Getting public finances under control will not be easy

The Spending Review and Autumn Budget will mark the first step in the Chancellor’s plan to bring the public finances back under control following the pandemic. There are significant challenges to be overcome if he wants to do so.

Area chart showing fiscal pressures from 2025-26 to 2050-51, with health going up to around 3½% of GDP, with adult social care adding another half a percent, the state pension another 1½% and tax at risk from decarbonisation adding a further 1½% to reach approximately 7% in total in 2050-51.

Tucked away on page 91 of HM Treasury’s Net Zero Review Final Report published on 19 October is a chart illustrating the main long-term pressures on the public finances. This describes how fiscal pressures from health, adult social care, the state pension and tax at risk from decarbonisation could amount to 7% of GDP by 2050-51, equivalent to over £150bn a year in ‘today’s money’.

The majority of the fiscal pressures identified (5.5% of GDP in 2050-51) relate to structural factors, or what can better be described as more people living longer, sometimes less healthy lives. This will add significantly to the costs of healthcare, adult social care, and the state pension over the coming decades – big drivers of public spending.

The pay-as-you-go nature of the UK welfare state means that the tax and national insurance contributions made by people through their working lives to fund these services are not saved up and invested but are instead spent on previous generations. Consequently, there is (unlike some other countries) no pot of money from which to draw on to fund retiree pensions, health, or social care. Instead, taxpayers will be called on to cover these costs as they arise.

More spending cuts are unlikely to be sufficient to close the gap

One option might be to offset rising costs by cutting public spending in other areas, as has already happened with the defence budget, where cuts from over 10% of GDP half a century ago to under 2% of GDP today have helped to offset increases in the funding allocated to the National Health Service.

However, with defence and security spending together hovering just above the 2% NATO minimum, and a decade of austerity that has seen significant cuts in both public services and welfare budgets, the unfortunate reality is that there are no other significant budget headings that the Chancellor might look to dip into to meet these long-term fiscal pressures. At least not without a very radical restructuring of the state, which does not appear to be on the cards.

In practice, Rishi Sunak will have a hard enough time addressing short-term fiscal pressures in other areas. A key example is the criminal justice system, where cuts in spending in recent years on the police, courts, prosecutors, and legal aid have together contributed to significant delays and lost opportunities to prosecute criminals, just as crime levels rise and it returns to the political agenda. A backlog of cases built up over the course of the pandemic doesn’t help. More money beyond that already allocated to restore police numbers is likely to be needed, but where can it be found?

Everywhere the Chancellor looks there are difficult choices between the spending needed to meet policy priorities such as levelling up (local authorities, education and transport), Global Britain (FCDO and international trade), and Build Back Greener (energy and transport), as well ensuring the day-to-day operations of both central and local government continue – from collecting the bins to repairing the roads to defending the country.

There are opportunities to save money through being more efficient, but it is important to understand that administration costs are a relatively small proportion of overall public spending and that many UK public services such as the NHS are fairly cost-effective when compared with equivalents in other countries. Technological change including AI and medical developments could have a significant impact in reducing costs, but it is unclear that they could produce anywhere near the level of service improvement that would offset the long-term fiscal pressures. Ironically, medical developments could also increase those pressures, with savings in the cost of healthcare treatments being offset by helping us live even longer lives. Good news but adding to the public finance challenge.

The demands from across government for more money are intense, putting the Chancellor under severe pressure to increase the overall spending envelope – not just in the next financial year or three, but permanently adding to budgets forevermore.

Can the long-term fiscal pressures be avoided?

The main driver for most of the long-term fiscal pressures identified by HM Treasury is longevity, with the number of people aged over 70 expected to increase by 58% over the next 25 years at the same time as the number of people under the age of 70 (including those of working age who pay most of the taxes) is expected to increase by only 2% or potentially fall by 7% if inward migration falls.

There are some things that can be done to mitigate these increases to a certain extent, such as permanently abandoning the triple lock that has driven substantial increases in the level of the state pension over the last decade. However, this could be politically difficult, as well as not necessarily achieving the intended goal of saving money if more pensioners end up needing support from the welfare system. A more likely approach would be to further increase retirement ages as recently recommended by the OECD.

Other options that have been suggested include greater rationing of health care or introducing charges for some medical procedures. Such moves could help offset some of the pressures on health care spending but would be politically difficult as well as adding an extra layer of complexity to the welfare state. Those who can afford to pay would not only pay more, but there would still be a need to pay more in taxes to fund those on low incomes who wouldn’t be able to afford the additional costs without help.

One of the long-term pressures identified by the government – the effect of decarbonisation on tax receipts – is not really a pressure and arguably should not be included in the list.

While in theory the £37bn a year raised in fuel duty, vehicle excise duty and other taxes will disappear if transport is successfully decarbonised, this is a tax burden already being incurred by road users. All that is likely to happen is a change in the tax used to collect that money, with road charging the most likely option identified so far. This may be seen as a tax rise by some, particularly those hoping that the low tax status of electric cars and other zero emission vehicles might continue into the future, but the net effect is likely to be a temporary tax rise over the course of the transition as the existing taxes co-exist with the new, hopefully adding to the incentive to decarbonise without having to increase taxes in other areas.

Borrowing has a role, but can’t take all the strain

The benefit of being a sovereign nation is the ability to raise money from debt markets at much lower interest rates than those available to businesses or individuals. This is invaluable, as there are often good reasons to borrow to fund capital investment, which in turn will often generate more economic activity and enhance future tax revenues.

