Government borrowing exceeds £100bn in first half of financial year

Upward revisions to GDP bring the debt-to-GDP ratio down to 95.5%, but the Chancellor has a difficult Spending Review and Autumn Budget ahead as spending pressures mount.

The public sector finances for September 2021 released on Thursday 21 October reported a monthly deficit of £21.8bn – better than the £28.7bn reported for September 2020 but still much higher than the deficit of £8.1bn reported for September 2019. 

This brings the cumulative deficit for the first half of the financial year to £108.1bn compared with £209.3bn last year and £35.3bn two years ago.

Public sector net debt increased from £2,205.4bn at the end of August to £2,218.9bn or 95.5% of GDP at the end of September. This is £83.1bn higher than at the start of the financial year and an increase of £425.8bn over March 2020.

As in previous months this financial year, the deficit came in below the official forecast for 2021-22 prepared by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in March 2021, when the outlook appeared less positive. The OBR is expected to significantly reduce its projected deficit of £234bn for the full year when it updates its forecasts for the Autumn Budget and Spending Review on 27 October 2021. 

Cumulative receipts in the first six months of the 2021-22 financial year amounted to £419.1bn, £57.4bn or 16% higher than a year previously, but only £15.2bn or 4% above the level seen a year before in 2019-20. At the same time cumulative expenditure excluding interest of £468.9bn was £41.2bn or 8% lower than the first six months of 2020-21, but £79.6bn or 20% higher than the same period two years ago.

Interest amounted to £33.5bn in the six months to September 2021, £10.4bn or 45% higher than the same period in 2020-21, principally because of higher inflation affecting index-linked gilts. Despite debt being 24% higher than two years ago, interest costs were only £3.7bn or 12% more than the equivalent six months ended 30 September 2019.

Cumulative net public sector investment in the six months to September 2021 was £24.8bn. This was £13.0bn less than the £37.8bn in the first half last year, which includes over £16bn for bad debts on coronavirus lending that are not expected to be recovered. Investment was £7.1bn or 40% more than two years ago, principally reflecting a higher level of capital expenditure.

Debt increased by £83.1bn since the start of the financial year, £25.0bn less than the deficit. This reflects cash inflows from delayed tax receipts and the repayment of coronavirus loans more than offsetting other borrowing to fund student loans and business lending.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “Upward revisions by the ONS to GDP brought the ratio of public debt to GDP down to 95.5% at the end of September, which is good news for the Chancellor as he gets ready for a potentially difficult Autumn Budget and Spending Review. September’s numbers continue to track below what now appear to be over-prudent forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility back in March, and the OBR will likely improve its projections for the Spending Review period when it reports next week.

“However, at £108.1bn the deficit for the first half of the financial year to September 2021 is almost twice the deficit recorded for the last full financial year before the pandemic, and the Chancellor is a long way from getting the public finances back under control. Difficult decisions await Rishi Sunak in the Spending Review given rising debt-interest costs and existing commitments on health, schools and defence will limit the capacity he has available to address significant spending pressures in many public services.”

Image of table with public sector finances for the six months to 30 September together with variances against prior year and two years ago.

For a readable version, please click the link at the bottom of this email to go the original ICAEW published version.

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 a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit for the five months to August 2021 from £93.8bn to £86.3bn and the deficit for the year ended 31 March 2021 from £325.1bn to £319.9bn.

Image of table with public sector finances by month to 30 September 2021.

For a readable version, please click the link at the bottom of this email to go the original ICAEW published version.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

What COVID-19 means for the future of tax

This article features in the May 2021 edition of TAXline, ICAEW Tax Faculty’s monthly magazine. One article is freely available each month.

With the pandemic increasing pressure on public finances, could this prompt overdue discussions on tax reform? ICAEW’s Head of Tax Frank Haskew and independent adviser Martin Wheatcroft reflect on recent announcements and challenges facing the Chancellor.

With the UK’s deficit set to increase to £2.5tn by 2023, the fact that tax revenues do not cover public spending is starker than ever. However, the problem of balancing the books far predates COVID-19

An aging population coupled with funding and tax administrative decisions made many decades ago have meant that the gap has been slowly but inexorably widening. Frank Haskew, Head of Tax at ICAEW, says: “Since the turn of the century, we have been running deficits almost every year. The fact is that we’re not raising enough tax meet to our day-to-day spending commitments.”

