Publications / Briefings

Back to Business: The Budget and Estimates

3 Jul 2024
The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt walks outside Downing Street with the Budget box. ©HM Treasury / Zara Farrar
The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt walks outside Downing Street with the Budget box. ©HM Treasury / Zara Farrar

The new Government will face a series of financial decisions and procedures that need to be implemented on a tight timetable in its first six months. When will it hold a Budget? How does Parliament scrutinise and approve the Budget and Finance Bill? The departmental 'Main Estimates' need to be approved by MPs before the Summer recess: why, and what will happen if they don't? Might Supplementary Estimates also be needed? And a Spending Review must be concluded by December to inform government bodies of their budget allocations for the start of the next financial year.

The last Budget was in March 2024. However, in General Election years it is not unusual for the new Chancellor of the Exchequer to introduce a Budget shortly after the start of the new Parliament, even if a Budget has already been delivered in the same calendar or financial year and even if the election did not result in a change of administration.

As the table below shows, when there has been a change of Government (following the 1979, 1997 and 2010 General Elections), a Budget has been held between 39 and 61 days after polling day.

Table 5: Dates of Budget Days following a change of Government

General ElectionState OpeningBudget DayDays between General Election and Budget Day
3 May 197915 May 197912 June 197939 days
1 May 199714 May 19972 July 199761 days
6 May 201025 May 201022 June 201046 days
4 July 202417 July 2024??

The Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has said that she will not hold a Budget without it being accompanied by an independent forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).[1] The OBR requires 10 weeks’ notice to prepare an economic and fiscal forecast for a Budget. Accordingly, the earliest possible date that a Budget could be held would be Friday 13 September, assuming she gave the OBR notice on her first day in office on Friday 5 July. This timetable would see the Budget held later than the Budgets that followed the last three changes of Government following the General Election.

Parliament normally sits during the first two weeks of September before adjourning for three weeks for the party conference recess.

Unless the Government decides exceptionally that Parliament should sit during one or more of the party conference weeks beginning 16 September (see Back to Business: Parliamentary Calendar) and should consider the Budget during that period, then it seems likely that the Budget will be soon after Parliament returns in early October (most likely the House will return the week commencing 7 October).

Traditionally, the Budget used to be delivered in March each year, before the start of the new financial year in April, but this was usually accompanied by an Autumn Statement (prior to 2010 this was known as the pre-Budget Report). In November 2016, Chancellor Philip Hammond MP announced that the 2017 Spring Budget would be the last, with the Government moving to a single annual ‘fiscal event’ each Autumn. In practice, however, both the timing of subsequent General Elections and the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the proposed Autumn Budget cycle was disrupted. The December 2019 General Election meant that the planned November Budget was postponed until March 2020. The onset of the pandemic meant multiple economic statements had to be made that year and the next Budget was also pushed into Spring 2021. More recently we have had two successive Autumn Statements rather than Budgets in 2022 and 2023, although in content and importance they had all the appearance of being a ‘mini-budget’.

In her ‘Mais Lecture’, the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves made clear that a Labour Government would be committed to a single Autumn Budget every year.[2] This commitment was repeated in Labour’s manifesto.[3]

An advantage of the move to an Autumn Budget cycle is that it would allow for some policies announced in the Budget to be consulted on during the subsequent Winter and Spring, followed by consultation on draft legislative clauses providing for technical implementation of the measures, before their inclusion in the Finance Bill the following Autumn. It remains to be seen whether this timetable will be adhered to, at least for the first Budget of the Parliament, when a new Government will be keen to convey political vigor and actively deliver changes as quickly as possible.

The Budget Statement outlines the state of the economy and the Government’s taxation proposals. The Chancellor’s Statement may also cover public spending but parliamentary scrutiny and approval of Government expenditure is engaged through the Estimates rather than the Budget process, the details of which are set out in a separate section below.

The delivery of any Budget will follow a set formula. On Budget Day at around 12.30pm, the Chancellor will make a statement to the Chamber, with the Chairman of Ways and Means (the most senior Deputy Speaker) in the Chair rather than the Speaker. Budgets are typically – although not necessarily – delivered on a Wednesday, with the Budget Statement coming immediately after Prime Minister’s Questions.

After the conclusion of the Budget speech, MPs are asked to agree a motion without debate to give immediate provisional effect, for a specified limited period, to changes to existing or continuing taxes such as duty increases on alcohol, cigarettes or petrol, under the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968.[4] Parliament has 10 sitting days to agree the motion(s) putting these changes onto a permanent footing, subject to passage of the Finance Bill.

