ICAEW chart of the week: Pre-Budget debt forecast

My chart for ICAEW this week looks ahead to the Spring Budget and asks how much headroom the Chancellor will have available for tax cuts or higher spending while still meeting his fiscal targets.

Pre-Budget debt forecast
ICAEW chart of the week

Step chart showing underlying debt to GDP ratio in year from 2022/23 to 2028/29 with steps showing the change between each year.

Legend:

Increase (purple)
Decrease (green)
Underlying debt/GDP (orange)

2022/23: 84.9% (very top of bar shown only)
+4.1% increase
2023/24: 89.0%
+2.6%
2024/25: 91.6%
+1.1%
2025/26: 92.7%
+0.5%
2026/27: 93.2%
- (flat)
2027/28: 93.2%
-0.4% decrease - with a box pointing to this bar stating 'Fiscal headroom £13bn'
2028/29: 92.8%


22 Feb 2024.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.

Source: OBR, 'Economic and Fiscal Outlook, Nov 2023'.

(c) ICAEW 2024

The Chancellor is currently getting ready for his Spring Budget on Wednesday 6 March 2024, with rumours, leaks and misinformation swirling around ahead of what will be a keenly watched event – quite probably the last fiscal event before the general election.

As our chart illustrates, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) at the time of the Autumn Statement last November projected that the ratio of underlying debt to GDP would increase in the current financial year (2023/24) and further over the first four years of the forecast period, before starting to fall in the final year (2028/29).

Underlying debt is defined as public sector net debt (PSND) excluding Bank of England liabilities (PSNDexBoE). This alternative metric avoids distortion in the headline measure of debt caused by £170bn of Term Funding Scheme loan receivables not netted against related Bank of England liabilities that will reduce PSND as these loans are repaid, even though net financial assets and liabilities are not changing.

The projected increases are +4.1% from 84.9% at March 2023 to 89.0% at the end of 2023/24, +2.6% to 91.6% in 2024/25, +1.1% to 92.7% in 2025/26 and +0.5% to 93.2% in 2026/27, before staying flat in 2027/28 and then falling -0.4% to 92.8% in March 2029. 

The fall in 2028/29 projected by the OBR in November provided the Chancellor with £13bn of fiscal headroom in the final year of the forecast. In theory this meant he could have planned to spend more, or cut taxes, by up to £13bn in 2028/29 and still met his primary fiscal target, which is for underlying debt/GDP to be declining in the final year of the fiscal forecast period.

Building such a relatively small amount of headroom into a forecast – less than four days of total government spending – is perhaps surprising given the high degree of uncertainty in predicting future receipts, spending and borrowing, not to mention GDP. These numbers can all move by tens of billions between forecasts, as the economic situation changes and policy and budgetary decisions are made. 

GDP can be especially variable, with the Office for National Statistics making frequent revisions to its estimates, sometimes many years later. Several commentators also believe the numbers for planned public spending from April 2025 onwards are unrealistic and that there will be a need to revise these numbers upwards in subsequent fiscal events.

Although there has been a modest boost to the public finances in the reported numbers for the first 10 months of the current financial year, underlying debt/GDP at January 2023 was 88.1%, on track to end the financial year at close to the 89.0% in the November OBR forecast.

The news that the UK had entered recession in the last quarter of 2023 will not have been positive for the Chancellor in his search for additional headroom but, despite this, it is believed that the forecasts will improve sufficiently to allow him some capacity to either increase the total amounts allocated to public spending, or announce tax cuts, while still keeping with his fiscal targets. Of these options, tax cuts are considered much more likely. 

Either way, underlying debt/GDP will be expected to be higher in five years’ time – potentially even higher than in previous forecasts. From a fiscal target perspective, what is important is whether the ratio is falling in the fifth year of the forecast period, not the overall change in the level between now and then.

