Debates on Estimates days: piloting new arrangements Contents

2Implementation of the pilot for the 2017–18 Supplementary Estimates

13.We set out below how we envisage the pilot could operate for the Supplementary Estimates to be considered before 18 March 2018.

Procedural issues

14.The Backbench Business Committee’s existing system for applications for debates is well understood by Members and eminently adaptable to the requirements of the pilot. There are some procedural considerations peculiar to Estimates days:

Scope of debate

15.The scope of debate will be determined by the Chair. In judging whether contributions are within the scope, the Chair will be guided by the subject for debate proposed by the Backbench Business Committee, recommended by the Liaison Committee and agreed to by the House.

16.We consider it undesirable for the scope of debate to be drawn too tightly. The purpose of the pilot is to encourage broader interest and participation in the House’s formal processes of financial authorisation, drawing on the expertise across the House in evaluating Government expenditure proposals and their linkage to policy development. But it is also an objective of the reforms proposed that future debates have a more direct relationship to spending than has sometimes been the case in the past. It would therefore be appropriate for debate to range widely over the subject matter of an Estimate, though it is likely that the sponsors of the debate would have advanced specific issues for consideration when making their bid to the Backbench Business Committee.

17.To enable a wide-ranging debate, the subject of the debate might be given simply as

The spending of [name of Department]


The spending of [name of Department] on [name of programme/name of arms length body/name of activity]

Where changes in the proposed expenditure of departments in England has given rise to “Barnett consequentials”—that is, consequential changes in the block grants to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly—an appropriate subject for debate might be

The spending of [name of Department], and its consequences for grants to the devolved institutions


18.Our predecessors asked the Government to commit to a minimum period of five weeks between the laying of Main or Supplementary Estimates and the day allotted for the approval of the expenditure by the House. They were particularly concerned that a very brief period between the laying of an estimate and the debate on it would adversely affect the operation of any new system:

Under the current timetable, it is open to question whether it would be genuinely practicable to make the change we recommend for Supplementary Estimates. Even if it were feasible, Members would have limited information on which to base their bids, the Backbench Business Committee would have little time to consider their merits, and announcements on topics chosen would be likely to be done at the very last minute, all of which would reduce the effectiveness of such change.10

19.In 2012 a new schedule for the approval of Estimates was introduced.11 Under this timetable the Government has typically laid the Supplementary Estimates for the remainder of the current financial year in the second week of February, the week before the February adjournment, and has scheduled two days of debate on the Estimates in the last week of February or the first week of March. Under the provisions of Standing Order No. 55 the Government is obliged only to lay Supplementary Estimates at least fourteen calendar days before the day on which they are to be debated. The latest date on which approval may be sought to benefit from Estimates day procedures is 18 March. On average the Government has sought approval for Supplementary Estimates 19 calendar days, and 7 sitting days, after they have been laid. The latest date on which approval has been sought under the new timetable has been 6 March.

20.The Treasury has explained why a period of five weeks between the laying of Supplementary Estimates and a debate in the House on those Estimates would, in the Government’s view, be impractical.

21.Under present arrangements, the content of the Supplementary Estimates laid before the House does not materially affect the recommendation of the Liaison Committee on what should be debated on Estimates days. Of the 18 rounds of Supplementary Estimates since the financial year 2005/06, on nine occasions the Liaison Committee has decided on the Estimates to be debated on the subsequent Estimates days on the day the Estimates have been presented, or on the day after. On only one occasion since the financial year 2009/10 has the Liaison Committee taken more than one day to make its recommendation.13 The speed of decision-making is explained in part by the availability of information about the content of the estimate in draft before presentation, and in part because bids for debate on committee reports may be decided on the merits of the argument in the report or other subject proposed for debate, rather than on the features of the supplementary estimate to be presented. The Clerk Assistant explained the process to our predecessors thus:

