My chart for ICAEW this week illustrates how Chancellor Jeremy Hunt used almost all of the available upside from inflation and fiscal drag to fund his tax measures and a series of business growth initiatives.
The Autumn Statement 2023 on Wednesday 22 November featured a surprise tax cut to national insurance and a perhaps less surprising decision to make full expensing of business capital expenditure permanent.
As my chart illustrates, the forecasts for the deficit over the next five years benefited by £41bn a year on average in higher receipts from inflation, £7bn a year on average in additional ‘fiscal drag’ as higher inflation erodes the value of frozen tax allowances more quickly, and a net £4bn in other upward forecast revisions. These improvements to the forecasts were offset by an average of £21bn a year in higher debt interest and £13bn from the expected inflation-driven uprating of the state pension and welfare benefits, to arrive at a net improvement of £18bn a year on average over the five financial years from 2023/24 to 2027/28 before policy decisions.
In theory, these upward forecast revisions should be absorbed by more spending on public services as higher inflation feeds through into salaries and procurement costs. However, the Chancellor has chosen to (in effect) sharply cut public spending and use almost all of the upward revisions to fund tax measures and business growth initiatives instead. These amounted to £11bn a year on average in tax changes and £6bn a year on average in spending increases and other changes to reduce the net impact to just £1bn a year on average over the five-year period.
The resulting net change of £1bn on average in forecasts for the deficit is to reduce the forecast deficit by £8bn for the current year (from £132bn to £124bn) and by £1bn for 2024/25 (to £85bn), with no net change in 2025/26 (at £77bn), an increase of £5bn in 2027/28 (to £68bn), and no net change for 2027/28 (at £49bn).
The main tax changes announced were the cuts in national insurance for employees by 2 percentage points from 12% to 10% and by 1 percentage point for the self-employed from 9% to 8%, reducing tax receipts by an average of £9bn over five years. This is combined with the effect of making full expensing permanent of £4bn – this change mainly affects the later years of the forecast (£11bn in 2027/28), although ironically the average is a better proxy for the long-term cost of this change, which the OBR estimates is around £3bn a year.
Other tax changes offset this to a small extent.
Spending and other changes of £6bn a year on average comprise incremental spending of £7bn a year plus £2bn higher debt interest to fund that spending, less £3bn in positive economic effects from that spending and from the tax measures above.
Although the cumulative fiscal deficit over five years has been revised down by £4bn, the OBR has revised its forecast for public sector net debt as of 31 March 2028 up by £94bn from to £3,004bn. This principally reflects changes in the planned profile of quantitative tightening and higher lending to students and businesses.
The big gamble the Chancellor appears to be making by choosing to opt for tax cuts now is that the OBR and Bank of England’s pessimistic forecasts for the economy are not realised – enabling him to find extra money in future fiscal events to cover the effect of inflation on public service spending. Otherwise, while it may be possible to cut public spending by as much as the Autumn Statement suggests, it is difficult to see how he can do so without a further deterioration in the quality of public services given he is not providing any additional investment in technology, people and process transformation to deliver sustainable efficiency gains.
Monthly public sector finances for October saw spending continue to exceed receipts by a large margin, even if by less than was predicted earlier in the year.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released the month public sector finances for October on Tuesday 21 November 2023. It reported a provisional deficit for the month of October of £15bn, bringing the cumulative deficit for the first seven months of the year to £98bn, £22bn more than in the same period last year.
Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “Although it is positive that the cumulative deficit to October of £98bn is less than the £115bn predicted by the OBR, cash going out continues to exceed cash coming in by a very large margin. Public sector net debt has now exceeded £2.6 trillion for the first time, which is a staggering new record.
“Tomorrow’s Autumn Statement will see the OBR revise and roll forward its forecast, giving the Chancellor so-called headroom to cut taxes or increase spending. But in reality there is no headroom when the public finances continue to be on an unsustainable path without a long-term fiscal strategy to fix them.”
Month of October 2023
The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the month of October 2023 was £15bn, made up of tax and other receipts of £85bn less total managed expenditure of £100bn, up 3% and 6% respectively compared with October 2022.
This was the second highest October deficit on record since monthly records began in 1993, following a monthly deficit of £18bn in October 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
Public sector net debt as of 31 October 2023 was £2,644bn or 97.8% of GDP, the first time it has exceeded £2.6trn – only eight months after it first reached £2.5trn.
Seven months to October 2023
The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the seven months to October 2023 was £98bn, £22bn more than the £76bn deficit reported for the first seven months of 2022/23. This reflected a widening gap between tax and other receipts for the seven months of £595bn and total managed expenditure of £693bn, up 5% and 8% respectively compared with April to October 2022.
Inflation benefited tax receipts for the first seven months compared with the first half of the previous year, with income tax up 10% to £137bn and VAT up 9% to £117bn. Corporation tax receipts were up 12% to £55bn, partly reflecting the increase in the corporation tax rate from 19% to 25% from 1 April 2023, while national insurance receipts were down by 4% to £99bn because of the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy last year. Stamp duty on properties was down by 27% to £8bn and the total for all other taxes was up just 3% to £115bn, much less than inflation as economic activity slowed. Non-tax receipts were up 10% to £63bn, primarily driven by higher investment income.
