It is the legislative branch of the political system, it is the place where laws are made. It is composed of the monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
Monarch has the final say as whether a bill can be passed into law, become an act of parliament by giving royal assent. No monarch has declined to give royal assent to a bill since Queen Anne in the 18th century.
The house of lords has power to delay legislation but as seen with the issue of hunting with dogs, the parliamentary devices are there to make sure the house of commons gets its way and the lords is only a deliberative and revising chamber.
House of commons is the one with the greatest influence it is where all prime ministers from past century have sat over 90% of all ministers are drawn from it. With the power of parliament lots of emphasis is on the House of Commons especially the relationship with the executive.
In the UK the legislative and executive branches of the constitution are fused or joined together. Best way to describe relationship between legislative branch and executive branch is by using prepositions “in”, “through” and “to”.
In – the executive is in the legislature because all members of the executive are drawn from either House of Commons or lords.
Through – government legislation must pass through and be approved by parliament.
To – government is accountable to parliament via a number of methods
Comparison with presidential government
In US there is no fusion of powers. Presidential government is based on separation of powers of legislature and the executive. President is not accountable to the legislature (congress in the US) but is elected by voters. No equivalent in the US of weekly question time and congress can only get rid of president if he can be seen to have done “high crimes and misdemeanours” These can be seen by President Clinton, no president has ever been removed.
Centrally accepted convention of the constitution in uk. Parliament is technically supreme law making body, and no body can override decisions. Parliament is not bound by decisions of previous parliaments and all other parts of constitution may be changed. It could revoke the powers to devolved assemblies and it is only subject to political sovereignty of the people at time of the general election.
Parliamentary sovereignty is limited in number of ways. Internally, ministers increasingly tend to conduct activities away from parliament where activities are watched more. The creation of quangos and executive agencies make ministers less accountable to parliament. Devolution has made more powers be handed over to those assemblies and realistically it would be difficult to get the powers back.
External factors which affect parliamentary sovereignty are the powers of the institutions in the EU and the treaty obligations that the country has with international organisations such as North Atlantic treaty organisation, NATO. Power of transnational companies and financial institutions can be seen as limiting parliament’s sovereignty. In theory parliament can revoke all these treaty obligations but it would be very difficult. Formal sovereignty is the idea that we have unlimited sovereignty but effective sovereignty is how much limits are placed on our sovereignty.
EU memberships has had a key impact on our parliamentary sovereignty which is a key part of the British constitution which may have been eroded by EU membership. When joining the EEC in 1973 the UK inherited 43 volumes of European legislation and 3,000 directive and regulations already in force elsewhere in the community. UKparliament is now subject to primacy of European law which means it could be taken to the European court of justice if it was seen to break European law. UK parliament can no longer claim to be ultimate power in the land as where UK law and European law clash the latter wins. Judges must now favour European law where it conflicts UK law, example is factor tame case of 91, when part of UK merchant shipping legislation was struck down after it was declared contrary to European law.
Some people say pooling sovereignty across the Eu would make uk stronger not weaker but there is no doubt the nations sovereignty has come under attack. However, the main areas of public policy, member states still get control. The UK, for example still has control over immigration and national border controls unlike many EU member states. However, they have powers over tax and general economic policy, defence and foreign policy are retained by each individual Eu member states.
UK can rescind the treaties they have ratified and withdraw from the EU. However, many believe the political and economic costs would be too much.
Impact of devolution
When the devolved assemblies were established they took over complete control of education in their areas. In the case of Scotland and N.I they have primary legislative powers, power to make law and Scotland has tax varying powers.
Devolution is said to have reduced power of parliament and transferring sovereignty to devolved assemblies. There has been no formal transfer of sovereignty but parliament would be tested if it wanted to reduce powers of devolved bodies. Also people argue about the west Lothian question, Tam Dalyell when he opposed Scottish devolution. He asked if it was right that MP’s elected to House of Commons from Scottish constituencies should be able to vote on issues solely effecting England. MP representing English constituencies would not have the right to influence similar issues in Scotland or Wales. Now due to Scotland act 98 and creation of Scottish parliament 99, although there has been no attempt to deal with this anomaly. There has been some recognition Scottish are over represented in house of commons in 05 general elections number of Scottish constituencies were reduced from 72 to 59 and conservatives want to see MP’s fro Scottish constituencies banned from voting on English only matters.
Impact of devolution - continued
Supporters of devolution say devolution is a more logical way of overseeing legal and educational system in Scotland which have in past needed separate legislative time. Devolution relieves some workload on commons freeing it to concentrate on important issues in England.
