Parliament Knowledge


Departmental Select Committees

Departmental select committees in the House of Commons:

  • Normally consist of 11-13 backbench MPs
  • Oversee the work of government departments.
  • Can question ministers, civil servants, advisers and other witnesses or call for official papers
  • Produce reports that are often unanimous and cross party lines
  • Have often been critical of government’s work and are influential
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Public Accounts Committee

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the House of Commons:

  • Is always chaired by an opposition backbencher
  • Investigates the financial aspects of government
  • Is highly influential and often critical
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Legislative Committee

Legislative committees of the House of Commons:

  • Usually consist of 15-40 backbench MPs
  • Consider possible amendments to proposed legislation
  • Always have a government majority
  • Rarely pass amendments against government wishes
  • Are seen as largely ineffectual except where an issue is not controversial between the parties

Legislative committees of the House of Lords:

  • Contain 15+ members
  • Often contain peers who are experts on the issue being legislated
  • Are subject to weaker party discipline than in the Commons
  • Often pass significant amendments to improve legislation and/or protect minorities
  • Often defy the governments wishes
  • Make amendments that are subject to approval in the Commons, so their power is weakened
  • Do sometimes force the government to change its mind. 
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Ways in which Parliament can control Government

Parliament can control government in a number of ways:

  • Ultimately Parliament is sovereign. This means it can veto legislation if it believes it is not in the public interest and/or the government has no legitimate mandate for the proposal.
  • In extreme circumstances the House of Commons can remove a government through a vote of no confidence.
  • Parliament has the power to amend legislation to improve it remove offending clauses.
  • Governments cannot hope to override significant parliamentary opposition to a proposal.
  • The House of Lords retains independence because there is no government majority there and patronage is weaker. It can therefore defy the will of government.
  • MPs and peers can call government to account publicly.
  • Powerful departmental select committees can be, and have been, critical of government.
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Why Government Dominates Parliament

It is normally stressed that the executive branch in the UK (the gov.) dominates Parliament. There are a number of reasons why this may be so:

  • The government can claim a mandate from the people for its policies when it is elected to power. Parliament therefore, lack the legitimate right to ignore the mandate ad tends to accept the governments right to govern.
  • Governments normally enjoy a clear majority of support in the Commons (the 2010 election was an exception, but a majority coalition was formed instead of a one-party majority). This means the government can normally count on the majority of support.
  • The MPs of the governing party were elected on the understanding that they would help to implement the party manifesto. On the whole, therefore, the MPs of the governing majority will normally support the government.
  • Party loyalty is strong in the UK compared to many other democracies.
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More ways in which Parliament can control Governme

  • Patronage is a key factor. Most MPs seek promotion to government at some time. By remaining loyal they improve their chances of promotion. All government posts are held in the hands of the prime minister, so he or she exercises a great deal of influence over ambitious MPs. This is known as the ‘power of patronage’
  • Governments (as well as opposition parties) use whips, who are senior MPs, to maintain party discipline and to remind MPs where their first loyalty lies. Rebellious MPs receive warnings and then may suffer suspension from their party.
  • The House of Lords influence is limited by statute and convention. The Parliament Act 1949 limits the House of Lords to only being able to delay legislation for 1 year. It cannot block government proposals permanently. Any amendments to legislation must also be approved by Commons, where the government enjoys a majority. Furthermore, the Lords has no power to interfere in financial matters (under the earlier 1911 Parliament Act). The Salisbury convention is considered to be binding and states that the House of Lords must not obstruct any government proposal that was contained in its most recent election manifesto. In other words, the unelected Lords must not defy the will of the elected government.
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Parliamentary Government

  • There is no separation of powers between the government and Parliament.
  • Government draws its authority from Parliament, not directly from the people.
  • Government is not separately elected from Parliament.
  • Government is accountable directly to Parliament.
  • Members of the government must sit in the legislature.
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Presidential Government