Total managed expenditure of £693bn in the seven months to October 2023 can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £587bn, up £39bn or 7% over the same period in the previous year, interest of £76bn, up £4bn or 5%, and net investment of £30bn, up £9bn or 44%.
The increase of £39bn in current expenditure excluding interest was driven by a £20bn increase in pension and other welfare (including cost-of-living payments), £12bn in higher central government pay, £6bn in additional central government procurement spending, plus £1bn in net other changes.
The rise in interest costs for the seven months of £4bn to £76bn comprises a £18bn or 53% increase to £52bn for interest not linked to inflation as the Bank of England base rate rose, mostly offset by an £14bn or 37% fall to £24bn for interest accrued on index-linked debt from lower inflation than last year.The £9bn increase in net investment spending to £30bn in the first seven months of the current year reflects high construction cost inflation amongst other factors that saw a £11bn or 17% increase in gross investment to £65bn, less a £2bn or 6% increase in depreciation to £35bn.
The cumulative deficit of £98bn is £17bn lower than the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s official forecast of £115bn for the first seven months of 2023/24 as compiled in March 2023. The OBR is expected to revise its forecast for the full year deficit down from £132bn in tomorrow’s Autumn Statement, but it is still on track to be more than double the £50bn projection for 2023/24 set out in the official forecast from a year earlier (March 2022).
Balance sheet metrics
Public sector net debt was £2,644bn at the end of October 2023, equivalent to 97.8% of GDP.
The debt movement since the start of the financial year was £105bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the seven months of £98bn plus £7bn in net cash outflows to fund lending to students, businesses and others net of loan repayments together with working capital movements.
Public sector net debt is £829bn more than the £1,815bn reported for 31 March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and £2,106bn 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 -£716bn on 31 October 2023, comprising £1,565bn in non-financial assets, £1,029bn in non-liquid financial assets, £2,644bn of net debt (£305bn in liquid financial assets less public sector gross debt of £2,949bn) and other liabilities of £666bn. This is a £102bn deterioration from the -£614bn 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 six months to September 2023 up by £1.7bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data, while the debt to GDP ratio at the end of September 2023 was revised down by 1.4 percentage points from 97.8% to 96.4% as a consequence of updated estimates of GDP.
My chart this week looks at how the criminal justice system in England and Wales is performing by examining how long cases are taking to make their way through the Crown Courts to completion.
My chart this week is inspired by the Institute for Government (IfG) and CIPFA Performance Tracker 2023 published on 31 October 2023. Concluding that “government is stuck in a public service doom loop”, IfG and CIPFA together analyse how the performance of key public services has deteriorated in recent years, and not just because of the pandemic.
The chart (an expanded version of Figure 0.1 in the Performance Tracker) is based on the median time between an offence being committed and completion (conviction, acquittal or dismissal) in Crown Courts in England and Wales, according to Ministry of Justice statistics for the criminal justice system up to June 2023.
This is a key metric in understanding how efficient the police, prosecutors and courts together are in bringing criminals to justice, as well as an indicator of just how long the lives of victims, their families, witnesses and defendants are being put on hold while cases work their way through the system.
Back in the first quarter of 2014, the median time from offence to completion was 210 days (6.9 months). This trended up to reach 248 days (8.2 months) in 2015 Q2, before hovering around that level in the years before the pandemic, with our chart highlighting how it fell to 242 in 2016 Q1, rose to 260 in 2016 Q2 and Q3, fell to 230 in 2017 Q4, rose to 245 in 2018 Q2, back to 230 the following quarter, before rising to 254 days (8.4 months) in the first quarter of 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
The median fell to 211 days in 2020 Q2 as more complex cases were deferred during the first lockdown, increasing sharply to reach a peak of 438 days (14.4 months) by the third quarter of 2021. The time taken improved to 351 days (11.5 months) by the third quarter of 2022 as the courts started to clear the backlog, but then increased to 398 days (13.1 months) in the first quarter of 2023. The most recent data is for the second quarter, with a median average time taken of 387 (12.7 months) for cases completing in that quarter.
While there are inevitably going to be a number of complex criminal cases that are going to take a long time to be investigated and then come to trial, for the median average case to be taking more than a year to complete its journey through the justice system in England and Wales is not a good sign.
The Home Office spent £24.5bn in 2022/23 according to its recently published annual financial report, funded by £5.4bn in income and £19.2bn in net parliamentary funding.
The Home Office published its Annual Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2023 on 19 September 2023.
Net expenditure in 2022/23 was £19.1bn, comprising expenditure of just over £24.5bn net of income of £5.4bn, while parliamentary funding net of other items amounted to £19.2bn.
The Home Office breaks down its income for the year of £5.4bn between revenue from contracts with customers of £3.7bn and other income of £1.7bn. The former includes £2.2bn from visa and immigration charges, £0.6bn in passport fees, £217m for the disclosure and barring service (DBS), and £0.7bn from other sources. Other income is primarily comprised of immigration health surcharges payable by foreign residents and visitors for the use of the National Health Service, a proportion of which is transferred to the Department of Health and Social Care and the devolved administrations.
