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August public sector finances: fourth-highest monthly deficit on record

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 21 Sep 2023

Deficit marginally better than had been expected according to the latest figures from the ONS, but costly public sector problems emerge.

 The monthly public sector finances for August 2023 were released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday 21 September 2023. These reported a provisional deficit for the fifth month of the 2023/24 financial year of £12bn, bringing the total deficit for the five months to £70bn, £19bn more than in the same period in the previous year.

Alison Ring OBE FCA, Public Sector and Taxation Director for ICAEW, said: “While August’s deficit was marginally better than expected, problems costly to the public sector continue to emerge, from crumbling concrete in public buildings to Birmingham Council’s recent bankruptcy, and are likely to weigh on the Chancellor’s mind as he considers November’s Autumn Statement. 

“Both main parties are rightly cautious about making new public spending commitments in the current economic environment, including whether or not to extend the state pension triple lock into the next parliament. Whether they can hold this position as they enter into the party conference season remains to be seen.”

Month of August 2023

The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the month of August 2023 was just under £12bn, being tax and other receipts of £84bn less total managed expenditure of £96bn – up 5% and 8% respectively compared with August 2022.

This was the fourth highest August deficit on record since monthly records began in 1993, following the deficits of £14bn in August 2021 and £24bn in August 2020 during the pandemic and £12bn in August 2009 during the financial crisis.

Five months to August 2023

The provisional shortfall in taxes and other receipts compared with total managed expenditure for the five months to August 2023 was £70bn, £20bn more than the £50bn deficit reported for the first five months of 2022/23. This reflected a widening gap between tax and other receipts for the five months of £428bn and total managed expenditure of £498bn, up 7% and 10% respectively compared with April to August 2022.

Inflation benefited tax receipts for the first five months compared with the previous year, with income tax and VAT receipts both up 12% to £104bn and £84bn respectively. However, corporation tax was only up 13% to £37bn despite the increase in the corporation tax rate from 19% to 25% from 1 April 2023, and national insurance receipts were down by 3% to £71bn because of the abolition of the short-lived health and social care levy last year. Stamp duty on properties was down by £2bn or 29% to £6bn and the total for all other taxes was up just 3% to £82bn as economic activity slowed. Non-tax receipts were up 12% to £44bn, primarily driven by higher investment income.

Total managed expenditure of £428bn in the five months to August can be analysed between current expenditure excluding interest of £418bn (up £34bn or 9% over the same period in the previous year), interest of £61bn (up £6bn or 11%), and net investment of £19bn (up £7bn or 57%).

The increase of £34bn in current expenditure excluding interest compared with the prior year has been driven by a £14bn increase in benefit payments, £9bn in higher central government staff costs, £5bn in additional central government procurement spending and £5bn in energy support scheme costs, plus £1bn in net other changes.

The rise in interest costs of £6bn to £61bn reflects a £14bn increase in interest on non-inflation linked debt to £38bn as the Bank of England base rate rose, offset by an £8bn fall in the interest payable on index-linked debt to £23bn as inflation is running at a lower level than it was for the same period last year.

The £7bn increase in net investment spending to £15bn in the first five months of the current year reflects high construction cost inflation among other factors that saw an £8bn or 23% increase in gross investment to £44bn, less a £1bn increase in depreciation to £25bn. 

Public sector finance trends: August 2023 

 Five months to  Aug 2019 (£bn)   Aug 2020 (£bn)  Aug 2021 (£bn)   Aug 2022 (£bn)   Aug 2023 (£bn
 Receipts  336  298  355  401  428
 Expenditure  (323)  (428)  (386)  (384)  (418)
 Interest  (28)  (18)  (30)  (55)  (61)
 Net investment  (13)  (30)  (18)  (12)  (19)
 Deficit  (28)  (178)  (79)  (50)  (70)
 Other borrowing  13  (74)  6  2  14
 Debt movement  (15)  (252)  (73)  (48)  (56)
 Net debt  1,792  2,067  2,226  2,431  2,594
 Net debt / GDP  79.8%  98.8%  96.2%  96.5%  98.8%

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. 

The latest release saw the ONS revise the reported deficit for the four months to July 2023 up by £2bn as estimates of tax receipts and expenditure were updated for better data, and it also reduced the reported deficit for the 2022/23 financial year by £1bn to £128bn for methodology changes in addition to new data. 

The methodology changes also saw small revisions in the reported deficits for previous periods back to 1999, most notably reductions of £1bn to the deficits in 2019/20 and 2020/21 and an increase of £2bn in the reported deficit for 2021/22.

Balance sheet metrics

Public sector net debt was £2,594bn at the end of August 2023, equivalent to 98.8% of GDP.

The debt movement since the start of the financial year was £56bn, comprising borrowing to fund the deficit for the five months of £70bn less £14bn in net cash inflows as loan repayments and positive working capital movements exceeded cash outflows for lending to students, business and others.

Public sector net debt is £779bn or 43% higher than it was on 31 March 2020, reflecting the huge sums borrowed since the start of the pandemic.

Public sector net worth, the new balance sheet metric launched by the Office for National Statistics this year, was -£618bn on 31 August 2023, comprising £1,604bn in non-financial assets, £1,038bn in non-liquid financial assets, £2,594bn of net debt (£339bn in liquid financial assets less public sector gross debt of £2,933bn) and other liabilities of £667bn. This is a £61bn deterioration from the -£557bn reported for 31 March 2023.

This new measure seeks to capture more assets and liabilities than the narrowly focused public sector net debt measure traditionally used to assess the financial position of the UK public sector. However, it excludes unfunded employee pension liabilities that amounted to over £2trn at 31 March 2021 according to the Whole of Government Accounts, although they are expected to be much lower today as discount rates have risen significantly since then.

For further information, read the public sector finances release for August 2023.

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