By policy analyst, Jeremy Hutton
Today another set of Estimates Day debates has drawn to a close, although if you blinked you might have missed it. Despite being relatively unknown beyond the walls of Westminster, the Estimates Day debates are theoretically one of the most important days of the parliamentary calendar for taxpayers. It is in these debates where members of parliament have the opportunity to make meaningful changes to government expenditure plans by voting for reductions in departmental spending estimates.
Historically, this convention dates back to the glorious revolution of 1689 when parliament, then sceptical of a standing army, decided that the expense of maintaining an army would only ever be approved a year at a time. Over the centuries as government grew, the convention grew with it, until by 1830 all areas of government were covered. In the interwar period the debates over the defence estimates (then split between army, navy and air force), for example, were particularly contentious, as MPs disputed how best to prepare Britain for the looming war. The Daily Mail reported in February, 1936, that MPs intended to “take full advantage of their opportunities and rights in debates.” Then, it was roundly expected for the debate to “lead to late sittings” and rage into the night.
However, over time that spirit of scrutiny has fallen away. The lively debates of the 1930s perhaps could not be repeated today given the increasingly opaque presentation of the estimates. In the 1960s, both the civil and defence estimates began being presented in more simplified form. The procedure committee sternly opposed suggestions to merge the defence estimates on matter of principle:
“While the House has not divided in recent years on these votes, the right to do so exists, should be used, and in our opinion should not be lightly surrendered.”
Unfortunately, this steady degradation of parliamentary scrutiny has continued largely unabated since then. Speaking to the procedure committee in 2016, Dr Joachim Wehner of the London School of Economics went so far as to say:
“If my task was to design a parliamentary budget process that hinders effective parliamentary scrutiny of public finances, it is hard to imagine doing better than designing the process that is currently in place in the UK.”
So what can be done about this? Ultimately, restoration of the Estimates Day debates to the primacy they enjoyed in the past is unlikely. It is an archaic way to scrutinise government spending that takes place much too late in the year. However, that doesn’t mean parliament cannot do better. One proposal pushed by the TaxPayers’ Alliance to improve parliamentary scrutiny of government finance recommends the creation of a new ‘budget committee’, similar to those that already exist in Australia and New Zealand. Our chairman, Mike Denham, made the case in evidence submitted to the procedure committee last year.
In his evidence, Mike recommended that a budget committee should focus on scrutinising the effectiveness and efficiency aspects of future spending plans, lead efforts to improve the government’s approach to efficiency and encourage the development of output and outcome measurement. At the moment, only the Public Accounts Committee can seriously claim to do this, and it tends to do so retrospectively. Excellent scrutiny is a noble endeavor, but we need to do it before the waste happens, as well as afterwards.
Given the currently rapid growth of the national debt, this sort of scrutiny will be needed over the coming years, possibly, more than ever before. The time for archaic and little known mechanisms, giving the government the benefit of the doubt, has passed. Parliament has to come into the 21st century. MPs should afford spending scrutiny the same gravity awarded to it by their forebears, and rally around proposals for a much-needed budget committee. If they do that, we estimate that taxpayers will thank them for it.