The UK constitution
- A constitution is a set of laws on how a country is governed.
- The British Constitution is an uncodified constitution.
- Allows for flexibility and change to occur without too many problems.
- Amendments to Britain’s unwritten constitution are made by majority support in both Houses of Parliament to be followed by the Royal Assent.
- A historic feature of the UK constitution, the Royal Prerogative gives the Crown the power to declare war, to make treaties, to pardon criminals, and to dissolve Parliament.
- The single most important principle of the UK constitution is that of parliamentary sovereignty.
- Parliament can make or unmake any law on any subject whatsoever. No one Parliament is bound by the decisions of its predecessors.
- But,arliamentary sovereignty is now directly challenged by the UK's membership of the European Union, because EU membership necessitates the 'pooling' of sovereignty over areas where the member states have agreed to act together.
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Sources of the British Constitution
- Statutes such as the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Act of Settlement of 1701.
- Laws and Customs of Parliament
- political conventions
- Case law
- constitutional matters decided in a court of law
- Constitutional experts who have written on the subject such as Walter Bagehot and A.V Dicey.
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Criticisms of the British Constitution
- uncodified - not available to all the public and is too flexible.
- too much power to the executive - consitution does not bind government as it should.
- Archaic tradition/undemocratic - Monarch and the House of Lords have too much power constitutionally despite being undemocratic - undermines democracy.
- FPTP electoral system means majorities in government without majority of the vote - "elected dictatorship"
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House of Commons
- Most powerful of the two Houses of Parliament.
- Made up of 645 MPs, each elected in one of 645 constituencies throughout the UK. (one seat is empty because of the death of the candidate)
- Almost all MPs are elected as members of a political party.
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Functions of The House of Commons
- Representation: MPs represent constituents and may represent 'interests' such as trade unions, or particular professions, provided these interests are declared. Almost all MPs represent political parties, and usually vote according to the party line (the whipping system).
- Government Personnel: Although parliament does not appoint the government, it provides a forum in which budding ministers can demonstrate and hone their political skills, while serving ministers can make or break their career depending on their performance at the Commons' dispatch box.
- Legitimisation: Permits the elected assembly, acting on the people's behalf, to grant (or withhold) its approval for most actions of the government, including legislation and the grant of money.
- Scrutiny of the Executive: The role in scrutinising the policies and actions of the government, in debates, parliamentary questions and within the influential cross-party select committees.
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The Powers of the Prime Ministers
- Power to appoint, reshuffle or dismiss ministers
- Power to create peers
- Power to give out honours
- Power to make other appointments (e.g. top civil servants, ambassadors, bishops, judges).
- Power over ministerial conduct (rules are laid out in the ministerial code (Cabinet Office 1997)
- Powers relating to government business (e.g. setting the agenda for Cabinet meetings, setting up Cabinet committees and choosing whether or not to circulate minutes or papers).
- Powers over information (e.g. deciding whether or not to inform Parliament about government activities and using the lobby system to inform the media).
- Powers in international relations
- Power to call a general election
- Power to terminate a Parliament or government.
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Limitations or Constraints on Prime Ministers Powe
- Ministerial appointments require some recognition of the need for political balance and administrative competence. There is pressure (from colleagues or the media) to appoint certain people- all Prime Ministers at least listen to advice from senior colleagues before making appointments.
- The Prime Ministers ability to control the flow of business is restricted
- Apart from drawing up the party manifesto, most Prime Ministers do not initiate policy- they have a small staff and most expertise and detailed information is located in individual departments.
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Functions of the House of Lords
- Scrutinizing Government actions and ensuring that they are acting the public interest.
- Holding Government accountable. Ministers who are Lords are questioned by other Peers.
- Passing and amending legislation proposed by Government - The Salisbury Convention dictates that they do not challenge the mandate of the Government, but recommend amendments to legislation.
- Developing Private Members' Bills, although usually unsuccessful.
- The legitimation of laws, granting democratic consent to Government bills is less relevant to the house of Lords as it is not elected
- Since the 1949 Parliament Act is has been impossible for the Lords to defeat Government bills outright, but they can delay them for up to one year.
- The Lords will not reject every piece of Government legislation, but when they do they will not only secure major media coverage of the issue, but also send a message to the government about the force of their objection, all of which refocuses the Government and may force a rethink.
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- Decision making Arena (War on Iraq – 2 days)
- Arbitrating in departmental disputes (spending v treasury)
- Dealing with emergencies (ERM, foot and mouth)
- Coordination of govt. polices (‘joined up govt.’)
