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Types of spending

Public spending is planned under several intersecting sets of categories. The main ones are:

  • Whether the spending can be planned long-term (this appears as Departmental Expenditure Limits or DEL) or is more demand-driven (Annual Managed Expenditure, AME);
  • Whether the money is spent on assets (capital spending) or on things that are used up (current/resource spending);
  • Whether the money is spent on a department’s governmental functions (programme spending) or on running the department itself (administration spending).

Each of these categories appears in departmental spending plans and accounts. The amounts going to each vary according to departmental responsibilities and central government priorities.

What does the government spend its money on?

Money is spent on a very wide range of areas, but in most years social protection, health and education are the areas receiving the largest amounts (this may change in 2020-21, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic). In 2019-20, social protection accounted for £275 billion of total spending, health £164 billion, and education £92 billion. Most areas have seen reductions in spending over the past few years, although this trend seems to have reversed as of the 2019 Spending Round.

Who spends the money?

Government departments each have their own budgets, which vary in size in line with the spending needs associated with their responsibilities. The departments with the largest budgets are usually the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, which taken together account for over half of the total 2020-21 planned spending.

Departments spend both centrally and by funding public bodies, which are used when spending needs a degree of operational or constitutional separation from government. The largest such bodies in terms of the amount of funding they receive are NHS England and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

Where is the money spent?

67% of all public spending in 2018-19 was in England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seeing 8%, 4% and 3% respectively. 14% could not be identified with any particular region, and 4% was spent outside the UK.

Some money has typically gone to the EU – the UK’s net contribution in 2019-20 was £9.5 billion, although this will change now that the UK has left the EU – and some is spent abroad as part of the international development budget.

How does the UK’s spending compare with other countries?

In per-person terms, the UK’s public spending is similar to that of Australia. The UK is far from unusual in its spending among developed economies, either in the amount that it spends per person or relative to the size of its economy – its spending as a percentage of GDP is fairly typical amongst OECD members.


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