Does The British Government Ever Shut Down?

With the United States in the midst of yet another government shutdown, a number of readers have asked if this sort of thing ever happens in the United Kingdom. The short answer is, no, it doesn’t.

In the Westminster system, the government of the day will always have a majority in the House of Commons,[1] which makes it easier to obtain funding for government expenditure (known as ‘supply’ in Westminster-speak). In the past, failure to obtain supply from the Commons was tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the government, though the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has abrogated that convention.[2]

Another key difference between Britain and America is that, in the UK, individual MPs have less control over the nitty-gritty details of the appropriations process since constitutional convention dictates that the Crown alone can propose expenditure or taxation.[3] In practice, this gives ministers much greater control over appropriations–MPs can try to decrease a proposed expenditure, but they can’t increase it.[4]

Finally, when it comes to supply, Parliament is essentially unicameral. By convention, the House of Lords automatically consents to all supply bills passed by the Commons, a custom that was codified by the Parliament Act 1911.[5] Consequently, supply bills typically go through all of their stages in the House of Lords within a matter of minutes.

NOTES

[1] If a party fails to win an outright majority in the Commons, it can try to obtain a working majority by entering into negotiations with other parties. For example, after the 2010 General Election produced a hung parliament, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government. More recently, when the Tories lost seats in the 2017 General Election, they entered into a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. While this fell short of a formal coalition, it was enough to guarantee Theresa May a (slim) working majority.

[2] However, a failure to obtain supply nowadays would likely provoke a formal motion of no confidence under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

[3] See Standing Order 48 of the House of Commons.

[4] Most proposed reductions are parliamentary gambits to allow debate rather than serious attempts at setting appropriations. An MP will usually move to reduce the government’s request by a token sum of £1,000

[5] See sections 1(1) and (2) of the Act. The Parliament Act 1949 made no changes to the Lords’ powers over financial legislation.

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2 Responses to Does The British Government Ever Shut Down?

  1. Mark Roth says:

    I think, in part, another reason is that Westminster governments don’t try to legislate through the supply bills. Can a prime minister even will a new program into existence by providing money for it in the budget?

    • jasonloch says:

      You’re correct that supply bills are generally not vehicles for policy making. Parliament doesn’t allocate money for specific programs. Instead, supply bills establish the level of funding for each department and set basic parameters for expenditure. For example, the most recent Home Office Estimates authorize expenditure arising from “Control of immigration and nationality; refugees (including the provision of loans) and Voluntary and Community Sector refugee organisations; support for asylum seekers; work permits” but it doesn’t attach specific figures to those programs/services. You can see the full list of estimates here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2018/17/schedule/enacted.

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