A democratic regime

There is a plethora of mechanisms that enable Parliament to scrutinise Government, and to an extent they ensure proper accountability. However, due to the word limitation of this thesis, the four most important methods – the Doctrines of individual and collective Ministerial responsibility, questions, debates and committees – shall be explained and critiqued. Other Parliamentary mechanisms of scrutiny of the Government do exist, such as the ability to scrutinise delegated legislation and reject Government bills in vote (although the latter rarely happens), however these shall not be discussed.

Perhaps the most powerful mechanisms are the Doctrines of individual Ministerial responsibility and collective Cabinet responsibility. Under the doctrine of individual Ministerial responsibility, Ministers are responsible to Parliament for both running and administrating their respective departments properly, and also for their personal conduct. As Ashton et al assert, ‘there must be no conflict of interest between a Minister’s public duties and his private interests.’ [4] A Minister who breaches this doctrine should resign. For instance when David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary in 2004 after he had an affair with a married woman and fast-tracked her nanny’s visa application.

The Doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility stipulates the Cabinet members ‘assume responsibility for all Cabinet decisions’ [5] (this thesis is not concerned about individual Ministers who resign from Cabinet following internal disagreements with fellow Ministers, for instance Robin Cook and Clare Short in 2003 over disagreements surrounding the War in Iraq). Thus, the Government must retain the confidence of the House of Commons and as such, a Government defeated on a vote of no confidence must consequently resign (for example the Labour Government in 1979).

There is however, one inherent weakness with these doctrines; they are constitutional conventions, and consequently will not be enforced in a Court of Law (Attorney General v Jonathan Cape Ltd [6] ). As such, in 1994 Michael Howard, as Home Secretary, refused to resigned following a number of escapes from a top security prisons and they do not ensure “wrongdoers" remain permanently out-of-office; Blunkett returned to the Cabinet the year after his first forced resignation to become Work and Pensions Secretary, only to be ousted out again following Parliamentary allegations surrounding improper financial interests. Furthermore, with regards to overall collective Cabinet responsibility, it is essentially an academic topic now, with the last Government resignation in 1979, and the one before that in 1924.

There are however, a number of more formal Parliamentary mechanisms of scrutiny of the Government, and the remainder of this thesis shall focus on questions, debates and committees.

Each day, time is set aside for MPs to put oral questions to Ministers, and every Wednesday the Prime Minister answers questions for 30 minutes. MPs also put down questions to Ministers in writing, to which they have to respond to. Indeed, out of the approximately 80,000 questions per Parliamentary session, the vast majority are in written form. [7] However, Question Time, whereby Ministers answer oral questions on the floor of the House of Commons, ‘is the only regular occasion upon which the Government, including the Prime Minister is formally and constitutionally required and obliged to account to Parliament’ [8] and as such, is an extremely importance mechanism for Parliament to scrutinise the Government. Indeed, in America, the Executive does not receive such regular and public scrutiny. Although the questions put forth to Ministers (including the Prime Minister) are seen in advance, and thus answers are already prepared, ‘dealing with questions can be a testing experience for ministers’ [9] and provide an invaluable opportunity for the opposition parties to publically scrutinise the Government. Written questions and their corresponding answers, although available to the public, are seldom seen. However, Question Time, especially Prime Minister’s Questions, receives intense media attention and thus ‘represents a formal manifestation and reinforcement of the convention of ministerial responsibility.’ [10] Question Time is perhaps the only Parliamentary mechanism that enables Ministers to appear regularly before the House of Commons – and the public – to answer specific questions about current political affairs and is fundamental to ensure proper Government accountability.

However, Question Time is not without its faults and Norton is quick to point to the fact that Ministers answer questions on a rota basis, thus most Ministers answer questions once every four weeks [11] and during that period, questioning last for no longer than 60 minutes. Furthermore, there are restraints on the numbers of questions that can be asked (no more than 25 questions in one session) and there are topics that cannot be asked about at all – namely national security issues. Thus, coupled with the fact that Ministers can prepare the answers to questions in advance and because Government backbenchers “feed" questions to ministers in order to reduce the time for the opposition to question them, it is easy to understand why this modus operandi of Parliamentary scrutiny of Government has been described by many as a farce and why Kingdom labels ‘this procedure as something of a charade.’ [12] 

Parliamentary Debates is another formal mechanism, which enables Parliament to scrutinise Government and ensure proper accountability. For example, the opposition is permitted to reply to the Queen’s Speech, and consequently debates over the Government’s legislative agenda go on for around a week. All Government bills are debated by Parliament during the second stage of the legislative process, thereby forcing Ministers to explain and justify policy initiatives in the House of Commons, and as such ‘provide an opportunity to expose flaws in Government policy and decisions and to present counter-arguments and suggestions’ [13] on the Government bills.