For more information about the Spring Budget 2024 and ICAEW’s letters to the Chancellor and HM Treasury, click here.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Modest boost to public finances won’t stop taxes rising

Prior month revisions boost public finances despite worse than expected self assessment receipts, as a think tank says tax cuts in the Budget will be sandwiched between tax rises in the years before and after.

The monthly public sector finances for January 2024 reported a provisional surplus for the month of £17bn, slightly less than expected, while at the same time revising the year-to-date deficit down. 

The figures, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) yesterday, show a cumulative deficit for the first 10 months of the financial year to £97bn, £3bn less than in the same period last year. The year-to-date variance against the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s Autumn Statement forecast improved from £5bn last month to £9bn this month. 

Alison Ring OBE FCA, ICAEW Director for Public Sector and Taxation, said: “Lower self assessment tax receipts than expected in January were offset by revisions to numbers from previous months to improve the overall financial picture.

“This small improvement helps only a little with an extremely weak fiscal position facing the Chancellor as he approaches the Budget, with questions already being asked about whether existing plans to cut public spending in the near term are realistically achievable. Rumours that the Chancellor is thinking about further reductions in public spending to fund tax cuts will therefore need to be balanced with his ability to maintain credibility with debt markets.”

The Resolution Foundation reported that likely net tax cuts in the coming financial year of around £10bn are sandwiched between £20bn of tax rises that have already been implemented in the current financial year – including threshold freezes and the corporation tax rate rise from 19% to 25% – and £17bn in net tax rises that have been pre-announced up to 2027/28 (primarily from threshold freezes and stamp duty land tax).

The think tank’s pre-Budget analysis estimates that the cut in national insurance announced in November plus around £10bn in potential new tax cuts to be announced in the Budget would result in a net reduction in taxes of just under £10bn for 2024/25 after taking account of threshold freezes and other tax changes.

The Resolution Foundation analysis does not take account of the normal pattern that sees governments typically raise taxes in the first Budget after a general election, which is even more likely this time around given what many commentators believe are unrealistic spending assumptions for 2025/26 onwards. 

Month of January 2024

Self assessment tax receipts were lower than expected in January 2024, with the fiscal surplus of £17bn for the month coming in at £9bn better than last year but £2bn less than the OBR’s Autumn Statement projection.

Taxes and other receipts amounted to £120bn, up 4% compared with January 2023, while total managed expenditure was £103bn, down 5%.

Public sector net debt as of 31 January 2024 was £2,646bn or 96.5% of GDP, £41bn lower than 31 December but £107bn higher than at the start of the financial year.

Ten months to January 2024

The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the first five sixths of the 2023/24 financial year to January 2024 was £97bn, £3bn less than the £100bn deficit reported for the first ten months of 2022/23. This reflected a year-to-date shortfall between tax and other receipts of £901bn and total managed expenditure of £998bn, up 6% and 5% compared with April 2022 to January 2023.

Inflation benefited tax receipts for the first 10 months compared with the same period in the previous year, with income tax up 11% to £224bn and VAT up 6% to £165bn. Corporation tax receipts were up 17% to £85bn, partly reflecting the increase in the corporation tax rate from 19% to 25% from 1 April 2023. 

Meanwhile,national insurance receipts were up by just 1% to £148bn as the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy in 2022/23 offset the effect of wage increases in the current financial year, as well as the cut in national insurance implemented in January. 

Council tax receipts were up 6% to £36bn, but stamp duty on properties was down by 25% to £11bn and the total for all other taxes was flat at £137bn as economic activity slowed. Non-tax receipts were up 10% to £95bn, primarily driven by higher investment income and higher interest charged on student loans.

Total managed expenditure of £998bn in the ten months to January 2024 can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £846bn, interest of £105bn and net investment of £47bn, compared with £949n in the same period in the previous year, comprising £810bn, £114bn and £25bn respectively.

