The national accounts are a statistical framework for describing what is happening in national economies. All institutional units operating within an economy are classified to an institutional sector (for example, as non-financial corporations, general government units or households). All transactions between the sectors of the economy are also categorised as part of the national accounts framework. Correctly classifying units and the transactions they engage in is therefore an integral and important part of the production of national accounts.
The classification of institutional units and transactions between them also inform other statistics produced by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS). These include labour market statistics, trade statistics, and the public sector finances and government deficit and debt statistics produced under European Union (EU) legislation and the Maastricht Treaty.
This page describes the process ONS follows to reach classification decisions that relate to the public sector and are published in the Public Sector Classifications Guide (PSCG). The process also applies to the classification of transactions and to government policy proposals (see Section 6).
This information was first published in February 2008 as an annex to the National Statistics Code of Practice “Protocol on statistical integration and classification” and was updated in January 2012 following a public consultation. Following feedback and further internal review of the classification process, this document was updated and expanded in September 2013 and again in January 2015.Back to table of contents
Robust classifications are needed to produce good-quality national accounts that are internally consistent and comparable across the world. In addition, because of the wide use of national accounts statistics (and other statistics based on national accounts principles) in measuring economic performance and as the basis for distributing large sums of money (for example, EU Budget contributions), classification issues can take on political significance.
It is a legal requirement for EU countries to compile their national accounts’ statistics in accordance with the 2010 European System of Accounts: ESA 2010, and the UK National Accounts are produced by Office for National Statistics (ONS) on this basis. The UK also publishes monthly public sector finance statistics that are based on the concepts, definitions and classifications of national accounts.
In the UK, the government has also decided to base its fiscal policy framework on the national accounts. The government’s objectives for fiscal policy are set out in the Charter for Budget Responsibility. These are achieved through the government’s fiscal mandate and are dependent on national accounts’ definitions and classifications. It follows from this that national accounts classification decisions not only impact economic statistics produced by ONS but have a much wider impact, including impacts on government budgeting, fiscal targets and the accounting regime for classified units.
There is particular political significance around statistics on public borrowing and debt in both domestic and international arenas. For example, HM Treasury’s fiscal mandate is based upon the national accounts concept of net borrowing, while in the EU statistics based on ESA 2010 are used in the Maastricht Treaty measures of government debt and deficit, where they determine the convergence criteria for monetary union for non-members and performance against the Stability and Growth Pact for Eurozone members.
Although national accounts classification decisions have wide relevance within government, it should be made clear that ESA 2010 does not allow for consideration of political or commercial significance when making classification decisions and that as an independent statistics office, ONS ensures that classification decisions are robust and fully consistent with the rules of ESA 2010 and additional relevant statistical guidance.Back to table of contents
The international statistical manuals provide the broad framework and principles for classifying units and the transactions they engage in. These include:
the 2010 European System of Accounts: ESA 2010, produced by Eurostat and conceptually consistent with the System of National Accounts 2008: SNA 2008
the accompanying 2016 Manual on Government Deficit and Debt: MGDD 2016, which is produced by Eurostat to add clarification and elaboration to the principles in ESA 2010
the System of National Accounts 2008: SNA 2008 produced jointly by the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, United Nations and the World Bank – which is the foundation of the ESA
The guidance is extensive and producers of national accounts statistics throughout the world have to interpret these manuals to ensure correct classifications of institutional units and transactions. Each classification decision is taken on the basis of the characteristics of the entity or transaction being analysed in the context of this international guidance.
3.1 Classifying institutional units
Institutional units are defined (in ESA 2010 Section 2.12) by being entities with the economic competence to own goods and assets, incur liabilities and enter into contracts in their own right. They also have the ability to produce a complete set of accounts (including balance sheets). When classifying institutional units, their characteristics are assessed against the international guidance to establish which ESA 2010 institutional sector they belong to. Classification involves establishing:
whether the unit is a non-profit institution (NPI), or not
whether the unit is subject to public sector control, or not
whether the unit produces financial services, or not
whether the unit is a “market” or “non-market” producer
The distinctions of most interest generally are between public and private units (Point 2), and market and non-market units (Point 4). Points 1 and 3 simply affect the way Items 2 and 4 are assessed, as outlined in Sections 3.1.1 and 3.1.2.
