The process by which Parliament approves Government expenditure

In Short

The process by which the Government obtains Parliamentary approval for annual funding of Departments.


The Government financial year end is the 31st March, with spending authorised for one year at a time. However, the timing of the Parliamentary Session when approval must be given for this spending does not actually coincide with the financial year. An interim approval must be given, with full year budgets not approved until already several months within the financial year.

To illustrate the process and timing of events, the Estimates process the for Financial Year 2017-2018 budget would be:

  1. (Jan - Feb 2017) Votes on Account

    Prior to the new financial year beginning March 31st, Parliament will vote to authorise 45% of the previous years budget as interim funding for the department until approval of the actual Main Estimate

  2. (April 2017) - Main Estimates Published

    Departments set out their funding request for the financial year, called Main Estimates. Main Estimates are accompanied by explanatory memoranda which are sent to the relevant departmental Select Committee

  3. (July 2017) - Estimates Day Debates

    Two days are set aside for debate on the Estimates. The Backbench Business Committee selects which one or two Departmental Estimates will be debated in the Commons Chamber. The remaining estimates are approved in a single undebated vote. Legal authority for the Main Estimate is approved by Parliament through the passage of a Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill.

  4. (Jan - Feb 2018) - Supplementary Estimates

    Government Departments present their revised spending proposals, amending those made by Main Estimates. A further day of debate is held on the same terms as the Main Estimates. The Supplementary Estimates are given legal authority through the passage of the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill

  5. (July 2018) - Publication of Annual Report and Accounts

    Following the conclusion of the financial year, each Department will publish its Annual Report and Accounts, outlining in more detail the activities that were undertaken during the year and how departmental spending was performed.

  6. (Feb 2019) - Excess Vote

    Should it be determined following the end of the Financial Year that a Department exceeded the approved spending authority, the Department must apply for retroactive approval for the overspent funding in a process called 'Excess Votes'. An inquiry is automatically held by the Public Accounts Committee to investigate the reason for the overspending. The Committee will publish a report on the excess vote and their recommendation to Parliament.

How are departmental budgets set?

Governments undertake Spending Reviews in approximately 3 year cycles, which lay out planned Departmental expenditure for the next few years. If planned Spending Reviews cannot occur, a shorter term 'Spending Round' may be announced instead.

And the Estimate provides the amount of cash that a Department spends?

Yes and no. As with corporate accounts, expenditure is accounted for on an accruals basis. Therefore the planned expenditure figures include depreciation and other non-cash costs that provides a more consistent and accurate view of the Department costs.

However, each Department is also required to provide an explicit cash requirement limit for the year, a breach of which necessitates an excess vote.

What if spending increases unexpectedly?

Under the Contingencies Fund Act 1974, The Government maintains a Contingencies Fund which allow to Government to issue 2% of the total voted spending of that financial year. The Treasury can use funds to this extent without the authority of Parliament, though Parliament must be informed of the funding and the expenditure recouped through future estimates.

How much detail is given about spending?

Within the Estimates process, extremely broad headings are used for funding requests, making it impossible to ascertain the precise means for which funds are required. The Annual Report will provide significantly more (if retrospective) accounting for the Department. Parliamentary approval for spending is limited to just five figures:

  • Departmental Expenditure Limits
      Program spending which a Department can directly control. The figure is separated further into Resource and Capital costs.
  • Annual Managed Expenditure
      Spending which is difficult to predict, manage or forecast. This includes demand led funding such as social security benefits, pensions and tax credits for individuals. Also separated into Resource and Capital figures.
  • Net Cash Requirement
      The amount of actual cash required from the Department in order to fund its planned expenditures

Who is responsible for ensuring the money is spent properly?

Each Government Department will appoint an Accounting Officer (usually the Permanent Secretary) who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that public funds are spent appropriately. If a Minister wishes to spend money in a manner that the Accounting Officer does not believe is a proper use of funds, they can register their objection through seeking a Ministerial Direction.

A Ministerial Direction sets out the reasons for which the Accounting Officer has objected to the use of funds, and Ministers are required to reply with their justification. Both letters will be made public.

For example, on the 25th June 2015, the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary requested a written direction to provide an additional £3m grant to the charity 'Kids Company'. Cabinet Office Ministers provided their justification for the grant being provided.

The collapse of Kids Company in August 2015 led to criticism about the process of Government grants being issued to certain charities, despite the concerns of the Department Accounting Officer.


The Bill of Rights 1689 prohibits the Government from maintaining a standing army without the approval of Parliament. As part of the Estimtates process, approval is given with the Votes on Accounts, in 'Ministry of Defence Votes A', which provides a limit for the maximum number of service men and women in the Navy, Army and Air Force.