As our chart this week illustrates, the majority of the Home Office’s spending is in the form of grants. The largest grants, totalling £9.2bn, are to local police forces across England to supplement the council tax precepts they raise locally. Other grants include £1.7bn to top up police pensions, £0.4bn to top up fire and rescue services pensions, £3.3bn in other operating grants (many of which also go to police forces, in addition to transfers to other government departments) and £209m in capital grants.
Purchases of goods and services of £4.3bn is dominated by the £3.1bn paid in relation to asylum and detention, together with £287m in facilities management and staff services, £229m on professional fees, £219m for media and IT, £169m for passport printing and stationery and £120m for visa and immigration commercial partners amongst other costs.
Staff costs of £2.4bn cover the costs of employing full-time equivalent averages of 41,607 permanent staff, seven ministers, seven special advisers, and 6,489 other staff during 2022/23. Wages and salaries amounted to £1.8bn, equivalent to an average full-time equivalent salary of £37,900.
At 31 March 2023 there were 345 senior civil servants on salaries in excess of £70,000, of which 251 were between £70,000 and £100,000, 86 between £100,000-£150,000 and eight between £150,000 and £190,000. The average of seven government ministers who served during the year (a total of 22 different individuals!) earned the equivalent of an average annual salary not including pension entitlements of around £49,000 in addition to their parliamentary salary or House of Lords attendance allowances.
Other operating costs of £3.0bn include £1.6bn on IT and accommodation-related service charges, £0.7bn for depreciation and amortisation of assets, and £113m in asset recovery costs together with other costs.
Parliamentary funding net of other items of £19.2bn is reported in the consolidated statement of taxpayers’ equity and comprised £19.4bn in drawn-down parliamentary funding, £0.3bn in deemed funding less £0.5bn in amounts repayable.
Not shown in the chart is the Home Office’s consolidated balance sheet, which comprised £2.6bn in non-current assets, trade and other receivables of £0.7bn and cash and cash equivalents of £0.6bn less trade and other payables of £3.7bn, £0.6bn in lease liabilities and £0.5bn in provisions to give net liabilities of £0.9bn.
Reported in the notes to the accounts are £0.8bn in capital additions, of which £374m was incurred on software and other intangible assets.
Deficit marginally better than had been expected according to the latest figures from the ONS, but costly public sector problems emerge.
The monthly public sector finances for August 2023 were released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday 21 September 2023. These reported a provisional deficit for the fifth month of the 2023/24 financial year of £12bn, bringing the total deficit for the five months to £70bn, £19bn more than in the same period in the previous year.
Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “While August’s deficit was marginally better than expected, problems costly to the public sector continue to emerge, from crumbling concrete in public buildings to Birmingham Council’s recent bankruptcy, and are likely to weigh on the Chancellor’s mind as he considers November’s Autumn Statement.
“Both main parties are rightly cautious about making new public spending commitments in the current economic environment, including whether or not to extend the state pension triple lock into the next parliament. Whether they can hold this position as they enter into the party conference season remains to be seen.”
Month of August 2023
The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the month of August 2023 was just under £12bn, being tax and other receipts of £84bn less total managed expenditure of £96bn – up 5% and 8% respectively compared with August 2022.
This was the fourth highest August deficit on record since monthly records began in 1993, following the deficits of £14bn in August 2021 and £24bn in August 2020 during the pandemic and £12bn in August 2009 during the financial crisis.
Five months to August 2023
The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the five months to August 2023 was £70bn, £20bn more than the £50bn deficit reported for the first five months of 2022/23. This reflected a widening gap between tax and other receipts for the five months of £428bn and total managed expenditure of £498bn, up 7% and 10% respectively compared with April to August 2022.
Inflation benefited tax receipts for the first five months compared with the previous year, with income tax and VAT receipts both up 12% to £104bn and £84bn respectively. However, corporation tax was only up 13% to £37bn despite the increase in the corporation tax rate from 19% to 25% from 1 April 2023, and national insurance receipts were down by 3% to £71bn because of the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy last year. Stamp duty on properties was down by £2bn or 29% to £6bn and the total for all other taxes was up just 3% to £82bn as economic activity slowed. Non-tax receipts were up 12% to £44bn, primarily driven by higher investment income.
Total managed expenditure of £428bn in the five months to August can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £418bn (up £34bn or 9% over the same period in the previous year), interest of £61bn (up £6bn or 11%), and net investment of £19bn (up £7bn or 57%).
The increase of £34bn in current expenditure excluding interest compared with the prior year has been driven by a £14bn increase in benefit payments, £9bn in higher central government staff costs, £5bn in additional central government procurement spending and £5bn in energy support scheme costs, plus £1bn in net other changes.
The rise in interest costs of £6bn to £61bn reflects a £14bn increase in interest on non-inflation linked debt to £38bn as the Bank of England base rate rose, offset by an £8bn fall in the interest payable on index-linked debt to £23bn as inflation is running at a lower level than it was for the same period last year.
