Public sector net debt when Labour came to power in 1997 was running at 40.5% of our total national income. In the early days of Labour, following Conservative spending plans, they took it down to 30.4% by 2001-2. They used to say wisely that they wanted to spend more of the tax revenue on services for people and less on debt interest. Thereafter, they greatly increased spending, and later acquired holdings in large banks. By the time they left office, in 2009-10, national debt had reached 151.7% of our national income.
At the end of last year this figure had fallen to 134.5% of GDP. Reductions in other public sector liabilities, primarily those held by the banks in public ownership, and the increase in nominal GDP, more than offset the impact of increased borrowing by the central government. Sale of the banks will make a further large difference when that is accomplished. The four years 2010-2013 have seen the public sector banking liabilities cut by £78bn.
These figures do not include the value of future pension liabilities under the state pension scheme, though the government has published separate numbers for this for those interested. Nor are these larger numbers, provided by this government, in common use despite many people requesting more accurate overall statements of government indebtedness. Most commentators and politicians still concentrate on the narrower definition of public sector debt which excludes the banks and trading businesses in the public sector. Here in 2005 net debt was just £475bn- – on both definitions as the state owned no banks. By 2010 the narrower definiton of debt had reached £984bn, hitting £1254 bn by the end of 2013. This is 75.7% of GDP, compared to the 30.4% in 2001-2.
Some contributors to this site persist in saying the total level of debt does not matter. I disagree. If the state owes £1250bn and has to refinance this, being unable to repay it, it is vulnerable to rising interest rates. If over the next decade the average cost of state borrowing rose by just 2%, that means an extra £25bn of public spending every year on interest charges. That will require either £25bn of spending cuts or £25bn of extra tax revenue. That is why controlling the debt and deficit matters. Getting rid of more of the banking risk is an important part of this process. Even the UK state is stretched by the size of RBS, and the potential it still has to lose money. The sooner that risk is reduced and removed from the national balance sheet, the better.
Today the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has explained how Labour’s proposed rules for the next Parliament should they be in government would allow them to borrow substantially more than the Coalition proposals over the next Parliament. Labour contests the £166bn figure of extra borrowing which assumes they use all their available flexibility to 2021, , but has not come up with a revised figure of their own. So far interviewers have not pinned down how much extra they would be likely to borrow for capital projects.
(The figures come from December 2013 Statistical Bulletin Public Sector Finances ONS)