George Osborne was finally able to boast of improved borrowing forecasts in the Autumn Statement (even if this year’s deficit, at £111bn, is still £51bn higher than expected in 2010) but the national debt will soon be £30bn larger. Painfully for the Tories, the increase is due to new EU accounting rules, which have forced the ONS to reclassify the state-owned Network Rail as a public sector body. Oddly, it had previously been classified as a private body despite having no shareholders.
As a result of the change, Network Rail’s current liabilities of £30bn (2% of GDP) will appear on the national accounts for the first time from 1 September 2014. That will make it even harder for Osborne to meet his target of reducing debt as a share of GDP by 2015-16 (already pushed back to 2016-17), with the level now forecast to peak at 82%. The change is also expected to increase annual borrowing by an average of 0.2% from now on.
Another consequence is that ministers are now responsible for approving bonus payments to the body’s executives and for other financial decisions. With five bosses set to receive £2m if performance targets are met, this is likely to become a matter of political controversy in the future. Labour MP Tom Harris tweeted earlier: “Now that Network Rail debt is officially govt debt, no excuse for ministerial “hands off” approach. 1st casualty should be directors bonuses”.