After the Budget Statement has been delivered, there are usually four days of debate at the end of which the House is asked to approve a set of ‘Ways and Means’ motions putting all the Budget’s tax measures into effect (including those already given temporary force by the initial general motion under the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968). Dozens of Ways and Means motions may be needed to implement a Budget (sometimes as many as 80 or more) and the Chair may therefore take a number of consecutive motions together to save time. The House will generally divide (formally vote) only a few times and only on the most controversial proposals. Once the Ways and Means motions are agreed – and thus become resolutions of the House – the Government can present the Finance Bill to the House, founded on these resolutions.

The Budget resolutions take permanent legal effect when the Finance Bill achieves Royal Assent. Given that the initial resolution provides for some tax measures only for a specified limited period, it is important that the Finance Bill achieves Royal Assent before this period expires.

As is the case for other bills, the First Reading of the Finance Bill is a formality. The Bill’s long title is read out and a day for its Second Reading is named. This day is often given as ‘tomorrow’. However, this does not mean that the Second Reading will actually take place the following day – ‘tomorrow’ is a procedural device to list the Bill on the Future Business of the House. In practice, the Second Reading of the Finance Bill may not be held until some weeks after the conclusion of the Budget debate.

At Committee stage the Finance Bill is usually split into two parts: the most controversial aspects are considered by a Committee of the Whole House, and the rest by a Public Bill Committee (PBC) comprising up to 40 Members.

The Treasury Committee normally conducts a speedy inquiry into the Budget proposals (including scrutiny of the report which is issued by the Office for Budget Responsibility), with a view to publishing its findings in time for scrutiny by other Members at Public Bill Committee stage. It is possible, however, that the Treasury Committee may not be fully operational in time for a Budget in the early Autumn.

Once through the House of Commons, the Finance Bill is sent to the House of Lords for consideration, but this is a formality. The House of Lords conducts no real scrutiny of the Finance Bill because the financial powers of the Upper House are limited by the ancient ‘rights and privileges’ of the House of Commons and the terms of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949.[5] Control of taxation can be exercised only by the House of Commons. The role of the House of Lords in respect of finance is “to agree, and not to initiate or amend”.[6]

Spending Reviews set out headline spending plans for each Government department, usually over a three- or four-year period. Drawing on the plans outlined in the Spending Review, the Government then makes formal requests to Parliament for funds for departments, agencies and arms-length bodies for the financial year ahead. These requests are made in at least two – and sometimes as many as four – stages throughout the year. This process is known as the ‘Estimates Cycle’.[7]

The last Spending Review in Autumn 2021 set departmental budgets up to the end of March 2025. Some form of Spending Review must therefore be concluded by December 2024 in order that budget allocations can be made in time for the start of the next financial year (April 2025-March 2026). Given the tight timescale it is likely that an initial one-year spending review may be held first to make decisions about next year’s spending, with a further, multi-year Comprehensive Spending Review to follow with publication perhaps timed to coincide with a Budget in Autumn 2025.

The ‘Main Estimates’ whereby Government departments and their agencies and arms-length bodies seek parliamentary approval for their spending plans for the financial year are normally published in April for parliamentary approval in early July. Some agencies and bodies have published their Main Estimate for the current financial year 2024-25. However, prior to the General Election the collective set of Main Estimates, including those of individual Government departments, had not been presented to Parliament.

This has already had consequences for the devolved administrations. The Welsh Government, for example, has been unable to present its usual Supplementary Budget to the Senedd as it would normally do in June or July because it does not have confirmation of the Main Estimates which would have consequential spending implications for Wales. It will now be unable to present its Supplementary Budget until mid-September at the earliest, some three months later than normal.[8]

The laying of the Estimates before Parliament and the formal approval of them by MPs will therefore be an early item of business in mid-July following State Opening. House of Commons Standing Orders enable all departmental Estimates to be approved in a single ‘roll-up’ motion, but only if the motion is approved before 5 August each year.[9] If approval is not secured before 5 August, then the abbreviated ‘roll-up’ procedure cannot be used, and each departmental Estimate would need to be approved separately. This is not an insurmountable problem, but it would be time consuming.

We know of no case in the modern era where the Main Estimate was not approved by the August deadline. In practice, however, the 5 August deadline could be altered if MPs wished. A motion could be moved, for example, to amend the Standing Order and substitute a date other than 5 August for consideration of the Estimates.

However, such an approach has never been tested. Ministers and MPs would have to weigh the political advantages of doing so against the risks involved in potentially withholding funding for critical economic and social programmes of benefit to their constituents. Government departments secure parliamentary approval for a 45% advance in their funding to cover departmental spending plans for the first four months of the following financial year through the first stage of the Estimates cycle known as the Vote on Account.[10] If MPs fail to approve the Main Estimates by August, then by early Autumn the government would begin to run out of money as the 45% advance depletes and as all other options to redeploy funds from other sources are exhausted.

