Parliamentary and Presidential Government and Sovereignty.
- A parliamentary government is a system of politics where the government is drawn from Parliament and is accountable to Parliament. The government has no separate authority from that of Parliament.It is the main source of political authority in the UK.
- A presidential government is where a president normally has a separate source of authority from that of the legislature. This means that the President is accountable directly to the people, not to the legislature. There is a clear separation of powers between the Executive and Legislature. The President is not part of the legislature.
- In the UK, Parliament is said to be legally sovereign. Meaning, Parliament is the source of all political power, Parliament may restore to itself any powers that have been delegated to others e.g. devolution.
- Parliament may make any laws it wishes, existing laws may be amended or repealed and Parliament cannot make any laws that future governments cannot amend or repeal. However, we can see that if we consider political sovereignty that Parliament has lost much of it.
The erosion of Parliamentary Sovereignty.
- There are four main reasons that suggest that Parliament's sovereignty has been eroded. Firstly, a great deal of legislative power has been moved to the EU. European law is superior to UK law so if there is any conflict EU law must prevail. On top of this, Parliament may not pass law that conflicts with EU law. The most significant shifts of legislative authority are in trade, environment and consumer protection.
- There has been a growth in executive power in recent decades. A good example may be Tony Blair's majority in 1997, where he could effectively make, amend and repeal laws without being questioned by Parliament. However, this does not include a great transfer of legal sovereignty.
- Thirdly, there has been an increase in the use of referendums when important constitutional processes are being taken place. Although, the results of referendums can be ignored, sovereignty is being given to the people.
- Finally, through devolution which is the transfer of powers to independent assemblies like in Scotland and Wales.
- On the other hand, Parliament does have reserve powers. Britain can at any time leave the EU and restore all her sovereignty.
- Parliament can also thwart the will of the government by cancelling or over turning devolution, we saw this when the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended.
- As well as this, Parliament can effectively reject the verdict of referendums but only under exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, when a government does not enjoy an overall majority, both legal and political sovereignty can return to Parliament. We saw this in 2007 when Gordon Brown came into power at a time where Blair did not have an overally majority in Parliament. This made it hard for Brown to pass laws or make any significant changes.
The structure of Parliament
- Parliament is split into three parts. The House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Queen-in-Parliament.
- Plenary sessions are usually when PMQ's are being held every Wednesday. It is when the House of Lords and House of Commons are both full. In recent years though, debates on the Iraq War, the Anti-terrorism Act and the banning of hunting with dogs have attracted full houses. However, for the most part both Houses are usually partly filled.
- Standing Committees are specially formed for the passing of each separate bill. Contain between 15 and 50 members. All MPs and peers have to take their turn to sit on these committees. A relevant minister chairs the committee and their role is to examine each piece of legislation which passes through. Amendments are only made if their is a majority in the committee and vary.
- The governing party is always given a majority on the committee and party loyalty is expected to apply. Members of the governing party are only required to vote for amendments under their governments wishes.
- Any changes made in the House of Lords committees must be approved by the House of Commons committees and vice versa. It it usual for the Commons to overturn the Lord's amendments, but the Lord's have the power to delay the legislation.
- Membership is particularly frustrating for MPs who have a specific expertise on the issue at hand, but it must also be pointed out that pressure groups can be very active at this level.
- Committees of the Whole House, is when the amendment stage of the bill is occurring that a plenary session is called. This is rare in the Commons.
- Departmental select committees, there are 18 of them each one concerned with a different aspect of responsibility. They are usually made up of 11 members who are selected. All members of select committees are expected to behave in a neutral fashion, and when they produce their report the chairperson will try and achieve a unanimous decision.
- Their role is: to investigate the work of government departments, to consider major departmental policies, to consider proposed legislation, to consider matters of public concern, to investigate any serious errors made by the department....
- ... and occasionally to propose future legislation.
- They have a wide range of responsibilities and their style of questioning can often be aggressive. The committees also have a small number of research staff.
- The most important select committee is the Public Accounts Committee, which investigates the financial arrangements of the government.
- Another example is the Standards and Privileges Committee which is mainly concerned with the standards of public life.
- In 2006, the Home Affairs Committee was involved with the detention of terrorist suspects and in 2000 the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was critical of the way the National Lottery was run.
- Both Houses have speakers, they are expected to be entirely neutral and even handed. They are a senior MP. Currently, the House of Commons speaker is John Bercow (Conservative) and the Lords Speak is Baroness Hayman.
The Functions of Parliament
- Parliament's can be categorised into policy-making legislatures, policy-influencing legislatures and weak legislatures.
- The Functions of Parliament include: legitimation, scrutiny,opposition, accountability which is done through, individual ministerial responsibility, questions to ministers, select committees and debates on legislation. Other functions include financial control, representation, redress of grievances, private members legislation, deliberation and reserve powers. Specific Lords powers include delaying and amending legislation.