The £7bn increase in net investment spending to £15bn in the first five months of the current year reflects high construction cost inflation among other factors that saw an £8bn or 23% increase in gross investment to £44bn, less a £1bn increase in depreciation to £25bn.
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 four months to July 2023 up by £2bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data, and it also reduced the reported deficit for the 2022/23 financial year by £1bn to £128bn for methodology changes in addition to new data.
The methodology changes also saw small revisions in the reported deficits for previous periods back to 1999, most notably reductions of £1bn to the deficits in 2019/20 and 2020/21 and an increase of £2bn in the reported deficit for 2021/22.
Balance sheet metrics
Public sector net debt was £2,594bn at the end of August 2023, equivalent to 98.8% of GDP.
The debt movement since the start of the financial year was £56bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the five months of £70bn less £14bn in net cash inflows as loan repayments and positive working capital movements exceeded cash outflows for lending to students, business and others.
Public sector net debt is £779bn or 43% higher than it was on 31 March 2020, reflecting the huge sums borrowed since the start of the pandemic.
Public sector net worth, the new balance sheet metric launched by the Office for National Statistics this year, was -£618bn on 31 August 2023, comprising £1,604bn in non-financial assets, £1,038bn in non-liquid financial assets, £2,594bn of net debt (£339bn in liquid financial assets less public sector gross debt of £2,933bn) and other liabilities of £667bn. This is a £61bn deterioration from the -£557bn reported for 31 March 2023.
This new measure seeks to capture more assets and liabilities than the narrowly focused public sector net debt measure traditionally used to assess the financial position of the UK public sector. However, it excludes unfunded employee pension liabilities that amounted to over £2trn at 31 March 2021 according to the Whole of Government Accounts, although they are expected to be much lower today as discount rates have risen significantly since then.
Higher self-assessment tax receipts and end of energy support payments help improve what is otherwise a disappointing set of numbers.
The monthly public sector finances for July 2023 were released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Tuesday 22 August 2023. These reported a provisional deficit for the fourth month of the 2023/24 financial year of £4bn, bringing the total deficit for the four months to £57bn, £14bn more than in the first third of the previous year.
Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “These numbers reflect a mixed set of results for the first four months of the financial year, as higher self assessment tax receipts and the end of energy price guarantee support payments led to an improved fiscal situation in July. But debt remains on track to hit £2.7trn by the end of the year, up from £1.8trn before the pandemic, adding to the scale of the challenge facing the government and taxpayers in repairing the public finances.
“Stubbornly high core inflation and the prospect of further interest rate rises will concern the Chancellor as he bears down on public spending in the hope of freeing up the money he needs to both pay for the state pension triple-lock and find room for pre-election tax cuts.”
Month of July 2023
The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the month of July 2023 was £4bn, being tax and other receipts of £93bn less total managed expenditure of £97bn, up 5% and 9% respectively compared with July 2022.
This was the fifth-highest July deficit on record since monthly records began in 1993, despite being a £3bn improvement over July 2022, driven by higher self assessment tax receipts and the end of payments under the energy price guarantee.
Four months to July 2023
The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the four months to July 2023 was £57bn, £14bn more than the £43bn deficit reported for the first third of the previous financial year (April to July 2022). This reflected a widening gap between tax and other receipts for the four months of £343bn and total managed expenditure of £400bn, up 7% and 10% respectively compared with April to July 2022.
Inflation benefited tax receipts for the four months, with income tax up 13% to £85bn and VAT up 9% to £65bn. The rise in corporation tax, up 17% to £30bn, reflected both inflation and the increase in the corporation tax rate to 25% from 1 April 2023. However, national insurance receipts were down by 3% to £57bn because of the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy last year, while the total for all other taxes was down by 1% to £69bn as economic activity slowed. Other receipts were up 17% to £37bn, driven by higher investment income.
Total managed expenditure of £400bn in the four months to July can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £334bn (up £26bn or 8% over the same period in the previous year), interest of £51bn (up £7bn or 16%), and net investment of £15bn (up £4bn or just over a third).
The increase of £26bn in current expenditure excluding interest compared with the prior year has been driven by £11bn from the uprating of benefit payments, £8bn in higher central government staff costs, £3bn in central government procurement and £5bn in energy support scheme costs, less £1bn in net other changes.
The rise in interest costs of £7bn to £51bn reflects a fall in the interest payable on index-linked debt of £6bn from £30bn to £24bn as inflation has moderated compared with the same period last year, combined with a £13bn increase in interest on non-inflation linked debt from £14bn to £27bn as the Bank of England base rate rose.
The £4bn increase in net investment spending to £15bn in the first four months of the current year reflects high construction cost inflation among other factors that saw a £5bn or 17% increase in gross investment to £35bn, less a £1bn increase in depreciation to £20bn.
Public sector finance trends: July 2023
Four months to
Jul 2019 (£bn)
Jul 2020 (£bn)
Jul 2021 (£bn)
Jul 2022 (£bn)
Jul 2023 (£bn)
Net debt / GDP
Source: ONS, ‘Public sector finances, July 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 three months to June 2023 down by £2bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data, as well as reduce the reported deficit for the 2022/23 financial year by £1bn from £132bn to £131bn for similar reasons. The ONS also revised its estimates of GDP for more recent economic data, resulting in a lower reported net debt / GDP ratio.
