Public borrowing figure blow for Government

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The Government's deficit reduction plans were dealt a blow today after official figures revealed that last month's borrowing figures were the highest ever recorded for the month of April.

Public borrowing, excluding financial interventions such as bank bail-outs, hit £10 billion, compared with £7.3 billion the previous year, said the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The figure, which is higher than City expectations of £6.5 billion, will cast doubt on whether the Government can meet its target of bringing the deficit down to £122 billion this financial year.

The ONS said tax receipts fell year on year, which had been boosted to the tune of £3.5 billion a year earlier by the tax on bankers' bonuses.

However, there was some good news for the Government as borrowing figures for the year to March 2011 were revised downwards to £139.4 billion, from £141.1 billion.

This was mainly caused by tax receipts being boosted after VAT was hiked to 20% from 17.5% previously, said the ONS.

But the higher-than-expected borrowing in April pushed the Government's debt to a record £910.1 billion, or 60.1% of GDP.

A spokesman for the Treasury said: "One-off factors affected borrowing this month, but it is clear from the downward revision to last year's borrowing figures that the Government's deficit reduction strategy is making headway in dealing with our unsustainable deficit."

The Treasury said the bonus tax caused a glut of payments last April. Its new levy on bank's balance sheets will raise more money than the bonus tax but will be spread more evenly throughout the year, it added.

Spending in April was 5% higher than a year ago at £54.1 billion. This was mainly caused by a 26% rise in interest payments to £1 billion as the Government services its growing debts and interest rates rise along with inflation.

Tax receipts came down 0.8% to £42.9 billion, mainly as a result of income from the bank bonus the year before.

Samuel Tombs, a UK economist at Capital Economics, said the UK will struggle to meet its budget reduction targets this year, because economic growth will be weak.

He added: "April's UK public finance figures got the new fiscal year off to a bad start.

"Given that borrowing for the 2011/12 fiscal year as a whole is projected to be £122 billion this year, about 15% below last year's actual figure, this is clearly bad news.

"Nonetheless, these are just one set of figures and the trend in borrowing should improve as more of the spending cuts kick in later this year."

The latest economic situation was the subject of a lengthy debate at this morning's Cabinet meeting led by Chancellor George Osborne.

Mr Osborne warned colleagues that the global situation posed "risks" to the UK's recovery - and sought updates from colleagues on the progress of contributions to the Government's growth review.

"He talked about the risks and headwinds facing the global economy," the Prime Minister's official spokesman told reporters.

Labour Treasury spokesman David Hanson said: "This is just one month's figures, so we should be cautious.

"But it is concerning that despite the cuts and tax rises that started to kick in last month, we saw record borrowing for the month of April.

"As we have been warning, cutting too far and too fast risks a vicious circle. Slow growth and more people out of work and on benefits will make it harder to get the deficit down.

"That's why the Government is now forecast to borrow £46 billion more than they were expecting last autumn.

"And instead of giving the banks a tax cut this year, George Osborne should repeat the bank bonus tax to get young people back to work, build more affordable homes and support small businesses."

Nida Ali, economic adviser to the Ernst & Young ITEM Club, described the figures as disappointing and said some of the head-start the Government had gained by beating its borrowing target of £146 billion in the past year had been eroded.

Miss Ali said: "A fall in central government tax receipts and an acceleration in spending growth doesn't paint a particularly promising picture for the austerity programme.

"Given that the worst of the pain is yet to come, the Chancellor's target of reducing borrowing by £30 billion in 2011/12 looks more stretching than ever, especially with economic growth looking likely to disappoint."