The increase of £36bn or 4% in current expenditure excluding interest was driven by a £28bn increase in pension and other welfare benefits (including cost-of-living payments), £18bn in higher central government pay and £10bn in additional central government procurement spending, less £13bn in lower subsidy payments (principally relating to energy support schemes) and £7bn in net other changes.

The fall in interest costs for the ten months of £9bn or 8% to £105bn comprises a £23bn or 50% reduction to £23bn for interest accrued on index-linked debt as the rate of inflation fell, partially offset by a £14bn or 21% increase to £82bn from higher interest rates on variable-rate debt and new and refinanced fixed-rate debt.

The £21bn increase in net investment spending to £47bn in the first ten months of the current year is distorted by a one-off credit of £10bn arising from changes in interest rates and repayment terms of student loans recorded in December 2022. Adjusting for that credit, the increase of £12bn reflects high construction cost inflation amongst other factors that saw a £16bn or 19% increase in gross investment to £101bn, less a £4bn or 8% increase in depreciation to £54bn.

Public sector finance trends: January 2024

Table with fiscal numbers for the ten months to Jan 2020, Jan 2021, Jan 2022, Jan 2023 and Jan 2024, all in £bn.

Receipts: 685 | 647 | 754 | 849 | 901
Expenditure: (588) | (746) | (686) | (722) | (761)
Interest: (44) | (33) | (55) | (103) | (97)
Net investment: (26) | (51) | (35) | (16) | (37)
[subtotal] Deficit: (61) | (270) | (123) | (108) | (119)
Other borrowing: 3 | (67) | (85) | (8) | (27)
[total] Debt movement: (58) | (337) | (208) | (116) | (146)

Net debt: 1,835 | 2,152 | 2,360 | 2,497 | 2,686
Net debt / GDP: 84.8% | 98.7% | 97.9% | 95.8% | 97.7%

The cumulative deficit of £97bn for the first 10 months of the financial year is £9bn below the OBR’s November 2023 forecast of £106bn for that same period. The OBR is forecasting deficits of £6bn and £12bn in February and March to result in a full year forecast of £124bn, or £115bn if the £9bn forecast variance persists. 

Balance sheet metrics

Public sector net debt was £2,646bn at the end of January 2024, equivalent to 96.5% of GDP.

The debt movement since the start of the financial year is £107bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the ten months of £97bn plus £10bn 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 £831bn more than the £1,815bn reported for 31 March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and £2,108bn 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 -£677bn on 31 January 2024, comprising £1,584bn in non-financial assets and £1,047bn in non-liquid financial assets minus £2,646bn of net debt (£303bn liquid financial assets – £2,949bn public sector gross debt) and other liabilities of £662bn. This is a £62bn deterioration from the -£615bn reported for 31 March 2023.

Revisions

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 nine months to December 2023 down by £6bn from £119bn to £113bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data and the correction of errors in HMRC reporting, while the debt to GDP ratio at the end of December 2023 was revised up by 0.5 percentage points from 97.7% to 98.2% as GDP estimates were updated.

The ONS also revised its estimate for the deficit for the financial year to March 2023, down by £1bn to £129bn for 2022/23.

This article was written by Martin Wheatcroft FCA on behalf of ICAEW and it was originally published by ICAEW.

Public finances beat forecast amid tough economic landscape

Year-to-date deficit of £119bn is £5bn lower than latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecast – but is still £11bn worse than this time last year.

Public sector finances for December 2023, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Tuesday, reported a provisional deficit of £8bn – less than expected – while at the same time revising the year-to-date deficit down by £5bn. This brought the cumulative deficit for the first three-quarters of the financial year to £119bn, £11bn more than in the same nine-month period last year.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, ICAEW Director for Public Sector and Taxation, comments: “Today’s numbers show a cumulative deficit of £119bn for the first three-quarters of the financial year, the fourth highest on record. This should be close to the total at the end of the tax year, as income from self-assessment tax receipts in January is likely to offset deficits in February and March. At £5bn less than the Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest forecast, the Chancellor will be pleased by this marginal improvement in fiscal headroom just when he needs it most.

