The sounding board of the nation
A Key Function Of The House Of Commons Is To Hold The Executive To Account. How Effectively Does The House The House Of Commons Carry Out This Function?
John Stuart Mill stated in Representative Government “The House of Common is the sounding board of the nation” 1, this is certainly credible. Members of House of Commons are democratically elected and currently there are about 646 Members of Parliament, all elected by one of 646 constituencies in the United Kingdom (UK).2 Generally, Members of Parliament belong to a political party, the party with most of seats in the house form the Executive government and enable dominate the house because of party they have the majority of vote. In UK, there has never been a strict the separation of power, as result both the Prime Minister and Government ministers are drawn from the Parliament.3 Usually, in some countries like United States for example, the main function of an executive body is to determine policy whereas in UK, executive is also in charge of the implementation of legislation passed by the Parliament.
In order to understand procedure in the Lower House, it is important to consider its composition. The House has front, backbenchers MPs and Speaker, acting politically impartial, regulates the proceedings and controls debates in the House. Historically, the House of Commons is known for its roles in making legislation and holding the government to account. Throughout this essay, focus will be placed upon the second function and how well does the House of Commons carry out this function.
1 Hilaire Barnet, Constitutional & Administrative Law, edn 7th, chapter 13, page 350.
2 Wiki, Anonymous, (2009). House of Commons. [Online]. Last accessed 13/12/2009 at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Commons_of_the_United_Kingdom
3 Greer Hogan, Constitutional and Administrative Law, edn 8th, page 22.
As mention above, the House of Commons plays a significant role in holding the executive to account, check the government policies. In order to do these effectively, different parliamentary procedures have been put in place such as debates, parliamentary questions and select committees.
House of Commons uses Adjournment Debates and Early Day Motions as mechanisms of scrutiny of the executive. Adjournment Debates take place on Monday to Thursday. The chosen subjects usually concern aspects of government policy which members are interested in. Although, it is often poorly attended, it considered as one of the few occasions where backbenchers have the opportunity to initiate a debate on any issues. Early Day Motions is other form of debate that takes place in the parliament. As the name itself suggest, it is a debate that take place in early day4. Any Members of Parliament may take part and raise any issues of their chosen subject, though this mechanism is particularly useful for backbenchers to show their interest on particular matters and thus occasionally influence Ministers to reverse some policy decisions. On the other hand, debates can generally be consider as the most ineffective, because it is the least published features of parliament and sometimes it can take long without reaching an argument.
4 Hilaire Barnet, Constitutional & Administrative Law, edn 7th, chapter 15, page 390
Barnett stated “Question Time in the House of Commons is one of the most published features of parliament”.5 This observation is surely accurate, in 2007-2008; nearly 80,000 questions were put down by MPs.6 On Mondays, Tuesday and Thursdays, some 45 - 50 minutes are set aside for Parliamentary question in the House of Commons. The procedure of Ministry Questions may be answered either orally or in writing; a large majority of questions are certainly answered in writing, as written questions are far more effective than oral questions. They provide more in-depth information. Oral questions and their supplementary give an opportunity for backbenchers MPs to publicly criticise government policy. However, their ability to do so is rather limited by lack of information and support staff, whereas government ministers have a well skilled team, for instance civil servants who act as government advisers, help them to answer questions or carry out research to prepare the ministers for any supplementary questions.
Prime Minister's Questions are a constitutional convention in the United Kingdom. Originally, 15 minutes session every Tuesdays and Thursdays were set for Prime Minister's Question; however, in May 1997 Tony Blair the former Prime Minister changed this parliamentary procedure with a single 30 minute session on Wednesdays.
5 Hilaire Barnet, Constitutional & Administrative Law, edn 7th, chapter 15, page 390
6 Parliament, Anonymous, (2009). Parliamentary Questions. [Online]. Last accessed 13/12/2009 at: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/P01.pdf
7 Ian Loveland, Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and Human Rights, A critical introduction, edn 5th, chapter 5, page 145
The questions usually concern areas of government policy for which the Prime Minister carries responsibility, such as the economy and foreign affairs. It is generally believed, and in some ways clearly true, Prime Ministers' Questions is a more democratic way of obtain information because the process is done publicly. However, it could be argued that Prime Minister's Questions are as much for the party moral, to witness the Prime minister and leader of the opposition performing well in the lower house as for a real scrutiny. 8 A concrete example can help to illustrate this point. In 2000, the conservative leader, William Hague was well known for his question time performances in the Lower House; he often defeated Tony Blair and gave his backbenchers a reason to be positive practically every week. However, during one particular session, while responding to the Queen's Speech of 2000, Hague attacked the Prime Minister's record, 9 ever since that day, his leadership qualities are seen as weak.