Composition of parliament
Has 646 members each of whom represent a constituency. At dissolution of parliament in April 05 all but one were in a party, Dr Richard Taylor mp for Wyre forest stood independently. Each constituency has a MP on average it contains 60,000 electors. It varies depending on how sparsely populated the areas are where it is too big to have 1 mp to represent well. Each mp must be elected by at least a majority of votes and serves for maximum of 5 years before re election. If a mp resigns during time in parliament a writ is issued for a by election and new mp is elected for rest of term.
House of lords
Not elected composed of different lords
Hereditary peers – inherited their position from parents, once over 600 members since 1999 reforms only 92 remain.
Life peers – life peerages act 1958, remained of their lifetimes and their titles die with them. They are appointed because they have been successful in their field of politics, education, science, business or industry.
Law lords – senior judges such as lord chief justice and master of the rolls who sit as the highest judicial court in the land.
Bishops – senior archbishops from c of e.
Lords occupy position because of birth, job or status. Some reforms have been introduced but more are wanted. People are arguing whether it should be fully, partially or unelected body.
Functions of parliament
Debating major issues – Issues of major importance are discussed. If a crisis emerges during a parliamentary recess, it is not unusual for members to demand that parliament be recalled in order for issue to be discussed.
Making law – must pass through a lengthy set of stages in both house of commons and lords before it reaches statute book. Gives members chance to debate principles of bill and detail of legislation. Gives chance for MP to table amendment to get concessions from govmnt. Delegated legislation doesn’t have to pass through rigorous procedure but orders must be laid before mps.
Scrutinising the executive – Perhaps most important function of parliament especially at time when government has a great deal power.
Sustaining government – system of parliamentary government, should also ensure government can govern by having a majority of seats in house of commons for the governing party.
Functions of parliament
Representation – represent the people, parties attempt to reflect the views of people who elect them. Individual mps attempt to represent the people in their constituency.
Financial scrutiny – Scrutiny of public spending and there is annual finance bill known as budget which is passed in order for taxation and spending to continue. Number of parliamentary committees which oversee government spending, parliament can be seen to have ongoing control of public finances.
Redress of grievances – earliest purpose of Commons was for people to obtain redress for problems and grievances. Citizens can still go to parliament and lobby their mp about particular issue and the mp can either try persuade government to change law or attempt to change law themselves using procedure of private members legislation.
How effective is parliament?
Representation – parliament is representative in a number of ways,
-Each voter has a choice of constituency representatives who hold regular surgeries
-There are usually a good range of political parties to choose from, at least three often five or six.
-Some people argue it reflects the nation and takes into account minority groups under represented in parliament, his is shown by race relations legislation in the 60s and 70s even though there were no Asians or black mp’s in parliament.
-usually responsive to public opinion, after the mass shooting of children at primary school in Dunblane in 96 the people were worried about it so they tightened law on gun ownership. Some people say they over react though and they rushed to pass the dangerous dog act after very public attacks on children.
How effective is parliament? - continued
However, some people say parliament is not representative in key aspects,
- House of commons some groups of people are not represented fairly, women account for les than 1/6th of MPs and ethnic groups are also not represented. This may be down to party selection procedure not parliament.
- Parties are represented in a disproportionate way, the FPTP system means parties do not gain the number of seats equivalent to the number of votes they receive. Parties like the Lib Dems have always been victims.
- House of lords is an unelected chamber, most peers were hereditary until recently and not representative of the country politically, socially or by gender or ethnic origin. Most peers are now nominated but it is argued that does not improve the house’s representiveness.
Scrutiny of the executive
Parliament scrutinises government by:
Questions to ministers – Departments take turns to answer parliamentary questions, question time takes place Monday to Thursday for 1hour a day and Wednesday prime minister answers questions for half hour. The questions are written and oral and it is where the opposition should seek out flaws in government policy and mps can obtain useful info for their constituents.
Debates – Discussions in parliament they are the method of putting views across as well as opening the government to criticism. If legislation has ben badly thought out it can be seen clearly when discussed in commons or lords. This is why government employs lots of parliamentary draftsmen so check legislation is good before going through its stages in commons and lords.
Scrutiny of the executive - continued
Select committees – First introduced in 79, modelled on select committees in us congress. Responsible for scrutinising the work of individual government departments. They are cross party, but are reflective of strength of party support in commons. They investigate issues to do with department they scrutinise, they interview minster and civil servants. They will then publish reports and make recommendations to the government.
Opposition days – Days that belong to the opposition, they have a limited number of days which they give notice they will use and normally use them to embarrass the government. Which is unlike normal days which is where the government use it to push through legislation.
