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An important function of any representative assembly in a liberal democracy is to scrutinize the
executive. There are several main ways in which the House of Commons does this.
This has been dealt with already. It takes place during the long, complicated process of debate and
committee work through which all legislation passes. Since the government is the main source of
legislation, legislative scrutiny can be said also to be scrutiny of the government.
The Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office
The oldest and most successful committee is the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC), which
dates back to 1861 and is always chaired by a member of the opposition. It is responsible for a large
department called the National Audit Office (NAO), which was set up, on the basis of an earlier body,
by a Private Member's Bill in 1983. There are 800 staff employed by the NAO, headed by the
Comptroller and Auditor General, who is an officer of Parliament, not the government. The PAC is a
very effective body, which combs through the government's accounts and looks hard for ways of
using taxpayers' money more effectively. It also carries out inquiries into various government
departments and agencies to see if they are working as economically as they should. In 2005, for
example, it gained publicity when it inquired into the finances of the Prince of Wales.
Prime Minister's Questions
PMQs are a very significant aspect of scrutiny. Because of the fusion of legislative and executive
powers under our parliamentary system of government, the head of our executive (the Prime
Minister) is a member of the legislature. This means he or she is available for what is called
'interpellation', or direct questioning by MPs. A complicated ritual surrounds this process, but in the
end it does mean that the Prime Minister answers questions on most aspects of policy and is
cross-examined to some extent by the leader of the opposition. PMQs draw a good deal of media
interest and parts of it are often televised on prime-time news programmes. Some people complain
that the process is rather trivialized, which does not really lead to much scrutiny. Instead, it simply
emphasizes the rhetoric of conflict between the two parties. Favourable questions are sometimes
planted by pro-government backbenchers, to enable the government to look good. Sometimes
PMQs is made to look like a cross-examination of the leader of the opposition and this is criticized,
but it could be said that parliamentary scrutiny should also involve scrutiny of the opposition.
Questions to ministers for oral answers
In the same way, other ministers in the government also answer questions orally, on a rota which
allows for two sessions a week devoted to each government department in turn. Obviously, this
comes closer to real scrutiny than PMQs, since it involves more specialized, detailed questions.
Ministers are aware of the questions in advance, and consult their advisers and civil servants on what
to say by way of answer.
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Questions for written answer
MPs can give any number of questions to ministers for a written answer. The answer is prepared by a
departmental civil servant who is expert in the field. These questions will enable an opposition party
to keep up with detailed matters of government, and also enable MPs to pursue matters of concern
to their constituents. The answers given to these questions may also help an MP who is campaigning
on a particular issue of public concern.…read more
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The Annual Debate on the Address
This is the five days of debate which follow the Queen's Speech and the 'address' or reply of the
Commons to it. So it can cover the whole range of government proposals for the coming
parliamentary year which have been announced at the State Opening of Parliament. In 2007, Gordon
Brown announced that the government would unveil its legislative programme in advance of the
Queen's Speech, which should enable a greater degree of scrutiny to take place.…read more
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There are now other ways in which a citizen can obtain redress, under the
Human Rights Act, for example, and through a large number of tribunals. The parliamentary
Ombudsman has quite a small workload.
How effective is parliamentary scrutiny?
1) They are part of the legislature and hence can be questioned directly and frequently by the
opposition and by their own backbenchers. They have to lead debates on the legislation they
propose and have to defend their policies and proposals.…read more
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It is difficult for Parliament to hold ministers to account, because the government can
dominate Parliament. The presence of ministers in the legislature actually means that the
executive is running things in Parliament. The parliamentary timetable is decided by the
government, and day-to-day management is the responsibility of government whips and
the Leader of the House, who is a Cabinet minister.…read more