"A Parliament with a strong party system, such as that of the UK, is inherently flawed as a means of holding Government accountable" Discuss Parliament began as a court of advisors to the King. It later developed into a more formal body with representatives from different regions and its function moved gradually towards the control of the King's powers. Soon the power of the Crown was 'controlled' so heavily that the power to legislate began to move to Parliament. Since then, Parliament's role has retracted, and we are left with a Parliament intended to ensure that the early Monarch's replacement, Government, is kept in check.
In this capacity it has two main roles, to ensure firstly that Government is trying to enforce good and proper policies, by means of effective scrutiny of legislation, and secondly to maintain good and proper implementation of these policies. In this essay I will discuss these two roles of Parliament, and investigate whether, considering the nature of the Assembly today, they are still performed effectively. Parliament is composed of three parts; the Monarch, House of Lords, House of Commons. Each has their own role in the maintenance of a fair government, the importance of which increases respectively.
The Queen's role today is minimal, although, the right to deny an act royal assent is reserved for the queen's pleasure; assent has not been withheld since 1707 when Queen Anne denied a Scottish Militia Act her assent. The role of the Queen in legislating has become one of formality and convention, Royal Assent is required to enact any bill, but a bill which has passed the two houses will always be given assent barring some extraordinary, and quite unforeseeable, circumstance. The largely unelected House of Lords has a limited role in legislation for the very reason that it is unelected.
The House has only powers of delay, and even then cannot delay money bills. The large majority of legislation occurs in the House of Commons, from which, almost entirely1, is drawn the Government – either the majority party following a general election, or occasionally a coalition between two or more. The Prime Minister is the elected leader of the majority party, and he chooses his cabinet personally. Whilst all bills proposed by the Government must pass through both houses before they are enacted as law, it is only the House of Commons which might hope to have any effect on proposals.
There are a number of factors which seriously limit Parliament's ability to keep Government in line. There was a time when the superpowers that today's political parties are did not exist. Parliament was a collection of locally elected men. Groups existed, but they were formed following the election, and did not represent a group of people with definite shared opinion. It was only with the introduction of universal suffrage which led to the development of the campaigning machines which we see today. 2 The prominence of the political party in commons today somewhat limits that freedom of MPs.
The political necessity of disagreeing with a proposal may limit the effectiveness of the rest of Parliament's scrutiny, indeed it has been said "the purpose of many opposition amendments is not to make the Bill more generally acceptable but to make the Government less generally acceptable. "3 This attitude does not allow Parliament to effectively assess the work of Government, as instead they are too preoccupied with politics. When we look into the nature of the selection of Government- the choice of the party which has a majority in Commons, we find the source of a number of further problems.
The cabinet is usually able to push unpopular Bills through commons by relying on their majority. The whips will ensure that all members of the party vote according to party lines, and as such, the bill will be passed. The House of Lords may now only delay the bill. This is a clear demonstration of the inability of Parliament to control government. It is here that we might then first suggest that ministers are accountable not to Parliament, but instead to their party. By means of the whips system, the party ensures that they vote accordingly and failure to do so would not result in reprimand by Parliament, but by their party.
It was not the House of Commons which forced the resignation of Lady Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair; instead it was lack of support from their party. While a Prime Minister with full party support enjoys an "exceptional and peculiar authority,"4 a Prime Minister with no support may be said to be worthless, as he and his cabinet cannot pass any acts. It is in such a situation that, following a failure to resign, Parliament's ultimate power may be enforced. Last used in 1979, and passed by a vote of 311-310, Parliament has the right to call a vote of no confidence.
If the notion is passed then the Prime Minister will request immediate dissolution. The very rarity of use of the vote explains its ineffectiveness. It is the only measure which the rest of Parliament has to ensure the accountability of government. It is however inherently poor, as it relies on overcoming the vote of a majority party. A criminal is held to account for his crimes by the courts. They are able to do this because of the powers granted to them which put them in a position superior to the law-breaker.
If they did not hold this superior power of judgement, they would be unable to reprimand the crime. In a similar way, by virtue of the minority which the opposition parties hold, and the whips system which ought to maintain this minority, Parliament is unable to effectively reprimand government for any failure. Parliament is not useless as a means of ensuring the accountability of government; whilst there is little or no way of forcing changes to Bills, they are usually considerably amended. The various procedures which it implements to ensure that government justifies its actions do have great effect.
Among such procedures are: parliamentary questions, adjournment debates, early day motions, Opposition Day debates, general debates and Select Committees. 5 Of these it may be said that Select Committees are the most effective. The House of Commons supplies Select Committees for each government department which consist of a group of 11 to 16 non ministers, inside which, "the political complexion… will reflect that of the Commons as a whole"6 Despite the way the ratio of parties is maintained, party allegiances are frequently weaker in these smaller specialist, departmental groups.
This facilitates not only a more useful specialist scrutiny of the "expenditure, administration and policy," but the weaker party links make it easier to ensure that such scrutiny results in the best conclusion for the department, and ultimately for the country, and not for the party. The direct effectiveness of debates and question time is doubtful because of the ease with which a skilled orator can avoid answering a question. These do however serve one crucial role, which is shared by the power of the House of Lords to delay the passing of a Bill: that of bringing a certain area into the media spotlight.
The media is phenomenally influential, and even if Members are unable to directly affect the policy, by bringing it to the attention of the media, it is brought to the attention of the public. The daily production of opinion polls on all sorts of areas must be impossible to ignore, and thus, despite their inability to really penetrate policy, or its application, debates and oral questions have a fantastic indirect use. The strongest method of investigation available to MPs is that of written questions.
These may be probing, and although there are some rules which allow a question to be left unanswered, for example where the answer would reveal sensitive security information, or when the process of gaining the information would cost more that reasonable, it is very hard to avoid answering a direct written question. These answers are published in Hansard, the parliamentary log, so whilst not receiving any air time, they do still make the public domain. Perhaps we might look at Parliament as a body through which Government becomes accountable to the public, rather than a body to which it is directly responsible.