“However, the Chancellor will still be concerned by the tough economic landscape, with disappointing retail sales data for the final quarter of 2023 and an unexpected rise in inflation last month, and what that might mean for the fiscal forecasts. He is under significant pressure to cut taxes ahead of the general election, but will be all too aware of the need for greater investment in public services and infrastructure if he is to be able to lay the foundations for economic growth in the next Parliament. The risk of local authorities going bust will also be on his mind as he seeks to generate positive economic vibes going into the general election campaign.”

Month of December 2023

The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the month of December 2023 was £8bn, made up of tax and other receipts of £89bn less total managed expenditure of £97bn, up 6% and down 3% respectively compared with December 2022. 

This was the lowest December deficit since 2019, principally because interest on Retail Prices Index-linked debt fell from £14bn in December 2022 to close to zero in December 2023.

Public sector net debt as at 31 December 2023 was £2,686bn or 97.7% of GDP, up £15bn during the month and £146bn higher than at the start of the financial year.

Nine months to December 2023

The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the first three quarters of the financial year to December 2023 was £119bn, £11bn more than the £108bn deficit reported for the first nine months of 2022/23. 

This reflected a year-to-date shortfall between tax and other receipts of £776bn and total managed expenditure of £895bn, both up 6% compared with April to December 2022.

Inflation benefitted tax receipts for the first nine months compared with the same period in the previous year, with income tax up 10% to £178bn and VAT up 7% to £150bn. Corporation tax receipts were up 18% to £76bn, partly reflecting the increase in the corporation tax rate from 19% to 25% from 1 April 2023, while national insurance receipts were up by just 1% to £132bn as the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy in 2022/23 offset the effect of wage increases in the current financial year. 

Council tax receipts were up 6% to £33bn, but stamp duty on properties was down by 27% to £10bn and the total for all other taxes was down by 3% to £112bn as economic activity slowed. Non-tax receipts were up 11% to £84bn, primarily driven by higher investment income and higher interest receivable on student loans.

Total managed expenditure of £895bn in the nine months to December 2023 can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £761bn, interest of £97bn and net investment of £37bn, compared with £841bn in the same period in the previous year, comprising £722bn, £103bn and £16bn respectively.

The increase of £39bn or 5% in current expenditure excluding interest was driven by a £24bn increase in pension and other welfare benefits (including cost-of-living payments), £15bn in higher central government pay and £8bn in additional central government procurement spending, less £6bn in lower subsidy payments (principally relating to energy support schemes) and £2bn in net other changes.

The fall in interest costs for the nine months of £6bn to £97bn comprises an £18bn or 39% fall to £28bn for interest accrued on index-linked debt from a lower rate of inflation, partially offset by a £12bn or 21% increase to £69bn for interest not linked to inflation from higher interest rates.

The £21bn increase in net investment spending to £37bn in the first nine months of the current year is distorted by a one-off credit of £10bn arising from changes in interest rates and repayment terms of student loans recorded in December 2022. Adjusting for that credit, the increase of £11bn or 42% reflects high construction cost inflation, among other factors, which saw a £14bn or 20% increase in gross investment to £85bn, less a £3bn or 7% increase in depreciation to £48bn.

Public sector finance trends: December 2023

Table showing fiscal numbers for the nine months to Dec 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Receipts: 597 | 560 | 653 | 733 | 776
Expenditure: (588) | (746) | (686) | (722) | (761)
Interest: (44) | (33) | (55) | (103) | (97)
Net investment: (26) | (51) | (35) | (16) | (37)
[subtotal] Deficit: (61) | (270) | (123) | (108) | (119)
Other borrowing: 3 | (67) | (85) | (8) | (27)
[total] Debt movement: (58) | (337) | (208) | (116) | (146)

Net debt: 1,835 | 2,152 | 2,360 | 2,497 | 2,686
Net debt / GDP: 84.8% | 98.7% | 97.9% | 95.8% | 97.7%

The cumulative deficit of £119bn for the first three-quarters of the financial year is £5bn below the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s November 2023 forecast of £124bn for the nine months to December 2023. The OBR is also forecasting a full year forecast of £124bn as it expects self-assessment tax receipts in January to offset projected deficits in February and March 2024. 

