One of the many myths about the UK’s public finances is around the use of the word ‘fund’. This is often assumed to imply there is a pot of money set aside to cover spending requirements, when in practice it tends to refer to a budget allocation. An example is the National Productivity Investment Fund that was announced in 2016, which turned out to refer to unallocated amounts within the government’s budget for capital expenditure over several years.
Despite this terminology there are some actual ‘funds’ that have a legal basis and which have money in them, such the Contingencies Fund, where cash of £425bn passed through its accounts in response to the pandemic last year (up from £17bn in the previous year). However, net assets remained unchanged by this tidal wave of money at just £2m, highlighting how many such funds are principally mechanisms to facilitate the flow of money around government on the way to its intended destination.
The Great Britain National Insurance Fund and the Northern Ireland National Insurance Fund are perhaps the most well known of these funds, being the source of payments for the state pension and contributory welfare benefits. Surprisingly, there is a balance in these funds, which caused some excitement in a House of Lords debate last year when a peer decided that this was a pot of money that could be used to fund more spending.
Before getting too excited, it is important to understand that although the £42bn in the Great Britain National Insurance Fund sounds like a large amount of money, the reality is that it is more akin to a float, representing less than five months’ worth of annual payments from the fund and a relatively small fraction of the trillions of pounds in future payments expected to be paid out of the fund over the next quarter of a century and beyond. Likewise for the £1bn in the Northern Ireland National Insurance Fund.
In addition, when you delve into the accounts, you discover that most of the balances are invested in HM Treasury’s Debt Management Account, which are in effect intercompany balances (or ‘intra-government’ to be more technically accurate).
As our chart illustrates, the Great Britain National Insurance Fund had a balance of £37bn on 1 April 2020, equivalent to about 4.2 months of expenditure in the 2019/20 financial year. National Insurance receipts in Great Britain (ie, not including Northern Ireland) amounted to £140bn during 2020/21, including £3bn from other tax receipts to make up for contributions not received for those on statutory maternity, paternity, parental or bereavement pay.
Some £26bn of the national insurance contributions was deducted and sent off to help pay for the NHS, reducing the amount added to the fund to £114bn, while payments from the fund during the year amounted to £109bn. The latter comprised £100.4bn for the state pension, £5.2bn to cover contributory welfare benefits (employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance), £0.9bn in administration costs, £0.8bn in bereavement and maternity allowances, £0.7bn in transfers to the Northern Ireland equivalent fund, £0.5bn in redundancy payments and £0.2bn in other payments.
The £5bn or so of surplus was added to the balance of the fund, taking it to £42bn at 31 March 2021, equivalent to 4.6 months of annual payments.
To be fair to the noble lord concerned, it might well be possible to use some of the money in the fund by reducing the effective float balance by a month or two, at least on a one-off basis. However, in the context of public spending in excess of £1.2trn a year and public sector net debt of £2.3trn, it is not likely to go that far!
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