Debates on Estimates days: piloting new arrangements Contents

1A new procedure for allocating Estimates Day debates

The 2015 Committee’s inquiry and the Government response

1.Our predecessors in the 2015 Parliament initiated a substantial inquiry into the procedures the House uses to examine and authorise Government expenditure, and the effectiveness of the House’s control over the supply of taxpayers’ money to the Crown. The report of that inquiry, issued as the House voted in favour of an early general election, focused on the formal processes for the House to examine and authorise the Estimates—the Government’s requests for the appropriation of funds for the purposes proposed by each Department and certain other public bodies.1

2.The Government response to that report was sent to the Committee jointly by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Leader of the House on 20 December 2017. The response was reported to the House by the Committee and published on its website on 10 January 2018: it is also reproduced as an Appendix to this Report. We will evaluate the response in greater detail and will follow up the recommendations of our predecessors later in this Session.

Estimates day debates: the 2017 proposals

3.The principal recommendation of our predecessors’ report was for a procedure to reinvigorate the House’s consideration of Estimates. Our predecessors found that

the present system for allocating debates on Estimates days is not operating as it should. It fails on the one hand to ensure the proper consideration of Estimates on the days set aside by the House for that purpose, while on the other hand failing to provide the Liaison Committee with a means of recommending select committee reports for debate on the floor on their own merits.2

In consequence they recommended piloting a process which would enable debate on Estimates days to arise on the expenditure proposed in a particular Estimate: as the system operates at present, the scope of debate is governed by the content of the select committee report selected for debate which is sometimes only tangentially related to the content of the Estimate under consideration.

4.The proposed pilot would operate as follows:

5.The Backbench Business Committee would in return determine the business to be taken on a corresponding number of backbench days in the House in accordance with a recommendation of the Liaison Committee. Such business would typically comprise debates on select committee reports: debate might arise on a general, unamendable motion (“That this House has considered the report of X Committee and the Government response”), or on a substantive motion in which the Committee could advance an amendable proposition and invite the House to agree to it.3

6.We have received an enthusiastic response to our predecessors’ proposal from both the committees in this Parliament which would be required to operate the pilot.4 The Government, in its response to the report, has raised no concerns about the introduction of these new arrangements.5

7.We recommend that the pilot scheme proposed by the Procedure Committee in April 2017, whereby the Backbench Business Committee determines the Estimates to be debated on each Estimates day, on the basis of bids from Members or groups of Members, be implemented without delay for the remainder of the 2017–19 Session.

8.The first Estimates presented in this Parliament which fall to be debated will be the Supplementary Estimates for the current financial year and associated requests for authorisation of expenditure, such as the Vote on Account for expenditure in the first months of the next financial year. These are likely to be presented at the beginning of February 2018. Under present arrangements, the Government must seek approval for Supplementary Estimates before 18 March in each calendar year to benefit from the House’s procedures allowing the questions on approval of the majority of those Estimates to be put forthwith at a set hour.6

9.Debate on Supplementary Estimates in the March of each financial year has typically taken place over two sitting days. This is a hangover from measures taken to implement the Treasury’s Alignment Project.7 One consequence of the Alignment Project was the abolition of the Winter Supplementary Estimates and the transfer of the Estimates day usually allocated for consideration of these Estimates to the spring.8 Our predecessors considered that it was more appropriate to reserve two days for debate on the Main Estimates before the summer adjournment each year, leaving one day for debate on the Supplementary Estimates in the spring

10.While we concur in principle with this recommendation, it is worth observing that there has been no debate on the Main Estimates for the present financial year. They were laid in April 2017—in the last Parliament—and brought forward for approval in July 2017, shortly after State Opening and before the Liaison Committee and departmental select committees had been established.9

11.The Government has announced that it intends the present session of Parliament to last for two years—over the best part of two Estimates cycles. Standing Order No. 54 provides only that three days shall be allotted in each session for the consideration of Estimates. In our view, this allocation is inadequate for a session which is intended to last some 22 months and during which the Government will be applying for authorisation for two years’ worth of expenditure. In the most recent long Session (2010–12), which also followed a general election, the Main Estimates for 2010/11 were agreed without a debate but debates were arranged on the Winter and Spring Supplementary Estimates for that financial year, as well as on the Main Estimates for 2011/12. In December 2011 the Government brought forward a motion to increase the total allocation of Estimates days in the session from three to five.

12.We expect the Government, in line with precedent, to bring forward in due course a motion to increase the number of allotted Estimates days in the current Session, to reflect its exceptional length and to remain in line with the annual Estimates cycle. We recommend the following allocation of Estimates days for the current session:

1 Procedure Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2016–17, Authorising Government expenditure: steps to more effective scrutiny, HC (2016–17) 190, published 19 April 2017.

2 Ibid, para 77.

3 See, for example, the motion on Prison Safety proposed by the Chair of the Justice Committee, Robert Neill MP, in backbench time on 7 December 2017: HC Deb, 7 December 2017, 12.39 pm.

4 Letter from the Chair of the Liaison Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, dated 10 January 2018, reproduced in Appendix 2.

5 The Government response is reproduced in Appendix 1.

6 Standing Orders Nos. 54 and 55. The categories of motion which fall to be decided before 18 March are the votes on account for the coming financial year, supplementary and new estimates for the current financial year presented to the House at least fourteen calendar days previously, votes on numbers for defence services, and any excess votes, provided that the Public Accounts Committee has signified that it has no objection to the House being invited to approve them.

7 The Alignment Project (sometimes known as the Clear Line of Sight Project) sought to align government spending totals, Parliamentary limits and end year accounts. The project’s recommendations were endorsed by the House in 2010 with resultant changes coming into effect from the 2011–12 financial year. See Alignment (Clear Line of Sight) Project, Cm. 7567, March 2009.

8 The two days previously reserved for the two sets of Supplementary Estimates (one day in December for Winter Supplementaries and one day in February or March for Spring Supplementaries) were replaced by two days for the annual Supplementary Estimate, both days in February or March).

9 The Main Estimates for the 2017–18 financial year were presented on 19 April 2017 and approved without debate on 4 July 2017: Royal Assent to the ensuing Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act 2017 was signified on 19 July 2017. Departmental select committees were appointed on 11 September 2017, on motions proposed by the Government, and the Liaison Committee for the present Parliament was appointed on 6 November 2017.

18 January 2018