Balance sheet metrics

Public sector net debt was £2,686bn at the end of December 2023, equivalent to 97.7% of GDP.

The debt movement since the start of the financial year is £146bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the nine months of £119bn plus £27bn 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 £871bn more than the £1,815bn reported for 31 March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and £2,330bn 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 31 December 2023, comprising £1,584bn in non-financial assets and £1,049bn in non-liquid financial assets minus £2,686bn of net debt (£296bn liquid financial assets – £2,982bn public sector gross debt) and other liabilities of £662bn. This is a £100bn deterioration from the -£615bn reported for 31 March 2023.

Revisions

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 eight months to November 2023 down by £5bn from £116bn to £111bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data, while the debt to GDP ratio at the end of November 2023 was revised down by 0.1 percentage points from 97.5% to 97.4%.

The ONS also revised its estimate for the deficit for the financial year to March 2023, down by £1bn to £130bn for 2022/23.

This article was written by Martin Wheatcroft FCA on behalf of ICAEW and it was originally published by ICAEW.

Martin quoted in ICAEW article on councils at risk of failure

Martin was quoted in an article published on ICAEW Insights titled: One fifth of councils risk financial failure this year.

The section in which Martin was quoted reads as follows:

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, an external adviser on public finances to ICAEW, says it is not just badly run councils – that either speculated and lost or mismanaged funds – that now face the distinct possibility of financial failure: “Many ‘normal’ local authorities are now looking vulnerable too, as they struggle to balance their budgets in the face of rising demand, rising costs and constrained funding.”

In particular, Wheatcroft says adult social care is a significant challenge for many local authorities, as an ageing population sees demand increasing each year as the number of pensioners grows. Meanwhile, the knock-on impact of the minimum wage increase of 9.8% from April will further add to the challenges facing councils in the coming financial year.

“With local authority core funding only going up 6.5% in the coming financial year, local authorities are having to look for further cuts in other already ‘cut to the bone’ public services to try and balance their books,” Wheatcroft adds.

Last month, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities released a call for views on greater capital flexibilities that would allow councils to either use capital receipts to fund operational expenditure or to treat some operational expenditure as if it were capital, without the requirement to approach the government.

The intention is to encourage local authorities to invest in ways that reduce the cost of service delivery and provide more local levers to manage financial resources. The consultation is open until the end of January.

Under the current rules, councils are restricted from using money received from asset sales or from borrowing to fund operating costs due to capital receipts being considered a ‘one-off‘, while borrowing creates a liability that has to be repaid.

Wheatcroft adds: “The government’s announcement of greater capital flexibilities may help stave off some of the problems for a while but is likely to further weaken local authority balance sheets in doing so.” 

To read the full article, click here.

Gap between public sector income and spending reaches £116bn

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.

Table titled 'Public sector finance trends: November 2023'

Eight months to Nov 2019, Nov 2020, Nov 2021, Nov 2022 and Nov 2023 respectively.

£bn except where stated.

Receipts:  530, 491, 574, 648, 682
Expenditure: (522), (661), (610), (635), (676)
Interest: (41), (30), (46), (83), (90)
Net investment: (22), (46), (31), (22), (32)
Subtotal line
Deficit: (55), (246), (113), (92), (116)
Other borrowing: 5, (67), (83), (4), (15)
Total line above
Debt movement: (50), (313), (196), (96), (131)
Total line below

Net debt: £1,827bn, £2,128bn, £2,348bn, £2,477bn, £2,671bn

Net debt / GDP: 83.4%, 99.1%, 98.5%, 95.7%, 97.5%.