However, governments in developed countries have routinely used borrowing to make up for shortfalls between revenues and current spending in the hope that growth in the size of the economy will inflate away the debts built up this way.

The financial firepower provided by borrowing has enabled the UK to support the economy and fund public services and welfare through the financial crisis just over a decade ago and the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. However, the consequence has been to increase public sector net debt from around less than £0.5tn or 35% of GDP in 2008 to £1.8tn or 80% in 2019 and to £2.2tn or just over 95% of GDP as of today.

This excludes £2.5tn or so of other liabilities in the public balance sheet, such as for unfunded public sector pension obligations, nuclear decommissioning obligations and clinical negligence liabilities. When added to debt these take public sector liabilities to more than double the size of the economy.

Countries such as Japan have even higher levels of debt than the UK which, in theory at least, might indicate that the UK government has headroom to borrow even more, this is dependent on the continued confidence of capital markets. The Chancellor is therefore aiming to bring down the ratio of debt to GDP gradually over time, with new fiscal rules designed to ensure that the government targets a balanced current budget by the middle of the decade so that borrowing is only used to fund investment spending.

A particular concern for the Chancellor will be the increased exposure of the public finances to higher inflation and interest rates, which has the potential to claw back any savings he does manage to find in his search for a more efficient government machine.

This is because the current scale and profile of public debt makes it more difficult for the government to ‘inflate away’ debt over time, with the higher interest rates that would be expected to accompany higher levels of economic growth resulting in higher debt-interest costs. Similarly, the effect of higher inflation in increasing nominal GDP and hence reducing the debt to GDP ratio will be offset by the associated uplift in the amounts owed to holders of index-linked gilts.

Economic growth should generate higher tax revenues, but by how much?

The favoured route to bring in more money through the tax line would be through faster economic growth, and the OBR’s October 2021 forecasts are likely to reflect a sharper rebound from the pandemic than was expected in March – providing the Chancellor with more room for manoeuvre, at least in the short term.

Improving productivity is a challenge for governments across the world, while economists have suggested that the combination of Brexit and COVID-19 will make the UK economy permanently 3% smaller than it would have been otherwise. Despite that, higher levels of capital investment within the existing spending plans should have a positive effect on growth, especially if the substantial additional private investment envisaged as part of the Net Zero Strategy is successfully obtained.

The good news is that even moderate levels of economic growth will help put the public finances in a better place, providing capacity for the Chancellor or his successors to be slightly more generous on spending or perhaps fund some limited pre-election tax cuts. The bad news is that even healthy periods of economic growth tend to be punctuated by recessions every decade or so.

Hence the need for prudence in spending plans – if we don’t know how much we (as a country) are going to earn, it makes sense to be careful in our outgoings.

But, there is a risk that too much prudence could result in cutting back on the spending that is needed to drive future prosperity, whether that be funding for education and apprenticeships to enhance skills, or investment in infrastructure to drive regional economic growth. And spending restraint in other areas, such as policing and the criminal justice system, can have other adverse consequences too.

Economic growth is needed to ensure the public finances are brought back under control. Absent an unexpected economic boom, growth on its own is unlikely to provide sufficient tax receipts to fund all of the long-term fiscal pressures identified by the Treasury.

Can further tax rises be avoided?

The introduction of the health and social care levy on top of the tax rises announced in the March 2021 Spring Budget shouldn’t have been a surprise given the long-term pressures on the public finances. The pandemic may have accelerated the arrival of new taxes, but more funding from taxpayers was always the most likely outcome at some point over the next few years.

This is not just because the pandemic has exacerbated the financial situation, but because only very strong levels of economic growth would have enabled any government to avoid putting up taxes. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes that the health and social care levy may have to be increased further by the end of the current decade from 1.25% to 3.15%.

There are some actions the government can take to delay the inevitable, such as increasing labour participation rates, so increasing the pool of taxpayers. But, in the medium- to long-term, the government needs to acknowledge the pressures on public spending and think about how it should go about increasing taxes in a gradual and stable way rather than the current approach of deferring the problem until the pressures become too great.

One thing the government could do better at is developing a long-term tax strategy setting out how it plans to increase taxes gradually over time, avoiding the need for sudden changes, such as the introduction of the health and social care levy with only six months’ notice or the almost one-third rise in the corporation tax rate from 19% to 25% that comes into force on 1 April 2023.

A long-term fiscal strategy is needed to put the public finances on a sustainable path

Tax is not the only aspect of the public finances that would benefit from a longer-term approach. A fiscal strategy encompassing tax, spending, borrowing, debt, and the wider public balance sheet is essential if the government is to improve resilience of the public finances to future economic shocks and put them on a sustainable path.

Such a strategy should address the long-term pressures on public spending as part of a practical vision for the public finances over the next 25 to 50 years. It would consider how best to fund public services over time and how to strengthen the public balance sheet.

At a more granular level it would look at issues such as the unfunded nature of many public sector liabilities, for example considering whether premiums could be levied to fund investments to cover clinical negligence liabilities, rather than rely on there being capacity in future health budgets to cover these costs. Another example would be to consider whether there is a role for sovereign wealth funds, similar to Australia’s Future Fund or Norway’s Oil Fund. It could be argued that some of the savings to the exchequer from ultra-low borrowing rates might have been better used to fund investments for the benefit of future generations instead of being used to cover day-to-day spending, avoiding difficult decisions that should have been addressed earlier.

