Latest public sector finance numbers reveal a challenging fiscal backdrop for both government and opposition ahead of a general election.
The monthly public sector finances for November 2023 released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday 21 December 2023 reported a provisional deficit for the month of £14bn and revised the year-to-date deficit up by £4bn, bringing the cumulative deficit for the first two-thirds of the financial year to £116bn, £24bn more than in the same eight-month period last year.
Alison Ring OBE FCA, ICAEW Director for Public Sector and Taxation, said: “These numbers confirm that the government’s financial difficulties are continuing to mount, with the shortfall between income and public spending reaching an unsustainable £116bn for the first two-thirds of the financial year, surpassing the £100bn milestone and providing a challenging fiscal backdrop for both the government and the opposition ahead of a general election.
“While the Prime Minister and the Chancellor continue to search for cost savings to free up capacity for further pre-election tax cuts, the opposition will be concerned about the fiscal legacy it would inherit if it were to take power.
“The deteriorating state of the UK’s public services is a big concern for all politicians given that it implies a need for substantial tax rises after the general election, irrespective of who wins.”
Month of November 2023
The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the month of November 2023 was £14bn, made up of tax and other receipts of £86bn less total managed expenditure of £100bn, up 5% and 3% respectively compared with November 2022.
This was the fourth highest November deficit on record since monthly records began in 1997, following monthly deficits of £15bn, £22bn and £15bn in November 2010, 2020, and 2022 respectively.
Public sector net debt as of 30 November 2023 was £2,671bn or 97.5% of GDP, up £30bn during the month and £132bn higher than at the start of the financial year.
Eight months to November 2023
The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the first two thirds of the financial year to November 2023 was £116bn, £24bn more than the £92bn deficit reported for the first eight months of 2022/23. This reflected a year-to-date shortfall between tax and other receipts of £682bn and total managed expenditure of £798bn, up 5% and 8% respectively compared with April to November 2022.
Inflation benefited tax receipts for the first eight months compared with the same period in the previous year, with income tax up 10% to £156bn and VAT up 8% to £134bn. Corporation tax receipts were up 10% to £62bn, partly reflecting the increase in the corporation tax rate from 19% to 25% from 1 April 2023, while national insurance receipts were down by 3% to £114bn because of the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy last year. Stamp duty on properties was down by 27% to £9bn and the total for all other taxes was up just 3% to £132bn, much less than inflation, as economic activity slowed. Non-tax receipts were up 11% to £75bn, primarily driven by higher investment income.
Total managed expenditure of £798bn in the eight months to November 2023 can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £676bn, up £41bn or 6% over the same period in the previous year, interest of £90bn, up £7bn or 8%, and net investment of £32bn, up £10bn or 45%.
The increase of £41bn in current expenditure excluding interest was driven by a £21bn increase in pension and other welfare benefits (including cost-of-living payments), £14bn in higher central government pay and £7bn in additional central government procurement spending, less £1bn in net other changes.
The rise in interest costs for the eight months of £7bn to £90bn comprises a £20bn or 43% increase to £67bn for interest not linked to inflation as the Bank of England base rate rose, partially offset by an £13bn or 37% fall to £23bn for interest accrued on index-linked debt from lower inflation than last year.
The £10bn increase in net investment spending to £32bn in the first eight months of the current year reflects high construction cost inflation amongst other factors that saw a £13bn or 21% increase in gross investment to £75bn, less a £3bn or 8% increase in depreciation to £43bn.
The cumulative deficit of £116bn for the first two-thirds of the financial year is £8bn below the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s official forecast of £124bn for the full financial year as compiled in November 2023 for the Autumn Statement. The deficit for the last third of the financial year is normally much smaller than for the first two-thirds because of self assessment tax returns arriving in January that boost tax receipts.
Balance sheet metrics
Public sector net debt was £2,671bn at the end of November 2023, equivalent to 97.5% of GDP.
The debt movement since the start of the financial year was £131bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the eight months of £116bn plus £15bn in net cash outflows to fund lending to students, businesses and others net of loan repayments and working capital movements.
Public sector net debt is £856bn more than the £1,815bn reported for 31 March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and £2,133bn more than the £538bn number as of 31 March 2007 before the financial crisis, reflecting the huge sums borrowed over the last couple of decades.
Public sector net worth, the new balance sheet metric launched by the ONS this year, was -£715bn on 30 November 2023, comprising £1,565bn in non-financial assets and £1,054bn in non-liquid financial assets minus £2,671bn of net debt (£303bn liquid financial assets – £2,974bn public sector gross debt) and other liabilities of £663bn. This is a £100bn deterioration from the -£615bn reported for 31 March 2023.
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 latest release saw the ONS revise the reported deficit for the seven months to October 2023 up by £4bn from £98bn to £102bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data, while the debt to GDP ratio at the end of October 2023 was revised down by 1.2 percentage points from 97.8% to 96.6% as a consequence of updated estimates of GDP.
The ONS also revised up its estimates for the deficit for the financial years to March 2023 and 2022 respectively, by £3bn to £131bn for 2022/23 and by £2bn to £124bn for 2021/22.