Balance sheet metrics
Public sector net debt was £2,579bn at the end of July 2023, equivalent to 98.5% of GDP.
The debt movement since the start of the financial year was £47bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the four months of £57bn plus £10bn in net cash inflows as loan repayments and positive working capital movements exceeded cash outflows for lending to students, business and others.
Public sector net debt is £764bn or 42% higher than it was on 31 March 2020, reflecting the huge sums borrowed since the start of the pandemic.
Public sector net worth, the new balance sheet metric launched by the Office for National Statistics this year, was -£631bn on 31 July 2023, comprising £1,604bn in non-financial assets, £1,011bn in non-liquid financial assets and £336bn in liquid financial assets less public sector gross debt of £2,915bn and other liabilities of £667bn. This is a £54bn deterioration from the -£577bn reported for 31 March 2023.
This new measure seeks to capture more assets and liabilities than the narrowly focused public sector net debt measure traditionally used to assess the financial position of the UK public sector. However, it excludes unfunded employee pension liabilities that amounted to more than £2trn at 31 March 2021 according to the Whole of Government Accounts, although they are expected to be much lower today as discount rates have risen significantly since then.
My chart this week looks at the £3.3trn of net liabilities presented in the UK government’s consolidated financial statements for the year ended 31 March 2021 that were finally published more than 27 months after the balance sheet date.
The UK’s Whole of Government Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2021 were published and submitted to Parliament on 20 July 2020, more than 27 months after the balance sheet date. These are consolidated financial statements prepared in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) that incorporate the financial results of more than 10,000 public bodies in the UK across central government, local government, and other parts of the public sector.
The Whole of Government Accounts provide a much more comprehensive picture of the financial performance and position of the UK public sector than is presented in the statistics-based National Accounts, using a financial language familiar to millions of users of financial reports in the private sector.
As our chart this week highlights, the statement of financial position (balance sheet) of the UK public sector at 31 March 2021 was in heavily negative territory with £3.3trn in net liabilities, comprising assets of £2.2trn less liabilities of £5.5trn. This compares with net liabilities of £2.8trn a year earlier.
Assets of £2.2trn comprised £1.3trn in tangible and intangible fixed assets, £0.2trn in receivables and other non-financial assets, £0.4trn in non-current investments and £0.3trn in cash and other current financial assets. Liabilities of £5.5trn comprised £2.6trn in debt and other financial liabilities, £0.2trn in payables, £0.4trn in provisions and £2.3trn in net pension obligations.
Fixed assets of £1,313bn consisted of infrastructure assets of £677bn, land and buildings of £409bn, plant and equipment of £184bn, and intangible assets of £41bn. Receivables and other non-financial assets of £218bn comprised £164bn in tax receivable and accrued, £39bn in other receivables, prepayments and accruals, and £15bn in inventories. Non-current investments of £360bn comprised £152bn in loans and deposits, £85bn in student loans, £44bn in equities, £60bn in other financial investments, £16bn in investment properties, and £3bn in assets held for sale. Cash and other current financial assets of £317bn comprised £40bn in cash and cash equivalents, £12bn in gold, £129bn in debt securities, £101bn in loans and deposits, and £35bn of other financial assets.
Debt and other financial liabilities of £2,639bn comprised £1,265bn in externally held gilts, £203bn in direct borrowing from the public through National Savings & Investments, £53bn in short-term treasury bills, £815bn in Bank of England deposits, £84bn in bank and other borrowing, £85bn in banknotes, £27bn in derivatives, £20bn in financial guarantees, and £87bn in other financial liabilities. Payables of £221bn comprised £44bn in trade and other payables, £81bn in accruals and deferred income, £55bn in tax refunds, and £41bn on PFI, finance leases and other contracts. Provisions of £366bn consisted of £159bn for nuclear decommissioning, £87bn for clinical negligence, £36bn for payments to the EU, £29bn for the Pension Protection Fund, and £55bn in other provisions for liabilities and charges. Net public sector pension obligations of £2,306bn comprised £2,168bn in unfunded pension obligations (including £792bn for the NHS, £501bn for teachers, £339bn for the civil service, £254bn for the armed forces, £209bn for police and fire services, and £73bn other) and a net £138bn (£479bn of obligations less £341bn in fund assets) for local government and other funded pension schemes.
Not shown in the chart is the revenue and expenditure statement, which reported revenue of £732, expenditure of £1,063bn and finance and other items of £73bn to give a net accounting loss for the year of £404bn – more than twice the £192bn loss reported for the pre-pandemic year. The financial statements covered the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw income fall and costs soar, resulting in net borrowing during the year of £524bn according to the cash flow statement.
The Whole of Government Accounts is probably the most important report published by the UK government each year, but you wouldn’t have known that by the lack of fanfare on its publication amid the wave of hundreds of other documents released ahead of the parliamentary recess. This may be driven by understandable embarrassment by the length of time it has taken to prepare them – more than 27 months after the balance sheet date compared with the nine months that is its long-term aim – as well as by the gaps in preparation caused by local authorities and other public bodies that are substantially behind in producing their individual financial statements, leading to an additional audit qualification for completeness this year.