3.1.1 Is the unit public or private?
When classifying institutional units, it is important to establish the boundary between the public and the private sectors, and ESA 2010 has introduced considerable new guidance on delineating the two. The fundamental question is “does government exercise significant control over the general corporate policy of the unit?” The international guidance defines control as the ability to determine general corporate policy and this can be exercised through the appointment of directors, control of over half of the shareholders’ voting power, through special legislation, decree, or regulation. Whether or not such control exists is assessed by examining the characteristics of the unit in terms of the following “indicators of government control” set out in ESA 2010 Section 2.38, MGDD 2016 Section I.2.3:
government rights to appoint, remove or approve a majority of officers, board of directors, etc (including where government has rights to veto the above) – if the government appoints a majority of directors or other key personnel, the unit would be classified to the public sector
government rights to appoint, remove or approve a majority of appointments for key committees having a decisive role in determining key factors of the unit’s general policy, board of directors, etc (including where government has rights to veto the above) – if the government has the right to appoint or remove most members of the finance or investment committees (for example), the unit would be classified to the public sector
government ownership of the majority of the voting interest – for example, if a majority of shares in a unit are owned by government, it would be classified to the public sector
government rights to appoint or remove key personnel (or veto appointments/removals) – if government appointments of key positions (for example, chairperson, directors) effectively give it a “decisive say” in key aspects of corporate policy, the unit will be classified as public
government rights under special shares and options – if government has special entitlements, for example, in relation to a “golden share”, this may lead the unit to be classified as public
government rights to control via contractual agreements – if government imposes restrictions on the operation of the unit, for example, through its position as a dominant customer, this may lead to classification in the public sector
government rights related to borrowing/financing – if government has a predominant role in setting the conditions of borrowing by the unit, including the terms of borrowing and/or use of funds borrowed, or is the predominant source of financing for the unit (either directly or by providing guarantees on borrowing by the unit), this may lead to classification in the public sector
government control via regulation – if the government restricts a unit from ceasing activities (that is, exiting markets) or from diversifying its activities, this may lead to classification in the public sector
other relevant aspects – ONS is also required to consider other ways in which the government might exercise control over a unit
In the case where a unit is an NPI (distinguished by not having generating and distributing profits for the benefit of owners, shareholders and so on as a central aim), ESA 2010 identifies the following five characteristics of the unit that must be examined:
government appointment of officers – if the government is entitled to appoint a majority of those managing the NPI (usually through provisions in its constitution, articles of association or other enabling instruments), the unit will generally be classified to the public sector
other provisions of the enabling instrument(s) – if the functions, objectives and operating provisions of the NPI are determined by government, if government approval of budget or financial arrangements is required, or if government can veto dissolution, changes to the statute of the entity or termination of any relation between the NPI and government, the unit may be classified as public
government control via contractual agreements – if the main activity of the NPI is entering into and executing contracts with government (for example, provision of social care), government is likely to exert control over the general policy of the NPI and this may result in a public sector classification, especially when the unit is not free to exit its relation with government
the degree of government financing of the unit – if an NPI is mainly (over 50%) financed by government on an ongoing basis and/or this financing results in narrow monitoring of the use of funds and thus strong influence over general policy of the NPI, it may be classified to the public sector
the degree of government risk exposure in respect of the unit and its activities – if the government is exposed to a large portion of the financial risks of the NPI (for example, through the provision of debt guarantees or guarantees in case of disruption to income streams from sources other than government), it may be classified as public
In both cases, government control may be established by the strength of one of these indicators alone (generally the case when the first three indicators in this list are met), or by the combined strength of evidence against a number of them. Classification as public or private can therefore require judgement and ONS processes are designed to ensure that these judgements are appropriate, consistent and internationally comparable.
In summary, the difference between the public and private sectors is determined by where control over the organisation lies, rather than by “ownership” or whether or not the entity is financed from public funds.
3.1.2 Is the unit a “market” or “non-market” producer?
A second important question when classifying institutional units is whether they are “market” or “non-market producers”. Market producers are defined by charging “economically significant prices” (that is, prices that have a substantial influence on the amounts of products that producers are willing to supply and on the amounts of products that purchasers wish to acquire) for all or most of the goods and services they produce. By contrast, some units provide all or most of their output to others free of charge or at prices that are not economically significant – these are non-market producers.
