Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Power of the Purse

I attended an excellent meeting of the Hansard Society, entitled "Parliament, the Budget and Public Money". Speakers included Alex Brazier (Director, Parliament & Government Programme, Hansard Society); Edward Leigh MP (Chair of the Public Accounts Committee); John Whiting (PricewaterhouseCoopers) and Liam Halligan (Economics Editor, The Sunday Telegraph).

All speakers were agreed - the level of involvement by parliament in the Budget process is shamefully low. The 'mother of parliaments' - that won its powers in struggles with Kings over the raising of money - now routinely signs the blank cheque offered by the Executive.

The Budget statement, to be made today, is a great formal occasion, but after a few hours of debate (to be spread over the next week) and the speedy passage of a Finance Bill - the Government will have what it wants, without too many questions being asked.

There has been a fantastic improvement in recent years of scrutiny of expenditure - after the event! The National Audit Office is going a great job - and Select Committees have flowered - but the budget process remains ineffective.

The process in Washington was highly praised by all speakers. They were impressed by the serious and in depth hearings held by both authorizing and appropriations committees. They agreed it was an ideal to be aspired to. Of course the UK will not adopt the system wholesale or immediately - but as more parliamentarians consider that system, and reconsider their own responsibilities - we could (in a typically English glacial way) start moving to adopting some of these techniques.

What do you think? Any pitfalls to avoid?