Contemporary British Politics

Committees submit reports to Parliament although they do not have to be debated, in fact between 1979-88 only thirteen reports were debated in depth but some can be very influential. Griffith and Ryle said that select committees had had twelve notable successes, repeal of the S. U. S. laws, privatisation of H. G. V. testing and North Sea oil taxation to name a few but there has also been some notable failures including the failure to stop the withdrawal from U. N. E. S. C. O. and privatisation of the naval dockyards.

Some reports have been dismissed out of hand, most noticeably that on the N.C. B. and miners strike, assisted by Tory rebel John Gorst, when Mrs. Thatcher questioned the integrity of those involved because they had failed to condemn the violence. Those reports that do make recommendations can be used by the Government, Mrs. Thatcher used over 150 recommendations between 1985-6 but they may only have been minor changes. Committees are not without there problems, the Scottish Affairs committee never met after 1987 because of the ten Scottish Conservatives five where members of the Cabinet excluding them from participation.

There is no evidence that there has been a shift of power between the executive and the Commons, in fact it has been said Ministers can pressure members to divide on party lines and as most committees have an in built majority of the governing party there effectiveness can be questioned in that sense. The committees which looked into Westland and the Belgrano affair did however score a major success when they were televised live. In the Westlands case it elicited more information than was revealed by Mrs. Thatcher.

Committees have to be united across party lines to stand any chance of success unlike the committee on the conduct of the Falklands war which was so divided it issued two separate reports. Parliament also has several other weapons in its arsenal to check the executive. Emergency debates can suspend the sitting of the House to discuss specific matters that require urgent consideration. They must have the support of at least forty M. P. s and the agreement of the Speaker and few, two or three a year, are successful. In 1977 the Commons forced the Government to hold a public inquiry into the financial matters of the Crown Agents between 1970-76.

Adjournment debates usually focus on constituency matters and answers are often given by junior ministers. Another useful tool is the Early Day Motion of which many hundreds are tables but relatively few are chosen by the speaker. This allows M. P. s to voice their concern on any issue but have little impact on the scrutiny of the executive. M. P. s can also write to Ministers and on average do so twenty-five times a week mainly on constituency matters. Written replies are published in Hansard but again these are mainly individual enquiries or requests for statistical data.

Executive agencies use this method to reply to M. P. s questions that Ministers cannot answer. One method wholly reserved for the opposition is that of opposition day debates, twenty in all but three reserved for the second largest opposition party. This gives the opposition a chance to pick a subject for debate which is either usually one of the executives weak points or a subject of current interest but again there impact on the executive are at best embarrassing. Opposition leaders of the two main parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, are consulted by the executive on bi-partisan matters such as the Gulf war.

By far the greatest, potentially, form of censure is the vote of no confidence where, by convention, the executive must resign and call an election. Cases are rare but the Labour government of 1979 who had no majority lost such a vote which led to an election. Much more recently Mr. Major called a thinly veiled vote on his own government over Masstrict and won. Prospective scrutiny is in one sense much easier to define. The executive produce bills which are laid before Parliament for debate and voting. Bills have a first reading when their title is read out and then go to be classified.

The second reading allows for debate on the principles involved but it is in the Standing Committees that much of the work is done. Bills are picked through clause by clause and where appropriate recommendations for amendments made. Amendments can be made by anybody, seventy percent come from the opposition, ten percent from back-benchers and twenty percent from Ministers themselves. This may give a false sense of proportion as between 1970-71 0f 974 ministerial amendments all went through but of 1008 other amendments only 74 were passed. The government majority having a lot to do with this.

Members of the Standing Committees are chosen from those who spoke in the second reading and those who show interest in the passage of the bill. Important bills can go to the full House as happened in the Masstrict bill. Once out of the committee stage if there are amendments the bill goes into a report stage where the committee report and table their amendments for approval. Once completed its on to the third reading. There is no debate in the third reading unless six members submit a motion beforehand and final approval of the bill is sought.

