The relationship between the executive and Parliament
Lord Hailsham coined the phrase ‘elective dictatorship’ in the 1970s, arguing that the only real check on government power is a general election every five years or so. Even with small majorities, governments are able to pass most of its legislation without amendments, and so can, therefore, act as they wish. Major constitutional change has occurred without any opposition to it, for example, the introduction of fixed-term parliaments in 2011, and the devolving of more powers to devolved governments. Although, it could be argued that in spite of these concerns, Parliament is still able to hold the executive to account.
Factors and arguments suggesting Parliament does hold the executive to account:
- Parliament can defeat the government by voting against legislation
- Opposition to government policy may mean that a free vote is offered (free from whip’s involvement)- for example the issue of same-sex marriage in 2013
- Increased willingness of the Lords to challenge government bills due to the lack of single-party control and removal of most hereditary peers (so increasing legitimacy)- for example the defeat of proposed tax credit cuts in 2015
- Select committees have increased in significance following the decision to elect their chairs, who potentially serve over a number of years and are independent from government. Committees can call witnesses and scrutinise government policy in depth. For example, the Public Accounts Committee, which is responsible for overseeing government expenditures, and to ensure they are effective and honest. The committee is seen as a crucial mechanism for ensuring transparency and accountability in government financial operations and is one of the most important select committees
- The PM must appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee, which is made up of the chairs of select committees, and must justify government actions
- Debates can be held on issues, which can raise their profile or have an impact on executive action. For example, in __2013 __the government was defeated in its attempt to action military intervention in Syria
- Opposition parties are allocated 20 days to discuss issues not set by government
- The Backbench Business Committee allows for debates not set by government
- The Commons can remove the government through a vote of no confidence
- The last decade has seen more backbench rebellions in Parliament, where MPs defy the government, leading to the withdrawal of bills likely to be voted down
- Parliament now has the authority to authorise military action (see Syria example)
Factors and arguments suggesting the Executive still has the ability to dominate Parliament:
- Defeats in the Commons on government legislation is very rare- Tony Blair did not lose a vote during the first 8 years of his premiership
- Party discipline and the influence of the whips ensures that the majority of government bills are passed without difficulty. Even if MPs rebel, the governing party can often rely on support from opposition MPs to get a bill passed
- The government often has an extensive ‘payroll vote’ made up of ministers, junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries- this amounts to around 100 MPs who will always vote with the government
- The Parliament Act allows the government to push through legislation that has been blocked by the Lords (for example, attempted amendments to the Article 50 bill). Under the Salisbury convention, much legislation will not be blocked by the Lords at all
- Ministers can block the appearance of witnesses at select committees, and the government does not have to act on select committee recommendations
- The work of the Backbench Business Committee receives little publicity, and the government sets the time allowed to debate issues- this is also the case for time allowed to discuss Private Member’s Bills
- A vote of no confidence has not happened since 1979. MPs are reluctant to use this, as their own seats are put at risk by a general election
- Most ministerial resignations are due to pressure caused by the media (not Parliament), or external events- for example Cameron’s resignation following the vote to leave the EU in 2016
- The government has extensive powers under secondary legislation, allowing them to change laws
The aims, role and impact of the European Union on UK government
The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 28 states, which arose out of the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community established by 6 nations in 1950. This developed into the European Economic Community in 1957, and the European Union was established by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1991. On 23 June 2016, the British people voted to leave the EU in a referendum by a margin of 52%-48%, meaning that the UK will become the first member state to leave the EU. Article 50, formally notifying the UK’s wish to withdraw, was triggered by Theresa May in March 2017, following a vote in Parliament to approve the triggering. The UK has two years to negotiate the terms of its withdrawal before it ceases to become a member in March __2019 __(although the negotiating time can be extended if all parties agree).
Has the balance of power between Parliament and the executive changed in recent years?
The main factors to suggest that Parliament has become more significant and powerful are that it must be consulted over measures such as military action, the increasing right of Parliament to independently select its own officers (for example the speaker and select committee chairs), the ability of the Backbench Business committee in setting part of the parliamentary agenda, and the increasing assertiveness of the Lords. Despite this, it has been argued that the executive is still dominant- it has responded to the above by increasing the size of the ‘payroll vote’ of ministers and PPSs, and party control through the whips remains strong.