Check and approve Government spending and taxation
Parliament looks closely at the Government's tax and spending plans on our behalf and tries to make sure that public money is being spent fairly and efficiently. The Government cannot raise new taxes or spend public money without Parliament's agreement. But how is financial scrutiny done in practice by Parliament?
Approving Government taxation
Why are taxes needed by the Government?
The Government needs to raise money through taxation to deliver their spending priorities and to fund key public services such as schools, the NHS and the armed forces. Taxes may apply to individuals or businesses or be added to the price of goods and services we buy (VAT).
The Government's annual Budget Statement and Finance Bill
Each year the Chancellor of the Exchequer presents the Budget, this sets out all the major changes in taxation that the Government are proposing for the coming year. These measures are then contained in the annual Finance Bill. Parliament debates the Budget and scrutinises the Finance Bill.
Provisional collection of taxes and the Budget Resolutions
After the Chancellor finishes his Budget speech in the House of Commons, MPs are asked to approve some measures immediately, on a provisional basis, such as any changes to the rates of duty on alcohol and tobacco. These changes come into effect on 6pm on Budget day.
Four consecutive days of debate then take place in the Commons on the remaining tax measures, known as the Budget Resolutions. On the last of these days, MPs are asked to pass all the resolutions. In doing this they are giving Parliament's provisional consent for:
- any taxes that are new
- any annual taxes that are being renewed
- any existing taxes that are being increased or being applied more widely
- any other provisions that need to be agreed provisionally
A Finance Bill is still needed to make these resolutions permanent and legal. It is generally presented the same day, and must be passed before the provisional resolutions expire.
The annual Finance Bill
MPs debate and scrutinise the Finance Bill line-by-line during its stages in the Commons and changes to it are suggested and voted on. The Finance Bill goes through the same parliamentary stages as any other Bill, except that:
- In the Commons, its Committee stage is split – with the more controversial, important parts of the Bill being considered in a Committee of the whole House, which all MPs can attend, usually over two days. The remaining clauses are debated in Public Bill Committee as normal
- It is a Money Bill – which means that the House of Lords may debate the Bill at Second Reading but they make no changes to it and its later stages in the Lords are a formality
Additional scrutiny of taxation by select committees
The Commons Treasury Select Committee is a cross-party committee of MPs whose role is to scrutinise the work of the Treasury. Following each Budget statement the Treasury Committee conducts an inquiry into the Government's proposals, gathering evidence from expert witnesses and publishing a report with its conclusions and recommendations.
The Government must respond to the Committee and address any concerns that are raised. They will often include a contribution from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).
The House of Lords Economic Affairs Sub-Committee examines selected aspects of the Finance Bill, including tax administration, clarification and simplification.
Checking Government spending
The amount of public money that can be spent by each government department (e.g. Health, Transport, Education) must be approved annually by the House of Commons. In addition, there are special Committees that monitor how each department is spending money throughout the year.
Twice a year, the Government presents its annual spending plans (Estimates) to the House of Commons for approval.
Estimates Days take place in the Commons each year in July and in the following March. MPs can submit their bids for topics related to departmental spending to be debated on these days to the Backbench Business Committee in advance. After the debates, MPs are then asked to approve the Estimates for each Department by passing a resolution of the House. These resolutions form the basis of two Supply and Appropriation Bills each year which when passed give the budgets legal authority.
Scrutiny by departmental select committees
For each department in the Government there is a select committee of MPs in the Commons whose role is to examine its work. One of their main roles is to examine the annual expenditure plans for that department and to highlight any concerns.
Departmental select committees can question officials and ministers and try to ensure that public money is well spent: that it not only delivers the desired outcomes, but does so in the most cost effective way. Select Committees are supported in this work by the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit.
Scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC)
The Public Accounts Committee monitors public spending across the whole of the Government with a particular focus on ensuring value for money for the taxpayer. They can investigate the efficiency of any government department and work closely with the National Audit Office who support them in this role.
The PAC also follows up on any overspend by government departments at the end of the financial year and examines the reasons given for it by officials. The committee must report their findings to the House before it can authorise the extra spending (Excess Vote) retrospectively by passing a Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Act.