Despite that, and the other audit qualifications that highlight problems with the numbers reported, every citizen ideally should read the Whole of Government Accounts 2020/21. After all, it tells the financial story of the most dramatic year in recent history.
February fiscal deficit hits £17bn, while the cumulative deficit for 11 months of £132bn doesn’t include backdated public sector pay awards.
The monthly public sector finances for February 2023 released on Tuesday 21 March 2023 reported a provisional deficit for the month of £17bn, which is a return to red after a surplus of £8bn last month in January 2023.
The deficit was £10bn more than the £7bn deficit reported for the same month last year (February 2022), as higher interest costs, higher inflation on index-linked debt, and the cost of the energy price guarantee for households and businesses incurred during the month drove up the need to borrow.
The cumulative deficit for the first 11 months of the financial year was £132bn, which is £15bn more than in the same period last year but £155bn lower than in 2020/21 during the first stages of the pandemic. It was £78bn more than the deficit of £54bn reported for the first 11 months of 2019/20, the most recent pre-pandemic pre-cost-of-living-crisis comparative period.
The reported deficit does not reflect backdated public sector pay settlements that have been or are expected to be agreed in March 2023, although the numbers are broadly in line with the £152bn estimated deficit for the full year in the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s revised forecasts made at the time of the Spring Budget. This was lower than their previous forecast of £177bn in November, primarily because the energy price guarantee is costing less than anticipated.
Public sector net debt was £2,507bn or 99.2% of GDP at the end of February 2023. This is £692bn higher than net debt of £1,815bn on 31 March 2020, reflecting the huge sums borrowed since the start of the pandemic. The OBR’s latest forecast is for net debt to reach £2,546bn by March 2023 and to exceed £2.9trn by March 2028.
Tax and other receipts in the 11 months to 28 February 2023 amounted to £924bn, £91bn or 11% higher than a year previously. Higher income tax and national insurance receipts were driven by rising wages and the higher rate of national insurance for part of the year, while VAT receipts benefited from inflation in retail prices.
Expenditure excluding interest and investment for the 11 months of £888bn was £52bn or 6% higher than the same period in 2021/22, with Spending Review planned increases in spending, the effect of inflation, and the cost of energy support schemes partially offset by the furlough programmes and other pandemic spending in the comparative period not being repeated this year.
Interest charges of £120bn for the 11 months were £51bn or 73% higher than the £69bn reported for the equivalent period in 2021/22, through a combination of higher interest rates and higher inflation driving up the cost of RPI-linked debt.
Cumulative net public sector investment to February was £48bn, £4bn more than this time last year. This is much less than might be expected given the Spending Review 2021 pencilled in significant increases in capital expenditure budgets in the current year.
The increase in net debt of £125bn since the start of the financial year comprised borrowing to fund the deficit for the 11 months of £132bn, less £7bn in net cash inflows from repayments of deferred taxes, and loans made to businesses during the pandemic, less funding for student, business and other loans together with working capital requirements.
Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “The public finances are back in the red this month as a deficit of £17bn brings the total for the 11 months to February to £132bn, with public sector net debt in excess of £2.5trn. Although broadly in line with the OBR’s improved estimate accompanying the Spring Budget, the numbers don’t reflect the cost of backdated public sector pay settlements to be recorded in the final month of the 2022/23 financial year.
“The chancellor still needs to top up departmental budgets for pay awards in the next financial year, reducing his capacity to address inflationary cost pressures in other areas. HS2 may not be the only capital programme at risk of being scaled back or delayed as he seeks to make savings.”
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 several revisions to prior period fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit for the 10 months ended 31 January 2023 by £1bn to £116bn.
Jeremy Hunt limits his tax and spending ambitions in the Spring Budget to stay within a very tight fiscal rule.
The Spring Budget 2023 for the government’s financial year of 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024 was presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to Parliament on Wednesday 15 March 2023, accompanied by medium-term economic and fiscal forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) covering the period up to 2027/28.
The fiscal numbers in the Budget are based on the National Accounts prepared in accordance with statistical standards. They differ in material respects from the financial performance and position that will eventually be reported in the Whole of Government Accounts prepared in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).
A (slightly) lower fiscal deficit in 2023/24
Table 1 shows the Spring Budget estimate for the deficit in 2023/24 is £132bn, £8bn lower than the £140bn forecast in November 2022. Positive revisions to the forecast added £27bn to the bottom line, before £19bn from tax and spending decisions made by the Chancellor.
Forecast revisions in 2023/24 comprised £13bn in lower debt interest, £7bn less in energy support and £8bn in higher tax receipts, less £1bn other changes. The cost of tax and spending decisions in 2023/24 was estimated to be £8bn in lower corporation tax receipts from the full expensing of capital expenditure, £5bn from freezing fuel duties, £5bn from extending the energy price guarantee and other energy support measures, £2bn more for defence and security and £2bn from other decisions, less £3bn in indirect effects of those policy decisions on tax receipts and welfare spending.
