Budget votes: Ministers’ new hurdle

Imagine you’re a director, or even a partner in a business. Chances are you wouldn’t be happy if the managing director and chief financial officer attempted to sign off next year’s budget in one go. Picture it. The plans for the next year, which will determine whether the business will succeed or fail, given the nod in a pro-forma way without any real scrutiny of individual elements of the budget.

Wouldn’t happen. You’d want to know the detail. How much is being spent on wages, marketing, office overhead. Well, now that same line of thinking is going to be applied to government. And it’s going to present a new set of challenges for ministers and their departments.

Historically, the House of Commons has signed off spending estimates in their entirety. Sure, the odd criticism will be made about how much is being spent on the NHS or welfare state, but there’s little detailed scrutiny of the funds allocated to individual departments. But under plans put forward by Meg Hillier’s Public Accounts Select Committee, MPs will get to vote on the funding allocated for each department.

Granted, the votes will be non-binding. And yes, the Government’s majority should ensure safe passage of a significant number (if not all) of department spending allocations. But this is going to turn up the spotlight on ministers and will present considerable challenges for their civil servants and communication teams.

If you needed any evidence of that, just wait for the first of these debates, which could take place in the middle of next year and – as things stand – could well be on the NHS.

This will present some enormous challenges for Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who will be put under the microscope and will face demands for more money for the health service as it struggles to deal with the demands on it. Mr Hunt will be forced to defend the work of NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens and his process of transforming the health service. He’ll have to answer the questions of very learned Members like Health Select Committee Chair Dr Sarah Wollaston. And he won’t necessarily be able to rely on the support of his backbenchers, many of whom will harbour concerns about future services in their own constituencies.

The challenge for ministers will significantly exceed topical questions in the Commons. From a government communications perspective, there will be a need to shore up support early. And for those organisations wanting to engage with government and raise concerns, it will provide information vital to their strategies.

The plans, which incidentally aren’t being opposed by government, are a sensible step in transparency and parliamentary scrutiny. But make no mistake, even though the votes won’t be binding, it’s still a risk for ministers.