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.

Revisions

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.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Civil service numbers

My chart for ICAEW this week illustrates how the civil service has grown by 92,000 or 23% to 496,000 FTEs over the past five years.

Step chart titled 'Civil service numbers'

(First column) September 2018: 179,000 ministerial departments, 22,000 in Scottish and Welsh governments, and 203,000 in agencies and non-ministerial departments = 404,000 total number of civil servants.

(Middle column) Change: +38,000 minisministerial departments, +10,000 Scottish and Welsh governments, +44,000 agencies and non-ministerial departments = +92,000 total change.

September 2023: 217,000 ministerial departments, 32,000 Scottish and Welsh governments, 247,000 agencies and non-ministerial departments = 496,000 total number of civil servants.

The number of civil servants has increased by 92,000 or 23% from 404,000 full-time equivalents (FTEs) in September 2018 to 496,000 FTEs in September 2023, which may be surprising in the light of government rhetoric about cutting public spending.

As my chart for ICAEW this week illustrates, the size of the UK civil service has grown significantly over the past five years. FTEs in ministerial departments have grown by 38,000 or 21% from 179,000 to 217,000, in the Scottish and Welsh governments by 10,000 or 45% from 22,000 to 32,000, and in agencies and non-ministerial departments by 44,000 or 22% from 203,000 to 247,000.

The civil service is just one part of the public sector workforce, which has increased by 571,000 or 13% from 4,433,000 to 5,004,000 FTEs over the same period. 300,000 of the increase has been in the NHS (up 21% from 1,451,000 to 1,751,000 FTEs in September 2023), which after taking account of the 92,000 increase in the civil service means the rest of the public sector workforce (schools, police, army, local government and others) has grown by a relatively slower number of 179,000 or 7% from 2,578,000 to 2,757,000 over the same period.

The increases in the civil service reverse cuts in the austerity years that saw the civil service fall from 493,000 FTEs in September 2009 to 384,000 in June 2016, just before the Brexit referendum.

The UK’s departure from the EU Single Market and the EU Customs Union on 31 December 2020 has been a major driver in the increase, most prominently in the Home Office, which has grown by 15,000 from 29,000 to 44,000 FTEs. Machinery of government changes make it difficult to track the other impacts, but it is likely that another 20,000 of the increase is likely driven by Brexit, made up of small changes across Whitehall departments and individual agencies, such as the 80% increase in the size of the Rural Payments Agency (from 1,400 to 2,600), 

The individual agency with the largest increase is HM Prisons and Probation Service, up 15,000 from 49,000 to 64,000 as the outsourced probation was re-absorbed back into the civil service.

The pandemic also had a small impact on the civil service (as opposed to the NHS) with the Department of Health and Social Security more than doubling in size from just under 1,500 FTEs in September 2018 to almost 3,200 in September 2023.

Some increases are more difficult to attribute, such as the 30% increase in the size of the National Crime Agency from 4,200 to 5,500 or the 9% increase in the size of HM Revenue and Customs from 57,100 to 62,000. Brexit is likely to be part of the story following the reversion of responsibilities from Brussels to London, but the growth of cybercrime (for example) in the past few years will also have been a factor.

The civil service numbers reported by the Office for National Statistics exclude civil servants working for the Northern Ireland Executive and its agencies, but do include both the Scottish and Welsh governments. Most of the growth in numbers from 22,000 to 32,000 has been in Scotland as more powers have been devolved to its devolved administration, with the 16,800 FTEs in September 2018 growing by 9,700 or 58% to 26,500 in September 2023. The size of the civil service in Wales has gone up by a much more modest 700 or 13% from 5,200 to 5,900 in the same period.