More significantly, a fiscal strategy would consider how to introduce more long-term thinking into the public finances, moving beyond short-term fiscal rules that have often been broken and prioritising investment that provides positive economic, social and environmental benefits to all of us. It could also provide a framework within which to tackle some of the structural problems in the public finances, such as tax devolution and the complexity of funding streams within and between central and local government, or in clarifying the often misunderstood financial compact between government and citizens.

Reasons to be cheerful

The challenges facing the public finances are significant. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility they are on an unsustainable path. Public debt has increased from less than £0.5tn to more than £2.2tn in less than a decade and a half. Other public sector liabilities amount to least as much again. Cuts in public spending have affected some public services adversely, and the pressure for more spending is intense. Poverty remains and many families struggle financially, further adding to pressures on the government to help. The productivity puzzle remains unresolved and there are significant uncertainties about the health of both the UK and global economies. Tax rises appear inevitable.

However, government has demonstrated in both the financial crisis and the pandemic just how much it can do to support business, individuals, and public services through difficult times when it needs to. Public investment is increasing. Technological developments are helping to improve public services and increase efficiency. The government now knows what is in the public sector balance sheet and is taking steps to improve how it is managed. There is a strategy for tackling net zero. Borrowing costs remain extremely low even if they are starting to rise. The UK continues to be one of the most prosperous countries in the world. And relatively small changes can have a big impact over a 25 to 50-year timeframe.

Getting the public finances back under control will not be easy. But it can be done.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Director of Public Sector and Taxation at ICAEW, commented: “The challenges facing the public finances are immense and I don’t envy Rishi Sunak the difficult choices he has to make in balancing the demands on the public purse with the real-world impact of decisions to increase, maintain or cut spending across both central and local government.

“Much of the focus on the Spending Review and Autumn Budget will be on how the Chancellor plans to tackle the immediate challenges facing the country this winter and how he plans to balance competing demands over the three years of the Spending Review. However, setting out a fiscal strategy to address long-term fiscal pressures and put the public finances on a sustainable path will be even more important.”

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, external advisor on public finances to ICAEW, added: “There are signs that the government is starting to think more strategically about the public finances, such as in starting to plan for the tax consequences of decarbonisation, identifying the major pressures on public spending that flow from more people living longer, and biting the bullet by increasing taxes to fund those pressures.

“The Spending Review and Autumn Budget on 27 October provide an opportunity for the government to develop that thinking further and to set out an approach that looks beyond the current parliamentary cycle to strengthening the capacity and resilience of the public finances over the longer term.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

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.

IFS pre-Budget report warns of difficult choices for the Chancellor

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that there may be spending cuts in some areas of the Spending Review and Autumn Budget, while the health and social care levy will not be enough to meet spending pressures on the NHS and social care in the medium-term.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has launched its annual Green Budget report, setting out its views on the prospects for the economy and the public finances ahead of the Spending Review and Autumn Budget scheduled for 27 October 2021.

Produced in conjunction with Citi and the Nuffield Foundation, the 427-page report contains detailed chapters on the global and UK economy, the economic and fiscal outlook, the Spending Review, fiscal rules, NHS spending, local government funding in England, tax policies to achieve net zero, and employment and the end of the furlough scheme.

A summary of the key findings in each chapter is set out below, but the key headlines are that COVID has damaged the economy, the fiscal outlook is better than predicted in March but still much worse than pre-pandemic forecasts, and the Chancellor has some very difficult spending choices to make in the Spending Review. 

The IFS cautions that the new health and social care levy will not be sufficient to meet medium-term cost pressures and that ‘unprotected budgets’ continue to be under severe strain, with cuts possible if the Chancellor wants to meet his proposed new fiscal rules.

More detailed analysis goes into spending by the NHS and local government and the implications of net zero for tax policy. A final chapter highlights the mismatch between those losing their jobs and vacancies in a very different employment market following the end of the furlough scheme.

Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector and Taxation at ICAEW, commented: “As ever, the IFS have produced one of the most authoritative analyses of the state of the UK public finances, setting out many of the difficult choices facing the Chancellor in the Spending Review and Autumn Budget.

“The challenge for the Chancellor will be how to address severe spending pressures across central and local government and deliver on ‘levelling up’ and ‘net zero’, at the same time as repairing the public balance sheet and charting a path towards sustainable public finances.”

IFS Green Budget 2021: key points

Citi says the global economy is recovering:

  • Pandemic is not over, but economies are resilient and rebound can become a recovery
  • Supply constraints will restrict growth and higher inflation is likely for some time
  • Risk of fiscal tightening is low and central banks likely to be cautious in exiting monetary support

Citi expects UK economy to be 2.5% smaller in 2024-25 than pre-pandemic forecasts:

  • UK in an imbalanced recovery with fading growth in the winter
  • Profound economic adjustment looms (e.g. less hospitality, more transport and storage). 
  • Brexit leading to supply disruptions and a drop in exports
  • Labour market in process of adjustment, but despite shortage sectors, real-terms pay settlements overall remain broadly in line with pre-pandemic range 
  • Inflation increasing sharply – should be temporary, but there is risk of a wage price spiral
  • Monetary policy constrained, so fiscal capacity needed to stabilise the economy.

