How Well Does Parliament Perform Its Various Functions?

1 January 2017

How well does Parliament perform its various functions? There are several important functions that Parliament must perform. The word Parliament derived from the Latin ‘parliamentum’ and the French word ‘parler’ which originally meant a talk- which is what Parliament does most of the time. Parliament consists of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarchy. Parliament is the highest judicial, legislative and executive body in Britain.

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A parliamentary form of government acknowledges that it derives its power directly from the consent of the people. This sort of system ensures democracy and an active interaction between the people and their representatives. The three functions that I am going to focus on are Scrutiny, Representation and Law Making. Scrutiny is carried out in four main ways- Prime Ministers Questions, Select Committees, The Back Benches and The House of Lords. Prime Ministers Questions is a weekly opportunity for backbenchers to scrutinise the Prime Minister.

This happens every Wednesday and is an opportunity for the leader of the opposition as well as other MPs to highlight government failings or ask the Prime Minister a question. This is a good way to scrutinise the Prime Minister as it puts them under pressure to justify their actions and normally with potentially no pre-warning of what topics will have to be defended. The element of surprise allows opposition MP’s as well as backbenchers and sometimes members of the cabinet to catch the prime minister out with an awkward question.

The relative performance of each of the main party leaders is closely watched and each is under great pressure to get the better of their opponent. The main weakness of this form of scrutiny is that it is often accused of being more like ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ as many believe the questions are “planted” and therefore the Prime Minister and Opposition can prepare their answers beforehand. Select Committees in both the House of Commons and the Lords investigate the work of government departments and produce reports of policy proposals.

They have the power to call witnesses in the course of their proceedings. Their role is multi-faceted and includes many tasks such as investigating the work of the government departments to determine whether they have acted efficiently and effectively. This is a strong form as scrutiny as it reports back to the public what is happening behind the scenes in the government but the Select Committees lack resources, expertise and power to create damage if the government weren’t doing their job properly.

Select Committees have been described as a “mere irritant”. The government relies on backbenchers in providing services to their constituents and relaying the opinions of their constituents. Although backbenchers do not hold power, a concerted revolt could topple the ruling party through a “no confidence” vote. An example of a successful rebellion occurred during November 2006 over the Terrorism Act 2006 when a large number of backbenchers voted against the 90-day detention provision of the anti-terror legislation in order to stall the bill.

This provided to be the single largest defeat for then Prime Minister Tony Blair since his government. Recently David Cameron faced a threat of a fresh backbench Tory revolt as traditionalists lined up to oppose government plans to legalise gay marriage but many debated that this in fact could not be counted as a rebellion as backbenchers would probably be given a free vote in any vote on legalising gay marriage. This therefore is a strong form of scrutiny as it has been proven extremely powerful and has even overthrown past governments for example Margaret Thatcher and James Callaghan.

One of the main issues with scrutiny and backbenchers is that they are often under the control of the Whips (MPs or Lords appointed by each party in Parliament to help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business) and one of their main responsibilities is making sure the maximum number of their party members vote the way their party wants. Unless the backbenchers have enough people to rebel they will not succeed and therefore it is not often that a government is defeated, for example Blair’s government was only defeated in the Commons four times over their three terms in power.

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament and is independent to the Commons although it complements the work of the Commons. Members of the Lords play a vital role in scrutiny, there are two main reasons for this, the first being that they are independent to the Commons and in many ways have increased power which they often use to stand up to the Commons by blocking reforms. Lords also have a better balance of parties so no government has a majority.

The Government however can override Lords by using Parliament Act; this was used when the fox hunting ban was being put through under Blair’s government as there were too many in opposition of the ban in the House of Lords. The Parliament Acts, although rarely used, provide a way of solving disagreement between the Commons and the Lords. The Parliament Act of 1949 also prevents Lords from delaying bills for more than one year. The second function that I’m concentrating on is Representation. In the Commons MPs are elected every five years to represent local constituencies.

The link between the House of Commons and the local constituency is very important as it provides information to the government on how the public is responding to their policies and ideas for new laws, reforms and ideas. In recent years there has also been many attempts to make the government more diverse – for example more women and ethnic minorities. This was especially pushed by Tony Blair as it was obvious to him that the UK was far behind the US in being diverse, he started by pushing for there to be more women in government and these became known as “Blair’s babes”.

The Lords are also a large part in representing the ‘national interest’ as they are less party political and many have had long careers in public service, business, arts and culture, or another area of activity. Therefore the members of the House of Lords contribute their expertise and knowledge to Parliament and its work and consequently able to take the bigger picture into account. However there are many downfalls in representation in the government.

The most often referred to is how First Past the Post (FPTP) does not produce a very accurate representation in the House of Commons as it produces many ‘wasted votes’. In the Institute for Public Policy Research report, which looks at the ratio of votes to MPs under FPTP for the main parties in the 2010 general election, it was shown that it took 33,468 votes to elect a Labour MP, 35,028 votes to elect a Conservative MP and 119,780 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. This therefore is an interesting piece of evidence showing the unfairness of the FPTP system as it strongly favours some parties over others.

However there was a referendum in May 2011 which asked the public whether the Alternative Vote (AV) system should be used for general elections instead of FPTP and more than two thirds of those who voted said to keep the FPTP system- although many of those in opposition to FPTP says this in itself was unfair representation as the turnout was less than 65% of the population. The lack of women in MPs has also been blamed on the FPTP system; there are currently 504 male MPs and 145 female MPs nationwide.

Therefore the House of Commons is unrepresentative of the UK as there are roughly 28. 6 million males in the UK and 30. 2 million females. The House of Lords is also seen as unrepresentative as it is unelected and even more out of ratio with the population of the UK as it has many old, socially elite members. Another one of Parliament’s main functions is Law Making is debating and passing statue law. The Government introduces most plans for new laws, with many included in the Queen’s Speech at the opening of each session of Parliament.

However new laws can originate from an MP or a Lord. Parliament passes about 100 laws each year and every law goes through several stages and is debated continuously in much detail before being passed. Emergency issues such as the threat of terrorism all contribute to the need for the new laws. Before draft laws, known as bills are introduced to Parliament there is often consultation or discussion with Standing Committees and as these consist of MPs from every party they guarantee that every view point is reflected in discussion.

The House of Lords main role when it comes to the function of Law Making is to amend bills or make suggestions of improvements. The Lords also have the power to reject bills that appear unworkable or undesirable (for example the fox hunting bill and identification cards bill). The governments’ majority always ensures that its proposals are passed as they have ‘elective dictatorship’ and can also use Parliamentary Acts to override the House of Lords. Also the House of Lords is also limited to only one year of delaying bills and therefore the government can pass new laws fairly easily after one year.

Standing Committees also generally reflect the composition of the House of Commons and therefore the party in government will always have a higher majority. Government often imposes time limits on Standing Committees discussions. In my opinion Parliament performs its various functions- scrutiny, representation and legislation (law making)- well. Although there are many weaknesses to each function it would be extremely hard to remove these weaknesses without making the executive separate like they have in the United States.

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