As Head of State, King Willem-Alexander delivers the so-called Speech from the Throne on Prince's Day on behalf of the Dutch Government. In his Speech, the King sets out the state of play in the Netherlands and the Government's plans for the coming year.
"Members of the States General". Those are the opening words of the Speech from the Throne. King Willem-Alexander delivers the speech before the joint meeting of the States General, but does not write it himself; the ministers do. Every minister makes a contribution in his or her field of policy, which are integrated into one speech by the Prime Minister.
After the King's Speech and the traditional cheering of the monarch "Long live the King, hurray, hurray, hurray", the King leaves the Hall of Knights. The members of the House of Representatives then make their way to the plenary meeting hall of the House, where the minister of Finance presents his "Third-Tuesday-of-September"-briefcase, which contains the National Budget and the Budget Memorandum.
The Budget Memorandum
‘Budget Memorandum’ is short for ‘Memorandum on the State's finances’. The memorandum contains the amounts of money involved in the plans set out in the Speech from the Throne. Moreover, the memorandum describes the current economic and financial situation of the Netherlands and the prospective developments in the Netherlands, in Europe and beyond, for instance in the fields of unemployment, the development of incomes, care and education. It also describes the State's financial situation, the ‘public treasury’. The memorandum contains a statement of the Central Government's expected income and expenditure, the consequences for the national debt and the measures the Government wants to take to tackle this.
The Budget Memorandum also shows the Cabinet's priorities. The details can be found in the separate budget bills of the ministries. The Education budget, for example, lays down how much money is set aside for teachers’ wages, the maintenance of school buildings, text books, or research in universities.
The national budget
Every year, the national budget sets out the amount of money to be allocated to each ministry, as well as the expected expenditure. The budget bills relate to the budget year, which is concurrent with the calendar year, and runs from 1 January up to and including 31 December. The annual budgets cover the Coalition Agreement in detail. This holds true for the start of a Cabinet term in particular. With social and economic circumstances changing all the time, adjustments are needed now and then. The House of Representatives monitors the implementation of the plans set out in the budget bills. The Government renders account for this. An independent institution, the Netherlands Court of Audit, gives its opinion afterwards on whether the money has been well spent.
Before the Cabinet can carry out its proposals, Parliament has to consider and approve them. The budgets of the respective government departments are presented in the form of budget bills. In autumn, both the House of Representatives and the Senate discuss these bills. Some proposals are amended and adapted, others are rejected whilst some are adopted immediately without any modifications. Only the House of Representative has the right of amendment and can make changes to budget bills. The Senate does not have the right of amendment. Just as is the case with any other Act, the King has to sign budget Acts. The minister who is responsible for the budget has to sign as well.
Immediately after Prince's Day the leaders of the parliamentary groups discuss the headlines of the Budget Memorandum and the national budget. This debate is called the "General Political Debate on the Budget Memorandum".
All the ministers and state secretaries as well as all MPs are present when the general political debate is held. The prime minister speaks on behalf of the Government and the leaders of each political group speak on behalf of their political group. By means of a motion, MPs can make it clear that they do not agree with parts of the proposals, or add some elements.
The debate is thought of as a very important debate, because it pertains to what the Government is going to do next year. I generally goes on for two days and attracts a lot of media attention.
General financial debate
In the week after the general political debate the House of Representatives holds a general financial debate, in which the financial experts of the various political groups represented in the House discuss the national budget with the Minister and State Secretary of Finance.
Debates on budget bills
In the following months, all the ministers and state secretaries defend their own budget bills in Parliament. MPs have until the first of January to discuss the proposals. In special cases an exception to this rule is possible. Of course, various policy issues will be discussed later, in other debates in the House. The implementation of many of the plans set out in the budget bills requires the drafting of separate bills. Moreover, new developments continually lead to new debates about parts of the Cabinet's policies.
On 1 January, the budget year begins, during which the government departments will implement their budgets. The House of Representatives monitors whether the Government is keeping its promises. The process of preparing, drafting and discussing the budget and accounting for its implementation is called the budget cycle.
THE DRAFTING OF THE BUDGET
The drafting of the budget follows an established time schedule. The first steps are taken at the beginning of the year and the budget is finalised in August. Drafting a sound national budget requires a great deal of consultation between the Minister of Finance and the other ministers. Early in the year, the ministers make their wishes known to the ministry of Finance, which draws up the Spring Memorandum: an interim statement of windfalls and shortfalls in the current budget. Subsequently, the ministers discuss the main features of the new budget: the necessary spending and expected income.
During the summer months, the separate budgets of the ministries are drawn up. In August, all the ministers jointly decide on the final draft of the National Budget for the coming year. Subsequently, the proposals are submitted for advice to the Council of State, which provides the Government and Parliament with advice on new legislation. On Prince's Day, the budgets are presented to the House of Representatives in the form of bills.
- Third Tuesday in September: Prince's Day. Start Parliamentary year. The Minister of Finance presents the national budget and the Budget Memorandum to the House of Representatives.