IFS says economic and fiscal outlook is better than predicted in March, but still much worse than pre-pandemic forecasts:

  • Deficit in 2021-22 to be £180bn, over £50bn below OBR Spring Budget forecast
  • At 7.7% of GDP deficit remains extraordinarily high – the third highest deficit since WWII
  • Recovery should see current budget be in surplus by 2023-24
  • Upside scenario would see overall deficit eliminated
  • But further lockdowns could see borrowing more than double pre-pandemic forecasts in 2024-25
  • Central scenario would see public debt start to fall, but only gradually
  • Higher interest rates and inflation have increased debt interest costs to around £15bn a year more than expected in March
  • Health and social care levy will need to increase from 1.25% to 3.15% by end of the decade to meet expected health and social care pressures

Fiscal rules are needed, but:

  • Well-designed fiscal rules can help make it harder to borrow for ‘bad reasons’
  • UK has had poorly designed fiscal targets, with 11 new rules in the last seven years – most of which have been missed before being dropped
  • Both Conservatives and Labour appear to favour a current budget fiscal rule
  • Strong case for gilt-issuance to be tilted towards more long-dated index-linked gilts to lock in the current low real cost of more debt
  • Reducing debt should be a long-term target to create more fiscal space for potential future adverse shocks
  • Health, social care and state pensions likely to add 6.1% of national income to costs by 2050
  • Net zero costs likely to peak in 2026-27 at 2.2% of national income
  • IMF says UK has lowest general government net worth of 24 advanced economies
  • A broader focus on wider public balance sheet by government and opposition is welcome
  • Fiscal rules should be seen as rules of thumb and no fiscal target is sacrosanct 

Spending Review 2021:

  • Chancellor faces unpalatable set of spending choices, despite manifesto-breaking tax rise
  • Spending envelope is £3bn a year smaller than pre-pandemic plans, which is a problem when 64% of departmental spending is already protected or otherwise committed
  • Potential cuts in unprotected budgets such as local government, prisons, further education and courts of £2bn in 2022-23
  • More spending room in 2024-25, so potential for Chancellor to re-profile spend to avoid cuts next year with spending more overall
  • NHS and other demands likely to eat into amounts available for unprotected budgets.
  • COVID-19 reserve needed to cover non-NHS virus-related spending
  • Now is time to return to certainty of multi-year budgeting
  • Extending public sector pay freeze risks damaging recruitment, retention and motivation

Pressures on the NHS:

  • NHS already showing signs of strain before pandemic began, with last decade seeing lowest level of spending growth in NHS history
  • NHS entered pandemic with 39,000 nursing vacancies and many fewer doctors, hospital beds and CT scanners per person than in many similar countries
  • NHS funding plans blown out of water by pandemic, with extra £63bn spent in 2020-21 and £34bn in 2021-22
  • Extra funding needed in the next three years of £9bn, £6bn and £5bn – substantial, but manageable, sums. Covered by new health and social levy initial for first two years
  • New funding unlikely to be sufficient in the medium term, with extra money needed from 2024-25 onwards
  • Missed treatments, bringing down waiting lists, demand for mental health services and higher pay all likely to add to spending pressures
  • Some savings from moving to remote outpatient appointments and potential for more from other innovations in the pandemic

Local government funding in England:

  • English councils’ non-education spending almost a quarter lower than 2009-10. 
  • This contrasts with Welsh councils, where spending has fallen by only a tenth
  • £10.4bn in additional funding in 2020-21 covered most in-year COVID-19 pressures
  • But mismatches mean some councils are ‘over-compensated’ while district councils are ‘under-compensated’
  • COVID-19 funding in 2021-22 of £3.8bn expected to be £0.7bn short of what is needed
  • Central government funding currently implies council tax rises of 3.6% a year assuming no further impact on budgets from COVID beyond next April
  • Uncertainties mean that setting firm plans for council funding for the next three years is an impossible task without guarantees from central government
  • Social care funding still allocated based on local populations in 2013 and the delayed ‘Fair Funding Review’ needs to be completed
  • For example, Tower Hamlets’ population is up 21%, Blackpool’s is down 2%.
  • Transition to new system of funding may need extra money to avoid potentially large cuts in some areas
  • Council tax needs reform!
  • More devolution on the agenda – government should develop ‘devolution packages’ rather than have bespoke arrangements for each area
  • Additional £5bn of health and social care levy funding for adult social care is unlikely to be sufficient – an extra £5bn a year could be needed by the second half of the 2020s

Tax policies to achieve net zero:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions fell 38% between 1990 and 2018, the fastest in the G7
  • Emission reductions will have to accelerate from 1.4% a year to 3.1% a year to meet net zero in 2050
  • Many low-cost opportunities to reduce emissions already done, so further reductions will be more difficult
  • Tax rates on emissions vary wildly, so incentives to reduce emissions are highly uneven
  • Renewables attract subsidies paid for by higher electricity prices – may pay-off in long-term but there are risks
  • Carbon footprint higher for higher-income households, but costs take up a bigger share of poorer household budgets
  • Weak incentives to improve energy efficiency
  • International collaboration needed, eg on taxing international aviation

Employment and the end of the furlough scheme:

  • Furlough scheme ended in September at gross cost of £70bn
  • Huge success, but significant challenges remain in the labour market
  • Significant concerns about the employment prospects for the 1.6m on furlough in July
  • Vacancies exceed 1.0m, but mismatch between regions and industries
  • London appears hard-hit on multiple fronts
  • Young people leaving full-time education last year were less likely to get jobs, but employment rates have since fallen back into line with pre-pandemic cohorts

Visit the IFS website to find out more about the IFS Green Budget and to download a copy.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Use Spending Review to establish a “financial platform for delivery”

Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW, has written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury ahead of Spending Review 2021 expressing ICAEW’s view that it should be centred on the three key themes of stable funding, fiscal resilience and financial capability.