Martin Wheatcroft, an independent adviser and author on public finances who works closely with ICAEW, explains: “People are living longer which is a good thing, but it has a financial impact. For example, the NHS spends an average of £80 a month on 18-year-olds, while for 80-year-olds that cost is more than £500. The perennial issue is that we don’t have a clear long-term strategy for how the government, or any government, plans to deal with that.”

To balance the books, the primary strategy of governments has been to grow the economy and have a moderate level of inflation to inflate away debt. However, financial crises and recessions have meant that in the past decade growth has been a lot weaker than expected. George Osborne, for example, was forced to leave the Exchequer without fulfilling his pledge of eliminating the deficit due to the underperformance of the economy. “When you combine the demographic pressures with slower economic growth then it’s a difficult situation,” says Wheatcroft.

Paying for coronavirus

Into this strained situation enters a global pandemic and its huge financial repercussions. Alongside the severe and prolonged impact on economic activity, stimulus and support packages are expected to add between £0.5tn–£1tn onto UK debt in the next few years. 

Ahead of the Budget in March, the expectation was that the Chancellor would be looking for ways to raise revenues to help cover the costs of COVID. However, the measures announced will not do so – in the short term at least.

“It’s fair to say that there was no serious attempt to tackle a growing fiscal deficit in the Red Book,” says Haskew. “The 2019 manifesto pledge that there would be no rise in VATincome tax or national insurance means that the Chancellor is prevented from the most obvious, and quick, ways in which to raise revenues.”

The flagship measure for revenue raising in the Budget was the increase to corporation tax rates. However, as the change will not come into effect until 2023, this will not provide a quick cash injection. Haskew also argues that the fiscal impact may not be significant. “The potential corporation tax revenues over the forecast period are pretty much balanced by the cost of the super deduction. In overall terms any difference is probably loose change,” he says.

Wheatcroft believes the measure gives an indication of the government’s medium-term plans. “One of the more positive things you can do in the medium term to get your public finances under control is encourage stronger economic growth. By taking action on corporation tax the government wants to try and at least stabilise the situation.” 

Reallocating spending

Evidence for where the Chancellor is securing finance in the short term can be seen in the integrated defence review published on 16 March, which confirmed that the size of the army would be further reduced by 2025. “Since the 1950s the UK has cut defence spend from 10% of GDP down to 2%. Reallocating that finance to healthcare that has helped successive governments avoid increasing taxes,” explains Wheatcroft. “However, with defence spend now just above the NATO minimum, there’s no further capacity and taxes are going to have to go up at some point.” 

Haskew agrees: “The measures announced so far are just nibbling at the edges of the problem. The UK has a strategic question as to whether it tackles the deficit and if so how. Since the start of the pandemic there’s been suggestions from some commentators that capital gains tax and inheritance tax might rise, and other have proposed wealth taxes, but we saw none of those suggestions in the Budget. It shows just how hard it is to raise taxes.”

The need for change

There are a number of areas of the UK tax system that have been ripe for reform for many years, including the differences between the taxation of the employed and self-employed. “We’ve had a position of significant difference between these two types of taxpayer for 20 years and more. Successive governments, of every political hue, have identified it as a concern but never successfully addressed it,” says Haskew. 

He cites Philip Hammond’s attempt to make relatively modest changes to national insurance contributions for the self-employed in 2017, which were reversed within a week. 

Wheatcroft, meanwhile, points to the perennial thorny issue of business rates and the interim review published as part of HM Treasury’s Tax Day announcements on 23 March. “Everybody was in total agreement that it’s a bad tax and needs reform, but they were also very unhappy about the main alternative option,” he says. “There’s definitely an inertia bias when it comes to changing taxes because it is so difficult. It’s much easier to stay with the current ones, simply because they already exist and they are collecting revenue, however imperfectly.”

Haskew agrees: “These cases highlight that a lot of the structural problems in the tax system have become so ingrained that trying to change them is almost impossible.”