  • The executive and legislative branches of government are separate.
  • The president is elected separately from the legislature.
  • The president does not is in the legislature.
  • The president is accountable to the people, not the legislature.
  • There are constitutional rules that establish the limits of the president’s powers.
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Differences in Composition + Function of Lords + C

  • The Commons is elected. The Lords is not.
  • The Commons can veto legislation; the Lords can only delay it.
  • MPs represent constituencies; Peers do not.
  • Government has a majority in the Commons but not in the Lords.
  • The Commons scrutinises the government’s financial affairs; the Lords has no such power.
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Functions of Lords + Commons

  • Joint functions of both Houses
    • Granting formal approval for legislation.
    • Calling government to account.
    • Scrutinising legislation and proposing amendments.
    • Debating key political issues.
  • Functions of the Common
    • The following functions are carried out only by the Commons:
    • Representing constituencies and constituents.
    • MPs may seek the redress of grievances of citizens and groups.
    • Vetoing legislation in the extreme circumstances when it is considered against the national interest.
    • Removing a government from power if it has lost its legitimacy.
  • Functions of the Lords 
    • The following functions are carried out only by the Lords:
    • Delaying legislation for at least a year in order to force government to reconsider it.
    • Representing various interests and causes in society.
    • Proposing amendments to legislation in order to improve it and protect minority interests
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The House of Lords

  • The House of Lords is known as the ‘upper house’, but is actually the junior partner to the House of Commons.
  • Its membership consists of 92 hereditary peers who have inherited their title, 26 archbishops and bishops of the Church of England, and several hundred life peers who have the right to sit in the Lords for the whole of their lives.
  • The Lords has legislative committees but not departmental select committees.
  • As well as party members, the Lords contains ‘crossbenchers’ who are not affiliated to any party and so are highly independent.
  • No one party has a majority in the Lords.
  • A neutral ‘Lord Speaker’ presides over its proceedings.
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Prime Ministers Questions

  • Each Wednesaday for 30 minutes, MPs are given the opportunity to quiz the premier at PMQs.
  • The single weekly slot was introduced during New Labours reform as a replacement for twice-weekly 15 minutes that had been on Tuesday and Thursday, although the slinger slot was supposed to offer the opportunity for more lengthy and meaningful questions of prime ministers.
  • Widely seen as theatre rather than real politics, however they do afford backbenchers and leading opposition figuers an opportunity to raise issues that concern their constituents + hold the gov and PM to account.
  • PMQs also provide a chance for front-benchers to make a name for themself and put the PM on the spot.

LibDem caretaker leader Vince Cable in 2007 with his observation that Gordon Brown had transformed from Stalin to Mr Bean during his time as PM.

Ministers face similar questions-and answer sessions withint their own area of responsibility 

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The Vote of Confidence

The vote of confidence, or no-confidence motion, is a formal vote taken in Commons in response to the tabling of a motion that the Commons has no confidence in the government of the day.

By convention, the PM of a government loosing such a vote should request the dissolution of Parliament + a general election.

A government is unlikely to lose a vote of confisence when it holds a cleary majoirty. Minority administrations and governments possessing thin common majorities can fall should the oppositing party mobilise a vote.

James Callaghan's Labour Government lost a vote of confidence in 1979, a defeat that then prompted the 1979 gerneal election and 18 years in opposition for the Labour Party.

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Early Day Motions + Topical Debates

Early day motions all for a Commons debate on a named issue. MPs can propose + add their names to such motions + thereby raise their concerns with government.

There is little time for the issues raised to be debated formally, it provides one more way in which constituents' grievances can be vented through their interest.

Opposition parties are given some time to initiate debates on topics that are of interest to them.

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The Commons Liaison Committee

Do not have the power to subpoena (force) witnesses to appear before them. 

Tony Blair, when PM did agree to appear before the Commons Liason Committee twice each year.

This committee which compromises chairs of the various Commons departmental select committees, meets at Portcullis House in the Boothroyd Committee Room.

