More leaks, Mr Speaker
If we leaked the entire budget to the opposition, we might get better government
The past week in Parliament has seen much noise made about Budget leaks, which Speaker of the Commons Lindsay Hoyle is clear are an appalling stain on the democratic process.
“This House will not be taken for granted,” Hoyle thundered on Tuesday. “It is not right for everybody else to be briefed. It is not more important to go on the news in the morning; it is more important to come here.”
Well, up to a point. In nearly two decades covering Budgets, I’ve never seen one that didn’t involve a heavy programme of preparatory briefing. The Speaker’s fury this time seemed to be mainly sparked by the fact that it had been done in a more straightforward manner, with press releases sent round to all and sundry, rather than the usual phone calls to individual newspapers, confirmed to their rivals with a nod and a wink.
Hoyle’s concern is for the primacy of parliament, and for democratic scrutiny. The system he defends delivers neither
In fact the main Budget “leak” came a month ago in the Commons: the announcement of the Health and Social Care Levy, a big tax rise that has allowed Rishi Sunak to put a lot of money into healthcare. Compared to that, a reorganisation of alcohol duty is neither here nor there.
If what we want is greater public understanding, Sunak’s staggered approach to Budgets is to be welcomed. Instead of piling a year’s worth of announcements into a single speech, he’s spaced them out, and announced them clearly. The levy got its own day, with plenty of room for discussion about its merits. So, to a lesser extent, did the increase in the minimum wage and the end to the public sector pay freeze announced at the start of the week.
Hoyle’s concern is for the primacy of parliament, and for democratic scrutiny. But the system he seeks to defend delivers neither. All the focus is on the chancellor’s Budget speech, but there are no particular requirements for what’s included in those, so the statement is more of an extended press release. We are all used to the experience of discovering the nasty parts in the days that follow.
As for the scrutiny, the opposition is given advance sight of a gutted version of the speech — sometimes not even that — and doesn’t get its hands on the documents until the chancellor sits down: the point at which its spokesman is supposed to begin their response. A back-room operation tries to spot the holes in the announcements as they come, and messages are passed to the front bench via a relay of aides and MPs. It can lead to impressive moments of politics, but the idea that this is an effective way of delivering democratic accountability is deluded.
The Commons then begins days of Budget debate, but the process of policy examination moves elsewhere, to the wonks at the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and to the TV studios.
Here is a modest proposal that would go a small way to improving the situation: the Commons should adjourn for lunch after the Chancellor’s statement. Give the opposition an hour with the Red Book before they have to respond. It’s not enough time to pick out every flaw, but it would mean that, at the very least, they’d have a chance to see the tables.
One of the lessons of the pandemic was the silliness of pretending that Treasury policy comes but once a year
We could go further. Instead of four or five days of largely ignored post-Budget debate, formalise what Sunak did this week and have daily statements on different aspects of the Budget, giving MPs the chance to discuss each one in turn.
Or we could go all the way, and abolish the Budget completely. One of the lessons of the pandemic was the silliness of pretending that Treasury policy comes but once a year. The 2020 Budget would struggle to get into in the top ten of the year’s fiscal events. There is no particular reason that Sunak should be required to announce another Beatles museum in Liverpool at the same time as he sets air passenger duty.
This week’s Budget was notable for Hoyle’s complaints that he wanted Parliament to be taken seriously and Sunak’s statement that he didn’t really like in any of the tax-and-spend stuff he’d just announced. In both cases, a reasonable question is what things would look like if they really believed the things they were saying.
Judging them by their actions, Sunak is a high-tax Chancellor who knows his party wishes he were a fiscal hawk, and Hoyle risks looking like a Speaker more concerned with the dignity and theatrics of the Commons than actual scrutiny of government.
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