants. Another perceived issue can be where individual consultants are former civil servants apparently being re-employed at a much greater cost, even if that comes with technical and other resources not available when they were on the payroll.

recent report by the Public Accounts Committee argues that the extensive use of consultants is driven by an underlying lack of skills in the civil service, with the development of fourteen cross-government functions (such as the Project Delivery Service and the Government Finance Function) not having had the desired effect of strengthening internal capabilities sufficiently to reduce the need to bring in external consultancy support.

One solution that has often been mooted (and is now being considered more actively) is to establish an in-house consultancy organisation. This would have the scale to be able to employ technical experts and experienced consultants to help deliver priorities across the whole of government, both centrally and locally.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon and there are a range of consultancy services already in existence inside the government. Examples include the Government Legal Department (originally the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, founded in 1876), the Government Actuary’s Department (founded in 1919) and the consultancy arm of the Government Property Agency (founded 2018). These all provide expert advice and support that government departments and agencies can utilise as needed, with any profit that might be generated coming back to the exchequer to be reinvested in public services.

The proposals for a Crown Consultancy ‘firm’ within government would be different both in terms of scale and also in the range of activities it would cover. Such an organisation would have many benefits in being able to utilise existing expertise within the civil service more effectively, while also bringing in private sector expertise and experience to bear on difficult challenges. There would also be opportunities to provide a wider range and depth of experience for civil servants with secondments as part of their development, providing career opportunities not currently available, particularly in technical specialities.

There are a number of hurdles to be overcome in establishing a Crown Consultancy. One of the more significant will be how to address pay disparities that may make it difficult to recruit individuals with the skills and experience required. Another will be in replicating the tools, techniques and resources that private sector firms have spent decades creating and that enable them to mobilise quickly to meet client needs.

Plans remain at an early stage, but of course, there are a number of external consultants available that can help move them forward!

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

A difficult winter ahead for the public finances

23 December 2020: The UK public sector incurred a £31.6bn deficit in November, bringing the total shortfall over eight months to £240.9bn. Debt reached an all-time high of £2.1tn.

Commenting on the latest public sector finances for November 2020, published on Tuesday 22 December 2020 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Alison Ring sector director at ICAEW, said: 

“A slightly more optimistic forecast for GDP from the Office for Budget Responsibility last month resulted in the UK’s debt to GDP ratio being revised downwards, despite public sector debt having reached an all-time high of £2.1tn in November. However, this optimism may prove to have been premature, with reports suggesting another national lockdown in the new year and disruption in international trade foretelling a potentially difficult winter ahead for the economy and the public finances. 

Prospects for the spring will depend on how quickly the vaccine can be rolled out, whether testing and tracing can deliver rapid and reliable results, and the extent to which disruption at borders now and after 1 January can be minimised.”

Public sector finances for November

The latest public sector finances reported a deficit of £31.6bn in November 2020, a cumulative total of £240.9bn for the first eight months of the financial year. This is £188.6bn more than the £52.3bn recorded for the same period last year.

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

Public sector net debt increased to £2,099.8bn or 99.5% of GDP, an increase of £301.6bn from the start of the financial year and £303.0bn higher than in November 2019. This reflects £60.7bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, most of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to business and tax deferral measures.

Table of results for the month of November and for the 8 months then ended, together with variances against the prior year. Click on the link at end of post to visit the original ICAEW article for a readable version.

The combination of receipts down 8%, expenditure up 29% and net investment up 26% has resulted in a deficit for the eight months to November 2020 that is over four times 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 26%. The cumulative deficit is approaching five times as much as for the same eight-month period last year.

Cash funding (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the month was £20.7bn, bringing the cumulative total this financial year to £295.8bn, compared with £14.9bn for the same eight-month period in 2019. 

Interest costs have fallen despite much higher levels of debt, with extremely low interest rates benefiting both new borrowing to fund government cash requirements and borrowing to refinance existing debts as they have been repaid.

The deficit remains on track to approach the £393.5bn forecast for the financial year to March 2021 by the Office for Budget Responsibility in the Spending Review once bad debts not yet recognised on coronavirus loans are included.

Upwards revisions to GDP based on the latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts have reduced the debt to GDP ratio for this and previous months to below 100% of GDP. However, the likelihood of a further national lockdown in the new year and for disruption in international trade with the end of the EU transition period could depress prospects for GDP growth in 2021.

Table of results each of the 8 months to November 2020. Click on the link at end of post to visit the original ICAEW article for a readable version.
Table of results each of the 8 months to November 2019 and of the 12 months ended 31 March 2020. Click on the link at end of post to visit the original ICAEW article for a readable version

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 seven months from the £214.9bn reported last time to £209.3bn and increasing the reported deficit for 2019-20 from £56.1bn to £57.4bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.