'Inconvenient truths'? How big is the public sector debt?

28 September 2012

"One of the things about governing is it forces you to confront the inconvenient truths oppositions choose to ignore. Like the fact that, over the last 50 years, our economy has grown threefold, but our welfare spending is up sevenfold. Or the fact that, to sustain our spending, we are still borrowing a billion pounds every three days. Or that, as a result of that borrowing, we now spend more servicing the national debt than we do on our schools."

Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Conference, 26 September 2012

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's address to the Liberal Democrat Conference was notable for factcheckers for the three "inconvenient truths" he claims are part and parcel of being a party of government.

Full Fact looked at the first of these yesterday, finding that although welfare spending had grown seven times over during the past half century, this may be as much a result of demographic change as it was a policy choice.

But what of the other two? Is the Government borrowing a billion pounds every three days, and does it spend more interest on that debt than it does on schools?

How much is being borrowed?

The Office for National Statistics keeps tabs on the sums being borrowed by the government, and its latest monthly report shows that in August net public sector borrowing was £14.4 billion.

This actually represents slightly more than a billion pounds every three days, with £465 million lent to the state every day, the equivalent of nearly £1.4 billion every three days.

However if we take a longer-term view, the figures aren't quite as high. Over the past 12 months, a total of £101.9 billion had to be borrowed to meet the public sector's financial commitments, or an average of £279 million per day. This is the equivalent of £837 million every three days, slightly below Nick Clegg's figure, but not far wide of the mark.

Are we paying more to service our debt than for schools?

So does this level of borrowing mean that we now spend more in debt interest payments than we do on educating children?

The first part of this claim is easy to identify: according to this year's budget, a total of £46 billion  - over 6% of total government spending - is expected to be spent on servicing the government's debts in the 2012-13 financial year. However taken as a whole, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) expected some £91 million to be spent on education.

However this isn't quite the same as the 'schools budget' referenced by Nick Clegg, as the OBR's analysis included all the money spent on education, including tertiary education and administrative spending that would not normally be associated with schools.

To get a more refined picture we need to take a closer look at the Department for Education's annual accounts.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has done just this, and put the size of the schools budget at around £38 billion, although it's worth noting that if you include 16-19 education - much of which is conducted in schools - the budget rises to exactly £46 billion:


Both the second and third of Nick Clegg's 'inconvenient truths' can be stood up, although both need to be understood in the correct context.

While the public sector is actually borrowing a good deal more than a billion pounds every three days based on the most recent month's data, over the course of the year it is actually slightly below that benchmark.

Similarly, debt interest payments do cost the Treasury more than schools do, although the total education budget is a good deal larger.

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