At present, work on considering possible topics for debate has to be undertaken before the publication of the Supplementary Estimates themselves, although final decisions are not normally made until immediately after publication. As a result, it is extremely unlikely that a proposal from a select committee or a decision of the Liaison Committee will arise directly from scrutiny of the Supplementary Estimates or any in-year departmental budget change reflected in those documents, unless that change was foreshadowed in information previously provided to a select committee. In short, the current timetable vitiates the prospects for linkage between the content of the Supplementary Estimates and the selection of the subjects for debate.14

Table 1: Timing of consideration of Supplementary Estimates, Sessions 2005–06 to 2016–17

Supplementary Estimate

Date laid

Date of Liaison Committee report

Date House agreed to Liaison Committee report

Day(s) of debate

Calendar and sitting days between laying and debate

Winter 05/06





21 / 13

Spring 05/06





34 / 18

Winter 06/07





16 / 10

Spring 06/07





20 / 14

Winter 07/08





20 / 11

Spring 07/08





20 / 14

Winter 08/09





20 / 8†

Spring 08/09





25 / 11

Winter 09/10





16 / 10

Spring 09/10





15 / 11

Winter 10/11





15 / 10

Spring 10/11





16 / 7

Winter and Spring Supplementary Estimates merged, 14 December 2011

Supps 11/12





19 / 6

Supps 12/13





20 / 8

Supps 13/14





19 / 7

Supps 14/15





19 / 7

Supps 15/16





20 / 8

Supps 16/17





19 / 7

*—House varied SO No. 55 to allow approval to be given after 18 March

†—Parliament prorogued 26.11.2008: State Opening 03.11.2008

Source: House of Commons Journal and Votes and Proceedings

22.The proposal to broaden out access to applications for Estimates day debates to all backbenchers provides a challenge to the present assumptions underpinning the provision of information to the House. Under the pilot we propose, the bids for Estimates day debates are expected to be more closely linked to the content of Supplementary Estimates. We therefore recommend that the Treasury give serious consideration, within the constraints of its own timetable, to bringing forward as far as possible the date of publication for Supplementary Estimates for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 financial years, and to providing the maximum period between that date and the date on which the Government seeks approval from the House for those estimates. Where possible, the Treasury should provide to the House an indication of the Departments which will be seeking a supplementary estimate, and the broad outline of the reason for the changes sought, no later than the second week of January.

23.On the present pattern, it seems likely that the Supplementary Estimates for 2017–18 would be laid in the second week of February 2018, shortly before the February adjournment. On this schedule, the earliest that the Backbench Business Committee might be able to consider bids from Members would be at its meeting on 20 February 2018, for debates which the Government might schedule for the week of 26 February or the week of 5 March. This does not give a great deal of time for bids to be developed based on the features of a published Supplementary Estimate.

24.Published information on the changes to Main Estimates sought by Departments through a Supplementary Estimate for the remainder of the financial year 2017–18 may therefore not be available until shortly before the deadline for bids for Estimates Day debates. There are nevertheless potential sources of additional information for Members seeking to make an informed assessment of their content. We encourage Members contemplating bids for debates on Estimates in the first round of this pilot to discuss with the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit, and with subject specialists in the Research and Information teams of the House of Commons Library, the prospects for the forthcoming Estimates round and the basis on which bids for debates might be prepared.15


25.We will undertake an initial evaluation of the operation of the pilot after the debates on the Main Estimates for 2018–19, with a further evaluation at the end of the 2017–19 Session.

26.Our objective for this pilot is for the House to demonstrate to the public that it is undertaking its constitutional function of controlling supply to the Government, and is examining critically the Government’s requests for expenditure. We will be evaluating the outcome of the process, and the success of Estimates day debates and debates on select committee reports, against this overall objective.

11 The dates of presentation of Winter and Spring Supplementary Estimates between 2005/06 and 2010/11, and the dates of presentation of Supplementary Estimates between 2011/12 and 2016/17, are set out in Table 1.

12 These arrangements replaced the End-Year Flexibility process introduced by the Treasury in 1998. See An Overview of Recent Changes in Government Financial Management, House of Commons Scrutiny Unit, April 2012.

13 For the Supplementary Estimates for 2014/15. See Table 1.

14 EST 0014, para 22

15 Contact details for the Scrutiny Unit are available at .

18 January 2018