New government to inherit tough public finances

Public sector net debt has passed £2.7tn for the first time. In May the debt increased by £49bn from £2,694bn to £2,743bn, 51% higher than it was in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic.

The monthly public sector finances for May 2024 released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Friday 21 June 2024 reported a provisional deficit for the first two months of the 2024/25 financial year of £33.5bn, £1.5bn better than the £35.0bn predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and £0.4bn higher than in April and May 2023.

An ICAEW spokesperson said: “Today’s numbers show that public sector net debt continues to grow, up from £2.69tn in April to £2.74tn in May, the first time it has exceeded £2.7tn.

“Net debt is now 51% higher than it was at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and 167% higher than it was in March 2010, pushed up by the spikes in spending during the pandemic and to offset energy bills, as well as borrowing to fund day-to-day spending and investment. High borrowing costs and the financial consequences of more people living longer mean that the public finances are significantly weaker and less resilient than they were 14 years ago.

“When the country goes to the polls on 4 July, the reality is that whoever wins power will inherit an extremely challenging fiscal position that will hamper their ability to turn the country around.”

Month of May 2024

Taxes and other receipts amounted to £85.1bn in May 2024, up 2% compared with the same month last year, while total managed expenditure was also 2% higher at £100.1bn.

The resulting fiscal deficit of £15.0bn for the month was £0.8bn higher than in May 2023.

Financial year to date

As summarised in Table 1, total receipts in April and May 2024 of £170.4bn were 2% higher than in the same two months last year, with the cuts to employee national insurance rates offset by higher income tax, corporation tax, and non-tax receipts.

Table 1: Summary receipts and spending

Two months toMay 2024
May 2023
Income tax38.236.8+4%
National insurance25.928.2-8%
Corporation tax16.615.5+7%
Other taxes36.035.2+2%
Other receipts19.818.5+7%
Total receipts170.4167.8+2%

Public services



Debt interest(21.4)(21.6)-1%
Gross investment(17.6)(17.9)-2%
Total spending(203.9)(200.9)+1%





Table 1 also shows how total managed expenditure for the two months of £203.9bn was up by more than 1% compared with April and May 2023, with higher spending on public services and welfare offset by lower energy-support subsidies and marginally lower debt interest. The latter was driven by significantly lower indexation on inflation-linked debt offsetting the much higher rates of interest payable on variable rate and refinanced fixed-rate debt.

Table 2: Public sector net debt 

Two months toMay 2024
May 2023
Other borrowing(10.2)2.1
Debt movement(43.7)(31.0)
Opening net debt(2,699.2)(2,539.7)
Closing net debt(2,742.9)(2,570.7)

Net debt/GDP



Public sector net debt as of 31 May 2024 was £2,743bn or 99.8% of GDP, just under £44bn higher than at the start of the financial year. The increase reflects borrowing to fund the deficit of £33.5bn and £10.2bn borrowed to fund lending by government and other cash requirements, net of loan recoveries.

Public sector net debt was £172bn or 7% higher than a year previously, and 3.7 percentage points higher in relation to the size of the economy.

Public sector net debt is £928bn or 51% more than the £1,815bn reported for 31 March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and £1,715bn or 167% more than the £1,028bn net debt amount as of 31 March 2007 before the financial crisis, reflecting the huge sums borrowed over the last 14 years.

Public sector net worth, the new balance sheet metric launched by the ONS in 2023, was -£726bn on 31 May 2024, comprising £1,613bn in non-financial assets and £1,074bn in non-liquid financial assets minus £2,743bn of net debt (£300bn liquid financial assets – £3,043bn public sector gross debt) and other liabilities of £670bn. This is a £47bn deterioration from the start of the financial year and is £95bn more negative than the -£631bn net worth number for May 2023.

Revisions and other matters

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 reduce the reported deficit for April 2024 by £2.1bn from £20.5bn to £18.4bn and revise the deficit for the year to March 2024 up by £0.7bn from £121.4bn to £122.1bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

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