The first multi-year Spending Review since 2015 offers the government the opportunity to establish a “firm financial platform” to enable the delivery of its key priorities, including recovering from the pandemic and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to the ICAEW Public Sector team.

Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW, has written a letter on behalf of the public sector team to the Rt Hon Simon Clarke MP, the newly appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, ahead of the Autumn Spending Review 2021, scheduled to conclude on 27 October.

As set out in the letter, ICAEW’s Public Sector team believes the Spending Review should be guided by three key principles:

  • Stable funding: The Spending Review must provide the certainty that allows bodies across the public sector to plan and invest. The letter argues for the rationalisation of local government funding streams and setting capital budgets over a longer time period.
  • Fiscal resilience: The government needs to establish a strategy for repairing the public balance sheet following the pandemic and ensure the government has the capacity to withstand future fiscal emergencies. It highlights the urgent need to strengthen local authority balance sheets as the costs of not doing so may be even greater.
  • Financial capability: The letter points to recent NAO reports and high profile failures in local government as evidence of the importance of the government using the Spending Review to invest in financial management skills, financial processes, financial reporting and audit.

ICAEW members will be central to ensuring the government can deliver on its priorities. Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW, therefore concludes the letter by offering the Chief Secretary to the Treasury an opportunity to discuss the letter and how ICAEW and its members can support the government in tackling the challenges that the country faces as it recovers from the pandemic. 

Alison Ring commented: “The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly weakened the public finances, which hampers the government’s ability to deliver its priorities and respond to future crises. The upcoming Spending Review gives the government the opportunity to establish a long-term strategy for repairing the public balance sheet and providing the financial capability and certainty public sector bodies need to deliver essential priorities such as the transition to net zero carbon by 2050.”

Read the Public Sector team Representation to the Spending Review

See more commentary from ICAEW on the Autumn Budget and Spending Review.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK-EU financial settlement update

This week’s chart is on the UK-EU withdrawal agreement financial settlement. Perhaps surprisingly given recent press coverage, ICAEW’s analysis is that it remains roughly unchanged from the Treasury’s 2018 estimate.

Chart on UK-EU financial settlement.

HM Treasury estimate from 2018 of £39bn less £16bn transition = post-transition net payments of £23bn (£19bn approved expenditure not paid + £11bn pension obligations, less £7bn share of EU assets).

Changes since 2018: -£2bn approved expenditure not paid +£2bn pension obligations.

EU 2020 accounts £42bn less forecast UK receipts of £14bn less EIB and other of £bn = Post-transition net payments £23bn (£17bn approved expenditure not paid + £13bn pension obligations - £7bn share of EU assets).

The €47.5bn (£42bn) receivable from the UK included in the recently published EU 2020 accounts caused a kerfuffle last week, as excitement levels grew over what turns out to be a pretty much unchanged estimate for the post-transition element of the UK-EU financial settlement.

ICAEW’s chart of the week attempts to reconcile the £39bn estimate calculated by HM Treasury back in 2018 with the €47.5bn (£42bn) receivable recorded by the EU in its financial statements on 31 December 2020, the last day of the transition period. Perhaps surprisingly, given recent press coverage, ICAEW’s analysis is that the estimate for the post-transition element of the settlement of £23bn remains unchanged overall.

Much of the confusion arises because the £39bn estimate made by HM Treasury in 2018 was a net number, reflecting forecasts of gross payments to the EU by the UK government less anticipated payments by the EU and EU-related institutions back to the UK.

The chart starts by analysing the £39bn estimate into its four main component parts: Net transition payments of £16bn, the UK’s share of approved expenditure not yet paid of £19bn and pension contributions of £11bn less the UK’s share of EU assets of £7bn, with the last three elements amounting to a net £23bn amount to be settled in the post-transition period.

The transition element of £16bn is now in the past, reflecting membership dues for the then anticipated transition period of 1 April 2019 to 31 December 2020 less money coming back from the EU to the UK over the same period. In the end, this turned out to be a couple of extensions in the UK’s period of membership that resulted in a shorter transition period from 1 February to 31 December 2020 – a switch in classification for some of the £16bn from post-EU transition payments to pre-EU exit net membership cost.

The UK’s share of approved expenditure not yet paid of £19bn was also a net number, reflecting a gross amount payable to the EU for ongoing programmes at the end of 2020 less amounts coming back the other way. The OBR has been working to an estimate of €296bn for the balance of approved expenditure not paid (also known as reste á liquider or RAL), which compares with €294bn in the notes to the EU accounts once adjustments were applied to the overall total of €303bn that the EU was committed to spend as at 31 December 2020. 

The calculated receivable of €35bn or £31bn does not reflect an estimated £14bn of payments by the EU to UK participants in these programmes, for example to British universities and research institutions, giving rise to a net amount in the order of £17bn, a couple of billion below the original estimate.

