UK Government Legislatures


Definition – link to sovereign law making power (see UK Parliamentary Sovereignty)

Role – Legitimation, scrutiny, representation, recruitment of ministers, law making and deliberation (note all these performed by Commons but not all by Lords especially representation and legitimation but Law Lords do still albeit temporarily perform Highest Appellate function)

The Commons and Lords

Membership – Commons focus upon constituency representation elected via FPTP to serve for a parliamentary term (usually 4-5 years). Problems of narrow cross section of pop. (white male middle class and university educated – learn stats). For Lords note selection process including remaining hereditaries and Lords spiritual and Law Lords. Include proposed and forthcoming changes.

Legislative functions – stages of passage of a public bill (including PMBs). Note in built advantage of governing parties and problems in passing PMBs. Note some Bills can start out in Lords – usually non-controversial.

Scrutiny – Problems of executive dominance through majority and party discipline (note less of the case in Lords). Consider effectiveness of committees, parliamentary questions and debates – distinguish between methods on the floor of the House (adversarial climate) and those more consensual in style (Select Committees and Written Questions). Note also the capacity of Lords to defeat Government (over 300 times since 97) although limited due to Parliament Act (rare government has to use this only twice since 97 – usually Lords back down from ping pong).

Representation – Consider models of representation – trustee, delegate, mandate and resemblance – how do MPs conform to these? Note backbench MPs see this function as very important with on average over half their time spent on constituency business. However decline in MPs status due to corruption allegations over issues such as MPs expenses (e.g. Jacqui Smith and Tony McNulty). Also consider the impact of the “dinner with Cameron” scandal over party donations and how out of touch this can make politicians look.

The opposition and backbenchers

Role of opposition – scrutinise executive, provide alternate government, suggest alternate policies and raise matters for debate. Note effectiveness based on size of government majority and extent of unity in each party. Rare for oppositions to defeat governments with healthy majorities (see Blair twice and Brown over Gurkhas and coalition have not experienced one yet). However not to say don’t have an important role in a democracy in offering alternative choice and strategies.

Role of Backbenchers – basis as MPs without any government position or frontbench opposition post. Traditionally seen as voting fodder for whips but can rebel due to issues of conscience, constituency concerns or ideological concerns. Note frequency of rebellions post 2005 as backbench discontent risen due to ex-ministers (e.g. Charles Clarke), MPs overlooked for appointments and the awkward squad (e.g David Davis Philip Davies). Note do have additional roles of constituency representation and PMBs although latter limited chance of success unless receives government backing and time (e.g. ban of fox hunting). Note many see alternative career path as having role on select committees.

Parties in Parliament

Seen traditionally as essential in organising business of parliament and providing ideological coherence and choice in the adversarial climate especially in Commons. Note Commons now contain number of independents (e.g. Davies Blenau Gwent) as well as MPs who have resigned from their parties or been kicked out (George Galloway).Note parties less influential in Lords with crossbench peers providing third largest grouping.

Role of whips – maintain party discipline, provide instructions to MPs, 2 way channel of communication, assist MPs with problems and suggest promotions. Note tools at their disposal – persuasion, inducements (e.g. promotion), concessions, withdrawal of whip (can backfire see 8 Tory backbench MPs had whip removed under Major) and ultimate threat of dissolution (only used rarely e.g. Blair and Foundation Schools).

Party rebellions tend to be a sign of government out of touch and leadership ignoring backbench pressure (see Gurkha votes) – usually government will offer concessions to avoid defeat (e.g. votes on changes to MPs expenses) – some issues considered of national importance thus can see large rebellion e.g. Iraq and 90 day detention. Note rebellions far more likely in Lords and can even force government to concede (e.g. 42 day detention).

Coalition has faced rebellions over Europe, tuition fees and high speed rail link.

The organisation of parliament

Speaker – maintain order in Commons debates, call MPs to speak and call for divisions (votes), represent Commons on official visits (e.g. Head of State visit to Commons (Bush and Obama). Note selection based on nonpartisan lines but controversies over John Bercow

Committees – Standing (Public Bill) scrutinise legislation line by line to improve not amend a Bill – heavily whipped and in built government majority. Limited effectiveness due to temporary nature, apathy from certain MPs, influence of whips and governemtn able to guillotine. Have improved by allowing outside witnesses but still need fixed terms or even permanent committees.

Select – non departmental long history (e.g. Public Accounts Committee) but departmental only since 1979. Latter shadows different departments and scrutinises activities producing reports that can be critical or suggestive of changes and potentially can be debated on floor of House. Less adversarial although makeup reflects broader Commons but whips have no role in electing chairs (e.g. mavericks such as John McFaul at Treasury, opposition such as Michael Fallon at Public Accounts). Can interview external witnesses (e.g. Ken Boston and SATS) as well as ministers. Problems of limited secretarial support and balance of time but permanence gives MPs opportunity to build up experience – usually seen as best form of scrutiny. However it can still only question and cannot overturn legislation or indeed force Ministers, civil servants or experts to attend.

Backbench business committee set up in 2010 giving backbenchers an opportunity to meet on a Tuesday at 1pm and discuss ideas.

Note also Joint Liaison Committee scrutinises PM twice yearly and Lords Committees on specific issues (most important EU Legislation)

Questions – written (mainly info purposes) and oral with latter Ministerial (on rota basis) and PMQT every Wednesday. Oral questions adversarial with own backbenchers asking occasionally planted questions or more often friendly ones. Advantage with Minister or PM as briefed in advanced and questioner only has one supplementary (except PMQs where leader opp has 5 and Lib Dem 2) Limited detailed scrutiny but assessment of overall effectiveness.

Debates – variety of set piece debates some opposition inspired (NHS debate) most government (e.g. Queens Speech lasting 5 days). Can be divisions on a substantive motion (e.g. support for Iraq intervention) or adjournment motion. Rare for government defeat especially on opposition motion (Gurkha only defeat since 78). Most serious defeat no confidence motion which dissolves parliament (e.g. 1979).

Worthwhile also to prepare Parliamentary reform for this – far more wide reaching in Lords (1999 House of Lords Act and CRA 2005 – note former ended in compromise – 92 hereditaries remain and still no stage 2 – no cross party consensus) than Commons but some amendments to timetable (less late sittings, changes to PMQT, taking series of votes on Wednesdays) and to the committee process (especially standing)

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