Latest Whole of Government Accounts shows £2.4trn net liability

28 Jun 18

Whole of Government Accounts for 2016-17 have been published today, showing the government’s liabilities outstripped its assets by £2.4 trillion.

The National Audit Office continued to qualify the accounts, while noting improvements to their accuracy and completeness.

The WGA balance sheet values 2016-17 liabilities at £4.2trn, much higher than the £1.9trn in the value of assets.

Almost 80% of government liabilities were made up of government borrowing (£1.3trn), provisions (£0.3trn) and pensions liabilities (£1.8trn).

The WGA noted that some of these liabilities are due to be paid over a number of years, decades or even, in the case of the nuclear provision, over a century.

It also noted that accounting rules do not allow future tax revenue to be recognised as an asset.

“Therefore, WGA includes the full value of certain future commitments, but not the income that will be generated to pay those liabilities as they fall due,” the document stated.

Elsewhere, the WGA said spending on public services had remained stable over the last five years at £749bn, while revenue had increased from £620.7bn to £720.8bn.

Social protection, such as the state pension and other social security benefits, accounted for the biggest share of public spending at £264.3bn (37%), followed by health at £144.3bn (20%) and education at £87.2bn (12%).

Regionally, London, the South East and North West took the largest shares of public spending in cash terms at £89.6bn, £73.2bn and £68.1bn respectively.

Spending was lowest in Northern Ireland (£20.6bn) and the North East (£25.5bn).

However, on a per head basis, Northern Ireland was the best funded of the four UK nations, seeing expenditure of £11,042 per head, followed by Scotland (£10,651) and Wales (£10,076). England saw considerably less public spending at £8,898 per head.

Among the English regions, spending on a per head basis was highest in London (£10,192) and lowest in the South East (£8,111).

Comptroller and auditor general Amyas Morse issued another qualified opinion on the 2016-17 accounts, but reduced the number of qualifications to this opinion.

Qualifications relate to the exclusion of Royal Bank of Scotland (regarded by the Office for National Statistics as in the public sector) from the accounts and ongoing accounting problems at the Ministry of Defence and in the academy sector.

The NAO also noted the time taken to produce WGA, around 13 months after accounting year-end, limited their usefulness.

But it did acknowledge that the WGA was increasingly important to ongoing management of the public finances and used by external stakeholders such as the International Monetary Fund and Institute for Fiscal Studies, as well as within government.

“The Treasury used the WGA to scope its balance sheet review, launched in November 2017, and identify initial opportunities to make more effective use of assets, improve the return from investments and reduce the cost of liabilities,” the NAO said.

“The Treasury plans to provide an update on the review findings in the 2018 Budget.”

The auditor also urged the Treasury to set out a plan for producing WGA sooner and continue work to raise their profile.

The 2016-17 WGA report is the eighth to have been produced.

WGA consolidates the audited accounts of over 7,000 public sector organisations including central government departments, local authorities, devolved bodies, the NHS and public corporations.

Prepared in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards, it is the only set of consolidated public sector accounts in the world.

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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