One possible driver for some of the other increases is that cuts in the civil service made during the austerity years were never sustainable in the longer-term, with the demands that drove those numbers never having gone away. Another is that governments tend to want to “get things done” and there is therefore a need to find people to do them. 

Both of these factors may explain why both government departments and agencies have grown in size over the past half a decade.

While the civil service is less than 10% of the public sector workforce, it is often the first place that the government looks when it wants to find cost savings – and the current government is no different in seeking to cut the size of the civil service again. Whether those costs savings are sustainable in the long-term without more fundamental reform is another matter.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Autumn Statement 2023

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.

Autumn Statement 2023

Step chart (waterfall diagram) showing the average change to 2023/24 to 2027/28 forecasts since the Spring Budget 2023.

Forecast revisions (steps in orange):

Inflation +$41bn
Fiscal drag +£7bn
Other changes +£4bn
Debt interest -£21bn
Welfare uprating -£13bn

= Forecast revisions +£18bn (subtotal in purple)

Policy measures (steps in blue):

Tax measures -£11bn
Spending and other -£6bn

= Net changes +£1bn (total in purple)


23 Nov 2023.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.
Sources: HM Treasury, 'Autumn Statement 2023'; OBR, 'Economic and fiscal outlook, Nov 2023'.

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.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Public sector net debt hits an unprecedented £2.6trn

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. 

Public sector finance trends: October 2023

Table showing receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment, deficit, other borrowing and debt movement for the seven months to October 2023 plus net debt and net debt / GDP at 31 October 2023.

Receipts: £466bn (Oct 2019), £425bn (Oct 2020), £500bn (Oct 2021), £565bn (Oct 2022), £595bn (Oct 2023)
Expenditure: (£457bn), (£582bn), (£536bn), (£548bn), (£587bn)
Interest: (£38bn), (£26bn), (£41bn), (£72bn), (£76bn)
Net investment: (£20bn), (£42bn), (£28bn), (£21bn), (£30bn)
[line above subtotal]
Deficit: (£49bn), (£225bn), (£105bn), (£76bn), (£98bn)
Other borrowing: £5bn, (£61bn), (£61bn), £5bn, (£7bn)
[line above total]
Debt movement:  (£44bn), (£286bn), (£166bn), (£71bn), (£105bn)
[line below total]

Net debt: £1,821bn, £2,101bn, £2,319bn, £2,454bn, £2,644bn.
Net debt / GDP: 82.1%, 99.3%, 97.5%, 95.5%, 97.8%

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.

Revisions

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.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Criminal justice

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.

Criminal justice

Line chart showing median time in days between offence and completion

210 days in 2014 Q1
rising and falling to 248 in 2015 Q2 242 in 2016 Q1
260 in 2016 Q2 and Q3
230 in 2017 Q4
245 in 2018 Q2
230 in 2018 Q3
254 in 2020 Q1

falling to 211 in 2020 Q2
rising sharply to 438 in 2021 Q3

falling to 351 in 2022 Q3
rising to 398 in 2023 Q1
falling slightly to 387 in 2023 Q2


2 Nov 2023.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.
Source: Ministry of Justice, 'England and Wales criminal court statistics: Apr to Jun 2023'.

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.

Read more:

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Home Office financial statements 2022/23

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.

Column chart showing main components of the Home Office financial statements 2022/23.

Column 1: Net parliamentary funding £19.2bn

Column 2: Income £5.4bn = Customer contracts £3.7bn + Other income £1.7bn 

Column 3: Expenditure (£24.5bn) = Police grants (£9.2bn) + Other grants (£5.6bn) + Goods and services (£4.3bn) + Staff costs (£2.4bn) + Other operating costs (£3.0bn)

21 Sep 2023.
Chart by Martin Wheatcroft FCA. Design by Sunday.
Source: Home Office, 'Annual Report and Accounts 2022/23'.

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.

Find out more: Home Office annual report and accounts: 2022 to 2023.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.