Morgan not convinced on need for Budget Committee

7 Jun 2019

Treasury Committee Chair Nicky Morgan explained why she is against a Budget Committee, even suggesting that such a committee would let the departmental select committees off the hook a bit.

The House of Commons Procedure Committee is looking into whether a Budget Committee of the Commons should be established, to examine government spending plans set out in multiannual spending reviews and annual departmental estimates. The creation of a Budget Committee was recommended by Mr (now Sir) Edward Leigh and Dr John Pugh in a 2011 report commissioned by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer.

CIOT’s summary of past sessions can be found here.

Chair Charles Walker welcomed Treasury Committee Chair Nicky Morgan as the expert witness in the latest session held on 22 May 2019, with Walker admitting ‘Most of us think it [a Budget Committee] is not a bad idea, to be perfectly honest’.

Sir Edward Leigh opened the questioning. Nicky Morgan told Leigh that when she was Secretary of State for Education the Education Select Committee never asked her about the spending of the department. In support, Leigh intervened to say the Institute for Government examined the Committees that scrutinise the five highest-spending government departments and found that none had taken oral evidence from their departments on the 2017-18 estimates. Leigh went on to quote Lord Macpherson of Earl’s Court as saying he found over time that the Treasury Committee has become less and less interested in the details of public spending planning, ‘partly because there have been really sexy things out there like beating up bankers, which is far more fun than getting into the detail of public spending, much of which is quite boring but someone has to do it’.

Morgan said the Chancellor should appear before the Liaison Committee to talk about spending. Defending the Treasury Committee, she went on to say that in the 2010 spending review, the Treasury Committee heard from eight different panels over five sessions, and in the 2015 spending review there were three sessions. Also that it has already had sessions asking the Chancellor about the pre-announced health spending allocations and also the priorities for the Comprehensive Spending Review. But she accepts the estimates process does not work very well at the moment. The fact that we do not have the estimates debates until we start the financial year does not make much sense at all, for example.

When asked by Walker about her view on a Budget Committee, Morgan replied that she would ‘worry about staffing, resources and everything else’. She accepts that there are some ‘lacunae’ in parliamentary scrutiny of government spending but added that her committee can always ask for specialist advice in terms of looking at the economy. She added that the Budget Committee would let the departmental select committees off the hook a bit. Getting Treasury Ministers to appear more, looking at the role of the Liaison Committee and accepting the role of departmental select committees should be explored before Parliament moves to having a formal Budget Committee.

Morgan is open to Conservative Bob Blackman’s suggestion that a Sub-Committee of the Treasury Committee looks at the Budget in day-to-day detail. She claimed there is a lot more joint working between Committees at the moment. Bob Blackman joked that the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee he sits on have been praised, apparently, for the scrutiny it makes of departmental spending, but ‘we probably hold one session a year, and when the figures are presented, they are almost impenetrable to actually establish anything’. He added: “Of course, the Treasury Ministers refuse to come in front of us at all, saying, ‘It’s departmental responsibility’. There is a huge gap here, which I think is the big problem.”

On whether bringing forward the Budget to November has allowed greater scrutiny over the Budget, Morgan said the Treasury Committee probably did at least four, if not five, sessions on the Budget last year and then produced a report. She said: “The difficulty is that the session between the Budget in November and the Spring Statement is not very long and, of course, it is made more difficult by the uncertainty around the dreaded Brexit.”

Speaking in support of a Budget Committee, Peter Bone said there is a hole in the scrutiny and it is just not being done. To say that select committees should do it is one thing, but they just do not have the time, he added. He said it should be a stand-alone committee to give it the power and the authority, and have an elected Chair.

Labour’s Bambos Charalambous said this is about financial opaqueness that so many Members, including himself, still struggle with to get to the bottom of how much is being spent and what the money is being spent on. He thinks there is an issue with Members fully understanding what they are scrutinising.

The full session can be read here.

By Hamant Verma