Total receipts in 2023/24 are now expected to be £1,057bn (£2bn higher than previously forecast) and total managed expenditure is now anticipated to be £1,189bn (£10bn lower).
The forecast for the deficit in 2024/25 was up £1bn at £85bn and was unchanged in 2025/26 at £77bn, with upward revisions of £18bn and £19bn respectively offset by an estimated £19bn net cost of tax and spending decisions. The latter includes £3bn in 2024/25 and £4bn in 2025/26 for expanded childcare eligibility.
The final two years of the forecast were better by £17bn in 2026/27 (down to a fiscal deficit of £63bn) and by £20bn in 2027/28 (down to £49bn), although several commentators have pointed out this is on the basis of unrealistic spending assumptions that do not take account of significant pressures on public services.
In addition to forecasts for the next five years, the OBR also revised its estimate for the deficit in the current financial year ending 31 March 2023 to £152bn, £25bn lower than November’s estimate of £177bn. This is £53bn more than the OBR’s March 2022 estimate of £99bn and £69bn more than the November 2021 Budget estimate of £83m.
Table 2 provides a breakdown of the forecast changes by year, showing how lower debt interest and higher tax receipts flowing through the forecast period have provided the Chancellor with capacity to extend energy support, incentivise business investment, freeze fuel duty for yet another year (and extend the temporary 5p cut) and increase spending in specific areas.
Receipts and expenditure development
As illustrated by Table 3, receipts are expected to rise from £1,020bn in the current financial year to £1,231bn in 2027/28, while expenditure excluding energy support and interest is expected to rise from £968bn in 2022/23 to £1,121bn in 2027/28..
Interest costs are expected to fall from £115bn this year to £77bn in 2025/26 as interest rates and inflation moderate, before rising to £97bn in 2027/28 based on a growing level of debt.
Net investment is expected to increase in 2023/24 as an £8bn one-off credit from changes in student loan terms in 2022/23 reverses, before declining gradually as capital expenditure budgets flatline and depreciation grows. Public sector gross investment is planned to be £134bn, £134bn, £133bn, £132bn and £132bn over the five years to 2027/28, in effect a cut in real terms over the forecast period.
The government’s secondary fiscal target is to keep the fiscal deficit below 3% of GDP by the end of the forecast period. Based on the March 2023 forecasts, it has headroom of 1.3% of GDP, or £39bn, against this target.
Table 4 provides a summary of the year-on-year changes in receipts and spending, together with the forecast for the increase in the size of the economy, including inflation. This highlights how tax and other receipts are expected to increase faster than the overall rate of growth in the overall size of the economy, while the government plans to constrain the average rise in expenditure excluding energy support and interest to 3.0% including inflation.
The former is principally a result of ‘fiscal drag’ as tax allowances are frozen, bringing in proportionately more in tax as incomes rise with inflation. The latter reflects what is generally considered to be unrealistic plans to constrain public spending in the context of an expected 9% rise in the number of pensioners over the five-year period (that will add to pensions, welfare, health and social care spending), pressure on public sector pay and the deteriorating quality of public services.
Average nominal GDP growth over the five years of 3.3% combines average real-terms economic growth of 1.7% a year and inflation of 1.6%, the latter using the GDP deflator, a ‘whole economy’ measure of inflation. This is different to consumer price inflation, which is forecast to fall to 4.1% in 2023/24 and average 1.4% over the five years to 2027/28.
Public sector net debt
Lower deficits over the forecast period translate into lower borrowing requirements, reducing forecasts for public sector net debt from just under £3.0trn to £2.9trn. This is partly increased or offset by changes in the forecasts for financial and other transactions and working capital movements.
Table 5 shows how forecast public sector net debt is now expected to reach £2,909bn by March 2028, £54bn less than was forecast in November. Although an improvement, debt at the end of the forecast period is expected to be £1,089bn higher than £1,820bn reported for March 2020 before the pandemic, reflecting the large amounts borrowed during the pandemic, in addition to borrowing planned over the next five years.
The government’s primary fiscal target is based on ‘underlying debt’, a non-generally accepted statistical practice measure that excludes the Bank of England and hence quantitative easing balances. Underlying debt needs to be falling as a proportion of GDP between the fourth and fifth year of the forecast period.
The forecast gives the Chancellor just £6.5bn in headroom against this target, with underlying debt / GDP expected to fall from 94.8% to 94.6% between March 2027 and March 2028.
Fiscal rules limit ambitions for tax and spending
Following the disastrous ‘mini-Budget’ of his predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng, the Chancellor’s principal goal has been to stabilise the public finances to provide confidence to debt markets. To do this he has prioritised meeting his fiscal rules over incentivising business investment, cutting taxes and increasing defence spending. He has also adopted what are generally considered to be unrealistic assumptions about public spending in the later years of the forecast to keep within his self-imposed fiscal rules.
This has led to the Chancellor announcing ‘ambitions’ to extend the full expensing of capital expenditure beyond three years and to increase defence and security spending to 2.5% of GDP, as well as continuing to plan for increases in fuel duties each year despite the repeated practice of cancelling these rises.
