Skip to main content

Managing debt owed to central government

The National Audit Office has found that there is no integrated approach for managing debt across government. The Cabinet Office has raised awareness of the issue across government and HM Treasury has agreed new financial incentives for departments, but the centre of government has not yet fully got to grips with debt management, and the Cabinet Office and Treasury need to work together better.

Individuals and businesses are in debt to government for overdue tax liabilities, benefit or tax credits overpayments and other reasons, including outstanding fines and court confiscation orders. NAO data suggests that overdue debt identified by government was at least £22 billion at March 2013, against total collected revenue of over £600 billion in 2012-13.

According to today’s report, £6 billion of debt was written off in 2012-13 as irrecoverable, or ‘remitted’ on the basis that it was not a good use of scarce resources to pursue it. In total, government accounts show losses of more than £32 billion over the last five years. Government cannot easily control all losses – around 70 per cent result from write-offs in insolvency cases. But it intends to learn lessons from the way the tax credits system works to create overpayments to ‘design out’ unnecessary debt when implementing future policies such Universal Credit.

Government allows too much overdue debt to age, and this can lead to its value being eroded, as older debt is more difficult to collect. Some 61 per cent of debt owed to HMRC was more than 180 days old. For DWP, 81 per cent of benefit overpayment debt was more than 180 days old, and legal restrictions limit the rate of repayment from people on benefit, who make up 66% of DWP debtors.

Today’s report acknowledges that HMRC and DWP are working to reduce old debt by improving their understanding of debtors. However, the ability across government to manage debt is undermined by poor quality data, barriers to data sharing and inconsistent definitions. HM Courts & Tribunals Service, for example, found in a pilot that more than 96 per cent of aged debtor records were missing one or more basic pieces of information, such as a telephone number.

Ministers agreed in 2012 to look at bringing together government debt management and to make better use of departments’ buying power for specialist debt services. Conflicting priorities, poor data and uncertainties over departmental take-up have led to delays in agreeing a way forward. A business case is now being considered by the Treasury for departments to have a single point of access to external debt services, but the timetable is challenging, with services planned to start in late October 2014.

It is not currently possible to produce a ‘single view of the debtor’ across all departments. Furthermore, suitable data with which to benchmark the costs of debt management and collection across government does not yet exist, making it difficult for the centre of government to identify where best to target resources, and for departments to compare their performance.

 

“Government is owed a large amount of money but has yet to get to grips with how to manage that debt. It has not set out overall objectives and has no clear understanding of the financial risk that debt poses. Poor quality data on debtors and a lack of analytical capability are serious barriers to progress. The Cabinet Office has brought forward proposals for a more integrated approach, which the Treasury is now considering. Whatever the approach, departments and the centre of government need to work together better to establish a common understanding of the costs and benefits of pursuing debt, and on that basis establish a shared strategy.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office

Notes for Editors

£22bn
Total overdue debt owed to government at 31 March 2013

£41bn
Estimated cash collected against overdue debt in 2012-13

£6bn
Losses to government in 2012-13 from debt being written off or not pursued on value-for-money grounds ('remitted')

68 per cent
Of total government debt is owed to HMRC

87 per cent
Of overdue cash collected was collected by HMRC

61 per cent
Of HMRC debt is older than 180 days

81 per cent
Of DWP benefit overpayment debt is older than 180 days

66 per cent
Of DWP debtors receive benefits

£675 million
Of additional debt is expected to be recovered  by HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions as a result of new measures announced in Chancellor's December 2013 Autumn Statement

  1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  2. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Amyas Morse, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 860 staff. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of almost £1.2 billion in 2012.

PN: 12/14