Why we need a Welsh Treasury

Mike Hedges argues that in future the Welsh Government will have to manage its money more effectively

Whilst the Welsh Government has been undertaking some treasury-type activities in relation to the Wales infrastructure investment programme and has implemented a number of major innovative funding arrangements, this work will have to increase considerably if the UK Government, as expected, responds positively to Part 1 of the Silk Commission’s report on tax powers.

Currently the Welsh Government does not exercise a formal treasury function. This is because in financial terms it is treated the same as if it was a Westminster department. The Government is provided with a block grant, split between capital and revenue. It has no effective opportunity to either borrow or invest money.

There are two main reasons why we would need a Welsh Treasury: firstly for the economic growth potential and community benefits of increased capital expenditure; and, secondly, to manage revenue income and expenditure more effectively. Treasury management is defined as:

“The management of investments and cash flows, banking, money market and capital market transactions; the effective control of the risks associated with those activities; and the pursuit of optimum performance consistent with those risks.”

All local authorities in Wales, as well as the Westminster Treasury carry this out, because they borrow for capital investment and also invest reserves and income. When the Welsh Government secures borrowing and tax varying powers then the creation of a full Welsh Treasury will become inevitable. In answer to a question in the Senedd on 24 April, Finance Minister Jane Hutt said:

“Of course, we are anticipating that the Silk recommendations will be implemented, in terms of the preparations that we are already undertaking. Clearly, functions that we are preparing for relate to tax policy; tax administration, including compliance and enforcement work; revenue forecasting; budgetary and investment strategy; cash management and in-year monitoring. We are already putting in place a number of roles in the department in order to make effective use of our resources, particularly at these times of budgetary reduction.”

A Treasury within the Welsh Government will need to do the following:

  • Arrange borrowing for capital expenditure over and above any capital grants received.
  • Invest money received earlier in the year than they need to spend it.
  • Arrange borrowing when receipts are less than expected and the shortfall has to be made up.
  • Determine tax policy on all devolved taxes.
  • Forecast and monitor both revenue and capital expenditure.

Compliance and enforcement would also need to be undertaken. Would the Welsh Government want to set up its own compliance and enforcement department or would it want to use the much larger HM treasury to carry out these functions on its behalf?

These functions are similar to those that local authorities carry out in managing their finances. Of course, councils are limited to deciding Council Tax. If the Part 1 recommendations of the Silk Commission are implemented, the Welsh Government will need to set a range of taxes, including income tax – subject to a positive referendum result.

Local authorities follow the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s (CIPFA) code of practice on treasury management. Below I examine the CIPFA code and look at how it could be amended for treasury management by the Welsh Government and National Assembly:

  1. Creation and maintenance of a Treasury Management Policy Statement that sets out the policies and objectives of the Welsh Government’s Treasury management activities.
  2. Creation and maintenance of Treasury Management Practices which set out the manner in which the Welsh Government will seek to achieve those policies and objectives, including setting borrowing limits for both revenue and capital expenditure.
  3. Receipt by the National Assembly of an annual Treasury Management Strategy Statement – including the Annual Investment Strategy and Minimum Revenue Provision Policy – for the year ahead; a Mid-year Review Report and an Annual Report covering activities during the previous year. These would take the form of a series of reports, probably as part of the Budget and Supplementary Budget reports to an Assembly Plenary session.
  4. Delegation by the Welsh Government of responsibilities for implementing and monitoring Treasury Management policies and practices and for the execution and administration of Treasury Management decisions. These powers will need to either be delegated to the Finance Minister or delegated to the Welsh Government by the National Assembly as part of any legislative change.
  5. Delegation by the Welsh Government of the role of scrutiny of Treasury Management strategy and policies to an Improvement and Budget Performance Panel or similar body. In the case of the National Assembly this would be the Finance Committee which already scrutinises the Budget and all supplementary Budgets.

The expectation would be that a Welsh Treasury would, at least initially, be run along these lines. In practical terms a borrowing requirement would be forecast as part of the Budget setting process and would then be reviewed at each Supplementary Budget report. If the borrowing limits needed to be increased then that would need to be agreed by the National Assembly in Plenary session.

The most contentious issue will be setting the tax rate both on income tax and on the other taxes devolved, just as the setting of Council tax is currently with local Authorities.

If Silk Part 1 is implemented and borrowing powers and some taxation policies are decided in Wales then we will need a Welsh Treasury. However, the challenge will be preventing it becoming as powerful as the Treasury is in Westminster.

Mike Hedges is Labour AM for Swansea East and a former leader of Swansea County Council.

6 thoughts on “Why we need a Welsh Treasury

  1. Thank you for this. A most helpful contribution from Mike Hedges. Not least since he sets out lucidly the nuts and bolts issues a new Welsh Government treasury function will have to grapple with. It also raises a number of issues;

    1. Acknowledging that I risk exposing myself to the accusation of harking back to the past, is there anybody out there who can explain why nearly a decade and a half after devolution we still don’t have a true treasury function in place? I actually don’t buy the view that since Wales does not possess tax powers it does not need one. The management and administration of cabinet agreed spending priorities is an equally important role for any treasury team.

    2. Mike identifies a challenge in the shape of an over-mighty treasury. There is also another challenge in ensuring the right skills and experience are available to staff a treasury effectively. I have experience of senior Welsh Gov Finance Department staff, who are very impressive. But given the fact a full-time professional advisor has been brought in to support the development of thinking on infrastructure does this not represent a tacit admission there are gaps in the breadth of in-house experience. One challenge for senior civil service managers must be to recognise this and to craft an effective strategy to address it.

  2. I know little about financial management in the Welsh Government but I do know that financial management practice in UK Whitehall Departments is pretty weak and is not a model to copy. If anyone disputes this I would be happy to supply them with the relevant evidence which is widespread and is an inhibiting factor in dealing with financial austerity.

    If Wales is to go down this road then it is essential to ensure that the Treasury function is organised on the basis of good professional financial management practices.

  3. “…is there anybody out there who can explain why nearly a decade and a half after devolution we still don’t have a true treasury function in place”.

    I can, but it’s the answer you’ve come to yourself – because London wants to retain all power to itself regardless of the needs of anyone else. It is London’s intention to drag-out devolution to the Nth degree, demanding a referendum over every paper clip Bae Caerdydd wants to buy, in the hope that the Welsh people will just give up their aspiration for Home Rule.

  4. Paul, Let’s please stop blaming London for everything. It’s so boring. There has been nothing to stop the Welsh Government from creating a more robust Treasury function at any time in the last 14 years.

  5. I would strongly suggest that as part of this ongoing process serious consideration must be given to the institution of a public bank in Wales, which could provide a facility for infrastructure borrowing along the lines of the model of other National and Regional Development Banks and Agencies (NRDBAs) throughout Europe. Also that some more serious attention be paid to the potential dangers which come with borrowing powers. I frequently find myself wondering whether many engaged in this debate in Wales are even aware of the sovereign debt crises which have swept Europe since 2008, or of the devastating effects of debt loading on other developing economies which have lead to the imposition of IMF and World Bank ‘conditionalities’ even more destructive than the UK’s current self-imposed austerity,

    I would suggest that Wales could provide a better model for sustainable development that that which can be found by a headlong rush into the arms of capital markets or the bond market with its lurking ‘vigilantes’. I heartly agree with Geraint Talfan Davies that blaming London for everything is boring, but emulating London would be worse still.

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