Breaking down Brexit – what does it mean for the public sector?
Association of Chartered Certified Accountants' Manj Kalar analyses what Brexit could mean for the public sector in financial terms.
The momentous decision that was taken by the UK on 23 June to leave the EU will no doubt reverberate for a number of years. Dismantling all the legislation, government funding frameworks developed over 40 years will take quite some time to fully unravel.
It will call for the public sector to use all their expertise and skills and develop many new ones to achieve a successful transition. Some of the key areas where there will be an impact are outlined below:
Change in focus?
Over the last 6 years the key focus has been austerity so that a public spending surplus would be achieved by 2020. A tough Spending Review settlement was agreed by the public sector, providing certainty over funding over the next 4 years continuing the efficiency agenda to 2020.
Many leading economists including the influential Institute for Fiscal Studies were questioning whether the ongoing scale of cuts to government spending could be achieved before the result under two weeks ago. After the result it became a whole lot more difficult: Government lost its triple A rating. Why does this matter? Although the UK government has net liabilities over £2 trillion per the latest UK Whole of Government Accounts; it has, by and large, maintained the triple A rating which has translated to lowest level of interest payable on government borrowing. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s ready reckoner suggests that in general a 1 percentage point increase in both gilt rates and short rates in each of the next five years would increase central government debt interest spending in 2019–20 by £5.3 billion (in 2019–20 terms). This will make achieving the agreed public sector spending reductions even more difficult.
In 2015 the UK Government paid £13bn to the EU budget which is net £5bn of the instant rebate; the EU spending in the UK was £4.5bn; so the net contribution was £8.5bn. Therefore, in theory, there will be additional funding available for the many demands including:
Cost of dismantling EU legislation and Regulation
EU funding has been channelled to support many areas of spend across the UK. For example support for agriculture through DEFRA. Farmers receive funding through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), In 2015, UK farmers received almost €3.1bn (£2.4bn) in direct payments, according to the NFU. There is no doubt that similar levels of funding or potentially more will be sought to supplement what they will no longer receive from the EU. It may surprise some to note that one of the biggest recipients of the CAP funding is the National Trust (almost £12 million in 2015). Similarly those receiving support as a result of the Common Fisheries Policy will be seeking the same assurances and/or relaxation on fishing quotas. UK has 16% of total EU fish processing jobs, the highest of any EU country. These may be easier to identify and potential solution for a way forward. However, there are many other areas where unravelling the web of EU funding may not be so easy.
Take for instance the significant sums provided for regional development funding and infrastructure investment such as road networks and rail. European Investment Bank loan investments in the UK economy came to €29 billion over the 5 year period 2011-2015. This was €7.8 billion in 2015: energy projects accounted for 24% of total investments, while transport and water claimed 22% and 21% respectively. In Northern Ireland funding has been negotiated to support the development of the road network. The Northern Powerhouse was going to receive funding to supplement government investment in bringing the high speed 3 rail network and in London the cross rail project (£1bn) linking the west of London to the east of the UK. Some of these are underway and funding has been committed and others negotiated. A departure from the EU will require all of these to be assessed. Will the projects underway continue? One would assume so. But what does this mean for those in the discussion phase? Given changes in interest rates payable this will change the original business cases for the infrastructure investment.
Another significant area is the cost of dismantling the legislation. The number of Acts of parliament and statutory instruments over the last 43 or 44 years that refer to EU legislation will all need to be reviewed and potentially amended. This raises potential capacity issues as it will require more legal experts to consider what elements of EU directives and regulations should be retained in UK law. The number of lawyers across government have fallen as the public sector has contracted by 15% since 2010 as a result of civil service reform and meeting the spending review efficiency targets. The civil service is now smaller than at any time since the end of WW2 and stands at 406,140 according to the latest figures available. This is before the Parliamentary timetable to considered legislative changes is considered. This will impact on the timing of legislative changes and the impact on Parliament’s capacity to consider and debate issues unrelated to the impact of the EU referendum.
Linked to foreign travel is the EU passport. Questions that will need to be addressed include will a new UK passport be required? What about the EU passports in circulation? Will there be a period of grace before these are withdrawn or will there be a cliff edge cut off point? One has only to think back to the summer 2014 when there were significant backlogs to processing passport applications. Of the 56.1 million usually resident population of England and Wales in 2011, 76 percent (42.5 million) held a UK passport. Any change to the current approach therefore has the potential to be significant
Not all these decisions can be made unilaterally and in devising policies around this will require interaction with the EU as well as making practical changes, requiring upfront investment by the UK Passport Service into technology as well as staffing to manage the transition.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office is another department that has seen a significant reduction in embassy staff. This was part of the efficiency drive under austerity and was possible due to sharing these duties and support from other government departments (DFID, NCA and BIS). This will need to be reversed to meet the growing need to ensure the embassy network is fully functioning.
There are many practical questions around health ranging from staffing to travel. Currently, there is the E111 to guarantee medical health care provision if UK citizens fall ill when in an EU country. Will this still service still be available? Will UK citizens need to take out travel insurance to cover any medical bills? Or will government be required to pay this back? What will the service look like, and how will it work, will need to be developed. Presently, the Department for Health reported £434m payable for UK travellers requiring medical treatment in the EEA and received £50m for EEA travellers requiring medical treatment in the UK. Will they need increased administrative support to invoice and chase non-payment? This will potentially (inevitably?) create an additional overhead.
There has been EU funding for teaching hospitals and the ERAMUS programme, an exchange programme that fosters mobility for talent flows. Higher education institutions will be seeking assurances to ensure new rules allow for such cultural exchange and talent transition to continue.
There are many demands on the £8.5 bn funding that ‘would have gone to the EU’ and more will be required to consider the impact on trade negotiations. As noted in the newly created Brexit unit, ‘bringing together the brightest and best’ across the civil service to be headed by Olly Robbins, a significant proportion of resources will need to develop policies and procedures to ensure the UK has the trading relationship it seeks from the EU and other countries. Given the time taken to negotiate TTIP and other trade agreements (e.g. the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement has taken almost 8 years to agree) any changes will undoubtedly require time and expert negotiation skills.
The risk is that government spirals into inertia as the focus is on the impact of Brexit. But service improvement, continued public service delivery and savings delivery plans need to remain in focus if public services are to be delivered effectively, efficiently and economically to meet plans to meet the public spending reductions.
Therein is the challenge how to focus on ensuring a successful transition and extraction from the EU and maintain government finances which are likely to come under severe pressure. The Governor of the Bank of England has already allocated £250bn to support the banks if there is another repeat of the 2008 situation. The level of government support is £1,174.5bn (short term £235.2bn and long term £939.3bn) in the 2014 Whole of Government Accounts (an increase of £78.4 billion on the previous year.) This will come at a cost – increased interest payments.
As Gus O’Donnell remarked this is what the civil service does best and will manage but based on the projected costs it will be a number of years before the benefit of the ‘additional’ £8.5bn is going to be felt if at all if there is a cost associated with keeping access to the EU.