How effective is Parliament as a check on the executive?
How effective is Parliament as a check on the executive?
One of the main functions of Parliament is to hold the Government to account. This is done by forcing the Government to justify their policies and bills in the form of structured debate within the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Parliament also forces the Government to defend their actions, such as the decision to cut £81bn from public spending in the recent spending review. This Government decision will no doubt be debated in Parliament throughout the next few years.
One of the reasons why Parliament is so weak in relation to Government is party domination. In virtually every general election, one party will win over 50% of the seats and therefore have a majority. This means the governing party will get its way all the time. In recent times two parties have dominated – Labour and the Conservatives. The other parties, including the Liberal Democrats, are all weak by comparison. This is the most important factor for Parliament being weak in relation to Government. The British electoral system of first past the post benefits Labour and the Conservatives who win lots of seats, for the Liberal Democrats and the small parties FPTP does not benefit them at all, this is why the Lib Dems have campaigned for alternative vote (AV) which was a key part of the 2010 coalition agreement. The main problem the Lib Dems have is that they keep finishing second in constituencies. So despite a large share of the vote, they do not win many seats.
It is important to remember that 2010 is an exceptional election. The electoral system ensures that the most popular party has the most seats. In 1974 and 2010, this is not the case. Even though the Conservatives won the most seats, 307, they lacked an overall majority in Parliament. This meant they had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats (who won 57 seats) in order to have a majority in Parliament.
The main problem is that parties can win over half the seats with just a third of the vote. Labour’s election victory in 2005 saw them win 356 seats (out of 647) with just 36% of the vote. By comparison, the Conservatives and Lim Dems won 198 and 62 seats respectively with a similar share of the overall vote. With a majority of 64, Labour could never be defeated unless its own members voted against a bill. The party had majorities of 179 and 167 in 1997 and 2001.
Parliament is also weakened due to party loyalty. MP’s will stick up for their party even if it goes against their personal beliefs. At the 2010 Labour party conference which saw Ed Miliband elected party leader, Harriet Harman and several other Labour MP’s were applauding Miliband’s anti Iraq war comments even though they had voted in favour of the Iraq War in 2003.
The House of Commons is dominated by the governing party. Backbenchers within the governing party will usually tow the lie. They rarely speak out, criticise or rebel against Government policy even if they disagree with it. They will still vote for legislation they disagree with. Conservative and Lib Dem MP’s will support the coalition even if their proposal goes against their own beliefs. Several MP’s such as Bob Russell have openly disagreed with coalition policy, yet will still vote in favour of it as they want the coalition to succeed. If the coalition is divided it will favour the opposition.
This is a preview of the whole essay
The Prime Minister also has a role to play, s/he chooses the ministers for the Government so they are loyal to him/her. The Prime Minister is the person who people want to be on the right side of because the PM can put them in the Government. Backbenchers do not want to be on the backbenches forever. They have inferior pay and status, which weakens their ability to influence decisions. Apart from Private Members Bills, they don’t make much difference. By agreeing with the Government, they are keeping their chances of joining the Government alive.
An ex Labour MP was quoted as saying that the Prime Minister is ‘’like a medieval monarch’’ by promising ministerial posts and dangling peerages in front of people. Sitting in the House of Lords is an honour, as is receipt of knighthoods, OBE’s, MBE’s and CBE’s – all of which are decided by the PM. This does not change regardless of who is in power, from Lloyd George to David Cameron.
The role of the whips also keeps MP’s in line, they are tasked to maintain party discipline and demand loyalty. Each party has a chief whip, with more whips working under him/her. These whips are MP’s and are paid for their trouble. It is not uncommon for whips to threaten MP’s within their own party, eg. Blackmail over an uncomfortable incident in their past. They are also tasked to advise the Prime Minister about the qualities of the backbenchers.
Government ministers are paid to be members of the Government. In return for their pay, they must remain loyal. If they do not support the Government, they will lose their job. This is where the payroll vote comes in. Every member of the Government sits in either the Commons or the lords. Most ministers will support the Government no matter what their views as they do not want to throw away their careers. Ministerial support effectively gives Parliament a head start on any vote. They are required to support the Government in public under the Convention of Collective Ministerial Responsibility, however they can disagree in private, and many do. The CCMR covers any minister, no matter how junior, but it does not cover all MP’s in the governing party.
