Time to embed Whole of Government Accounts into government

The IFS Green Budget, launched today in association with the ICAEW, contains a chapter on Whole of Government Accounts (WGA), the financial accounts for the UK government. They are prepared on a similar basis to those of millions of companies and other organisations around the world.

The first five years of WGA have covered a dramatic period in Britain’s fiscal history following the global financial crisis. They provide a more comprehensive picture of the public sector’s financial performance over that time than that available from traditional National Accounts reporting by capturing a wider range of financial transactions.

The reduction in the deficit on a National Accounts basis of 35% from £153 billion to £100 billion between 2009–10 and 2013–14 contrasts with a reduction of only 20% in the size of the annual accounting deficit to £149 billion over that same period.

There has been a significant deterioration in the government’s financial position, with net liabilities in the WGA more than doubling in five years, from £0.8 trillion at 31 March 2009 to £1.85 trillion at 31 March 2014. This reflects an increase in public sector pension obligations to £1.3 trillion in addition to the near-doubling of public sector net debt in the National Accounts from £0.7 trillion to £1.4 trillion.

Effective financial management for the longer term involves addressing the balance sheet as well as revenue, expenditure and cash flows reported in the WGA but not in the National Accounts. A relatively high level of asset write-downs, growing pension obligations and increasing charges to cover nuclear decommissioning and clinical negligence exposures are areas of particular concern.

The WGA also provide further insight when considering the vulnerability of the public finances to future economic shocks, with total liabilities at 31 March 2014 of £3.2 trillion, or 177% of GDP. This is substantially higher than public sector net debt, the National Accounts measure typically referred to in this context, which stood at £1.4 trillion, or 78% of GDP, at that date. The former may matter more when thinking about the government’s ability to cope in the event of a future downturn.

Improving financial management within government will become more challenging as further devolution increases the complexity of the public sector in the UK. A necessary first step must be to replace the current complex web of internal financial reporting data collection processes with a modern standardised financial consolidation system for all public sector entities, which should enable the government to obtain and utilise accurate comprehensive financial performance data from across the public sector within days rather than months.

For more information, go to the IFS Green Budget 2016 website and open Chapter 4.

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