Once completed, if passed and a non monetary bill, it goes to the Lords. Any amendments in the Lords are voted on a motion to agree or disagree back in the Commons. Legislative scrutiny can be said to rest with the back-benchers as it is only by crossing the floor of the house when the government in majority can be defeated. Mrs. Thatchers huge majority between 1979-83 did not stop the defeat of a bill on M. P. s pay but the 1986 Shops bill "… imposed a defeat not seen since 1860. " (Norton) when on the second reading it was defeated 296 to 284 with 72 M. P.

s crossing the floor. Some bills are withdrawn before it comes to a vote, most noticeably in 1969 when Barbara Castles Industrial Relations bill (commonly known as In Place Of Strife) was withdrawn. Other noticeable withdrawals were bills to reform local government between 1979-81 and Student Grants, the latter maybe having more to do with grass roots unrest that back-bench revolt. Slim or non-existent majorities, as expected, cause more defeats for example between 1974 and 1979 the Labour Government amassed twenty three defeats by back-benchers and forty two in total.

Parties seem to be much more relaxed about defeats than Rosebury who in 1895 resigned his government on a minor defeat in the Commons. The Lords also play an important role in Parliamentary scrutiny. The House of Lords, an unelected body, has had much of its powers of scrutiny diminished in the twentieth century. After the Lords rejected the 1909 finance bill their legislative powers were diminished by the Parliament Act (1911) to delaying bills by only two years and finance bills no longer needed the approval of the Lords, which now accounts for 25% of parliamentary bills allowing more time for debate of other matters.

This was further eroded in 1949 when it was reduced to one year. Conventions also play an important role in the Lords. Peers do not divide on the second reading of a bill if it was in the Government manifesto although they can suggest amendments, the most recent example being the privatisation of the railways. They also have the power to veto any bill which prolongs the life of Parliament and in certain cases rejection of delegated legislation. Defeats in the Lords statistically rise and fall so between 1974 and 1979 there were 347 defeats, amendments to legislation not wanted by the Government, which fell to 45 between 1979 and 1983.

Probably the most memorable was the Lords defeat of Mrs Thatcher over elections for the G. L. C. in 1984. Party divides in the Lords are not as sharp as the Commons, Peter Hennessey once calling it "… like a permanently hung Parliament… ", thus allowing for more detailed argument. With the introduction of life peers with specialist knowledge the persona of quality debating has risen. Legal aspects of bills can be scrutinised by the Law Lords but they, by convention, do not speak on other matters.

It would seem therefore that Parliament has many ways of calling the executive to account but this would be an unjust assessment. Questions arise all the time as to the precise definition of the executive and even more important is it the sovereign body on all matters or another step in the hierarchy. The Secret Services are unaccountable to Parliament we know, but we do not know who they are accountable to. The Home Affairs select committee recently suggested they be scrutinised by a committee of well established M. P.

s but the cloak of secrecy still remains. The Cabinet is not always privy to decisions of the Prime Minister. It is alleged that Mrs. Thatcher failed to consult her cabinet over economic policy between 1979 and 1981 she also stifled debate on the Westlands affair which led to the resignation of Michael Heseltine in 1985 on the grounds he could no longer be held by collective ministerial responsibility. Mrs. Thatcher is not the first P. M. to take decisions out side of the cabinet, others include Attlee on nuclear deterrents and Edan on Suez.

Parliament may have the means to scrutinise the executive, albeit on a patchwork frame, but there isn't much point in asking questions if you don't know what you are looking for. Even if you do the executive can still ride roughshot over any objections which was amply shown in the decision to close 31 coal mines. It is alleged that Britain is the most secret state still to call itself a democracy. The executive have a huge resource bank in the civil service but the opposition has to rely on their own wits. Out classed, many affairs such as Matrix Churchill would never have come to light but for shear chance.

It begs the question what other skeletons are hiding in the closet. M. P. s do to much work, 73 hours per week according to a Which report, so how can they be effective. Finally since succeeding power to Europe the question will soon be "… can the executive fulfil its functions of scrutinising legislation and calling the Eurocrats to account for their actions ?


Coxall B. (1991) Contemporary British Politics, MacMillan. Norton P. (1981) The Commons in Prospective, Longman. Norton P. (1985) Parliament in the 1980s, Basil Blackwell.