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.”