The Barnett formula and the financing of devolution

How the system works

The UK’s devolved administrations are, for the most part, financed by what is known as a ‘block grant and formula’ system’.   As a block grant, the funding allocated to them can be spent freely by the devolved administrations as they see fit.  They are not tied to spending it on any particular functions.  The ‘formula’ part relates to how it is calculated – for which the Barnett formula is used.

The formula does not relate to all public spending in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The UK Government continues to spend on a range of non-devolved functions as well.  More than 60 per cent of ‘territorially identifiable’ public spending in Scotland comes from the Scottish Government, and the balance from the UK Government.  In Wales, the proportion is about 55 per cent of all territorially identifiable spending. The rest is by the UK Government, and social security payments – welfare benefits and pensions – makes up the bulk of that. (The figures for Northern Ireland are rather confusing, as social security is devolved but subject to requirements to ensure there is parity with the system in Great Britain – something that has become an increasing source of controversy in 2014, with the UK Government’s welfare reform agenda.)

The formula gives the devolved administrations a proportionate share of spending on ‘comparable’ functions in England, given their populations compared to England’s.   The population proportions for 2011-14 (expressed as a percentage of the population of England) are:

Scotland                                 10.03

Wales                                          5.79

Northern Ireland                  3.45

(Updated population figures were approved as part of the 2013 Spending Review, but do not seem to have been published.)

Whether a function is ‘comparable’ or not, and the extent to which it is comparable, varies from case to case.  Like the population figures, comparability percentages are calculated at each spending review.  They are set out in the Statement of Funding Policy issued by HM Treasury, which is available from the link below (see the table on page 15), and relate to spending by each UK Government department.  The departmental figures in turn depend on whether individual programmes are devolved or not – meaning whether the programme is for the benefit of the UK as a whole, or for the particular parts of it. ‘Territorially identifiable’ spending does not include spending which is considered to benefit the UK as a whole rather than individuals or areas within it, such as that on defence, foreign affairs and international development.

The formula only relates to changes to the block grant, not to the underlying baseline.  The allocation in Year 1 will be varied by changes calculated as above, which are added in Year 2 (and so become the baseline for Year 3). That baseline has, however, never been reviewed.  It has simply accrued since the formula was first adopted in 1976.

The status of the formula

All key decisions regarding the working of the formula and the block grant and formula system are taken by HM Treasury.  The Treasury has extensive discretion about its operation – most notably, whether an event should trigger a consequential payment or not.  For example, the Treasury decided in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review to exclude all spending on the 2012 London Olympics from triggering consequentials, on the ground that it was for the benefit of the UK as a whole.  (See posts HERE and HERE for more detail.)  This was despite the fact that much of the spending was on regeneration of the area around Stratford in east London, which would have triggered consequentials in any other context.  The result was an enduring dispute between the UK and devolved governments.

The formula’s basis is that it is simply Treasury ‘policy’.  It is not enshrined in statute, or given any legal or constitutional form.  It is simply set out in an internal document of the UK Government.  (A complaint sometimes made by devolved finance ministers is that they have no right to sign or otherwise approve the Statement when it is revised.  It is signed on behalf of the devolved administrations by the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.)  Authority to pay the grant is given each year in the Supply and Appropriation Act passed by Parliament, and the grant is paid to the territorial Secretary of State, who passes it on to the devolved administration after deducting the cost of running his or her Office.

What the formula doesn’t do

The baseline, and the financial allocations provided by the system more generally, pay no regard to ‘need’ (whatever one might understand that to mean).  They simply are.  This has given rise to much political debate about whether need should be a factor, and how that should be applied.

The Barnett formula only applies to spending which is territorially identifiable, and which forms part of a ‘Departmental Expenditure Limit’ (DEL).  DEL spending is planned at least three years ahead, through the spending review process.  The other sort of public spending is called Annually Managed Expenditure (AME), which varies much more from year to year and cannot be planned in the same way.  The main category of domestic AME spending is that on social security benefits, though much Ministry of Defence spending is AME too.

The formula does not apply to spending within England, or the allocation of territorially identifiable public spending across the UK as a whole.  This varies widely (see the IPPR paper linked below for some slightly dated details).  The formula is only responsible for allocations to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Needs-related formulae are used to allocate spending for local government, health and (to varying extent) schools in all parts of the UK, including within England – though the efficacy with which they do so in England was shown by the Commons Public Accounts Committee in November 2011 to be rather limited.

Reviewing devolution finance

Since 2007, there has been a very active debate about devolution finance.  This is addressed in detail in many posts on this blog.  In Scotland, the Scotland Act 2012 provides for implementation of two key proposals from the Calman Commission set up by the three unionist parties: the devolution of 10 percentage ‘points’ of personal income tax and some smaller land-related taxes to the Scottish Parliament, to create a measure of ‘fiscal accountability’.   Devolution of land taxes will take effect from April 2015, and that of income tax is planned to start in April 2016. The Scottish Government has called for ‘full fiscal autonomy’, though the referendum campaign has put that on the back boiler since 2011.

Similar proposals were made for Wales by the Silk Commission in its Part 1 report in November 2012, and are set out in the Wales Bill introduced into Parliament in March 2014.

In Northern Ireland, the key issue has been the devolution of corporation tax so that a lower rate, closer to that in the Republic of Ireland, could be set.  No action has been taken about that, though the issue remains in principle under consideration.  The Northern Ireland Executive has, however, secured the devolution of air passenger duty for long haul flights (and set the devolved rate at zero.)

Information and resources

The most recent (2010) edition of HM Treasury’s Statement of Funding Policy is here.

The Lords Select Committee on the Barnett Formula’s report is here.

The reports of the Holtham Commission set up by the Welsh Assembly Government (which assessed the case for a needs based formula for Wales, and how that might be done) are here.

The report of the Calman Commission is here.

The Scottish Government’s February 2009 paper on fiscal autonomy (part of the ‘National Conversation) is here, and its February 2011 one on ‘full fiscal responsibility’ is here.

The most recent edition of the Scottish Government’s publication Government Expenditures and Revenues Scotland (published in April 2014 and covering the financial year 2012-13) is here.

HM Treasury’s paper Rebalancing the Northern Ireland Economy (discussing corporation tax devolution) is here.

A useful 2008 paper by Iain McLean, Guy Lodge and Katie Schmuecker for IPPR on the present allocations across the UK is here.

A valuable report on financing devolved government in Northern Ireland, commissioned by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, is available here.

The chief source of data about public spending across the UK, the Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses prepared by HM Treasury, is here.

(This page was last updated on 3 November 2014.)