Catalyst for reform

Decisions on how to balance the books have been getting increasingly difficult year on year, but could the dramatic impact of the pandemic provide the impetus for the government to set out a long-term vision of how to tackle the deficit and for Rishi Sunak to make some brave choices?

“From a public support point of view, this past Budget was politically the best possible time to raise taxes, with everyone understanding the financial impact of the interventions that the government has had to take,” says Wheatcroft. “However, from an economic perspective it would be the worst time. At the moment the government wants to do everything possible to encourage a strong economic recovery. This is probably why the government took the opportunity to pre-announce raising corporation tax rates now, rather in three years’ time immediately prior to a general election.”

Wheatcroft suggests that the Chancellor has potentially another 12 months of political goodwill in which to implement changes and suggests that Tax Day is a good indication of travel. “The very fact of having a Tax Day announcing the consultations and setting out a 10-year strategy, which it did last year, is a positive sign of longer-term thinking,” he says.

Haskew believes that now is the time to start having a national conversation about the future of tax and cites a Treasury Committee report, Tax after coronavirus, published on 1 March as a step in the right direction. “It’s a really interesting report because there was a consensus among the cross-party members about proposals to try and address some of these issues,” he says. 

“The deficit and tax reform are more than political issue, so reaching a consensus was really encouraging,” he says. “We have this growing problem as a nation, so what are we going to do about it? These things need to be debated, to see whether we can reach some consensus about the best way of raising tax without harming productivity.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: personal taxation by legal form

ICAEW’s chart this week compares the differences in the tax payable depending on legal form – an area ripe for reform in theory, but much more difficult in practice.

Chart showing tax payable on £80,000 of business earnings:

Employee - income tax: 20.0%, employee NI 6.6%, employer NI 10.7% - take home pay 62.7%.

Self-employed - income tax: 24.3%, employee NI 5.5% - take home pay 70.2%.

Company owner - income tax 9.9%, corporation tax 16.9% - take home pay 73.2%.

Comments by the Chancellor last year suggested he might tackle one of the thorniest challenges in the UK tax system – the differences in tax paid by individuals depending on the legal form through which they conduct their business activities. However, as the controversy over IR35 has demonstrated, a significant amount of political capital is likely to be needed if changes are to be made.

The #icaewchartoftheweek provides an illustrative example of just how significant the differences can be, with £80,000 in business earnings attracting an effective tax rate of 37.3% if paid to an employee on a salary of £71,460, 29.8% if paid to an individual who is self-employed or in a partnership, or 26.8% if earned through a company and distributed as dividends. 

(It is important to note that this is a theoretical illustrative example for a single person with no other earnings and not paying any pension contributions, with the company owner in the example paying a salary equivalent to the secondary threshold for national insurance before paying the rest as dividends. Actual amounts of tax paid will of course depend on both business and individual circumstances, which can vary significantly.)

The last decade or so has seen a significant increase in the numbers of people becoming self-employed or conducting business through their own companies, and the tax authorities have been concerned about the loss in tax that has followed. One way they have sought to tackle this is by removing the tax benefits of being self-employed or operating through a company from some people, which is the approach adopted by IR35. Coming into force this month, IR35 in effect creates a new legal status of ‘deemed employee’ for tax purposes, reclassifying individuals back into the scope of employment taxes. This has proved highly controversial, accompanied as it is by extensive compliance requirements and general unhappiness by those determined to be subject to it.

Another potential approach would be to change the taxes and tax rates applying to three different forms – either by reducing the taxes on employees or by increasing them on the self-employed or those operating through companies. The former seems unlikely given the state of the public finances, but the challenge in increasing rates can be extremely politically difficult, as former Chancellor Philip Hammond found a few years ago when he proposed a relatively modest increase in the amount of national insurance to be paid by the self-employed.

Whether current Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will take forward a suggestion he made last year when he announced the self-employed income support scheme last year that taxes on the self-employed might rise is yet to be seen. However, what is likely is that this and future Chancellors will continue to look at this particular aspect of the tax system and wonder how they might collect a little more from the ranks of the self-employed and company owners. 

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.