Estimates Day debates: scrutinising spending plans

Today and tomorrow, the House of Commons will spend two days debating the government’s plans for public spending. The areas of spending being debated – defence, Brexit, homelessness and transport – have, for the first time, been chosen by backbench MPs. These debates follow the publication on 7 February of the Government’s revised spending plans for the current financial year, in what are known as the “Supplementary Estimates”. The House will be asked to authorise the revised plans following the debates.

What do those spending plans show?

The revised plans contain a mix of things we already knew – such as some extra funding for the NHS – and new changes. Over £280 million is, for instance, going to various departments to cover costs associated with preparations for Brexit.  There’s some extra money for things such as defence operations and peacekeeping, as well as to pay for events unforeseen at the beginning of the year, such as the Monarch airlines collapse. The costs for this would otherwise have to be met from existing resources.

But as is usual for governments, the total amount of extra money proposed is not huge. Most of the big decisions on spending this year were taken in the 2015 Spending Review. What Supplementary Estimates do provide, beyond a little extra money, is an opportunity to reassess, and propose reallocating existing funds between departments and between years. If you’re interested in more of the detail of what’s planned this time, take a look at the summary in our briefing Revised Government spending plans for 2017-18.

New style debates

Before Parliament considers whether to approve the revised plans, it has traditionally set aside time for debate. In the past these debates have tended to be more of a vehicle for discussing recent select committee reports, rather than the Government’s actual spending plans. This is because previously select committees, not backbenchers as a whole, decided what should be discussed.

Now though, following a recent Procedure committee report, the topics for this week’s estimates debates have been chosen by the Backbench Business Committee, having invited bids from any backbencher.  Each debate will focus on the spending of a particular government department, or a particular aspect of funding by a government department.  The relevant Minister will need to respond to the points raised in debate, before MPs have the opportunity to decide whether to approve the Estimate under discussion.

This new arrangement is only a pilot for the remainder of the Parliamentary session. If the arrangement is considered a success, it’s likely to stay. In the meantime, after the debates this week, the next round of estimates debates will be in July, following the publication of the Government’s spending plans for the new year, 2018-19, in April.