Parliament and Public Spending – interesting letter

I thought the following letter was an interesting addition to discussion about Parlaiment’s role in deciding budgets (see also my post on PF Blog) from former civil and public servant Des McConaghy.


Dear Mr Gerhold [Head of the Scrutiny Unit],

I refer to Mr John Bercow’s election as the new Speaker of the House of Commons, and to his promise that “scrutiny of budgets” would be one of his priorities.  It reminded me of our earlier exchange (6 January) and, in particular, my assertion to Mr Yardley (26 November) that “the general public and myself have yet to see just how the work of the (Treasury’s) “Alignment Project” is being set against broad parameters meaningful to the electorate”.

We know the present Treasury’s project was triggered by parliamentary concern following the Hansard Society’s 2009 Report “The Fiscal Maze”. That report featured the following telling statement:  “To draw an analogy, the government decides the value of the cheque, to whom it should be paid and when, and Parliament simply signs it.  As we point out in section four, the UK is considered to have among the weakest systems for parliamentary control and influence over government expenditure in the developed world” (p.11).

So perhaps the Treasury’s “Alignment Project” will fill this disastrous and scandalous hole at the very centre of our constitutional arrangements; the budget is at the heart of every constitution. But the almost total absence of media and public interest in this central constitutional weakness – and the alledged present Treasury efforts to do something about it – is surely remarkable and even dangerous.

Then, too, over the forty years or more spanning my own interest in public policy planning, many problems that we encounter at national, regional and local delivery levels have pointed, and continue to point year after year and decade after decade, to the inadequacy of our central parliamentary supply system. Indeed we know that it is difficult to refer to it as a “system” at all. Then, too, the failure of post hoc public audit, and other such examinations, to adequately or positively inform estimates as they go forward remains one common difficulty at the very centre of our governmental responses.

In my own time our respected Institute for Fiscal Studies did manage to publish a notable Report of the Committee chaired by Lord Armstrong (“Budgetary Reform in the UK”; 1980).That proposed a more simple and coherent framework for formulating and presenting fiscal policy; a unified system for dealing with estimates and taxation. But nothing happened!  Now public policy experts are claiming that any reasonable reform for parliament taking may typically need at least draft budgets published in advance with clear periods of consultation organised through select committees and supported by something like the Congressional Budget Office in the USA; (For example, “Rhetoric and reality on red tape”, Colin Talbot, Public Finance, June 5-11, 2009).

I therefore hope that the House of Commons Commission will energetically pursue Mr Bercow’s pledge in his proposed reform agenda regarding the need for a coherent system whereby parliament provides the government with the money to run this country.  I hope, too, that the excellent work of the House of Commons Library be expanded to inform the media and wider public of each and every stage in this crucial reform.

Who can possibly disagree with Heclo and Wildavsky in their epic 1974 study “The Private Government of Public Money”,  when they said …

“Money talks: it speaks to the purposes of men and nations”…”surely little the State does – short of war – is more important that constantly using so much of a nation’s work and wealth. The hidden politics of public spending is a unique window into the reality of  British political administration” (1).

I am copying this to John Pullinger at the House of Commons Library, to Maria Eagle as my own Member of Parliament and as a Minister in Jack Straw’s Justice Department,  to Dr Vince Cable and to Mr Oliver Letwin in the confident hope that the new Speaker will have the most dedicated cross party support in the above reform.

Best regards

Des McConaghy


(1) Heclo & Wildavsky, “The Private Government of Public Money”,  Macmillan, London; Univeristy of California Press, 1974.

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