This slightly smaller net outflow is offset by a larger pension liability in the EU accounts, driven by a lower discount rate than originally anticipated. The UK’s €14bn or £13bn share of the €116bn liability is therefore higher than the €12bn or £11bn share of a €96bn liability that was previously forecast. In practice, the value attributable to this balance will change over time given that payments are expected to continue to 2064 or later.

Another area where the EU accounts do not provide the complete story is in the UK’s share of assets it expects to receive back as part of the withdrawal agreement. The €2bn amount in the EU accounts primarily relates to the UK’s share of fines, but it excludes the return of UK shareholdings in EU-related institutions that are owned by member states outside of the scope of the EU consolidated financial statements. Of the £5bn in this category, €3.5bn or £3bn relates to the return of the UK’s share capital in the European Investment Bank.

Despite the numbers being pretty much as expected, there still remains some uncertainty concerning the £23bn post-transition estimate in relation to the calculation of the amounts coming back to the UK, and HM Treasury and the OBR will no doubt continue to refine these estimates over the next few months and years.

The financial settlement is not the end of the UK’s financial engagement with the EU as the government has agreed to participate in a number of EU programmes from 1 January 2021 onwards, for example in Horizon pan-European scientific research, as well as working with the EU on international development programmes funded from the aid budget.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: OBR climate change scenarios

Our chart this week is on the OBR Fiscal Risks Report, highlighting how delaying action to achieve net zero could double the cost to the public finances compared with acting more quickly.

Chart show public debt change in 2150-51 as % of GDP for different scenarios: Investment switch and motoring tax -12%, early action high productivity +10%, early action scenario +21%, early action low productivity +32%, late action scenario +43%, unmitigated climate change +38%. The final column for unmitigated climate change also has the public debt change in 2100-01% of +161%.

With two ‘once in a century’ events in less than two decades adding more than £1tn to public debt, it is unsurprising that the OBR’s Fiscal Risks Report published earlier this week places much more emphasis than previous reports on the potential for catastrophic risks, whether that be from further pandemics, major wars, climate change or cyberattacks.

The report focuses on three particular risks: the coronavirus pandemic, the cost of debt, and climate change, with the latter being the subject of the #icaewchartoftheweek. 

The OBR distinguishes fiscal risks from climate change between those stemming from global warming itself (physical risks) and those relating to the move to a low-carbon economy, including the policies to achieve that (transition risks). In unmitigated climate change scenarios, the physical risks dominate, whereas the more that is done to mitigate global warming by reducing emissions, the more important transition risks become. 

The chart illustrates two main scenarios explored by the OBR – an early action scenario where the UK and other governments around the world push forward with plans to achieve net zero by 2050 and a late action scenario where the UK government delays taking actions to decarbonise the economy. The chart also shows three variants on the early action scenario depending on whether decarbonisation boosts or damages productivity or where investment is switched from other areas and motoring taxes retained. 

In the early action scenario, the OBR estimate that public sector debt would rise by 21% of GDP by 2050-51 (equivalent to £469bn in current prices) as a consequence of lost fuel duties and other taxes of 19%, additional spending of 6%, indirect economic effects of 6% and interest on borrowing of 4% less 14% from carbon taxes imposed to incentivise the shift to net zero. 

The high productivity variant is similar in terms of costs and carbon tax receipts, but with indirect economic effects contributing additional tax receipts with a consequent reduction in borrowing costs over 30 years, resulting in net additional debt of 10% of GDP. The low productivity variant assumes the reverse with lower tax receipts and a smaller economy combining to increase the net increase in public debt to 32% of GDP. The other variant identified by the OBR has the effect of reducing public debt, where investment in decarbonisation is funded by cutting other public investment plans and existing motoring taxes are shifted onto electric cars to retain that source of income to the exchequer.

A key finding in the report is that delaying action would cost a lot more than moving early with public sector debt rising by 43% in 2050-51, more than double the early action scenario, as it would require a more radical intervention costing more and resulting in more adverse economic effects.

Ironically, the OBR estimates that doing nothing would have a smaller impact on net debt by 2050-51 than the late action scenario as decarbonisation costs would not be incurred. However, the OBR estimates that unmitigated climate change would have a significant impact for the rest of the century, with public debt potentially rising to 289% of GDP by 2100-01 if action is not taken to prevent temperatures rising around the world.

For more information read the OBR Fiscal Risks Report.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Local authorities need to invest in finance teams

Alison Ring, ICAEW director for public sector, tells Room 151 that local audit reform is not enough on its own.

Alison Ring, ICAEW director for public sector, recently contributed an article to Room 151, an online news, opinion and resource service for local authority section 151 and other senior officers.

Reforms mean local government will soon see a new audit regulator, but investing in local government finance teams and better reporting are priorities too.

The government’s decision to set up a dedicated local audit unit within the new Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA) addresses one of the key recommendations of the Redmond Review – that there be a ‘system leader’ for local audit, bringing together many of the different aspects of audit regulation currently dispersed across a variety of bodies, including ICAEW.

Nevertheless, ARGA has a big challenge on its hands.


The National Audit Office reported recently that 55% of local authorities in England missed the deadline to obtain an audit opinion on their 2019-20 financial statements, despite an extension of four months to take account of the pandemic. While there were significant practical issues facing both local authority finance teams and audit firms that contributed to these delays, they are symptomatic of wider problems in the local audit market and in the preparation of local authority financial statements.