Because these are ambitions and not plans, they are not incorporated into the forecasts enabling fiscal targets to be met. The OBR reports that continuing to cancel fuel duty rises each year would reduce the headroom to just £2.8bn, while converting the Chancellor’s ambitions to extend full expensing beyond three years and to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP into formal plans would cause him to breach his primary fiscal rule.
The overall fiscal position remains weak, with public finances vulnerable to potential economic shocks.
The Chancellor has followed the practice of many of his predecessors in increasing planned borrowing when fiscal forecasts worsen, as occurred in November 2022, only to then use upsides from improvements in subsequent forecasts to fund new tax and spending commitments. This ratchets up borrowing and debt as forecasts fluctuate and creates instability in both tax policy and public spending plans.
The consequence is a relatively unchanged fiscal position for the financial year commencing 1 April 2023 and the two subsequent financial years, as tax and spending decisions offset forecast upsides. And although there is an anticipated improvement in the projected fiscal position in the final two years of the OBR’s five-year forecast (after the next general election), the likelihood is that it will be offset in due course by the reality of pressures on public service and welfare budgets.
There is a reason why the first Budget following a general election typically sees taxes rise and the Spring Budget 2023 suggests that this pattern is likely to be repeated, irrespective of whichever party wins power.
My chart this week is on the Chancellor’s tax and spending plans for the coming financial year commencing on 1 April 2023.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt presented his first Budget to Parliament on Wednesday 15 March 2023, setting out his formal Budget estimate for the financial year ended 31 March 2024 (2023/24) accompanied by fiscal forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) for the period up to 2027/28 and the OBR’s final estimate for the current financial year ending on 31 March 2023.
Our chart this week starts by summarising the final estimate for 2022/23, highlighting an expected shortfall of £152bn between anticipated receipts of £1,020bn and spending of £1,172bn. This is followed by a similar analysis for the budget year of 2023/24, with a deficit of £132bn resulting from a shortfall between estimated taxes and other receipts of £1,057bn and spending of £1,189bn.
Receipts in 2022/23 and 2023/34 respectively comprise £922bn and £950bn in tax and £98bn and £107bn in other receipts. The increase in tax of 3.0% is perhaps lower than might be expected given the level of inflation and the new higher rate of corporation tax from 1 April 2023, with an anticipated 10% growth in corporation tax receipts (net of full expensing of business investment) offset by flat or relatively small growth in other taxes. Other receipts are expected to increase by 9%, primarily the effect of higher interest rates on investments.
Total managed expenditure in 2022/23 and 2023/24 respectively comprise £968bn and £1,015bn in current expenditure excluding energy support costs and debt interest, £30bn and £5bn in energy support packages, £115bn and £95bn in debt interest, and £59bn and £74bn in net investment.
Current expenditure excluding energy support costs and debt interest is expected to increase by 4.9% in 2023/24 compared with 2022/23, more than the 2.5% ‘whole economy’ measure of inflation used by the government and the 4.1% forecast for consumer price inflation. This partly relates to inflation in the current financial year feeding through into next year’s budgets, as well as spending measures announced by the Chancellor.
The three-month extension of the energy price guarantee is anticipated to cost £3bn in 2023/24, with other energy support measures adding a further £2bn to the forecast.
Debt interest is expected to fall by 17% to £95bn, principally because of the effect of a much lower rate of inflation on index-linked debt more than offsetting higher interest rates overall.
Public sector net investment comprises gross investment of £116bn and £134bn in the two years respectively, net of depreciation of £57bn and £60bn respectively. The increase in gross investment is flattered by a £8bn one-off credit in the current financial year arising from changes to student loans, which if excluded implies an 8% increase in capital expenditure and other public investment overall. This reflects delays in capital programmes that are expected to come in significantly under budget in the current financial year but cost more in the next, relatively high construction price inflation, and an extra £2bn of capital investment allocated to defence.
The final estimate for the deficit in the current financial year of £152bn is £25bn lower than was expected in the OBR’s November 2022 forecast of £177bn, while the Budget estimate for 2023/24 of £132bn is £8bn lower than the £140bn forecast last time. The reduction in 2022/23 reflects the benefit of a slightly improved economic outlook, with policy decisions for the last couple of weeks of the financial year by the Chancellor netting off to close to nil. This contrasts with 2023/24, where forecast upsides amounting to around £27bn have been mostly offset by a net cost of £19bn from tax and spending decisions.
Overall, the chart highlights just how much money the UK raises in tax and incurs in public spending. Tax and other receipts are expected to approach £1.1trn in the coming financial year, while public spending is anticipated to be just under £1.2trn.
On a per capita basis in 2023/24 this is equivalent to receipts and spending of approximately £1,290 per month and £1,450 per month for each person in the UK respectively, a shortfall of £160 per person per month that needs to be funded by borrowing.
The challenge for the Chancellor is that with the number of pensioners projected to increase by 9% over the next five years (with consequent implications for spending on pensions, welfare, health and social care), there is not much room to invest in public services or in infrastructure at the same time as also reducing taxes as he would very much like to do.
The Chancellor wasn’t able to square this circle in the Spring Budget 2023, so watch this space to see whether he can be any more successful in future fiscal events.