Parliament has a lack of independent MP’s (not a member of a political party). Independent MP’s do not get elected because they cannot afford to campaign and many voters will vote for the party and not the candidate. The views of the big parties are well known, whereas independent views of one particular candidate are relatively unknown. Independent MP’s receive no coverage in the media. The odds are heavily against them. No matter how skilled or experience they are, they cannot win.
The big advantage of independent MP’s is that they can vote against the Government, and due to their independency they mean what they say. However they are almost non existent within Parliament anymore. Only three have been elected in the last four elections (97, 01, 05 and 10).
Another argument in support of Parliaments weakness is that MP’s lack the time, expertise and resources to be effective against the Government. Whitehall contains thousands of civil servants - people employed within a Government department who serve the crown. The senior civil servants advise ministers. In 2000, half a million were employed, intervening in just about every aspect of peoples lives. It is impossible for MP’s to exercise any real control. A Government minister is responsible for one area of policy (education, health, welfare etc) and s/he will have a vast amount of backup from civil servants. MP’s get no such support like this from Whitehall.
MP’s do not have expertise on every area of Government policy. A minister is responsible for one area and is not expected to be an expert on anything else, so the education minister wouldn’t be expected to be an expert on defence. The issues debated in Parliament are often very complicated and a minister will have it all explained to them, your average MP won’t.
Government ministers deliberately withhold information as a lot of Government work is highly secretive. As ministers are reluctant to release information which could be politically embarrassing, Parliament has a lack of access to information which should be available for them to get hold of. Obviously there is some limit here – top secret information e.g. threats to national security should remain private, but the Government withholding information purely on the basis that it is damaging to them is wrong. How is Parliament supposed to effectively hold the executive to account if it doesn’t know what it is doing?
The Government can delay the release of information until nobody is paying attention, and often does. An alternative is to ‘’sex up’’ a document to boost support, e.g. Iraq Dossier. It contained allegations such as the hording of weapons of mass destruction which all proved to be untrue.
Parliament is also weakened because MP’s have far too many commitments. MP’s are very busy people with too many demands on their time. They not only have constituency work to deal with, which has become more important in recent times, but the full Parliamentary week is ever increasing. PMQ’s, Ministerial question time, general debates, opposition debates, select committees, there is too much to do and they have no support. Ministers have lots of help, MP’s have nothing remotely similar.
Parliament is weak in relation to the executive because the electoral system invariably provides the Government with a majority, a hung Parliament (as in 2010) is very rare. The governing party will usually support the Government on anything even if it goes against their own beliefs. Labour was only defeated three times during its thirteen years in power (1997-2010), twice on legislation and once on policy. These were the Anti Terrorism Bill, Religious and Racial Hatred Bill and their policy on the Ghurkhas. All the opposition put together is still a minority of MP’s.
In addition, MP’s lack the time, expertise, information and resources needed in order to make life difficult for the Government.
However, there are several instances in which Parliament is still an effective body in relation to the executive. For example, the Government can only govern the country because Parliament says it can. Governments are only able to govern because they have support from Parliament – Parliament sustains the government. If Parliament does not provide support, there cannot be a Government. This last happened in March 1979 when Labour lost a vote of no confidence, and a subsequent general election was called. It is done rarely, but it can be used.
Parliament also influences legislation proposed by the Government. The Government will make changes to legislation to please Parliament, so Parliament limits Government legislation. Labour never introduced ID card legislation because they knew Parliament would not accept it. The Conservatives under Thatcher never introduced hotel charges for NHS patients due to Parliamentary opposition. So 90% of the influence of Parliament is stopping legislation in the form of retreating or defeating, Parliament is like an iceberg. The Government will only propose legislation it thinks will pass through Parliament.
Whips will often tell ministers what their backbenchers will support and reject. Legislation will subsequently be altered to reduce opposition as the Government does not like to taste defeat. The Higher Education Bill (2005) was only passed after the Government amended policy and made concessions e.g. Students from poor backgrounds would receive grants and bursaries. The Gambling Bill (2005) proposed ‘super casinos’ which were bitterly opposed. The legislation was restricted and none have ever been built, despite legislation passing. The Terrorism Bill (2005) was defeated by Labour rebels and opposition as the Government wanted to extend the maximum period of detention to 90 days. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill (2006) was disapproved by Parliament as it stated nobody should promote racial hatred, which would affect comedians who use the subject as a joke. The word ‘promote’ was subsequently changed to ‘insight’ but the bill still lost by 1 vote. These are some examples where the Government has had to alter legislation due to Parliament.
