Please note that this blog piece was originally published on Colin Talbot’s personal blog on 20 April 2015, and is available here.
By Colin Talbot
The SNP are claiming they can ‘block Labour budgets’, ‘end austerity’ and ‘stop Trident’. Their problem however is simple – most of what they say is based on assuming that Westminster works the same way as Holyrood does for budgeting – and it doesn’t.
There are huge ‘constitutional’ and practical obstacles to implementing the sort of radical challenges to Government tax and spend decisions that the SNP and others seem to be mooting.
The first set of problems is that in the Westminster parliament only the Government can propose taxation or spending measures. These can be defeated, or amended, but only by cutting spending or lowering or removing taxes – not by increasing either.
Standing Order 48 of the House of Commons states that:
“48. This House will receive no petition for any sum relating to public service or proceed upon any motion for a grant or charge upon public revenue, whether payable out of the Consolidated Fund or the National Loans fund or out of money to be provided by Parliament, or for releasing or compounding any sum of money owing to the Crown, unless recommended by the Crown.”
In plain English – only the Government can make proposals to spend money.
By convention, this principle has been extended to taxation and the Finance Bills – which are the Bills that authorise the collection of taxes. Parliament can only propose and vote on amendments which reduce or remove a tax measure, not increase or create a new one. But this is not actually stated in Standing Orders.
So opposition parties can propose amendments to reduce spending or taxes, but not to increase either. Or, of course, they can simply vote down entirely Government tax and spending proposals.
Historically there have been only been about 20 successful attempts to amend either Finance Bills or ‘ways and means’, supply or estimates – the various procedures by which tax and spend are authorized – in the past century. Finance (taxation) Bills are frequently amended in detail as a consequence consultations or lobbying and very infrequently by government defeats, but spending decisions are very rarely altered (I don’t think a successful occasion in the past 100 years).
The authoritative “DODs Handbook of House of Commons Procedure” has this to say:
“10.5.12 These motions relating to Estimates reflect the amounts requested in those [estimates] documents. The motions may be amended, but because the Commons agrees to expenditure on the initiative of the Government, rather than initiating expenditure itself (see 10.1.2), an amendment may only propose to reduce the amount of resources to be authorised. On the rare occasions when this is proposed the reduction has often been a token one of £1,000 ‘‘in respect of’’ whatever area of expenditure the Member tabling the amendment wishes to draw attention to, though under the new form of the Estimates it is doubtful whether an amendment in such form would make sufficient sense, in terms of how an Estimate is described, to be admissible as orderly.” Eighth (2011/12) Edition, page 102.
Finally, a major obstacle to amending spending plans is also the way in which they are debated and voted on in the Commons. Only 3 days are allocated to debate estimates – the plans set out by each government department. Although these documents now go to Select Committees they have very little time to examine them and usually only 6 are selected for debate (by the Liaison Committee).
So let’s try some hypothetical examples.
There will almost certainly be no budget line in the Ministry of Defence’s spending plans labeled ‘Trident’. So the best anyone opposing Trident could hope to do would be to move an amendment to the MODs estimates reducing their spending by an amount that the proposers think is equivalent to Trident renewal spending.
Their first obstacle is getting an amendment on the Order Paper during the estimates debate. There is no guarantee they could.
The second obstacle would be getting the amendment debated – even if it put on the Order Paper it could end up being voted on without a debate (as most supply motions are).
The third would be getting a majority to back it. Assuming a minority government – of either Labour or Conservatives – who is going to back an SNP or backbench Labour amendment or this sort? As both main parties support Trident renewal, even with the SNP, rebel Labour and assorted others it is very unlikely to pass.
Fourth, and finally, the amendment – even if successful – would only reduce the MODs budget. There would be nothing to stop the Government ploughing ahead with Trident anyway – either by reallocating money within the MOD budget and/or using the reserves in various devious ways.
END AUSTERITY – SPEND MORE ON HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE?
Suppose a minority Labour government puts forward an ‘austerity lie’ Budget – could it be amended to spend more – say on health and social care? No. As pointed out above, under existing rules only the Government can propose to spend money.
All anyone who wanted to spend more could do would be to vote down the whole of the spending plans, or, for example, the Department for Health’s estimates.
This ‘nuclear’ option is feasible constitutionally especially since, with the Fixed Term Parliament Act, it would not by itself be a vote of no confidence or trigger the fall of the Government.
But how politically feasible is it? If we had a minority Labour government, for example, it is quite possible that the Tories and SNP could vote down all or part of Labour’s spending plans. But what would the political impact be of the Tories and SNP trooping through the lobbies together? How often could either of them do that without inflicting huge political damage on themselves?
BLOCK THE BUDGET AND FORCE A WASHINGTON STYLE SHUTDOWN?
Finally, let’s consider one other possibility – that the SNP want to block the Budget of a minority Labour Government (one which is in this morning’s newspapers). Could they? Could we end up with a Washington style grid-lock and Government shut down? In practice, no.
A lot of what British government spends and taxes does not require fresh annual authorization – if a Budget’s spending ad tax plans were voted down government would largely carry on ‘as is’. Government borrowing, paying for debt, etc is not subject to authorization by Parliament – unlike in the USA – so it can carry on. British government can therefore carry on for quite a long period without passing a Budget, again, unlike the US Federal Government.
CHANGING THE RULES OF THE GAME?
What the possible outcome of the next election may well produce is that the political parties start to realize that the current ‘rules of the game’ place inordinate amounts of power over ‘tax and spend’ in the hands of the executive. This could lead to changing the rules. Standing Orders can be amended, they after all belong to the House of Commons, not the government. Will a weak minority government produce the circumstances where enough MPs want to see a fundamental overhaul of ‘getting and spending’ decision-making? We shall see.
Colin Talbot is Professor of Government at the University of Manchester, and keeps a regular blog here. He is also active on Twitter, @colinrtalbot.