Local audit in England relies on a small pool of eight firms to audit hundreds of NHS trusts and local authorities within a short time frame each year. Audit firms struggle to find sufficient qualified and experienced individuals to deliver local authority audits, an issue that will only grow as the existing cohort of experienced auditors approaches retirement over the coming decade.

Even with the additional £15m in funding provided this year by the government, audit firms highlight how the risk profile of many councils has increased in recent years as reserves have declined and balance sheets have weakened, with many councils borrowing to invest in commercial activities. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has damaged the financial position of councils even further.

At the same time, more intensive regulation has – quite rightly – put pressure on audit teams to improve the quality of their work, but that has cost implications too, with firms expressing concern about the viability of their local audit practices. There is a real risk that one, or more, firms could withdraw from the market, reducing competition and putting even more pressure on the remaining firms.

There are also significant barriers to entry, starting with a requirement for audit partners to qualify as a key audit partner in addition to being a registered auditor, a requirement specific to the local audit market and not applicable to other sectors requiring equal or much greater sector-specific knowledge and expertise.

This is an obstacle to new firms considering bidding for local audit contracts, even where they have audit partners with experience that would make them eligible to apply and the ability to train and recruit staff with the necessary capabilities. The limited number of key audit partners in each individual firm also makes it more difficult to manage multiple audits within the short time frames needed to achieve audit deadlines.

Stabilising the local audit market and working with the government to ensure there is a viable pool of expertise available to carry out quality audits will be one of the first items on the ARGA agenda.


However, audit reform is only part of the story. There is also a need to invest in local authority finance teams and in making the local authority finance profession an attractive career choice. Local authorities need to place a higher priority on the importance of producing high-quality financial statements that meet best practice and how doing so can increase financial understanding among both officers and councillors. Success in this area would also benefit local taxpayers’ understanding of and ability to scrutinise spending decisions, improving accountability and transparency.

There also needs to be investment in the quality of the underlying financial records and the supporting working papers provided to external auditors – a cause of delays in some audits. Not as sexy as many of the budget proposals that go to councillors for approval, but we know that poor financial controls and a lack of financial understanding by decision-makers and those to whom they are accountable can cost a lot more in the long run.

Unfortunately, far too many local authorities appear to treat their annual financial statements and the audit as a compliance exercise, something to be ‘got through’ rather than an opportunity to give a full account of how well they have stewarded public resources on behalf of residents.

Poorly formatted and difficult to read, too many council financial reports and accounts are seemingly designed for depositing in the round filing cabinet, rather than taking their place alongside flagship reports. Such reports are often of much less importance and priority than the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money spent on delivering local services or, in some cases, that have been wagered in speculative commercial investments.

I believe that the new regulator will need to look beyond the audit firms and engage with local authorities and their finance teams to demand and encourage improvements. Although audit firms can, and do, insist on changes to financial statements where they fail to comply with accounting standards or are actively misleading, they can’t insist local authorities follow best practice or that they invest in making the financial statements understandable to elected representatives and to the public. There is a role for the new regulator to bring up reporting quality across the sector.

It is important to realise that the proposed new standardised statement of service information and costs won’t be enough on its own. Readers need to be able to understand the wider financial position of each local authority, such as the level of usable reserves and balance sheet risks—and that requires investment in the entire annual report and accounts to make the financial information presented more understandable.

High standard

The overall package of reforms is positive: a new system leader for local audit and a rationalisation of the regulatory environment; a new audited statement of service information and costs to enable budgets and spending to be compared; a review of audit requirements for smaller bodies; auditors to provide an annual report to full council; an independent member with financial expertise on council audit committees; and a willingness to look again at audit deadlines.

But we should not forget that external audit comes at the end of the process and that solving the problems in the local audit market will only go so far.

Ultimately these reforms will only be successful if the financial statements subject to audit are of a high standard in the first place. That means greater investment in finance teams and—most importantly—council leaders and officers placing a higher priority on the quality and understandability of the financial information they produce.

This article was originally published in Room 151, an online news, opinion and resource service for local authority section 151 and other senior officers covering treasury, strategic finance, funding, resources and risk, and subsequently published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK population of 67.1m

This week’s chart covers the pre-census population estimate of 67.1m for June 2020 just released by the Office for National Statistics. Do more deaths, fewer births and returning migrants mean the 2021 number will be smaller?

Map of UK with nations and regions in different shades and labels with populations: Scotland 5.5m, North East 2.7m, Yorkshire and the Humber 5.5m, East Midlands 4.8m, East of England 6.3m, London 9.0m, South East 9.2m, South West 5.7m, West Midlands Region 5.9m, Wales 3.2m, North West 7.4m, Northern Ireland 1.9m.

ICAEW’s chart of the week is based on the UK population estimate for June 2020 released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on 25 June 2021, which estimates that there were 67.1m people living in the UK last summer. This is the last estimate before the March 2021 census that should provide a more accurate count of the population – potentially leading to revisions to this and previous estimates over the last few years.

The population estimate comprises 56.5m people in England, 5.5m in Scotland, 3.2m in Wales and 1.9m in Northern Ireland. Within England there were 9.0m in London, 9.2m in the South East, 6.3m in the East of England, 4.8m in East Midlands, 5.5m in Yorkshire & the Humber, 2.7m in the North East, 7.4m in North West (including 2.8m in Greater Manchester), 5.9m in the West Midlands (including 2.9m in the West Midlands city-region), and 5.7m in the South West.

