E is for Estimates: though nothing could be more central to the role of Parliament, the approval of government expenditure by voting the Estimates has never been a process to make the hearts of Members of Parliament beat faster.
Edmund Burke, who was given to histrionics, once flung a copy of the naval Estimates across the floor of the House of Commons, aiming at the Treasury bench, complaining that ‘it was treating the House with the utmost contempt, to present them with a fine gilt book of Estimates, calculated to a farthing, for purposes to which the money granted was never meant to be applied’. As Peter Thomas observed, in his The House of Commons in the Eighteenth Century, his outrage was also a bit fake: for the gap between the Estimates (especially the naval Estimates) and the reality of government expenditure had long been recognised and tolerated, by Burke as much as anyone else.
Indeed, few things which are so fundamental to the business of an institution have been of so little importance in practice to the vast majority of those involved in it. The Estimates – the planned budgets for government activity in the following year presented annually to the House of Commons – continue to be the basis on which the whole system of parliamentary control of government expenditure rests. The sittings of Parliament have been built around the annual process of agreeing the Estimates in the committee of supply, and voting supplies (i.e., taxes) to cover the cost in the committee of ways and means, with finance bills and appropriation bills brought in to authorise the taxation and expenditure accordingly. But the whole process is a highly complex and technical one, properly understood by only a handful of people in the Treasury, the National Audit Office and the Commons’ Legislation Office. Even in the eighteenth century, the process of voting the Estimates was a routine matter which aroused little interest, and while the debates on supply were throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among the main arenas for highly-charged political confrontations, the actual detail of the expenditure was almost never the point at issue.
That this was so is in many ways odd, for suspicion that the money voted by Parliament was being misappropriated to purposes other than those intended was frequently an enormous bone of contention in parliaments before the Revolution of 1688-9. The surrender by Parliament to government of just about all initiative in financial matters is one of the most distinctive features of the British post-1689 constitution. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the process of debating and agreeing the Estimates had settled into a pattern which would remain unaltered until well into the nineteenth century, and of which many traces remain today. The royal speech at the beginning of the session would be responded to by an address from the Commons and a formal vote for granting supply. The House would order that estimates be presented for the navy, the army and the ordnance, usually divided further into an ordinary standing charge and various extraordinary charges (especially during a time of war), and specifying among other things the numbers of troops, sailors and ships to be provided. The estimates duly presented, they were referred to the committee of supply; over a few days the committee would discuss the estimates and pass a series of votes usually specifying that sums ‘not exceeding’ those requested be granted. The resolutions of the committee would be confirmed by the House; and then it was the job of another committee of the whole House, the committee of ways and means, to consider how to raise the money to cover them. The taxes voted would be formally earmarked, or appropriated, to the purposes for which they were requested, in what would eventually become an annual Appropriation Act. The whole process was largely controlled by ministers or those close to them.
Both the accuracy of the estimates and their relationship to the government’s actual expenditure were highly questionable, but rarely investigated. The committee of supply’s scrutiny of the Estimates appears normally to have been desultory. Attempts by the opponents of Sir Robert Walpole to refer the Estimates to a select committee for more detailed scrutiny than they ever received in committee of supply got nowhere in 1730 and 1736. The control of ministers over the process of supply and ways and means had been tight since the mid-1690s, when (as David Hayton has shown in the introduction to The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715) attempts by ‘country’ party politicians to claim some toehold over it were squeezed out. The insistence that no request for expenditure would be entertained unless it was recommended by the Crown, first enunciated in a resolution on 11 December 1706, but more familiarly as a standing order passed on 11 June 1713, was a key principle. The reluctance of parliamentarians to exercise any serious control over the Estimates was remarkable, and the reasons for it difficult to pin down. There was, no doubt, an acceptance that governments needed operational flexibility, and (among a House largely composed of landowners) a lack of appetite for the hard work and information required properly to scrutinise the figures. But overall it shows how deeply imbued the House of Commons was with the idea that it was not their role to second-guess the work of a government that commanded the consent of a majority in the House of Commons, however much they might be content to criticise it afterwards.
Crucially this approach has meant that the process of debating the Estimates, at least on the floor of the House, has rarely been used as a means of exercising pressure to increase departmental budgets. It would not be surprising if politicians sought to use the estimates process to argue for parliamentary-funded spending within their constituencies, as certainly happens in the United States. In the early years there is some evidence of that pressure building up. In the 1705-6 Estimates round, for example, the only matter of controversy, or certainly the only division, was over an amount included for replacing army officers’ horses killed in the war. An amendment that the replacements should be as good as those lost – rather than, presumably, any old nag – was defeated. The 1706 resolution and 1716 standing order have effectively closed off the possibility of seeking to get favourable treatment through the Estimates process (though they have not closed off the possibility of lobbying ministers to include expenditure within the Estimates before they ever reach the House of Commons).
From the 1780s onwards a series of reforms ensured that the Estimates gradually became a more accurate representation of the government’s planned expenditure. The development of appropriation accounts – formal government accounts that made it possible to see whether the money voted through the Estimates had been spent for the purposes specified – from the 1830s onwards was particularly significant in improving the quality of the Estimates themselves, and the reforms were clinched by the creation of the Public Accounts Committee in 1861, a body which became a vehicle for further systematic reform. What did not improve was the House’s scrutiny of the Estimates: debates in committee of supply continued to be an opportunity for either general or specific debates on matters within the remit of the department presenting the Estimates, whether or not they had much relation to the funding requested. As a consequence, the debates in committee of supply could become a bog into which the session sank, ministers struggling to hurry the House through and secure the routine, though key, business, before the onset of the summer holidays. The reforms initiated by Arthur Balfour, as chancellor of the exchequer, in 1896, would acknowledge that the process was no longer any more than formally about the detail of expenditure, beginning a process of conversion of the business of the committee of supply into the ‘Opposition Day’ debates that they subsequently became. Attempts to delegate to select committees a process of detailed scrutiny – such as had been rejected in the 1730s – would preoccupy parliamentary reformers in the twentieth century, and eventually bore fruit in the 1970s in the select committee ‘system’. This, and other changes, have considerably enhanced the transparency of government estimates and accounts, and the influence wielded by Parliament and its bodies on developing them. But the aim to enhance inspection of the Estimates continues to be less important for these committees than the opportunity to discuss departmental policy more generally; and Parliament’s control over government expenditure continues to be, in comparison to many other legislatures, relatively weak.