Boost for Chancellor as Government borrowing hits decade low in September

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Chancellor Philip Hammond was handed a boost to the public finances ahead of November's Budget as Government borrowing fell to its lowest level in a decade last month.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed borrowing, excluding state-owned banks, unexpectedly dropped in September by £700 million to £5.9 billion in contrast to last year.

It ensured that the UK's public finances recorded its lowest net borrowing figure since September 2007, while also coming in shy of economists' expectations of £6.7 billion.

The outcome means Government borrowing for the current financial year, April to September, also dropped by £2.5 billion to £32.5 billion - also the lowest level for 10 years.

The update gave some encouragement to currency traders, with sterling paring its losses against the US dollar to sit 0.1% lower at 1.31. The pound was 0.3% higher versus the euro at 1.11.

Howard Archer, chief economic adviser for EY Item Club, said the result delivered "very welcome news" for Mr Hammond as the November Budget looms.

He added: "If the pattern of the first six months were repeated over the full fiscal year, 2017/18 public borrowing would come in at £42.4 billion - which would be substantially below the shortfall of £58.3 billion forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in March's Budget.

"On the face of it, the much better-than-expected public finances over the first half of 2017/18 gives the Chancellor appreciable room for manoeuvre in November's Budget."

The Government will take some cheer from September's borrowing figures after dismal analysis from Britain's fiscal watchdog earlier in the month left Mr Hammond grappling with a potential black hole in next month's Budget.

The OBR admitted last week that it is set to cut its productivity predictions for the next five years in November's forecasts, likely leading to lower growth and tax receipts.

Despite the blow, Mr Hammond still remains on track to undershoot the OBR's forecast of £58.3 billion for the financial year ending in March 2018.

The UK's public finances have enjoyed a lift from strong tax receipts during the current financial year to September, rising by £12.1 billion to £334.5 billion compared to last year.

However, Government spending has also climbed over the period by £10.1 billion to £342.9 billion, up from £332.8 billion during 2016/17.

John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC, said the gap in the UK public finances after the financial crisis had largely been filled, but at the cost of higher accumulated public debt stock.

He said: "It certainly looks like the budget deficit for 2017/18 as a whole will be a long way below the OBR's March forecast of around £58 billion, and quite possibly lower than the latest estimated out-turn of £45.7 billion in 2016/17.

"The latter was just 2.3% of GDP, so the budget deficit this year could be down to close to 2% of GDP, broadly in line with the Chancellor's 2020 deficit target.

"All of this might suggest that the Chancellor could have significant room to ease off on austerity in the Budget, but the fly in the ointment here is that the OBR said last week it is likely to revise down future assumed productivity growth in its new economic forecasts, which would also imply slower tax revenue growth.

"This will probably be partly offset by higher assumed future jobs growth, but the net impact of these forecast changes is likely to be higher projected borrowing."

The ONS said public sector net debt, excluding state-owned banks, increased by £145.2 billion to £1,785.3 billion last month, equivalent to 87.2% of gross domestic product (GDP).

A Treasury spokesman said: "Whilst we've made great progress getting the deficit down by over two thirds, government borrowing is still far too high at over £150 million a day.

"We will continue to take a balanced approach that deals with our debts and allows us to invest in our public services."