The median age for the population was 40.4 years old, with 19.8m aged between 0 and 24, 21.8m from 25 to 49, 19.7m from 50 to 74 and 5.8m aged 75 or more.

The ONS reports that the population increased by 284,000 or 0.43% from 2019 comprising a ‘natural’ increase of 32,000 (701,000 births less 669,000 deaths), net migration of 247,000 (immigration of 622,000 less emigration 375,000) and other movements of 5,000. This is a fall from the 361,000 increase seen in the previous year, primarily because of the coronavirus pandemic from mid-March 2020 to June 2020, when deaths increased and migration went into reverse.

The big question is whether the population may actually shrink when the 2021 census is reported, with deaths from the second and third waves of the pandemic, a further decline in the birth rate and a potential outflow of migrants combining to reduce the population for the first time since 1982.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Fiscal deficit of £24.3bn in May as COVID spending trends downward

COVID-related spending continues to drive borrowing even as receipts approach pre-pandemic levels, with debt up by £24.9bn to £2,195.8bn or 99.2% of GDP in May 2021.

The latest public sector finances released on Tuesday 22 June reported a deficit of £24.3bn for May 2021, as COVID-related spending continued to weigh on the public finances, albeit at a reduced rate. An improvement from the £43.8bn reported for the same month last year during the first lockdown, it was still significantly higher than the £5.5bn reported for May 2019.

The Office for National Statistics revised the reported deficit for the year ended 31 March 2020 down by £1.1bn from £300.3bn to £299.2bn, still a peacetime record. The final total is still expected to exceed £300bn as the ONS has yet to include in the order of £27bn of bad debts on COVID-related lending in this number. Estimates will be refined further over the next few months.

Cumulative receipts in the first two months of the financial year of £128.6bn were £15.9bn or 14% higher than a year previously, but this was still £0.7bn or 0.5% below the level seen a year before that in April and May 2019. At the same time cumulative expenditure of £165.8bn was £20.9bn or 11% lower than the first two months of 2020-21, but £37.2bn or 29% higher than the same period two years ago.

Ultra-low interest rates continued to benefit the interest line, which at £9.1bn in April and May 2021 was £0.1bn or 1% lower than April and May 2020 and £1.5bn or 14% lower than April and May 2019.

Net public sector investment was slightly lower than last year with £7.1bn invested in April and May 2021, down £0.8bn or 10% from a year before but up £0.9bn or 15% from two years ago.

This combined to produce a cumulative deficit for the first two months of the 2021-22 financial year of £53.4bn, £37.7bn or 41% below that of the same period a year previously, but up £37.3bn or 232% from the total for April and May 2019.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,195.8bn or 99.2% of GDP, an increase of £58.4bn since March, reflecting £5.0bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, principally to fund coronavirus loans to businesses. Debt is £259.1bn or 13% higher than a year earlier and £427.2bn or 24% higher than in April and May 2019.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “With numbers for the second month of the financial year now in, we can see tax receipts are starting to approach pre-pandemic levels, while borrowing continues to increase despite COVID-19 spending starting to decrease. 

“The public finances remain in a fragile state, and ongoing debates about education spending, adult social care and the pensions triple-lock highlight the difficult decisions facing Rishi Sunak as he seeks to balance pressures on our public services with still growing levels of public debt. The prospects of the Chancellor raising taxes in the Autumn Budget appear to be increasing.”

Images showing a table of the fiscal numbers for 2 months to May 2021 and variances against the prior year and two years. Click on link at end of this post to the ICAEW website which has a readable version of the table.
Images showing a table of the fiscal deficit by month, including receipts, expenditures interest and net investment. Click on link at end of this post to the ICAEW website which has a readable version of the table.

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 April 2021 from £31.7bn to £29.1bn and the deficit for the twelve months ended 31 March 2021 from £300.3bn to £299.2bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Rail journeys

This week’s chart tracks railway usage, illustrating how passenger journeys in Great Britain dropped by 77.7% from 1,739m trips in 2019-20 to 388m in the year to 31 March 2021.

Bubble chart showing railway passenger journeys. 1872: 407m - 1920: 2,186m - 1982: 630m - 2019-20: 1,739m - 2020-21: 388m.

The current number of journeys is the lowest since records began in 1872, when 407m trips were taken at the start of the heyday of rail. Passenger numbers grew until 1920 and a peak of 2,186m journeys, before the advent of the motor car saw trips decline gradually over the following 60 or so years until the nadir of 630m journeys in 1982. Since then, passenger journeys have grown rapidly up to 2016-17 (1,727m journeys) before levelling off, followed by the huge decline in the most recent financial year.

Passenger numbers have started to rise again in the last few months but the big question is whether they will return to their pre-pandemic level or if there will be a permanent decline, with fewer commuters as working patterns change and fewer business and shopping trips as online retail takes over?

The cost of running empty trains has been significant for the now ‘nationalised’ railway, with train operators converted from franchise businesses into management-contract concessions alongside the already publicly owned rail infrastructure owner Network Rail. Emergency payments to train operators in 2020-21 amounted to just over £7bn, adding to the cost of an already taxpayer-subsidised railway system in Great Britain.

The difficulty for the new Great British Railways organisation that will take charge of the railways over the next couple of years will be in finding ways to bring passengers back so that neither subsidies nor prices have to go up permanently.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.