Establishing whether or not the prices charged by an institutional unit are economically significant can be simple; for example:
where a unit sells its products on open markets at the prevailing prices on those markets, it is clearly a market producer
where the unit provides its products to the end-user free of charge (such as where the NHS provides treatments free at the point of use or a charity undertakes environmental management activities using funds from donations), it is clearly a non-market producer
However, it can often be challenging to determine whether a unit is market or not; units may engage in both market and non-market production or may operate in imperfect markets where it is not clear whether the prices charged are economically significant. ESA 2010 therefore institutes a pragmatic rule whereby a unit is judged to be a market producer if, over a sustained period (three years or more), greater than 50% of its costs of production are recouped through sales revenues – referred to as “the 50% market test”. As a result, whether or not certain revenues count as sales becomes an important question when deciding on a classification.
Owing to the fundamentally different nature of financial services activities, the market nature of a financial unit is not assessed by the 50% market test but by examining the nature of the activities it engages in and evaluating the extent to which borrowing and/or lending or other financial activities are subject to market forces.
It is important to note that being an NPI does not equate to being a non-market unit (although it is often the case that non-market units are NPIs). There are various NPIs that are predominantly engaged in market activities (for example, selling goods, tickets, memberships and so on). What makes them NPIs is that they do not generate and distribute profits (surpluses are generally invested into their activities).
3.1.3 Summary of unit classifications framework
Table 1 provides an overview of the different ESA 2010 institutional sector classifications that result from the four possible combinations of public or private and market or non-market characteristics that a unit may have. The institutional sector codes used in ESA 2010 are also presented in brackets. Note that the “rest of the world” sector (S.2) is not shown as the classifications relate to units resident in the UK.
Table 1: ESA 2010 classification framework (domestic units)
public non-financial corporations (S.11001)
public financial corporations (S.12001 to 12901)
private non-financial corporations (S.1102/3)
private financial corporations (S.12002/3 to 12902/3)
General government (S.13):
central government (S.1311)
state government (S.1312)
local government (S.1313)
Social Security funds (S.1314)
Non-profit institutions serving households (NPISHs) (S.15)
Section 3.1 summarises the overarching framework for unit classifications. However, ESA 2010, MGDD 2016 and SNA 2008 also provide additional guidance on classifying specific types of units and arrangements, such as head offices, holding companies, special purpose entities (SPEs), regulatory bodies and public-private partnerships, which ONS applies where relevant.
3.2 Classifying transactions
ESA 2010 records a wide range of transactions that take place between the various units in the economy, for example:
corporations sell products to households, government, NPISHs and other corporations (including those overseas)
government collects taxes from units throughout the economy and also collects fees and charges for some of the things it does (for example, driving tests, producing passports, issuing TV Licences)
government spends money on its own activities and on supporting the activities of those in other sectors (for example, households through the provision of benefits, businesses through subsidies and so on)
NPISHs collect donations (and generate other revenues) and use them to undertake their activities
These many transactions are accounted for in the national accounts, which has a detailed taxonomy of transaction codes to allow different types of transactions to be recorded separately. ONS examines the characteristics and economic nature of transactions to ensure they are classified correctly.
For units within the public sector, classification as a market or non-market entity is typically dependent on how the unit is funded. Majority funding through grants and/or taxation will generally result in classification as a non-market entity and allocation to the general government sector. Where an entity is majority funded by other sources, it is necessary to assess the nature of the funding and classify these transactions, as a prerequisite to classifying the unit as market or non-market.
The incomes of public sector bodies often include taxes or service charges (although there may also be receipts from interest, rent, dividends and subsidies or from the sale of goods or property). Taxes are compulsory unrequited payments, where the payer does not receive any good or service directly in return. By contrast, service payments are requited in that they include the delivery of a service in exchange for the payment. In some instances, the classification of these financial flows can be difficult to interpret and the international statistical manuals recognise that “the borderline between taxes and payments for services rendered is not always clear-cut in practice”. As a result, the nature of the flows is carefully considered before reaching a decision.Back to table of contents
Office for National Statistics (ONS) follows an established process when assessing units and transactions to ensure that all relevant information on the characteristics of the unit or transaction is gathered, that relevant guidance and precedents are identified and that the treatment is discussed and challenged in order to achieve appropriate and consistent classifications. This process is summarised in Table 2.
