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What are Estimates?

One of Parliament’s longest standing functions is the consideration and authorisation of the government’s spending plans, requiring the government to obtain parliamentary consent before spending public money. These are presented to Parliament in documents known as “Estimates”.

A previous Library briefing paper set out details of the government’s initial spending plans (published in June 2023 for the Main Estimates 2023/24) for the current financial year.

Estimates typically take place twice per financial year:

  • April to June: Main Estimates (initial departmental spending plans)
  • February to March: Supplementary Estimates (revised final departmental spending plans)

What are Supplementary Estimates?

Supplementary Estimates show the changes to this financial year’s budgets which the government is seeking for each department. They are divided into separate limits for current, day-to-day spending (also known as Resource) – on staff and other running costs, on goods and services and grants; and capital (investment) spending – covering purchase and sale of assets, loans and capital grants.

Changes are further divided into spending subject to fixed limits, based broadly on the plans outlined for 2023/24 in the 2021 Spending Review, known as Departmental Expenditure Limits; and less predictable and more demand-led spending, known as Annually Managed Expenditure.

Changes to the cash block grants proposed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also included under a separate heading.

The 2023/24 Supplementary Estimates were published on 27 February 2024.

As is usual, all these changes these will be put to Parliament for approval in March, and if Parliament is content will be given legal effect by a new Supply and Appropriation Act before the end of the financial year, allowing access to additional funds approved.

What has changed this year?

The Supplementary Estimates contain requests for additional spending that amount to the following totals:

  • Resource DEL rises from £472.0 billion to £511.2 billion (+8.3%)
  • Capital DEL rises from £110.6 billion to £110.7 billion (+0.1%)
  • Resource AME falls from £463.9 billion to £456.4 billion (-1.6%)
  • Capital AME falls from £93.2 billion to £82.1 billion (-11.9%)

This represents a fairly significant increase in overall expenditure. Drivers of this include asylum expenditure, public sector pay and changes in the value of the student loan book.

Parliament’s role in considering Estimates

Before the latest Supplementary Estimates can be approved, Estimates day debates will take place on the floor of the House of Commons. Any backbench member is able to bid for a topic for one of these debates, which should be linked to the spending, or an aspect of spending, contained in the Supplementary Estimate of a department or other body.

Following the debates, the House will be invited to agree motions on those Estimates selected for debate. Members may agree or reject these motions, or suggest amendments reducing expenditure. There is a further ‘roll up motion’ covering the remaining Estimates, which members may accept or reject. Under the ‘Crown prerogative’, only Government can propose spending, so amendments to increase spending are not permitted.

Once motions have been authorised, a Supply and Appropriation bill is presented. Unlike most bills there is no committee stage, and as with other financial legislation the House of Lords’ role is purely formal. On receiving Royal Assent, departments will be able to draw upon the agreed funds set out in the Act for the purposes Parliament has authorised, and advances from the Contingencies Fund will be repaid.

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