Not only do Debates enable deliberation over Government bills, they allow for “emergency debates," whereby Members of Parliament are able to discuss matters which need urgent consideration [14] and during Debates, politicians are able to express and present the views of their respective constituency and thus is an ideal platform to enable and facilitate democracy. Without these sessions, it would be difficult to impossible to publically reveal problems in proposed Government legislation and difficult to impossible to represent public opinion by ‘presenting a variety of opinions and remedies’ [15] for dealing with a specific issue, and as such, Parliamentary Debates are crucial in ensuring Government are properly accounted.

Nonetheless, there are demerits to Debates, which undermine the legitimacy in the aforementioned argument that Debates ensure Government accountability properly. The Parliamentary timetable for Debates is arranged by the Government in consultation with the Opposition party. In other words, it is the Government who sets the agenda and not the Opposition. The overall purpose of Debates is to enable the Opposition to force the Government to justify their policy, which ultimately leads to amendments and concessions. However, for the Government to decide what is to be debated is partly at odds with this overall aim, for Government can in theory decide not to debate a certain bill in great detail. Furthermore, Parliament lacks the time in a session to fully deliberate and discuss all the issues of public concern, and Carroll argues there are two fundamental flaws with Debates. Firstly, due to the whip system, Debates have very little effect on the way in which MPs vote – they will always vote in accordance to their respective whip. Furthermore, policy is formed and decisions are made before Parliamentary Debates take place. [16] Consequently, like with Question Time, it is not difficult to indeed label Debates as a “charade" too.

Committees are a further fundamental mechanism employed by Parliament to ensure Government’s accountability properly and are ‘well established features of Parliamentary scrutiny.’ [17] General (or ‘standing’) committees see all Government bills after the main principles have been debated in the Commons. Here, committee members review the details of the proposed bill and make necessary amendments. However, the most important of Parliamentary committees are known as ‘departmental select committees,’ which only backbench MPs can serve on. Although the Government have a majority of members in each committee, a member of the Opposition chairs each committee and the purpose of each committee is to ‘examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the main Governmental departments.’ [18] As the committees are independent of Government, they can investigate any area of their respective Department and unlike standing committees, have the ability and power to take evidence and question witnesses. Select committees will question civil servants and Ministers, including the Prime Minister and attempt to make Government properly accountable. These committees provide a ‘systematic infrastructure’ [19] for the detailed scrutiny of the conduct of Government departments and is the only medium in which civil servants, Ministers and the Prime Minister can be questioned in depth in Parliament. Furthermore, partisan politics seldom exists in these forums and as MPs regard membership of Select Committees ‘as a springboard to promotion,’ [20] membership is sought after and attendance is high. Consequently, when compared to the other discussed Parliamentary mechanisms to ensure Government accountability, Select Committees appear to be the most useful and principal means of obtaining Government accountability properly.

However, Select Committees are not without their imperfections. When compared to Congressional Committees in America, Select Committees have little power. Indeed, the former are able to impose sanctions, such as withholding finance from a respective Department. Currently, ‘a report and its attendant publicity is a Select Committee’s only weapon.’ [21] Furthermore, very few of these reports are actually debated in Parliament. As such, one could argue that Select Committees are unable to scrutinise properly and powers such as the ability to question Ministers are simply veneers to mask the underlying inadequacies Select Committees actually have.

The described mechanisms of parliamentary scrutiny of the Government have been ‘limited.’ [22] As explained, the Doctrine of individual Ministerial responsibility is not legally enforceable in a Court of Law and as such can be ignored (as seen with Michael Howard) or overcome (as seen with David Blunkett when he was reassigned to another department following his 2003 resignation) and the Doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility whereby a Government was forced to resign occurred twice in the Twentieth Century. Furthermore, Question Time, Debates and Committees all come with weaknesses that lead many to question whether or not Government accountability is done properly. However, regardless of all the said weaknesses of these mechanisms, they still ensure the Government has to answer to both Parliament and to the public. Moreover, there are other, non-Parliamentary mechanisms that help to ensure the Government is scrutinised, namely Judicial Review (which is beyond the scope of this thesis). Therefore, although on its own Parliamentary mechanisms of scrutinising the Government is vulnerable to criticism, coupled with Judicial Review, the overall system of scrutiny ensures Government accountability properly.