Assertiveness training

4 Oct 13

There are stirrings of a new mood in Parliament – now MPs need to square up to the executive on tax and spend

After the vote on Syria that saw David Cameron’s policy defeated in the House of Commons, many commentators have started to speculate about a resurgence in the power of Parliament, as against that of the government.

They point out that this was the first defeat on an issue of war and peace in, well, a very long time. The highly newsworthy hearings of various select committees, pillorying the bankers, News International and the BBC have also been cited as evidence of a new and more assertive mood in Parliament.

This has been put down, in part, to the loosening of the dead hand of the Whips’ offices over appointments to select committees. There have also been some rather more hidden changes going on.

The National Audit Office, which used to work exclusively for the powerful Public Accounts Committee, has gradually spread its support to other select committees. It now regularly provides them with background briefings on departmental spending, value-for-money and performance issues, and carries out specific value-for-money studies.

The creation of the Scrutiny Unit in 2002 to support House of Commons select committees has also, in a modest way, increased the analytical support available to committees.

So select committees have become more independent of parties, and have more backup at their disposal. And they have certainly shown a greater appetite for more robust scrutiny of the government, beginning about a decade ago under the Labour government and no doubt increasing under the coalition.

But this must all be placed in the context of a weak Parliament vis-á-vis the UK executive. Take one of the most important decisions any government makes: getting and spending public money. Here, Parliament is extremely restricted in what it can do.

There is a widespread view that only government can propose taxes or spending, and that any defeat on a ‘money’ resolution is tantamount to a vote of no confidence. Numerous textbooks repeat this formula in various ways, even though it’s not strictly true.

Of course, if a government couldn’t raise taxes (most of which are annual) or spend money (ditto), it would be effectively powerless. But Parliament has never used this ‘nuclear option’. If it wants to get rid of a government, there are simpler ways of doing it (for example, in 1979, when Labour lost a straightforward confidence motion).

Standing Order 48 (which is apparently 300 years old) says that only the Crown (government) can propose public spending. Although this only applies to spending, it is also taken as applying to taxation. So it is impossible to propose amendments to either finance bills (taxes) or supply bills (spending) that increase either of them.

MPs can propose amendments to reduce taxes or spending in specific ways, but this is also hedged about by procedural barriers. In practice, there have only been about 20 successful amendments in almost 100 years – about one in every five Budgets.

As Philip Cowley, professor of government at the University of Nottingham, has pointed out, none of these was actually treated as a ‘confidence’ motion – somewhat giving the lie to the widespread belief that all ‘money’ votes are confidence issues.

In fact, Parliament could play a much more active role in amending proposals for tax and spending than it does – the only real barrier is its own standing orders and the widely held view that this would be somehow ‘unconstitutional’ or a ‘confidence’ issue, when it is neither. Plenty of other legislatures play a more active role in these issues.

Only when Parliament begins to take real power away from the executive will we really start to see a genuine rebalancing of power in our system. There are stirrings in this direction – but so far, that’s all they really are.

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