Table 2: ONS classification process
Classification assessments can be initiated by ONS, by the HM Treasury Public Expenditure Classification Branch, or by other government departments organisations (usually through HM Treasury)
Cases initiated by ONS typically relate to the classification of existing organisations and transactions or new developments in the economy
HM Treasury may also submit policy proposals for classification advice from the Economic Statistics Classification Committee (ESCC), either on its own behalf if it is the policy lead, or on behalf of another department (see Section 6 for more information)
The resources available for work on classifications is limited and cases must therefore be prioritised
Priorities are set according to the size of the potential impact on important statistics (such as gross domestic product, government debt, government deficit, public sector employment and so on) and the priority of the decision for important stakeholders (including HM Treasury, the Bank of England, Office for Budget Responsibility, Eurostat, and/or other areas within ONS)
As far as possible, stakeholder deadlines are also considered when prioritising work
Each quarter, ONS meets with HM Treasury and devolved administrations to establish priorities for the coming 12 months; these are reflected in the ‘Forward Work Plan’
The Economic Statistics Classifications Team gather relevant information on the characteristics of the unit or transaction, identify relevant guidance and precedents, and collate these into a paper for consideration by ESCC
Various sources of information are used when classifying units; annual accounts, articles of association, governance agreements and so onprovide much of the information needed
Extra information will often be sought, usually via the HM Treasury Public Expenditure Classifications Branch
Before this stage commences, ONS may choose to notify the unit in writing of the classification review
The Economic Statistics Classification Committee is responsible for establishing the correct classification
In straightforward cases where the guidance and its application are clear, the Economic Statistics Classifications Team propose a classification for consideration by a "full member" of the ESCC on behalf of the committee and the Director of National Accounts and Economic Statistics
In more complex and precedent-setting cases and in cases with large statistical impacts, the ESCC meet to discuss the case in detail or reach a recommendation by correspondence – drawing upon their expertise and experience to identify the appropriate classification; their conclusions are further considered and authorised by the Director of National Accounts and Economic Statistics, see Section 5.2 for more information
The monthly 'Public Sector Classification Guide' gives public notification of the decisions taken each month.
In most cases, once a classification decision has been made, ONS writes a formal letter to the HM Treasury Public Expenditure Classifications Branch explaining the outcome; if ONS had notified the unit of the commencement of the classification review, the letter to HM Treasury’s Public Expenditure Branch will be shared with them
In cases that are of broad public interest, ONS may elect to publish more detailed information on the classification decision in an accompanying article
Once a classification has been established, ONS will implement the decision as quickly as possible
Classification decisions often have wide-reaching effects on ONS statistics; as a result, it may take some time between announcement of a decision and its implementation in ONS statistics
Where possible, ONS gives an indication of how long implementation is likely to take at the time of announcing the decision; see Section 9 for more information
The following are main participants in the classifications process.
5.1 ONS Economic Statistics Classifications Team
The Team is responsible for managing the entire classifications process from receiving, recording and prioritising cases, through gathering and analysing the information required, to communicating decisions and ensuring their implementation in Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics. In this way, the Team facilitates decision-making by the Economic Statistics Classification Committee (ESCC) and ensures that the decisions are communicated and implemented.
The Team is also responsible for organising and undertaking reviews of classification decisions and for responding to queries relating to classifications (see Section 7 for more information on classification reviews). Additionally, the Head of Economic Statistics Classifications is responsible for authorising changes to the Public Sector Classifications Guide (PSCG) in cases where units have ceased activity.
The Team can be contacted at email@example.com.
5.2 The Economic Statistics Classification Committee (ESCC)
Classification cases are discussed by ESCC, a group of national accounts experts responsible for establishing the classification of institutional units and the transactions they undertake in UK economic statistics.