Limitations to scrutiny
Some people argue that in a number of ways these scrutiny mechanisms are not effective
- Scrutiny is seen to be difficult if one party dominates the house of commons. It is difficult to hold government to account when many mps in governing party are in the commons chamber, between 97 and 05 labour had massive control.
- question time is usually not effective, most commentators believe it “generates more heat than light” the questions which get best reaction are written questions where the ministers don’t have too much public attention and very little chance of embarrassment.
- Most mps when debating legislation don’t have the skills to debate properly on issues which are not important to them, labour mp frank field was head of child poverty action group and he was very skilled in getting policy detail going through parliament on welfare matters but not many are.
Limitations to scrutiny - continued
- poor timing of opposition days withdraw impact, they will save them up for a big political controversy but rarely do these happen so coming to the end of a parliamentary session they will use them at last date which will not stir up publicity as expected.
- select committees are composed in way that reflects representation in commons so labour have dominated the committees for much of the last decade. As a result most reports are very biased but the ones which are cross party support tend to be useful.
There are many reforms in parliament some of these are:
House of commons
Changes mainly non structural they cannot be compared with introduction of department select committee system which Thatcher brought in. However, once Blair took office he changed prime ministers question time from 2 15 minute slots to 1 half hour slot every Wednesday. He also made the prime minister available for questions twice a year before the commons liaison committee. After the 97 election the government stopped the late night sitting of commons but recently mps have voted to re instate them.
House of lords
Reforms brought in so far
Labour mps have resented legitimate authority challenged by non elected peers. The Blair government cut the number of hereditary peers down to 92 in the reform bill of 99 but many backbenchers wanted more decisive measures.
The Blair govmnt asked john wakeham to investigate possible future models for second chamber. Published report in 2000, this had varying combinations of elected and non elected chambers with some elected members which should replace House of Lords.
Govmnt did nothing to wakeham report but in 03 number of proposals for reform were put in both houses of parliament. None received majority support. By 05 election still no clear indication of how government wanted to proceed in manifesto they just wrote complete reform process. There is still talk of elected element to second chamber. In 07 government published white paper declaring its future intention for reform of second chamber, these included a commitment to abolish remaining hereditary peers. Month late House of Commons voted for an entirely elected second chamber. A week later the House of Lords voted for an all appointed second chamber. The government of Gordon brown has signalled that it wishes to complete the process of second chamber reform. Brown has announced in May 08 he will publish another white paper on reform of the House of Lords.
Criticisms of the lords reforms
Groups such as charter 88 believe the forms have been insufficiently robust and groups on the right of political spectrum believe it has gone too far.
They argue the house of lords should be a fully elected parliament which would be more democratic and accountable to the people. Other people believe the second chamber should be abolished and the uk should retain a unicameral legislature like Israel.
Gone too far
Some say parliament functions well as it is and should be left alone. There is also the risk of losing well established practices which have worked in the past. It could be said that during the 80s the unreformed house of lords often proved a more effective check on Thatcher’s government than labour at the time.
Conservatives have always been cautious when it comes to constitutional reform and have been critical of change made to the lords so far. It can be argued though they would be bound to oppose any policy that weakened their position in Westminster (most hereditary peers conservative) especially as they were weak in commons.
Should house of lords be elected
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR OF FULLY ELECTED SECOND CHAMBER
Would be more democratic
Would add legitimacy to political process, if both chamber elected no question if legislation had consent of people
Make all legislators responsive to mood of public and accountable to them at time of election
Provide country with modern revising chamber
Lords is acceptable most hereditary peers have gone
Potential gridlock between two elected chambers each time disagreement has to be resolved
Lord Wakeham questioned calibre of members that could be recruited If powers of elected second chamber had minimum influence
Loss of nominated life peers would deny political system valuable contributions to legislative process made by experienced people.
Finest parliamentary committees (hose of lords European committee) would be lost.
Abolishing the second chamber
A minority of people believe in having a single chamber parliament, unicameral option. They would remove the decisions making from non elected people and the risks of political gridlock of the 2nd chamber disagreeing with the 1st. However, others say that the amount of work done by parliament it is necessary to have 2 chambers and that without the 2nd chamber to deliberate and revise the legislation it may lead to badly thought out laws being passed.
The conservatives position reassessed
Recent years has seen major change of policy on parliamentary reform. They were opposed to reforming lord now in 02 Iain Duncan Smith leader at the time brought out policy supporting a new second chamber. Slimmed down senate which would be fully elected and David Cameron has made similar claims. Party politics may influence this decision as Blair’s govmnt were unsure with what to do about 2nd stage of lords reform. New conservative policy could maximise Blair’s difficulties with backbenchers who would prefer an elected second chamber.