It is important to understand the structure of the parliamentary system within which the machinery of government operates. Parliament is known as a bi-cameral legislature where by decision making autonomy resides with the lower house. The House of Commons and the House of Lords exists as a check upon the powers exerted by respective governments thou right it’s debating and ratification functions. In theory, the bi-cameral legislature in British political system exists to ensure that policy and legislation is created democratically and secondly to protect the country from autocracy or the emergence of dictatorships.
Although it could be argued that both of these functions of parliament have been apparent in recent history. In this essay I aim to answer the question to what extent is parliament an effective constraint on the executive. The first means available to parliament in scrutinizing the government is the debating and ratification functions of the House of Lords. After a bill has been proposed by the House of Commons, it is sent to the House of Lords for intense debate and discussion.
After this has happened the House of Lords can pass the bill reject the bill absolutely or send the bill back to the House of Commons for amendment in its current state. However since the passing of the of the Parliament Act in 1997 the House of Lords has the powers only to delay the passing of legislation for 1 year until which point the legislation must be passed. Therefore it could be argued that the House of Lords does not act as a successful check on legislation initiated by government, as it has only the power to suggest amendments to bills and lacks the legal jurisdiction to enforce amendments to bills.
One of the clearest and most commonly used examples of a way in which parliament acts as a limiting factor to the powers exerted by government exists as the size of the government’s parliamentary majority. Strong governments with large majorities such as those of Thatcher in the 1980s are far more likely to be able to pass legislation successfully and to create and implement policy relatively unopposed as they can be said to have a mandate from the electorate.
Thus weaker governments which are less popular with the general public, such as that of Major in the early 1990s, find it far more difficult to successfully create and implement legislation and policies and are limited in power by opposition parties in the House of Commons and opposition from peers in the House of Lords. Furthermore weak governments can be vulnerable to a declining parliamentary majority as was again the case in Major government, which suffered a number of bye-election defeats after black Wednesday in 1992 whereby Britain was forced into leaving the European exchange rate mechanism.
Therefore the less legitimate a government can be said to be which is derived directly from its parliamentary majority, the more effective parliament becomes in scrutinizing government and the policy making process. However because of the fact that the first past the post voting system in Britain usually leads to a heavy inbuilt parliamentary majority for the victorious party, it could be argued that the proportion of MPs a government has in the House of Commons over represents its actual support from the general public and thus the powers of parliament to scrutinize government in such a scenario would be insufficient. British Politics Infocus by Roy Bentley, Alan Dobson, Peter Dorey, David Roberts, 2006, pages 310-315. ) A further clear way in which parliament is able to scrutinize the government is through the use of Prime Ministers question time which occurs every Wednesday In this 1 hour slot, members of the House of Commons are able to quiz the current Prime Minister on a wide range of political issues, although it often focuses on current government policy and affairs.
Although this may sound like a clear way in which the activities of the Prime Minister and his cabinet are brought to account, in reality questions from opposition MPs are required to be submitted to the Prime Minister in advance of the question time giving him time to consult cabinet colleagues, government advisors and senior civil servants.
Thus because of this time lag between the submission of the proposed questions to the Prime Minister and the Prime Ministers question time itself, it would be nave to suggest that this method of scrutiny is fully effective in bringing the activities of the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues to account.
Furthermore it is clear that members of the Prime Ministers government may be able to use Prime Ministers question time as a means of strengthening the perception of the government in the mass media by simply asking questions which highlight the successfulness and not failures of the government’s policies and initiatives. Arguably one of the most successful ways in which the powers exerted by government can be monitored and constrained through parliament exists through the use of both standing and select committees.
The composition of standing committees is directly proportional to the distribution of seats in the House of Commons; therefore provided that the government has a positive parliamentary majority, they can expect to have majorities in each of the House of Commons standing committees. Therefore similarly to debate and discussion in the House of Commons standing committees provide a medium by which opposition MPs are able to scrutinize the legislative function of the government in parliament by actively partaking in the process of amending and creating legislation.
However in reality due to the stringent system of party whipping and strong party loyalties apparent in the contemporary British political system it is almost certain that government MPs will follow the courses of action favoured by their party, whether in standing committees or similarly in votes on bills in the House of Commons, rather than risking harsh disciplinary action as is often the case when government MPs act against the wishes of their party.
Thus it would be fair to say that although standing committees do allow opposition MPs the chance to scrutinize the legislative functions of the government of the day because of the fact that the government is likely to have an inbuilt majorities in each of the committees, the extent to which this is likely to be effective is compromised. Select committees in the Houses of Parliament monitor and scrutinize the executive functions of policy formulation and implementation by government rather than solely its legislative functions.
Select committees usually remain a feature of governmental scrutiny on a permanent basis once they are created for example the Public Accounts Committee. The composition of select committees remains the same until a new government is elected in which scenario the existing members are replaced to reflect the change in government or simply change in government majority in the House of Commons. As select committees focus on specific policy areas, it can be argued that they are an extremely useful tool available to parliament, in scrutinizing individual areas of the policy making process. British Politics Infocus by Roy Bentley, Alan Dobson, Peter Dorey, David Roberts, 2006, pages 280-291. ) However it has been apparent on occasions in the past that respective governments may have withheld information to various select committees which could have been proved extremely damaging to the government’s reputation. For example, the investigation of the Westland helicopter affair by both the Defence and the Trade and Industry select committees was hampered by the fact that the government refused access to a number of top civil servants who were actively engaged in the affair.
Furthermore similarly to standing committees, as the composition of select committees reflects the distribution of seats in the House of Commons, it is likely that the majority of committees will seek to protect the public image of the government provided that the government has a parliamentary majority. It seems apparent that the ability of parliament to scrutinize the government directly depends upon the size of the government’s parliamentary majority. As I mentioned before, governments with large majorities such as Thatcher, are likely to have little constraint from parliament in formulating and implementing policy.
Furthermore as strong governments can be said to have a mandate from the electorate to formulate and implement policies which are featured in their election manifesto, the most likely way in which the activities of government can be scrutinized is likely to exist as the perception of the government by the general public, usually referred to as public opinion. It is also apparent that the powers of parliament to scrutinize the government are unlikely to be realized under the current First Past the Post voting system which almost guarantees large parliamentary majorities for newly elected governments.
It would be fair to say that under the current contemporary British political system, it is clear that parliament has insufficient powers to scrutinize the activities of government as well as the policy making process itself. It could be argued that one way in which the abilities of parliament to scrutinize the government could be widened, would be to alter the composition of both select and standing committees so that the government in power would not have a majority in each committee and the activities of government could more easily brought to account.
A further way of increasing the aforementioned powers of parliament could be to pass legislation to overturn the Official Secrets Act of 1989 and the culture of secrecy apparent in the contemporary British political system, forcing governments to disclose information on sensitive political issues to parliamentary committees and bringing the activities of government to light more effectively.