Parliament is designed to hold the executive accountable; therefore it goes about this by various means of government scrutiny, such as Prime Minister’s Question Time. In addition, Parliament is expected to perform a legislative function, creating the process of a bill becoming a law after undergoing many stages between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Finally, Parliament is also required to be representative of the nation, with constituencies creating a strong local link between the electorate and their MP.
As Parliament is required to scrutinise the executive, each week there is Prime Minister’s Questions giving backbench MPs the chance to put the Prime Minister under pressure and ask him/her hard questions. Often this weekly meeting is a battle between the party in government and the opposition for example on 29th February 2012, Ed Miliband criticised the coalition government on the subject of the NHS reforms when he reported that Nick Clegg’s support of the reform varied depending on the “day of the week” as the Liberal Democrats had allegedly sent out different messages about the Health and Social Care Bill for England.
However MPs of the government have been known to scrutinise their own party leader, especially if they are not content with the work in their constituency. Although, since Tony Blair reduced Prime Minister’s Question time to only once a week, the questions posed are not answered thoroughly as there is not much time, this also allows for fewer questions to be asked. Furthermore, many Prime Minister’s have been able to ease through Prime Minister’s Questions as they had a large majority like Tony Blair.
This meant that there were not enough scrutinising MPs on the opposition; therefore the role of scrutiny was not carried out so far. However, Prime Minister’s Question time is not the only source of Parliamentary scrutiny as since 1979, each governmental department has had a select committee who can call for “persons, papers and records”, resulting is more open government, which in turn reduced the power of the executive. Select committees are based in Portcullis House are made up of backbench MPs, of different parties therefore they are not party specific.
Furthermore, the Liaison Committee also now calls the Prime Minister to answer questions twice a year. It has been said that select committees have been a major factor in opening up the government over the past twenty years, for example in July 2007, the constitutional affairs committee decided that following a series of controversies, the role of the Attorney General in the army was ‘not sustainable’ and should be reformed. Nevertheless, the select committees consist of backbench MPs; therefore they often reflect the workings of the government.
Additionally, as the members of select committees are not experts in different fields of knowledge, they lack the expertise and power to significantly damage or query the government. The House of Lords also play a key role in scrutiny as it has one power that the House of Commons does not: the upper chamber holds the power to prolong the life of parliament beyond the normal five year maximum term, for example the life of the Conservative government elected in 1935 was prolonged several times before ending in 1945.
Moreover, the House of Lords’ key role is to review and amend the legislation passed from the House of Commons. As the House of Lords is more independent than the House of Commons, with a wide range of knowledge from many different fields, the upper chamber is willing to stand up to the House of Commons, thus defeating the government; Blair was defeated over three hundred times since his landslide victory in 1997. This also allows the upper chamber to delay bills for up to a year to allow for time for amendment, for example in 2004, the Fox Hunting bill was delayed.
But on the other hand, the Lords are only able to delay a bill for one year; therefore they have no power to stop a bill completely, especially if there is a majority in the House of Commons. In addition, government can simply override the House of Lords, as on the third occasion that a bill is rejected by the Lords, the elected Commons can force it onto the statute books against the Lords’ will, thus by creating a Parliament Act.
Nonetheless, scrutiny is not the only role of Parliament, as most people recognise it for its legislative function, to make legislation legitimate as the primary law making body. As Parliament is acting on behalf of the electorate, the House of Commons has become the more dominant chamber in Parliament. Although bills can start in either chamber, the Commons is where the majority of legislation is introduced, and it passes over 100 bills each year.
However, the bills do not just go through to the Royal Ascent easily, the House of Lords stands in place to review and amend the white papers sent through from the House of Commons, for example the amendment of the Terror bill in 2005. Moreover, the Lords are also able to reject bills that it redeems unsuitable for example the previous Labour government’s proposal of national ID cards. The input from the House of Lords into the law making process is extremely valuable as it consists of experts in many different fields including medicine (Lord Winston) and business (Lord Sugar).
On the other hand, there are many flaws to Parliament’s legislative function. Although the Salisbury Convention prevents the Lords from blocking every piece of legislation that the Commons attempt to pass, it essentially means that if the party in power proposed a piece of legislation in their manifesto, they will get the bill through relatively unopposed. While this seems harmless, it reflects that fact that if a government has a large majority, the majority of its proposals will be passed, leading to elective dictatorship.
Also, as far as the Lords can delay and reject bills from the House of Commons, they can be overruled by the use of the Parliament Act, they are also limited by the fact that they can only delay legislation for up to a year. Finally, as a representative democracy, is it necessary that Parliament is representative, therefore in the House of Commons, 650 MPs are elected to represent individual constituencies, creating a strong link between the electorate and the governance of the country, also established by MPs’ surgeries every Friday in their local constituency.
This ensures that everybody is represented. In recent years, a larger effort has been made to guarantee that the House of Commons reflects a fair depiction of our society, therefore currently 22% of MPs are women and 27 are ethnic minorities, including a selection of female ethnic minorities, for example Diane Abbott (Labour), the first black female MP. This has lead to David Cameron’s “A List” of preferred candidates, as he attempts to attract an ncreasing number of female candidates who are also ethnic minorities. Not only does the lower chamber carry out a representative function, but also the Lords are known for representing the national interest. As they are not elected, the Lords are less part political than the Commons as 186 Lords do not identify themselves with a party, so sit on the crossbenches. Additionally, the Lords are appointed for their expertise in many different fields, therefore they derive from many different walks of life.
However, although Parliament attempts to be increasingly representative, the First Past the Post electoral system produces a very unrepresentative House of Commons, as the number of seats does not directly correlate to the number of votes; this is clear as in 2005, Labour gained 35% of the vote yet managed to achieve 55% of the seats. In the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats had 23% of the vote, but only gained 8. % of the seats in the House of Commons, this is also true for UKIP, as they achieved over 1 million votes, but they did not get a plurality in a single constituency, causing failure to win a seat in the House of Commons. In addition, also the number of women in the House of Commons is increasing, it still only stands at 22%, which is not proportionate of the electorate, the lack of proportionality is also true when it comes to the average age of MPs, as it currently stands at 50. Finally, although the MPs are all elected, power still lies in the hands of unelected people – the Lords.
The Lords are, on average, a lot older than the MPs, increasing the unrepresentative feature, but there are still 92 hereditary Lords who are not even appointed for their great knowledge and expertise, leading to the question of pointless power. All things considered, Parliament holds a great deal of responsibility, however there are many constraints on the amount of power Parliament can hold, therefore it is unable to carry out all of its functions to full degree. For example, although the House of Commons lacks representation, it is more likely that MPs will be older as they have more political experience and therefore are respected more.