Amendments to Estimates Day motions explained

Dominic Grieve MP and Margaret Beckett MP have tabled amendments to Estimates Day motions. The amendments would withhold funding from certain government departments in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit not authorised by the House of Commons.

But, what are Estimates? How do Estimates Days work? Can Estimates be amended? And what happens once Estimates have been agreed?

What are the main estimates?

The main estimates are documents setting out the proposed maximum spending of each Government department for a particular financial year, starting on 1 April. The House of Commons must approve this expenditure.

The main estimates are usually published in April and approved in July. Departments receive an advance on the funding they need in February as part of the Votes on Account. They normally cover about 45% of the departments’ spending. Supplementary estimates set out proposals for amending the departmental spending the House has previously authorised via the main estimates.

Each ministerial and non-ministerial department has a separate estimate, although they are published as a single volume.

How do estimates days work?

Estimates days are a chance for MPs to debate and agree the Government’s spending plans. Usually, three days are set aside each session for this purpose, but, as this is a long session, there have been five so far and two more are due to take place on 1 and 2 July.

Each day usually features debates on two different subjects. MPs submit a bid to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on a department’s spending. The Backbench Business Committee then proposes the subjects to the Liaison Committee, which formally recommends them to the House. The debates on 1 and 2 July are on the spending of the Department for International Development, the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Decisions on all the estimates—including the departments that have been chosen for debate—will take place at the moment of interruption (for example, 7pm on Tuesday 2 July) on the second day.  The Speaker will put separate questions on the estimates which the House has debated, along with any amendments he has selected to them.

Once these estimates have been agreed, the Speaker will then put the rest of the outstanding estimates for approval formally, even though the House has not debated these. This is known as a roll-up motion. MPs can’t vote for or against individual estimates in the roll-up motion—only for or against the whole package.

How do amendments to estimates work?

An estimate chosen for debate can be amended, but amendments to increase spending are not allowed.

The estimates not chosen for debate can’t be amended and are agreed in a single motion.

Amendments to estimates motions have typically taken the form of a token reduction in expenditure.  In 2002, the then Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich Gwyneth Dunwoody tabled the following amendment to the estimates motion for the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions:

“That resources be reduced by £1,000 in respect of Request for Resources 2 (Promoting modern, integrated and safe transport and providing customer-focused regulation) relating to grants to London Underground.”

It was voted on and rejected by the House.

What happens after the estimates have been agreed?

Once, the estimates motions, as amended or otherwise, have been agreed, they serve as founding resolutions for the Supply and Appropriation Bill.  The Bill is usually introduced immediately after the motions are agreed and must reflect their content.

The Bill gives authority for the Government to use the expenditure requested in the estimates and to be issued with money from the Consolidated Fund (the Government’s bank account). In addition, it also places limits on the purpose for which the money may be spent by setting out the services particular budgets are to be used for.

A Supply and Appropriation Bill includes a schedule containing the substantive content of the estimates that have been approved by the House.

The Bill will normally receive its first reading immediately after the estimates motions have been agreed on an estimates day. As with other bills, first reading is purely formal and doesn’t involve debate. Second reading usually then takes place on a subsequent day but the question on second reading is also put formally, without debate. The bill doesn’t have a committee stage, but instead proceeds straight to third reading, which again takes place formally, without debate.

Further reading

Main Estimates: Government spending plans for 2019-20,
House of Commons Library.

Joanna Dodd is Clerk of Divisions, Elections and Supply.

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