Although they only meet fairly infrequently these meeting have provided a genuine opportunity for MPs to question the PM outside of the theatre of PMQs

In the Feb 2006 session the PM was quizzed on issues as varied as the UKs presidencies of the G8 and the EU, the governments reform agenda for healthcare and schools, relations with Iran and likely fallout from elections in Palestine

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Members in Parliament who hold senior positions in government.

They act as shadown ministers for official oppositions, or are spokespeople for other parties. 

The term refers to the fact such individuals occupy the front benches in the Commons.

Their role as spokesperson for their party on a particular area of policy means that frontbenchers will often be heavily involved at ministers' questions, PMQs + when legislation relveant to their area is being introduced or debated in the chamber.

Government legislation is normally introduced formally to Parliament by the relevant minister, who will obvisouly be a frontbencher

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The Official Opposition

Shawdow cabinet is drawn from the leading figures on the partys front bench.

Recieves money known as 'short money' after the former Leader of the Commons, Edward Short, to help cover the costs of holding gov of the day to account.

The leser of the opposition alone was given £647,122 to help cover the costs of running his office in the financial year beggining April 2008.

The opposition is also able to act as a check on the gov through its use of opposition days, when it can determine the topic of debate.

Under House of Commons Standing Order S014(2), 20 days are available to opposition parties in each session; 17 are at the disposal of the leader of the opposition with 3 allocated to the second largest opposition party.

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Refers to all MPs who sit on the backbenches, those who do not hold frontbench responsibilities in their party (ministers, shadow ministers, party spokesperson)

Frontbenchers have a number of additional demands on their time, backbenchers should in theory be able to focus entirely on the task of representing their constituents. In reality, all MPs have to contend with a number of conflicting demands on their time and loyalty. 

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Role of an MP

Representative: should hold regular surgeries for constituents.

Loyal Party Drone: elected by virtue of the party label, rather than a result of personal appeal. Logical to say 'toe the line', party whips are there to enforce discipline by withholding or offering promotion

Watchdog: traditionally they had to hold government accountable, though debates ect, always some MPs who prefer this role; Tony Benn + Dennis Skinner

Legislator: for a bill to become an act is must be passed through the Commons, as a rsult they have the power to kill legislation, though this rarely happens.

CAREER POLITICIANS: linger around for 15-20 years, salaries and allowances have imporved and hours are more sociable, many MPs are more comfrotable in their offices now. An individual may now enter with no other career and want to work up the ladder.
Elevation of former special advisor to the Commons reflects the trend; David Miliband 

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Party Whips

Role: ensures the government who maintains a majority in votes in Parliament, chief whip attends cabinet meetings and has the statue of a senior minister.

  • Commonly said to employ a 'carrot and stick' apporach, offering the lure of promotion to government office for those who are loyal and threat of a life on back benches, or worse for those who go against the whip. 
  • John Major's meteoric rise to the post of PM was often said to be a result of his unerring loyalty in the Commons as it was to his inherent abilities.
  • The whips ultimate sanction is to 'remove the whip' from an MP, this throws an MP out of the parliamentary parrty and leaves him vunerable to de-selection. 
  • In 1994, under John Major, 8 tory MPs had the whip withdrawn for disloyalty over votes relating to the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty.
  • Some MPs ignore the whip, or even cross the floor to join another party by takinh that party's whip, they can in theory do this without seeking re-election.

Also used to refer to weekly documents that each party produces detailing bussiness in Pariament + indicating the way in which party expects its MPs to vote. Items underlined 3 times, 'a three-line-whip' are those the party demands MP to attend + vote in a certain way

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John Major

1) Became an MP - 1979

2) Parliamentary Private Secretary, serving in the Home Office- 1981

3) Assistant Whip- 1983

4) Treasury Whip- 1984

5) Under Secretary of State for Social Security-1985

6) Minister of State for Social Security- 1986

7) Chief Secretary to the Treasury- 1987

8) Foreign Secretary- 1989 (july)

9) Chancellor of the Executive- 1989 (october)

10) Prime Minister-1990 (november)

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