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Finding savings in the £1,087bn public spending budget

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 10 Nov 2022

Martin Wheatcroft FCA, external advisor on public finances to ICAEW, assesses what options the government has left to reduce the gap between receipts and expenditure.

Despite rolling back £32bn out of the £45bn of tax cuts announced in the mini-Budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt is expected to announce tax rises as well as spending cuts when he sets out the Government’s Autumn Statement and medium-term fiscal plan on 17 November.

The consensus is that he needs to find around £50bn a year to reduce the gap between receipts and expenditure if he wants to get the public finances back under control and provide himself with some headroom in case the situation deteriorates further. This could include extending beyond April 2026 the freeze in personal tax allowances announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when he was Chancellor, as well as scaling back the ‘levelling up’ agenda of previous Prime Minister-but-one Boris Johnson.

You’d think trimming 3% or so off an annual public spending bill of over a trillion pounds a year wouldn’t be that difficult, but each of the main options for cutting spending in the medium-term are unpalatable and politically challenging: 

  • Real-terms cuts in pensions and welfare are possible but difficult to deliver politically during a cost-of-living crisis, as previous Prime Minister Liz Truss discovered when she was forced to deny she was planning to abandon the triple-lock mechanism.
  • Real-terms cuts in public sector pay are likely but come with the prospect of much greater disruption from industrial action and increasing difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff.
  • Cutting investment in infrastructure and capital programmes is the easiest option to achieve but comes with risks to future economic growth and business investment.
  • Greater efficiency is possible but practically difficult to deliver, with significant project delivery risks and the need for sufficient capital investment to be successful.
  • Higher fees and charges are possible but risk a political backlash.
  • Lowering public service outputs or quality is possible but there are practical limits to how far you can continue to cut funding for many public services without adverse effects.

Forecasts for public spending

Total managed expenditure is budgeted to amount to £1,087bn in the current financial year ending 31 March 2023 (2022/23), equivalent to approximately £1,340 per month for each of the 67.5m people who live in the UK, or £3,220 per month for each of the 28.1m UK households.

Based on inflation assumptions decided on back in March, the Office for Budget Responsibility projected that total spending would experience a real-terms cut of 1.2% to £1,100bn in 2023/24, and then real-terms increases of 0.5% to £1,127bn in 2024/25, 1.4% to £1,166bn in 2025/26 and 1.4% to £1,206bn in 2026/27.

Forecasts for total spending are expected to be revised upwards by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) when it reports on 17 November.

What makes up public spending?

Budgeted public spending of £1,087bn in the current financial year ending 31 March 2023 can be broadly split between £295bn (27%) on pensions and welfare, £252bn (23%) on health and social care, £436bn (40%) on public services and £104bn (10%) on debt and other interest.

Spending on public services other than health and social care is budgeted to comprise £126bn (12% of total spending) on education, £59bn (5%) on defence and security, £47bn (4%) on transport, £43bn (4%) on public order and safety and £161bn (15%) on all the other services that central and local government provide.

These numbers are on a fiscal basis as presented in the National Accounts, in accordance with statistical standards that include capital expenditure net of depreciation. They exclude long-term expenditures such as accrued public sector pension obligations that are reported in the IFRS-based Whole of Government Accounts. They are also net of approximately £55bn in fees and charges and £5bn from the proceeds of asset sales.

Hands tied on spending

As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt look for potential savings, they are finding that their hands are tied by the financial commitments made by successive governments, especially since the second world war. These commitments created the welfare state we know today, with pensions, welfare benefits, health and social care together now making up half of total public spending. Since the last general election this government has added to these commitments, including a significant expansion in eligibility for adult social care and increasing the value of state pensions through the triple-lock mechanism.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor have a difficult task in trying to reduce the gap between receipts and expenditure. Politically it will be difficult to raise taxes, but there will also be political, financial and operational consequences and risks in how they choose to cut spending. And with an increased focus by the markets on the credibility of their plans, there will be less room to pencil in optimistic ‘anticipated’ savings into the later years of the five-year forecast period.

You can read more on this from Martin Wheatcroft FCA here: Just why is cutting public spending so difficult?

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