Public spending: new debates in the House

Considering the spending plans of the government is one of Parliament’s longest standing functions. This has its origins hundreds of years ago when the King would summon his Parliaments to agree his plans for raising taxes and spending money on raising armies.

The principle survives. To this day the government’s plans for taxes and for spending still have to be approved by the House of Commons before they can come into effect.

This post explains how Parliament exercises these powers, and looks at changes that are coming in shortly to give backbenchers a chance to seek debates on public spending.

Authorising government spending rarely receives much attention…

Budget days remain set-piece events when we learn about the tax rates the government proposes for the coming year.  The House of Commons then must pass a Finance Bill. This turns the proposals into law, brings into force any new taxes enacted and continues any old ones, such as income tax, for another year.  Even though public spending choices remain central to the political debate, the formal process of the House of Commons considering whether to approve the government’s spending plans (known as the Estimates) has in recent years received very little attention, either in the House or beyond.

…but change is afoot

In a few weeks’ time, there will be two whole days of debate in the House of Commons on public spending topics suggested by backbench MPs. These “Estimates day debates” will follow the publication of the Supplementary Estimates –  the Government’s revised spending plans for 2017-18.

After the debates the House will be invited to approve the changes to current year budgets contained in those Supplementary Estimates. If a majority agrees, the budget plans are put into law through a Supply and Appropriation Bill.

While there have previously been “Estimates day debates”, past debates have in practice often had little to do with Estimates, or with public spending, and have been proposed by select committees not by ordinary backbenchers. The change to the way Estimates day debates are used and allocated follows a Procedure Committee report last year. The report made a number of recommendations to the way Parliament considers public spending plans, and was followed up with a further report in January.  We explained details of the proposed changes in our briefing paper on 24 January.

Revised spending plans are out next week

Next week, this year’s supplementary Estimates will be published, setting out revisions planned to current year budgets.  Often running at over 600 pages these can take a little time to digest.  We’ll attempt to highlight some of the key changes planned in another post in a couple of weeks’ time.

Picture credit:

Chamber-051 by UK Parliament image. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 / image cropped.