The present systems of departmental selective committees were set up in 1979 and they are made of backbenchers. Selective committees are responsible for administration and policy of each government departments. Historically, selective committees' members are nominated by the political party whips, this gives the party whips a great control over membership, however, that control is not absolute because the final approval of each selective committee has to be approved by the House of Commons.
8 Graham P. Thomas, Prime minister and cabinet today, chapter 6, page 115
9 Wiki, Anonymous, (2009). William Hague. [Online]. Last accessed 13/12/2009 at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hague
10 Hilaire Barnet, Constitutional & Administrative Law, edn 7th, chapter 15, page 391
In relation to method of holding the executive to account, it can be argued that the Selective Committees is far more effective than parliamentary questions and debates, since Selective Committees has the ability to question civil servants and Members of the government about their decisions and performance. This is clearly effective because generally, although civil servants do influence the government in developing its policies, they are not accountable to the parliament. Possible constraint is that selective committees have limited resources compare to other Commons organisation, for example they cannot press a member of government to attend committee. In consequence, an investigation on a particular issue will be deferred.
In 2003, these different mechanisms of scrutiny were put into test when the Prime Minister took the decision on an important foreign policy; sending the British force to war in Iraq. This policy I believed to be one of the most important the government has ever taken since the World War II. Generally since 1689, the Prime Minister has the power to declare war, without consulting the parliament under the terms of the Royal Prerogative. In this particular matter, the parliament does not have a formal role, however, at this time debates and Parliamentary question was taking place in the House of Commons, backbenchers proved a great deal of rebellions voting against the policy of the government because they were not convinced about the Iraqi threat, however, the in the final debate on the March 18, 2003, a majority the parliament voted for the British force to go to war.
11 James P. Pfiffner & Mark Phythian, Intelligence and national security policymaking on Iraq: British and American perspectives, edn 1st, page 9 - 10
This shows that these methods of scrutiny may work successfully in some areas, but it is certainly not enough to challenge the exercise of executive power in the matter of war. Issue like sending troops to war need more than just 30 - 40 minutes debates, because people's lives are at stake. Regarding the selective Committees, certainly all possible investigation to get more information about the real reasons behind the government's decision were carried out, however, systematically they do not have the power to stop the government from taken a particular decision, if they have provided all the necessary documents to justify their actions. All they can do is to make suggestion and refer any areas of concern to the House of Commons.
In Conclusion, it is clear that the effectiveness the House of Commons' scrutiny of executive is unbalanced. In recent years, mechanisms of scrutinizing the executive have taken important steps forward. For instance, the opportunity for daily adjournment debates has been greatly increased since Westminster Hall was set up as a separate Chamber of Commons, far more subjects are debated and more publicity are given. Since 2002, the Liaison committee has the right to question the Prime Minister twice a year, although Tony Blair has been the first Prime Minister that has appeared before selective committees. This helps the selective committee to get some ideas regarding the Prime Minister's views on managing of his/her government. Nevertheless let's not be carried, as already noticed within the example above that no matter how much improved had been putted in place on the methods of scrutiny, sometimes the executive still make the final decision concerning an important government policy.
Nevertheless, the situation in 2003 has brought a contention that the government or executive should have the full approval of the parliament before the British forces to war, except in extreme cases when one of the British broader is invaded for example.
Hilaire Barnet: Constitutional & Administrative Law, (edn 7th, Routhledge- Cavendish, USA and Canada, 2009)
Greer Hogan: Constitutional and Administrative Law, (edn 8th, Sweet & Maxwell Limited , London, 2008)
Ian Loveland: Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and Human Rights, A critical introduction, (edn 5th, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009
James P. Pfiffner & Mark Phythian: Intelligence and national security policymaking on Iraq: British and American perspectives, (edn 1st, Texas A&M University Press, United States, 2008)
Graham P. Thomas: Prime minister and cabinet today, (edn 1st, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1998)
WIKI, Anonymous, (2009). House of Commons. [Online]. Last accessed 13/12/2009 at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Commons_of_the_United_Kingdom
WIKI, Anonymous, (2009). William Hague. [Online]. Last accessed 13/12/2009 at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hague
PARLIAMENT, Anonymous, (2009). Parliamentary Questions. [Online]. Last accessed 13/12/2009 at: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/P01.pdf