Cancelled Budget must not be allowed to delay infrastructure plans

29 September 2020: Recently published figures show that the Government burnt through £224bn in the five months to August 2020. This should not stand in the way of an investment-led economic recovery, according to ICAEW’s Public Sector team.

The latest public sector finances for August 2020 published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Friday 25 September 2020 reported a deficit of £35.9bn in August 2020, a cumulative total of £173.7bn for the first five months of the financial year.

Falls in VAT, corporation tax and income tax drove lower receipts, while large-scale fiscal interventions resulted in much higher levels of expenditure. Net investment is greater than last year, as planned, while the interest line has benefited from ultra-low interest rates.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,023.9bn or 101.9% of GDP, an increase of £223.4bn from the start of the financial year and £249.5bn higher than in August 2019. This reflects £49.7bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, most of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to business and tax deferral measures.

Image of table showing public sector finances for month of August and for 5 months to August 2020, together with variances against last year. Click on the link at the end of the article for a readable version.

The combination of receipts down 12%, expenditure up 35% and net investment up 40% has resulted in a deficit for the five months to August 2020 that is more than three times the budgeted deficit of £55bn for the whole of the 2020-21 financial year set in the Spring Budget in March, despite interest charges being lower by 34%. The cumulative deficit is more than six times as much as for the same five-month period last year.

Cash funding (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the five months was £224.0bn, compared with £5.8bn for the same period in 2019.

Interest costs have fallen despite much higher levels of debt, with extremely low interest rates benefiting both new borrowing to fund government cash requirements and borrowing to refinance existing debts as they have been repaid.

Some 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. In particular, the OBR points out that the ONS has yet to record any allowance for losses that might arise on the more than £100bn of tax deferrals, loans and guarantees provided to support businesses through the pandemic. 

Alison Ring FCA, director for public sector at ICAEW, commented: “The government continued to haemorrhage cash in August, despite furloughed employees returning to work and the warm weather encouraging people to spend money outside their homes. The Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out subsidy may have hit the headlines, but at £522m it was only a fraction of the total spending in the year to date of £470.5bn. Large sums were also spent on Test & Trace and PPE, as well on fiscal interventions such as the coronavirus job retention scheme.

While the decision to postpone the Budget until the Spring is understandable given the economic uncertainties as we enter the next phase of the pandemic, we hope that this will not mean further delays for the National Infrastructure Strategy and the green-lighting of infrastructure projects across the country, which will be vital for an investment-led economic recovery.”

Image of table showing public sector finances for each month to August 2020 and to August 2019. 

Click on the link at the end of the article for a readable version.

The ONS made several revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates and changes in methodology and classification. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit in 2019/20 from £59.7bn to £55.8bn and in 2018/19 from £41.0bn to £38.8bn. There was a reduction of £12.7bn in the estimated deficit in the first four months of the current financial year from that reported last month primarily because of overestimating central government procurement in those months.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.