House of commons and parliament

A Key Function Of The House Of Commons Is To Hold The Executive To Account. How Effectively Does The House Of Commons Carry Out This Function?

Parliament in the UK is made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is the lower, pre-eminent chamber of Parliament, which contains more legislative power than that of the upper chamber, the House of Lords. One of parliament's primary functions is to hold the executive to account, this means that the house of commons forces the government to do things such as justify bills, explain decisions and their motives defend their actions, and defend their policies. This form of accountability is the most frequent case, as whatever the government decides to do; the House of Commons will always look for a reason why they decided to carry it out. The only time this does not happen is during election times, where the general public holds the executive to account by voting for or against them.

Firstly, the meaning of ‘accountability' is a complex concept, and has been used in a variety of ways. The main meaning is; being held account, scrutinised or being required to give an explanation. Lord Sharman in his 2001 Report reviewing audit and accountability for central government split the notion into four different aspects;

  1. giving an explanation -perhaps through an annual report, outlining performance and activity;

  2. providing further information - perhaps by providing information (e.g. to a Select Committee) on performance, beyond accounts already given;

  3. reviewing and, if necessary, revising -examining performance, systems or practices, and if necessary, making changes to meet the expectations of stakeholders; and

  4. Granting redress or imposing sanctions -stakeholders might enforce their rights on those accountable to effect changes.

To hold the government to account, in constitutional theory, there are a lot of parliamentary mechanisms, or ‘checks' carried out by the House of Commons, such as questioning, debates, and select committees. The government relies on these, and parliament, to stay in power. It does not matter as to how much of a majority the party may have in government, if there is a vote of no confidence from the House of Commons, the party in office will be expected to resign and a general election would be called. The last time this happened was in 1979, when James Callaghan was the Prime Minister of the UK.

The main methods of holding the government to account in the Commons are; Parliamentary Questions, Parliamentary debates and the select committee system. Firstly, Parliamentary Questions are seen as the best method of gaining and accessing information on the government's intentions, these are also seen as opportunities for MP's to ask questions regarding their constituency, and allow them to get answers to questions asked by their constituents. Obviously, this can be seen as a very effective method, as topical political questions will be asked, and answered by the Prime minister and his ministers, this can make the government accessible and transparent.

However, Parliamentary questions can also be seen as quite ineffective. During Parliamentary questions an MP may only ask up to two oral questions and any amount of written questions a day, and only one per minister. Supplementary questions can only be asked if the speaker allows it, and questions can be examined as to whether or not they comply with the rules. This lack of freedom to ask as many questions, to whoever, on any issue is surely detrimental. Furthermore, all questions must be given in advance, so that the ministers of the specified departments are able to draft an answer, this, and the fact that some questions (relating to security service, or commercial confidence) are refused to be answered by ministers, weakens the effectiveness of Parliamentary questions. If MP's are given the chance to draft a generic answer then it means they aren't put on the spot spontaneously with the expectation of being able to answer a question. Some may think this makes a mockery of the job they are doing, as they aren't able to answer a question on it, however it must be said that giving the MP time to formulate a good response can increase the likelihood of the person questioning receiving a good answer.

Furthermore, in relation to Parliamentary questions, Prime ministers question time takes place every week. This, like earlier stated, can be effective in that the Prime minister is able to explain policies and answer any questions; however, it can also be seen as ineffective because he is also able to formulate a generic answer. Also, some believe that it has become more of a ‘contest' between the opposing party leader and the Prime minister, in which a ‘slagging match' takes place, which is more like a media show than real accountability.

Parliamentary debates are also ways in which the government is held to account. Adjournment debates take place during an adjournment period for half an hour at the end of every working day, in these, MP's can use a motion to adjourn the House of Commons to raise issues which relate to their constituency. Again, questions are given in advance and answers are drafted, a ballot is then held once a week and four MP's are given the chance to ask questions. This is a good thing as backbenchers are given the opportunity to speak and question the government, however not for long, as four MP's asking questions in half an hour gives them less than ten minutes each. Also, again, answers are drafted so generic answers will be given.

This is typical in the other types of debates, Opposition day debates where the opposing party is given the chance to choose the topic for debate, these take place 20 times a year, 17 times the ‘government in waiting' is given the chance, and the other 3 days are given to the second largest opposition party. These are a good thing as the opposing parties are given a duty to scrutinise and criticise government bills. Similarly in estimates day debates and early day motions, generic answers tend to be given, underlining the ineffectiveness of them.

Most debates are undermined by the fact that most people who vote on them in the House of Commons are in fact ‘whips' and members of the party in power. This means that most of the time the leading party will win any debates being held. This is a similar situation to the select committee system.

The purpose of select committees is to supervise policies, decisions and the various activities carried out by their specified government department, they then report on their findings. In 2002 the Liaison committee set out core tasks which select committees are expected to undertake. MPs who are part of select committees are expected to cross examine and question ministers in relation to their department, allowing in-depth examination of departmental activities, which cannot be sought by debates and parliamentary questions. Select Committees are advantageous, as they tend to have specialist knowledge in the department of which they scrutinise, and have the ability to decide on what issues to look at, meaning they can decide to look at the more topical issues. Their reports include useful public records of information on government policy, which usually wouldn't have been publicised. Also, the reports can influence current political debates in regards to the governmental powers and they draw media attention to them. Furthermore, they can influence debates on the provisions of a bill in concerns to the legislative process. The government is then expected to respond to reports, meaning that they are always forced to explain themselves.

Although they can be seen as effective, select committees do have disadvantages. Sometimes they do not always get the information they want (i.e. the arms Iraq affair), so scrutiny cannot be carried out effectively. Also, reports can be ignored by a strong government as they are merely recommendations and are not enforceable. Another problem is the lack of assistance available to a select committee, although they contain specialists in the required field, there can sometimes be a lack of resources for a select committee. Moreover, there is a problem in regards to the composition of a select committee, as backbenchers tend to have too much control over them, and therefore, like with debates and questions, the party in government will have a lot more control and power, and committee reports will tend to favour the government.

In my opinion, the way in which the House of Commons holds the executive to account can be very effective, if it is done in the correct way. It gives the Prime Minister and ministers a chance to explain policies and actions, and answer any queries regarding them. This way, there is theoretically a lot of transparency in the government, so the public is aware of what is going on in the country and whether or not it is being run in the correct way. However, it is not as well carried out as well as it can be for a variety of reasons, making it quite an ineffective process in some circumstances. Generic answers to questions which are given previous to debates and question times undermines their value as ministers aren't expected to spontaneously answer questions, also the mass support in the commons for the leading party in the form of whips means that there is a tendency that all debates go their way, this is also the case as I have mentioned with the select committee system, as the members are chosen by the Prime minister and powers tend to lie with the backbenchers, so, again all decisions are leaned towards the favourable outcome of the leading party, which I believe makes a mockery of the whole system.


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