Unit 2 - Parliament

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  • Created by: Julia
  • Created on: 07-05-13 14:33

Constraints on parliamentary sovereignty

  • Executive power - the authority is derived from the electorate, so if parl denied the wishes of the people repeatedly then legitimacy would be undermined
  • EU - The UK's membership of the EU challenges the traditional view of parliamentary sovereignty. EU law has precedence over domestic British law = UK law amended
  • HRA - Incorporated rights in the ECHR into the UK statute law. All new ;law must be compatible with this. Technically parliamentary sovereignty is still preserved as courts cannot automatically strike down laws and must decide to amend or appeal
  • Devolution - Westminster no longer makes laws applying across entire UK territory, although o longer making laws on devolved matters it retains legislative supremacy
  • Referendums - proposed on constitutional issues. Against parliamentary sovereignty as it puts decision making in the hands of the electorate, but parl retains ultimate authority, but would risk damaging legitimacy if it ignores the outcome
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Parliamentary system

  • The executive & legislative branches are fused - there is overlap between the two. Gov consists of members of the legislature
  • The legislature can dismiss the executive - the gov is accountable to parl, which can remove the gov through vote of confidence. The gov can dissolve parl by calling a GE
  • Parliamentary elections decide the gov - Govs are formed according to their strength in parl. The person who commands a majority in parl, usually the leader of the largest party, becomes PM
  • Collective gov - The executive branch is led by a PM who, in theory at least, is "first among equals" in a cabinet of senior ministers
  • Separate head of state - the head of the executive branch (PM) is NOT the head of state. The latter is often a ceremonial role with political power ( e.g. the UK monarchy)
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Legislative process

Two types 

  • Gov Bills - seek to fulfill manifesto commitments & more likely to succeed as gov control parl timetable 
  • Private member's Bills - introduced by an MP on any key issue, though these rarely succeed without gov support 

The process

1) First Reading in Commons (formal introduction)

2) Second Reading in Commons - outlines principle for Bill

3) Standing Committee - scrutinises & may amend

4) Third Reading - passed or rejected

5) H of L - same process - accept or reject

6) Royal Assent

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Effectiveness of legislation

In theory - the UK parl can make/amend/repeal any laws it chooses

In practice - it is v. different

Philip Norton has 3 fold classification of legislatures:

1) policy making leg

2) policy influencing leg

3) legislatures with no/little policy influence

Parliaments effectiveness in making & scrutinising laws are limited as:

  • Gov bills are v. dominating
  • Parliamentary timetable - cirtail debate
  • Party discipline - gov proposals rarely defeated (whips)
  • H of L - does not alter key features
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Role & power of committees

Select committees have proved more effective than debates at scrutinising the actions of the executive & holding it to account. The atmosphere within select committees is of constructive engagement rather than confrontation. They become more expert in their chosen field than the relevant minister (who normally have short tenure in office). They have the power to summon witnesses & examine restricted documents, but Gov is not obliged to accept.

Standing Committees are ad hoc rather than permanent. They are formed to consider specific pieces of legislation & disband when their work is complete. They normally consist of 15-25 members, the numbers from each party reflect the composition of the House itself & are appointed by the committee selection. Most Bills are passed to a standing committee following the second reading stage in the Commons. Standing committees consider each clause of a bill in turn, however the gov can limit the time that a bill spends in committee. The whipping of committee members means it is unlikely that amendments succeed without government support.

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  • Be loyal to their party - "toe party line" vote in debates, attend party committees & promote parties outlook on policy
  • "Nurse" constituencies - holding regular surgeries & promote any constituency interests
  • Nation - serve in legislature & are expected to attend debates vote & serve on committees
  • Conscience & special interests - they may introduce Private Members legislation


MPs have been freely elected by their constituents whose interests they should represent, so represent well in this way. However, MPs are not socially representative of the public. They are mainly white, middle-class, male & middle ages. They are unrepresentative of much of the population.

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Relationship between parl & executive

  • Executive dominance - parl can dismiss gov. Parl can scrutinise the gov & hold it to account. This has been enhanced by select committees. 3 important factors: govs parl majority, level of party unity & assertiveness of HofL
  • Elective dictatorship - excessive conc of power in the executive branch - implies that the only check on power of gov is the need to hold (& win) a GE at regular intervals, beyond this gov is regarded as free to do as it wishes - executive does not provide effective c & b's
  • PMQs - Held on Wed midday for 30 mins. Provides an opportunity for the leader of the opposition, the leader of the third largest party and backbenchers selected by the whips to question the PM. This is often meant to embarrass the PM by highlighting policy failures
  • Role of the opposition - Largest party not included in gov. They face gov across the H of C. It is expected to oppose many of the gov's legislative proposals & harry the gov throughout the legislative process by tabling amendments & forcing votes, confront PM in QT, However they must also appear as a suitable gov in waiting. If the opposition is small (i.e. the gov has a large majority) it may be frustrating & fruitless. The opposition relies on limited state funding to fund parl researchers, but gov can draw upon expertise of the civil service. Gov controls parl timetable so opposition has few opportunities to set the agenda - choosing topic for 20 days. Gov suffered rare defeat in 2010 with LD fight on refusal to grant Gurkha's citizenship
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Role & influence of whips

Role - to ensure that the gov maintains a majority in votes taken in parl. Chief whip attends cabinet meetings & has status of a senior minister.


 Employ "carrot and stick" approach, offering lure of promotion to gov office for those who are loyal & threat of a life on back benches to those who go against the party whip. John Major's meteoric rise to the post of PM is often said to be as much a result of loyalty to commons as it was to his abilities.

The ultimate sanction of a whip is to remove the whip from an MP  - throwing them out of the parliamentary party, leaving him/her vulnerable to deselection in their constituency. It is only used on rare occasions as it has the ability to damage the parliamentary party as much as it does the individual concerned. In 1994 (under John Mayor) 8 Tories had whip withdrawn for disloyalty over votes relating to the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty. 

Some MPs resign the whip or even choose another party by taking that party's whip (even without a re-election as individual is voted for).

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Should House of Lords be elected?


  • Would have legitimacy
  • Better placed to scrutinise & amend gov bills, improving quality of legislation
  • No party has majority, would be unlikely under proportional representation & would be able to challenge the executive
  • If by proportional, would be more rep of public


  • Come into conflict with the H of C as both would claim democratic legitimacy
  • Institutional conflict between 2 elected chambers = gridlock
  • An appointed house would retain the expertise & independence of cross bench peers
  • Shortcomings of party control found in H of C would be duplicated in an elected upper house
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