Opening Up the Stuff of Politics
Hogg, Sarah, The Independent (London, England)
Four years of messing around the innards of government certainly do not qualify me as a constitutional brain surgeon. Perhaps they place me at about the level of the fourth-year medical student in casualty - able to detect which bits of government are working and which are not. They have also given me an insight into the pieces that are changing, perhaps faster than can be seen from outside.
All governments, every year, face three hard choices. They have to pull their ideas together into an annual public spending plan; a tax plan; and a Queen's Speech of proposed legislation to put to Parliament.
Let us start with spending and its mirror image, tax. Efficient government self-evidently depends on the ability to forecast public spending accurately; to choose spending priorities effectively; and to finance spending adequately. On all these scores, Britain has had a pretty chequered post-war history.
Flip back through decades of public expenditure reports and you will find that it has been depressingly rare for spending trends to match up precisely to a government's declared priorities. Something has long needed to be done to improve the government's strategic strike rate. The new Budget system was intended to do just that.
Three years ago changes were announced that in a more constitutionally minded country would have attracted a great deal more attention: a structural overhaul of the way government decides how to raise and spend money. The Chancellor abandoned the quaint practice of announcing a Budget that was not a Budget in the way most people understand the word. That famous little Budget box now bulges with proposals for spending money, not just for raising it. From 1993, tax and spending have been brought together, and announced in a single, late November statement. Less obviously, but even more significantly, the way decisions on spending are taken has been changed.
Spending is now reviewed, programme by programme, by a committee of senior ministers chaired by the Chancellor, which assembles in the Cabinet Office. This development is significant in itself. It is also a hugely important boost for the Cabinet committee structure that underpins our system of government.
Cabinet itself is usually - but not always - a formality. A body of 20- plus ministers cannot reasonably debate and reach detailed conclusions on issue after issue; but Cabinet committees can and do. My bet is that the spending committee, EDX, willbecome institutionalised, almost constitutionalised - and would do so even if the Labour Party were to win power. Tony Blair, even more than John Major, would need some such mechanism for corralling his team into agreement on public spending.
Nevertheless, the new system is likely to evolve because the present situation is not stable. One problem is that even if this new spending committee reduces the overload on the prime minister, it adds to the load on senior ministers. Last year's "round" of meetings must have absorbed something approaching 200 ministerial man-hours. The Treasury is having to learn to operate differently. Reform, once begun, has a habit of setting its own agenda.
A second problem is that the ministers assembled to act as jury over spending decisions have still had no part in the decisions over tax. The Treasury has clung jealously to its right to decide taxation unilaterally. It is unlikely to be able to maintain this barrier much longer. Sooner or later this side of the government's balance sheet is bound to become a matter of collective discussion, too. That may even lead the Treasury towards the still more open process of publishing a "Green Budget" of forecasts and tax proposals. That would entail abandoning the traditions of "purdah" and internal mystique that have surrounded the Budget process for far too long.
This change in the Budget-making system, however welcome, has made the parliamentary year extremely top-heavy. …