- Autumn: general debates. The House of Representatives and the Senate consider the budget. The House can amend the budget, but the senate does not have the right to do so.
- 1 January: Start of the budget year. The ministers set out to implement their budgets.
- End of March, begin of April: Framework letter. The Minister of Finance draws up the so-called Framework letter, stating the windfalls, shortfalls and financial claims of ministers for new policy.
- Before 1 June: Spring Memorandum The Minister of Finance presents the Spring Memorandum and the accompanying supplementary budget bills.
- Before 1 December: Autumn Memorandum. The Minister of Finance presents the Autumn Memorandum and the accompanying supplementary budget bills.
- 31 December: End of the Budget year.
- First quarter: the Central Government's annual report and the report of the Netherlands Court of Audit. Ministers draw up annual reports that are assessed by the Netherlands Court of Audit.
- Third Wednesday in May: Accountability Day. End of the budget cycle. The Minister of Finance presents the annual reports to the House of Representatives. The Netherlands Court of Audit presents its reports on the annual reports of the government departments. The House of Representatives checks if the budgets have been properly implemented.
THREE CALENDAR YEARS
The budget cycle spans three calendar years. Budgets must be prepared, implemented, balanced and accounted for. In one calendar year three budget cycles intermingle. Budget documents submitted to the House can relate to the past, current or next year.
The budget cycle is most complicated in spring. In spring 2017, for instance, the Cabinet discusses the headlines of the National Budget for 2018. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives discusses the current budget (Spring Memorandum 2017), as well as the annual reports over the past year (2016).
In the ‘Spring Memorandum’, the Minister of Finance reports on the progress made in government expenditure and revenue. In combination with the Budget Memorandum and the Autumn Memorandum, the Spring Memorandum offers an overall statement of the State's Finances.
The debate on the Spring Memorandum is held at the end of June or the start of July, shortly before the summer recess. The Minister of Finance has to submit the Spring Memorandum to the House of Representatives by 1 June at the latest. In the debate on the Spring Memorandum, the MPs and the Minister often also look ahead to the next Budget Memorandum. Windfalls, shortfalls and changes in policy over the year can lead to adjustments in the estimates contained in the budget. These are incorporated into ‘supplementary budget bills’.
SUPPLEMENTARY BUDGET BILLS
If a minister needs more money than he has been allocated by Parliament, he has to propose a ‘supplementary budget bill’, for instance when expenditure exceeds the estimates. Supplementary budgets are updated versions of the budgets, which need to be scrutinised and passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Major changes in policy are seldom put forward, however. The House and the Senate deal with supplementary budget bills as with any other bill. The House can amend them, the Senate cannot.
- Framework letter
The Minister of Finance sends the ‘framework letter’ to his fellow-ministers at the end of March or the start of April. The framework letter relates to both the budget for the current year and the budget for the following year, which the Government will present later that year on Prince's Day.
In order to be able to draw up the framework letter, the Minister of Finance receives information from all members of the Cabinet, about what they want to achieve and what they are going to do to this end. They may need more money to fulfil a given objective, for example, and less money for another objective. They may also ask for money for a new plan. Moreover, the Minister of Finance considers the forecasts provided by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) about the development of the Dutch economy. The framework letter is not made public. The Council of Ministers examines the framework letter in April, before taking decisions about adjustments to the budget for the current year and about the main features of the budget for the following year.
The budget year expires on 31 December. The annual report is drawn up early the following year. The House of Representatives debates this annual report in May, on ‘Accountability Day’.
Accountability Day is the counterpart of Prince's Day. Instead of debating plans, the House examines how these plans have been implemented. It is an important moment for Parliament's scrutiny of the work of the Government. On the third Wednesday in May, the Minister of Finance presents the Central Government's annual financial report to the House of Representatives: in a special briefcase, just as the National Budget and the Budget Memorandum were on Prince's Day. The annual report shows what the Government has achieved in the past year, what has been done and how much it has cost.
NETHERLANDS COURT OF AUDIT
The Netherlands Court of Audit audits the annual reports. On Accountability Day, the President of the Netherlands Court of Audit also presents a report to the House of Representatives, containing an assessment of the Government's policy over the past year: have the desired policy goals been achieved and did the Cabinet observe the law? The Netherlands Court of Audit also comments on the annual reports of each ministry.
In mid-June, the House of Representatives holds a debate on the financial annual reports and the reports of the Netherlands Court of Audit. MPs discuss with the ministers the implementation of the various policy programmes, as well as the results and costs. After the debate in the House, the Senate also discusses the annual reports, so the ministers must account to both chambers of the States General. That is why the third Wednesday in May is called Accountability Day.
ADJUSTMENT OR CHANGE
On Accountability Day, the Government does not account for its plans for the current year, but for the previous year. In 2017, for example, the Government had to account for its plans presented on Prince's Day 2015 and implemented in 2016. Because the implementation of the plans is evaluated immediately the following year, the Cabinet can incorporate the comments made by the House of Representatives in the draft National Budget for the year after that, and thus adjust or change its policy, if necessary.