It is year-end accounts closing time and finance departments are a hive of fevered book balancing. This column wants to salute the best of that and so is launching the NHS Finance Departments Delivering Liberty and Excellence – FiDDLE – award.

There has been stiff competition, not least from the award’s two sponsors, the Department of Health and Treasury, but our worthy winners are all those NHS trusts and foundation trusts that spotted the rare chance to game the Government Banking Service.

Since the economic crisis, the DH and Treasury have been contriving to persuade foundation trusts to store their £2.7bn cash surpluses in the GBS, so they can recycle that cash to fund other bits of spending.

But the GBS cannot compete with commercial bank interest rates and so instead offers NHS organisations a discount on the 3.5 per cent annual “cost of capital” charge the government levies on their net assets. The higher a trust’s GBS balance on 31 March, the bigger its discount. 

Cue the last-week-of-March panic when organisations race to transfer their cash from HSBC and Barclays in time for the qualifying date; and then a similar race the following week to pull it back out.

But no prizes for that; that’s basic.

No, to win a FiDDLE, you need to be one of the trusts that hit on the plan to run up a collective £25m or so in commercial overdrafts last year with which to boost your GBS cash balance.

Note the sheer cunning of that: not only does it increase the GBS balance, but by drawing on an overdraft, these FiDDLEs increased their debt – suppressing their net assets and therefore their capital charge starting point. Well done, folks.

Alas, the DH caught up last month, ruling commercial overdrafts will be excluded from the discount calculation for 31 March this year. But take that as a raising of the stakes and let’s look forward to even more creativity next year.

Sally Gainsbury is a reporter for the Financial Times.

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