The level at which classifications decisions are taken is determined as follows:
cases where the facts are straightforward, there are no novel or contentious issues in interpreting statistical guidance, the impact on fiscal aggregates is expected to be small and there are no other reasons to expect public interest are taken by the ESCC Chair or delegated to an ESCC member
cases that do not meet one or more of these criteria will be decided by the Director for National Accounts and Economic Statistics on the basis of a written recommendation by the Chair of ESCC; the Director may ask for further factual evidence or advice from ESCC before taking a final decision
decisions that have a significant impact on fiscal aggregates or are judged by the ESCC Chair or the Director of National Accounts and Economic Statistics to be a matter of public interest will be taken by the Director following consultation with the ESCC and the Director-General of Economic Statistics – whose role is to be satisfied that all relevant facts have been taken into account and that the decision can be explained clearly and persuasively
Cases that involve complex analysis of facts or are open to varying interpretation of statistical guidance require detailed consideration by ESCC. The Economic Statistics Classifications Team produces and circulates a paper presenting the information and guidance in a structured format with important questions for discussion. The Chair may call a meeting of the Committee to discuss the issue or may base a decision on written responses. The Chair of ESCC is responsible for presenting a recommendation to the Director, reflecting the views of ESCC.
The ESCC Chair may also appoint external experts to join ESCC in an advisory role where their expertise will be helpful in interpreting statistical guidance in relation to a specific case.
5.3 HM Treasury Public Expenditure Classification Branch
Government action (or proposed action – see Section 6) is one of the main drivers of classifications work. For example, when the government sets up a new body, establishes a new charge for certain services or legislates to cause units in other sectors to engage in activities or transactions that they would not otherwise have undertaken, the correct national accounts’ recording must be established.
Most of the financial information needed to produce the central government sector accounts is provided by government departments and agencies and routed through HM Treasury. ONS and HM Treasury have produced guidelines to help government departments classify their activities for national accounts purposes. These have been circulated to departments with the expectation that most cases in departments will be settled by reference to the guidelines without the need for any consultation.
For cases not clearly covered by this guidance, policy departments (including HM Treasury) can refer issues to HM Treasury’s Public Expenditure Classification Branch, which provides technical expertise to answer more straightforward queries on behalf of ONS. For those queries that are not straightforward, the Branch will ask ONS to interpret the guidance and to make a classification decision.
Eurostat is responsible for the European System of Accounts: ESA 2010 and Manual on Government Deficit and Debt: MGDD 2016 – including the guidance on classifications. Member states are also able to seek specific guidance on classifications from Eurostat; this might occur where a case has an international dimension, there are concerns about harmonised recording between member states or where the guidance in the ESA 2010 and MGDD 2016 requires clarification.
In some cases, ONS may therefore consult Eurostat for classification advice. Normally, Eurostat will only consider cases where there is an expected impact on government deficit or debt. If it decides to give an opinion, Eurostat will either provide ONS with its view directly, or in more complex or borderline cases may go through a consultation process involving the Committee on Monetary, Financial and Balance of Payments Statistics (CMFB). CMFB brings together statistical experts from all EU member states’ National Statistical Institutes and central banks, Eurostat and the European Central Bank. The CMFB acts in an advisory capacity and Eurostat is responsible for the final decisions. More information on the process by which Eurostat provides guidance can be found on their website.
Other than in cases where Eurostat provides specific advice and guidance, ONS is the final arbiter of national accounts classification decisions in the UK and can examine cases on its own initiative at any time.Back to table of contents
Policy proposals differ from other cases as they are forward-looking rather than concerned with existing organisations or transactions that have already taken place. Such proposals might involve the creation of a new organisation, the restructuring of an existing organisation or the creation of a new type of transaction or financing vehicle.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) is occasionally asked to provide classification advice on policy proposals so that the government can understand how these proposals would be treated in the national accounts and therefore take account of the potential consequences for public spending, public revenues and debt measures.
ONS is an independent, non-ministerial department that is responsible for producing trusted statistics about the UK economy and society. In order to ensure this, it is essential that ONS is not drawn into policy formulation or development. While ONS does provide general advice on the statistical law relating to classification decisions and the processes to be followed, ONS cannot provide advice on how bodies and transactions should be structured as this could potentially compromise the classification process.
