MPs seek end to ‘after the fact’ spending scrutiny

Written by Jim Dunton on 20 April 2017 in News

Commons Procedure Committee demands beefed-up model for examining government's Main Supply Estimates

HM Treasury

MPs have called for fundamental changes to the way the House of Commons scrutinises government spending plans for funds raised through taxation.

Members of the Commons Procedure Committee said the current system for debating a government’s annual proposals – known as its Main Supply Estimates – required streamlining to allow MPs to choose which areas received maximum focus.

They said that last year’s Main Estimates involved the allocation of more than £500bn, but that debates on the proposals were “often only loosely related to a couple of departmental estimates” and that scrutiny by select committees and the National Audit Office happened retrospectively.

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The Procedure Committee said the present system saw three “estimates days” allocated for the consideration of spending plans during each parliamentary session, but key decisions on the debates were made by parliament's Liaison Committee and sessions focused on select committee reports.

“Though the committee reports may be related to an estimate, it is rare for the government's proposals for expenditure to be examined and debated on such days,” it observed.

From the next parliament, the Procedure Committee wants the Commons Backbench Business Committee to define the precise estimates that will be debated and for two estimates days to be allocated for those debates. Other time would be put aside for debating select committee reports proposed by the Liaison Committee.

The committee also wants a minimum five-week gap between the publication of Main Estimates and debate days, and for the entire presentation, consideration and authorisation process to be completed before the start of the financial year the plans relate to.

Committee chair Charles Walker said MPs had to be able to scrutinise the government’s spending proposals effectively before they took effect.

“MPs currently approve plans to spend billions of pounds following debates on select committee reports that are often only loosely related to a couple of departmental estimates,” he said. 

“Select committees, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have a crucial role in scrutinising government expenditure, but under our present system this scrutiny all happens after the fact.

“The committee's proposals will be a significant step in ensuring that spending plans get the scrutiny in the chamber that they deserve. We expect the Procedure Committee in the new parliament to pick up this committee’s work on house scrutiny of government expenditure plans."

The committee also called for a government commitment to Commons debates on the outcome of each Spending Review, and “clearer, simpler and more consistent presentation” of estimates information, with online publication of the figures that meets open data standards.

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