- Developing government agenda/parliament business (Queen’s speech)
- Leadership for the party in parliament
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- Convention – not legally binding
- Most important for cabinet, but is for all government members (John Denham over Iraq)
- All members of the government are collectively responsible for successes or failures
- Share responsibility of decisions even if they had no part in them
- They must refrain from criticising the government public ally
- If a minister cannot do they – resign
- Cabinet should all resign if defeated on a motion of no confidence
- Collective responsibility not collective decision making
- Robin Cook and Clare Short.
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Threats to Collective Responsibility
- Clare Short – no immediate resignation
- People may resign for other reasons (leadership challenge etc.)
- Doctrine was suspended by Wilson (EEC)
- Coalition Government (if PR)
- ‘Off the record leaks etc.’
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Since 1997, the Labour government has introduced the following constitutional reforms:
- Devolution and decentralisation which covers:
- A Scottish parliament with legislative and tax varying powers.
- A Welsh assembly with executive powers.
- An elected mayor for London.
- A Northern Ireland assembly and power sharing executive.
They also introduced:
- ECHR (European convention for human rights) into UK law.
- A freedom of information act.
- An electoral commission
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Criticism of New Labour reforms (constitutional)
- They argue that devolution would lead to devolved parliament and assemblies wanting more power and this would eventually lead to the break up of the Union.
- The reform to the House of Lords would create a second chamber filled with Labour appointments.
- The Human rights act has introduced more politics into the judiciary.
- The Liberals feel the reforms are too ‘minimalist’.
- They would rather have a written constitution, a UK bill of rights, an elected upper chamber and PR for general elections.
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Reform of House of Lords
- Labours had a two-stage plan to reform the House of Lords.
- Stage one was to end the rights of hereditary peers to vote.
- Stage two creates a new Upper House (or second chamber), which has not yet been agreed to.
- Abolition of the second chamber – Some argue that a second chamber is no longer needed as the burden of government work is moving from Westminster to the European Union, devolved parliament and assemblies. Others say that the Upper House has a poor record on checking the excesses of the executive and revising and improving legislation.
- Remaining at stage one with a second chamber of appointed life peers – Appointment means areas in industry, science, arts, religion etc will be ‘represented’. This also ensures the Upper House is modernised like the reforms of the Commons. This is viewed by some as Labours preferred option.
- A democratically elected second chamber – The case for a elected second chamber include that the Lords are directly politically accountable. If a system such as PR were used then it would provide some regional representation, provide checks and balances on the government and ensure no single party dominance.
- A part appointed, part elected second chamber – Seen as a compromise. Has the expertise of appointed peers and also more democratic with elected peers
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Function of Parliament - Representation - Effectiv
- The members chosen stand for policies that reflect the aspirations and wishes of their constituents
- Many Lords represent the views of interest/pressure groups
- The seats in the Commons are distributed to ensure an equal representation for all regions and nations within the UK
- The electoral system does not provide a result proportionate to the votes cast (e.g. at the last election the Liberal Democrats secured 20% of the vote but less than 10% of the seats)
- Women and most minority groups are underrepresented see the figures
- Even if it was representative Parliament would be constricted by Executive control and party discipline, so this role is relatively ineffective
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Function of Parliament - Legislating - Effectivene
- All legislation has to pass through the House of Commons before becoming law
- The Lords are able to suggest amendmanets and delay bills - such as the recent Hunting Bill which has been delayed for a year by the House of Lords
- The passage of bills is virtually guaranteed in the Commons due to the in-built majority of the executive and the convention that Parliament is not there to reject the legislation of an elected executive
- The lack of statutory powers of the Lords makes it weak - it cannot pass judgement on financial bills and other bills can be forced through using the Parliament Act (as was done with the War Crimes Act of 1991, PR for European Elections in 1999, and lowering the Ho
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Function of Parliament - Scrutiny - Effectiveness
- Ministers are required to face oral questions in Parliament and to answer written questions
- Select Committees are able to highlight deficiences in Government and focus their attention on real problems - such as reducing the number of deaths in police custody on saturday nights, and the intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq
- Select Committees have a majority of members of the Governing party and so are less inclined to openly criticise Government policy
- They are not able to compel attendance, they have no pwer over legislation, they lack resources and expertise, they do not attract able MPs seeking promotion, and the role does not provide additional pay!
- Lack of time, heavy briefing of Ministers and collective responsibility means that Oral questions often illicit answers which offer little information but simply restate official policy
- The culture of secrecy in Government means much information is unavailable making scrutiny less effective (e.g. the recent investigations into intelligence regarding Iraq, many documents were classified and many officials were not permitted to be questioned.
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Main Problems Parliament Faces
- Resources available to them (or the lack thereof)
- The collective responsibility doctrine
- Lack of time
- Culture of secrecy in Government
- Executive Dominance
- Electoral system
- Membership of the Lords
- Party organisation
- Prime-ministerial patronage
- Career structure of MPs
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