The only involvement by ONS with these policy proposals is to determine the national accounts classification of the proposed entity or transaction. ONS will, therefore, remain at arm’s length from policy officials and work through HM Treasury’s Public Expenditure Classification Branch following the same classification process as outlined previously. Consistent with this, if it proves necessary for ONS to request direct briefing from the proposing department, such briefings will be confined to provision of the factual information required to inform the classification decision.
Most policy proposals are in a near-final form when presented to ONS and will include all the relevant details to enable ONS to make a judgement. Any classification decision based on a near-final policy proposal will be deemed as “provisional” and dependent on the proposal being implemented as described. If the circumstances change, it is the responsibility of the proposing department to inform ONS via the HM Treasury Public Expenditure Classification Branch.
However, on rare occasions, government departments might seek a view on a proposal at an early stage of development. In such cases, ONS will provide provisional advice on the expected classification of the proposal, based on information available at the time. This is subject to the qualification that a final decision will not be reached until such a time as the policy is implemented. In the interim, ONS will only consider alternative versions of the same proposal exceptionally and if substantial and significant changes have been made. Any explanatory article published on the final policy proposal will note how many versions of the proposal ONS considered. Final classification decisions will be published when the policy has been announced or implemented by the government.
Where possible, ONS will include policy proposals in the published Forward Work Plan. However, where there are commercial or other sensitivities, government departments or devolved administrations may make a request that the proposal is not published; ONS considers such requests on their merits.
ONS does not publish or otherwise make publicly available details of classifications advice in respect of policy proposals, except where they may be discussed in any supplementary article published once a final classification decision has been announced.Back to table of contents
Office for National Statistics (ONS) will review previous decisions under the following circumstances:
when new legislation, policy proposals or machinery of government changes impact on the operation of an organisation or on the flows of money to, from or within government
when there are other changes to the operation of a body that impact on the classification decision
for public non-financial corporations, ONS may review whether the body continues to pass the 50% market test
when changes to Eurostat guidance mean that specific classification decisions must be reviewed to ensure they are still compliant
for decisions that have sizeable impacts (more than £1 billion impact on deficit or £10 billion impact on debt), cases that haven’t been reviewed for one of these reasons may also be reviewed
ONS may, from time-to-time, review cases for reasons not mentioned previously if there is a need for reassurance that there have been no changes that impact upon the classification decision, or to ensure the validity of the original decision.
Reviews follow the same process as classification decisions (summarised in Figure 1). If a review results in a different decision (that is, a change of classification), time series in the national accounts and public sector finances will be revised accordingly.Back to table of contents
Office for National Statistics (ONS) aims to announce each classification decision, with explanatory material, as soon as possible after it has been taken (usually in the same month).
The ONS Public Sector Classifications Guide (PSCG) provides a list of public sector bodies within the UK economy. Routine sector classification decisions will be published in the monthly update of the PSCG.
For decisions likely to be of wide public interest, ONS may elect to issue an article providing additional detail on the decision reached where this is likely to be of interest and value. ONS may share relevant sections of the draft article, in confidence, with HM Treasury and the responsible policy department for fact-checking only. On some occasions, any supporting explanatory article may be published after the decision has been announced in the monthly update.Back to table of contents
When a classification decision has been taken, a wide range of Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics (and those of other bodies, such as the Bank of England and HM Treasury) can be affected. In ONS, the areas responsible for gathering and processing the data that contributes to the affected statistics are also responsible for implementing classifications changes. The Economic Statistics Classifications Team works with these areas to establish ownership of the changes and timescales for implementation.
The speed at which classification decisions are implemented in ONS statistics will vary. There are formal revisions processes for all statistics to ensure that changes (including classifications) are implemented in methodologically-sound ways. Completing these processes, resource availability and practical considerations, such as the number of data items being changed and when it is most efficient to implement a decision (both in terms of time and cost), affect how long implementation takes.
Where possible, ONS will set out the approximate timescales for implementing the decision in the various statistics impacted when the classification decision is announced.Back to table of contents
European System of Accounts: ESA 2010 is designed as an integrated system of economic accounts for the whole economy. It is not used to produce financial reporting statements for individual entities. As a result, the treatment of organisations and transactions may differ between financial reporting systems and the national accounts system.Back to table of contents
The Public Sector Classifications Guide (PSCG) and full documentation detailing major Economic Statistics Classification Committee (ESCC) decisions is available.Back to table of contents