- There are however, limitations of these powers. Legitimation is limited because: the H of L is not elected, the Commons is seen to be dominated by the Executive and therefore not independent and it is not politically representative.
- Deliberation- both Houses lack time to consider bills thoroughly and standing committees are whipped so fall under government control.
- Reserve powers- collective gov. responsibility makes it difficult to examine decisions, the opposition lacks the administrative back up of the government.
- House of Lords delay- skilful ministers and civil servants can evade questioning by MPs and peers, MPs and peers may lack expertise, the power of patronage prevents governing MPs and peers from being hostile and their remains a good deal of government secrecy in issues such as defence and security.
- Financial Control- Parliament is not expected to challenge government seriously in this area, H of L has no jurisdiction.
- Representation- FPTP makes Commons highly unrepresentative, H of L is not elected, both Houses are socially unrepresentative in terms of ethnicity and women.
- Redress of Grievances- MPs lack time to deal with these matters.
- Private Members Legislation- little time devoted to it, government is easily able to "kill" any bills it opposes and it is difficult for MPs and peers to gather support for these bills.
- House of Lords amendment- House of Commons have to approve the amendments.
Agencies supporting Parliament
- The Parliamentary Ombudsman- investigates complaints which are routed through MPs from constituents or groups of constituents.
- The Comptroller and Auditor General- ensure government revenues are spent on the purposes for which parliament has been given approval, checks government accounts to ensure that money has been spent carefully and effectively.
- National Audit Office- looks at various aspects of work of government departments to check for efficiency, guard against wastefulness and to ensure that services serve the public effectively.
- Audit Commission- investigates operations of local governments specifically.
- Membership of the House of Lords- life peers, hereditary peers, bishops and archbishops, law lords and Lord Chancellor.
Why is the House of Lords becoming more significant?
- Large government majorities in the Commons have been normal. Opposition in the Commons has been weak and therefore the House of Lords have been used to bolster up the opposition.
- House of Lords began to develop a new "professionalism" and many members are beginning to take their role seriously.
- The removal of hereditary peers in 2000 and the introduction of the Supreme Court, has given them more authority.
- There is now a stronger "rights culture" in the UK since the Human Rights Act, and the Lords having taken up the role of guidance.
- Examples of this were the Hunting with Dogs Act, Anti- Terrorism legislation and the Gambling Order 2007.
Powers and Restrictions of the House of Lords
- Restrictions on Lords- can only delay passage of bills for only one year, no power over financial arrangements of government, can't block any legislation implemented in governments previous election manifesto, any amendments proposed must be approved by Commons.
- As a result of these restrictions they operate more traditionally: to delay any legislation where they feel its government to look again, to make helpful suggestions for amendments to bills, to make hostile suggestions to the amendments to bills to make sure the government looks again, to debate on issues which are of importance.
Relationship between government and Parliament
- Power of government creates two important realities: governments are rarely removed from office prematurely, governments can carry out virtually all of their manifesto without opposition.
- Two problems which arise: governments may become dictatorial in nature and there may be times where the government loses the confidence of the public, the public cannot remove a government, but Parliament can.
- Commons strengths- ultimate power to remove government, MPs can veto legislation as well as force legislative amendments, MPs can call ministers to account, every constituency can be effectively represented by its MP and various interest and cause groups can be represented.
- Commons weaknesses- government can dominate Parliament with a comfortable majority, legislative standing committee controlled by party whips, MPs have insufficient time to call governments to account, MPs have a limited role in developing legislation, Commons is not socially representative, governments are increasingly ignoring Parliament.
- Lords Strengths- many members of the Lords are more independent from party control, peers represent a wide variety of interests and expertise, the Lords can delay legislation, more effective time to conduct debates and scrutinise legislation.
- Lords Weaknesses- lacks democratic legitimacy, powers of Lords are limited by law, proposed amendments can be overturned by the Commons, Lords have a very limited role in developing legislation, peers face the same problems as MPs in calling government to account.
House of Lords reform
- Labour introduced two stages of reform, Stage 1: remove voting rights of hereditary peers and number of hereditary peers reduced to 92. A Supreme Court was also formed in 2009. This was the furthest reform went but it is not finished. Lord Wakeham report was not implemented
- Fully elected House of Lords: Advantages- more democratic, eliminate corrupt practices, might act as a democratic balance against the power of government if elected by PR, allow smaller parties to be represented.
- Disadvantages- simply mirror the Commons and create a deadlock between two houses, too may elections may lead to voter fatigue, more powerful second chamber may lead to a less decisive government, another part of the legislature dominated by the parties.
- Fully appointed second chamber: Advantages- opportunity to increase political participation, membership can be controlled allowing major groups and associations to be represented, bring more independents into political process.
- Disadvantages- it could lead to corruption through too much power being put into the hands of the people who appoint, could be undemocratic and old fashioned, lacks legitimacy and public support.