The Treasury has warned MPs that it is likely to miss its anticipated publication date for the next Whole of Government Accounts snapshot of public spending after two-thirds of the bodies that contribute to the roundup missed a deadline for filing their figures.
The admission follows concerns from the Public Accounts Committee that the department was suffering from “optimism bias” in relation to plans to publish the 2020-21 WGA by the end of next March and the 2021-22 WGA just eight months later.
Treasury director general for public spending Cat Little told PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier that new problems with the department’s OSCAR II database had emerged over the summer that made hitting the March deadline “unlikely”. She said discussions about what a realistic timeline might be were ongoing.
“New system capacity issues have emerged over the summer months and at times some entities have had difficulty in accessing and using the system,” Little said of OSCAR II, which departments and other public bodies use to submit data to the Treasury.
“These performance issues have impacted all processes that use OSCAR II and have not been isolated to WGA; they are different to the WGA-specific problems that we faced in preparing the 2019-20 WGA which have not re-emerged this year.
“In light of the performance issues we moved the data submission deadline back from 31 August to 30 September 2022. System performance has improved over the last month but we continue to monitor it closely and work with our supplier, Deloitte, to address capacity constraints.”
The WGA brings together spending data from around 10,000 organisations, including central government departments, NHS bodies, councils and schools. The latest figures show that the UK public sector spent £918.7bn on public services and collected revenue of £813.3bn in 2019-20.
Little said only “a little over one third” of the entities that feed into the WGA had submitted their accounts by the 30 September deadline and acknowledged that problems with OSCAR II were not the only issue.
“A number of departments have notified us that they will not be able to submit audited data until the end of October 2022, which is of course disappointing, and we are engaging with them to expedite their returns,” she said.
Other issues affecting the accounts include failings in the local-government audit market in England and Wales that mean increasing numbers of councils have been unable to meet submissions deadlines because their accounts have not been audited.
Last week’s PAC report noted that the 2019-20 WGA, which was published in July, contained unaudited and therefore “unreliable” data for 29 local authorities, and excluded a further 23 councils altogether.
The report suggested problems with local-government audit would escalate further and the Treasury’s proposed workarounds could have “negative consequences” for the quality of the data contained in the WGA.
In her letter to PAC chair Hillier, dated 4 October but published yesterday, Little acknowledged problems being faced by the 355 councils in England and Wales.
She said "a specific issue with evidencing reported balances in respect of local roads infrastructure" was preventing a number of local authorities from completing their 2020-21 accounts audits.
“We will be revisiting our planning assumptions in light of the data submission landscape over October and after further discussions with the NAO to make sure the updated timetable is realistic,” she said.
Little, who has been promoted to second permanent secretary since writing the letter, said she expected the publication dates for both WGA 2020-21 and WGA 2021-22 to be later than the ones set out earlier, but said the Treasury would “look to continue to make year-on-year progress” to get back on track.
MPs have long stressed the importance of producing WGA data as soon as possible after the financial year it relates to.
In 2018, James Bowler – then the Treasury's director general for public spending and now its perm sec – set out plans for WGA data to be published within 12 months of the financial year it covered.
While that target was missed by just under four months for the 2018-19 data, the following year's accounts were not published until 26 months after the financial year in question.
Publishing WGA 2020-21 by next March would have represented a two-month improvement on that timeframe, and the November deadline for WGA 2021-22 would have removed a further four months – bringing publication down to 20 months after the financial year in question.
That would have been the same gap as the first WGA, which related to 2009-10 but was not published until November 2011.
Last week, PAC members cautioned that delays reduce the value and transparency of information in the WGA to the public and to decision makers in government, and reduce the certainty of any consequent insights, conclusions, or decisions.
“We still desperately need to see the big picture as the government balances one massive intervention after another – from the pandemic response to the interrelated energy, climate, and cost-of-living crises we face now and into the future,” Hillier said.
“The public also deserves a clear and transparent record of the full costs and liabilities that generations of current and future taxpayers have been committed to.”