Only three days’ debate each Session are set aside for consideration of the Estimates (departmental spending plans). This limits the scope for significant intervention by individual MPs. They may propose a reduction in an Estimate selected for debate, but they may not propose an increase in the Estimate. Controversial spending measures need not be included as a specific line item in the Estimates so it is difficult for opposition MPs to vote against them.

It largely falls to departmental Select Committees to scrutinise the relevant departmental Estimates and accompanying Estimates memoranda, supported by the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit. However, departmental Select Committees are unlikely to be established in time to scrutinise this year’s Main Estimates prior to the August deadline.

The topics for Estimates Day debates are selected by the Backbench Business Committee following bids for a debate on one of the departmental Estimates from backbench MPs, including Select Committee chairs. The Liaison Committee then formally recommends the proposals selected by the Backbench Business Committee to the House, which must agree them (this is usually a formality).

If the Estimates are debated for approval in July then the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee (the Select Committee comprising the chairs of all other Select Committees) may not have been formed in time to recommend the choice of subjects for debate. If so, the topics may have to be determined through negotiations between the party business managers (the ‘Usual Channels’).

Once the Main Estimates motions have been approved, they become resolutions of the House (or Supply Resolutions). These have political force but are not law. Legislation is also required in the form of a Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill.[11] The Bill is usually introduced immediately after the Supply motions are agreed, with Second Reading set for the next sitting day.

As the House has already agreed the Supply resolutions, a Supply and Appropriation Bill is not subject to debate or amendment at any stage. There is no Committee stage, and thus no Report stage, and questions on Second and Third Reading are put 'forthwith'. The Bill is certified as a Money Bill by the Speaker[12] and goes to the House of Lords, where it is passed unamended (in accordance with the Parliament Act 1911). Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, the Government has the legislative approval necessary for the monies sought by each department to be released.

Supplementary Estimates are the means by which Government departments seek parliamentary approval for additional resources or for reallocation of existing resources to new activities which are not covered in the Main Estimate.[13]

They are usually presented to Parliament in February for approval by the House of Commons by 18 March so that the funds can be spent before the end of the financial year. However, in exceptional cases out-of-turn Supplementary Estimates are sometimes presented earlier in the financial year. For example, in October 2022 out-of-turn Supplementary Estimates for the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy needed approval by Parliament to cover expenditure for cost-of-living support.

It is possible that having had little input into the Main Estimates, a new Government may need to make additional requests to Parliament to authorise new funding levels or amend existing ones or to authorise changes in the purpose for which money is sought by departments. This may be particularly necessary if machinery of government changes are implemented, giving rise to costs arising from the transfer of functions between Whitehall departments.

As with the Main Estimates, if Supplementary Estimates are needed then the Supplementary Supply Resolutions will need to be given legislative effect in a Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill.[14] The process for this is the same as for the Main Estimates Bill.

Departmental Annual Reports and Accounts are also usually presented to Parliament in June or July in advance of Summer recess. This is therefore likely to happen soon after Parliament first meets. However, there is no formal deadline stipulating when the reports and accounts must be laid, so some departments may delay publication until the Autumn subject to the wishes of their new Secretary of State.

One of the ‘core tasks’ of departmental Select Committees is to examine the expenditure plans, outturn and performance of the department and its arms-length bodies and the relationship between spending and the delivery of outcomes.[15] However, it is for individual committees to determine the extent and means of this scrutiny – for example, whether to conduct a full inquiry and call Ministers and officials to give evidence. When planning their future work, the newly constituted departmental Select Committees will thus have to make an early decision about whether, how and when to scrutinise the Departmental Annual Reports and Accounts and what prioritisation should attach to them compared to other, competing areas of potential scrutiny.

[2] Rachel Reeves, Mais Lecture, 19 March 2024

[3] Labour Party Manifesto 2024, Our Plan to Change Britain, p.31

[5] See Hansard Society (2024), The Parliament Act 1911: A procedural guide

[6] Erskine May’s treatise on the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament, 25th edition, 2019, para 37.2

[7] See Hansard Society, What is the Estimates Cycle?

[8] Letter from Rebecca Evans MS, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Cabinet Office, to Owen Griffiths MS, Chair of the Finance Committee, The Senedd, regarding publication of supplementary budgets during 2024-25, 10 June 2024

[9] Standing Order No.55, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[10] See Hansard Society, What is the Estimates Cycle?

[12] See Hansard Society, What is a Money Bill?

[13] See Hansard Society, What is the Estimates cycle?

[15] See Kelly, R. (2 April 2020), House of Commons Library, Select Committees – Core Tasks

©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

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