To what extent has Parliament lost sovereignty?

AS Unit 2 Edexcel Government and Politics

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  • Created by: ellen
  • Created on: 04-05-12 15:34

Arguments suggesting Parliament has lost sovereign

The EU

In areas where the EU has competence e.g. competition, trade, agriculture etc, EU law takes primacy over UK law.

1) The often quoted example of the European Court of Justice striking down an Act of Parliament is the Factortame Case (1990) whereby a Spanish fishing company was successful in arguing that they were being illegally denied access to UK waters. This was due to the fact that Britain, in 1986, signed into law the EU's Single European Market.

2) In 2008, the ECJ ruled that British disability law needed to change in the Coleman case because it didn't meet EU directives on discrimination of disabled carers.

The EU's powers have been further extended by increased use of qualified majority voting. Further sovereignty has been eroded since most decisions are made by unelected bureaucrats in the European Commission.

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Arguments suggesting Parliament has lost sovereign


Whilst the previous government held none for 18 years, when New Labour came to power, they held four in their first year.

Increasingly, the electorate rather than Parliament are making significant constitutional changes via referenda.

Referenda undermine the principle of representative democracy and therefore parliamentary sovereignty.

E.g. 2011- Referendum on electoral reform; whether or not to change the voting system to AV from FPTP.

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Arguments suggesting Parliament has lost sovereign


The transfer of power to devolved regional assemblies, e.g. Scottish Parliament, devolved powers have become entrenched and this means that regional assemblies are virtually impossible to remove.  

E.g. Scottish and Welsh students have their university tuition fees covered, the ban on promoting homosexuality in schools has been repealed by Holyrood, and the NI Assembly has ploughed its own furrow on rights with the creation of a Single Equality Act.

In Scotland, polls also indicate (2012) that Scots want Devo-Max, if not, complete independence.

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Arguments suggesting Parliament has lost sovereign

Human Rights Act

The signing into British law of the ECHR in the Human Rights Act 1998 meant that judicial activism can impact on the sovereignty of Parliament, as they can declare Acts of Parliament incompatible with the convention.

1) In 2004, the Law Lords ruled 8-1 against the government's indefinite detention of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh and Broadmoor prisons under the Anti Terrorism Crime and Security act 2001.

2) Abu Qutada Case- 2012

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Arguments suggesting Parliament has lost sovereign

External Forces

Parliamentary sovereignty according to the Westminster model is seen as an ideal type. Reality dictates that a number of other forces also determine its behaviour.

Firstly, powerful pressure groups can exert untold influence, e.g. the BMA on health legislation.

Secondly, global institutions such as the UN and the World Trade Organisation can shape policy outcomes- arguably globalisation has accelerated this progess.

Thirdly, economic changes wrought by large international financial institutions are able to resist whatever Parliament tries to do- the credit crunch illustrates this. Parliament can never be seperate completely from the climate of public opinion- how much did the public backlash impact the recent 10p tax u-turn?

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Arguments that Parliamentary Sovereignty still exi

The EU

In 1972, Parliament passed an Act of Parliament that made Britain a member of the EU.

De jure (legally), Parliament can pass a law to remove itself from the EU and re-assert its de facto sovereignty.

Parliament therefore, retains ultimate sovereignty.

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Arguments that Parliamentary Sovereignty still exi


In the UK referendums are technically consultative votes and legislators could ignore the outcome if, for example, it was decided by a narrow majority, or turnout was abysmal.

E.g. In 1997, the Scottish and Welsh voted for devolution but an Act of Parliament GRANTED devolution which was required.

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Arguments that Parliamentary Sovereignty still exi


As the UK is a unitary political entity, all power is held by the centre, Westminster.

Power can be devolved but can be taken back at any time.

E.g. Northern Ireland had devolution between 1922-1972. It was however, removed when direct rule was imposed in 1972-1998.

1998-2003: devolution was suspended for a period because of political deadlock in Northern Ireland.

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Arguments that Parliamentary Sovereignty still exi

Human Rights Act

Much has been made about the erosion of sovereignty by the judiciary, principally in relation to the passage of the HRA and the creation of the new Supreme Court, which ended the HoL as the final court of appeal. But, these changes do not give power to the judicial branch to strike down Acts of Parliament.

The judiciary can only declare an Act as incompatible with the HRA.

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Amazing! Helped me out on a question, 'To what extent has the location of UK sovereignty changed over recent years?' It literally had everything I needed! Thank you *****5 stars!

Old Sir


A very useful, concise overview of the factors which require discussion of this question. Students might find this a very useful starting point from which to develop their own arguments and conclusions, weighing each of the factors and examples carefully against the philosophical convention that 'no parliament can bind its successors' with the practical difficulties involved in undoing some of the things that have been done.

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