MP’s are becoming increasingly rebellious. This is where MP’s in the governing party disagree with the Government. The average from 1989-2002 was around 12% of votes however this number of divisions doubled from 2005-09. This is due to several contentious issues such as the Iraq War in 2003 where over 100 Labour MP’s voted against it and were all ignored by their Government. MP’s continually rebelled on all kinds of issues and in Labour’s last term (2005-10) 1 vote in every 4 saw Labour backbenchers voting against their Government.
As a check on the executive, Parliament holds it to account. This involves criticism where appropriate and demanding apologies if the Government gets something wrong. A minister can even be forced out if they’re doing a bad job. There are several ways in which Parliament can effectively scrutinise the executive – Select committees, debate and early day motions. In addition to these Parliament can also correspond with ministers and question.
Questioning comes in the form of ministerial question time and Prime Minister’s question time (PMQ’s). Ministerial question time is where the shadow minister will cross examine the Government minister, who will also have to deal with backbenchers. For example, the Foreign Secretary William Hague recently announced massive cuts in the defence budget. The backbenchers and his opposite number (Shadow Foreign Secretary) will heavily criticise him, which may ultimately force him to change policy. All the answers are recorded in Hansard to hold the Minister to account.
In PMQ’s, the leader of the opposition (currently Labour’s Ed Miliband) will ask six questions to the Prime Minister (currently Tory David Cameron), and the backbenchers will then join in. The third party (usually the Liberal Democrats) would then get 2 questions, but as there is a coalition Nick Clegg is the deputy Prime Minister, so there is no need for this. PMQ’s make the Prime Minister very nervous, as Tony Blair has previously explained.
Several types of debate fit in to the Parliamentary week, and these debates allow the opposition to keep the Government in check and make them change their policy when necessary, such as Labour’s policy on the Ghurkhas in 2009. Emergency debates are also available in the event of a national disaster, declaration of war or an occasion where Parliament does not act fast enough.
The select committees are made up of MP’s who are experienced in, or have particular interest in that area of policy. Backbenchers from all parties make up a select committee. There is one for each Government department. MP’s behave differently within these committees and are more likely to ignore party differences and work together. A select committee is a panel of experts, therefore it is hard to ignore. Thatcher said that in one year, 150 select committee recommendations had been adopted by her Conservative Government. They will demand ‘peoples, papers and records’ and will talk to people who advised the minister on a particular policy. Party differences give way to shared opinion on issues, e.g. poor equipment for troops in Afghanistan.
Select committees have helped restore effectiveness to Parliament, who values them. In 2001 the Labour Government sacked two select committee chairpersons who had overly criticised them. Parliament overruled the decision and had the MP’s reinstated, demonstrating its independence.
A long standing problem was that the Prime Minister never had to face a select committee, because a select committee is for a department. So the most powerful MP got away because there was no Prime Ministerial department. This was changed under Blair and the Commons Liaison Committee was introduced to hold the Prime Minister to account. The CLC consists of the chairperson of each select committee who cross examine any aspect of policy in depth.
Finally, an Early Day Motion can be put forward by a group of MP’s. This calls for a debate on a particular subject, so MP’s can let the Government know how they feel without actually voting against them. Others are invited to add their support. This has been used by backbenchers to criticise various aspects of Government policy from ID Cards to Iraq.
Parliament is weak in relation to the executive because the electoral system invariably provides the Government with a majority. The governing party will usually support the Government on anything even if it goes against their own beliefs. In addition, MP’s lack the time, expertise, information and resources needed in order to make life difficult for the Government.
However, the Government cannot run without the support of Parliament. Parliament also limits the Governments legislation so it does not always get its own way – Labour wanted ID Cards, but Parliament did not, so they were never implemented. Parliament can also openly scrutinise the executive by questioning ministers, and openly debating policy.
Despite some flaws, I believe that Parliament is still an effective body in relation to the executive. Despite the best efforts of the Government to make MP’s jobs harder, Parliament can effectively hold the executive to account.