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The relationship between parliament and the executive/Scrutiny of the executive by parliament
The Executive under normal circumstances is able to dominate the Legislature because the electoral system normally produces single party majority governments. The PM’s patronage, the payroll vote, the whipping system and the cohesive nature of political parties add to the domination of parliament. As a legislative body Parliament has been defined as ‘reactive’ and the Executive controls legislation through their typical inbuilt majority on Public Bill Committees. However, in the case of a minority government, as in present day, this is not the case. Parliament does pass laws. It does not make laws. P. Norton has described Parliament as a ‘policy influencing legislature’ and not a policy making legislature. Executive dominance of the Lords is more difficult due to the lack of a government majority (having only 248 peers out of a potential 794), more crossbenchers, specialist committees and the fact that peers are more experienced and independently-minded.
Parliament is a multi-functional body and can never be irrelevant within the British political system. Parliament remains sovereign and is required to legitimate all government legislative proposals. Thus, it retains an effective veto over all Executive action. Indeed, not only is the Executive drawn from Parliament, it can remove the government through a vote of no confidence. Parliament’s scrutiny of the Executive can also be significant especially departmental and non-departmental select committees, especially the Public Accounts Committee and the Liaison Committee (which the P.M. must appear before twice a year). Departmental select committees such as the health, Brexit and education committees possess a significant wealth of scrutiny over their corresponding ministers. There are many forms of legislative scrutiny of the Executive with the majority being on the floor of the House of Commons. Votes, debates, early day motions and Prime Minister’s Question Time all perform a scrutiny function albeit in a limited fashion. The National Audit Office performs an oversight function in relation to finance while the Ombudsman can investigate mal-administration by government departments. It could be argued that the scrutiny function of Departmental Select Committees has improved in recent years since their composition is now decided by MPs in the Commons and not as was previously the case by the government whips. Minister’s Questions have been improved under the current speaker John Bercow who reinstated ‘urgent questions’ in 2012 whereby a Minister can be called back to the House of Commons after having been questioned.
Many forms of scrutiny clearly exist yet the majority of them are largely ineffective. A coalition government clearly increases the importance of Parliament as no single party has an overall majority (326 seats) and the government must guard against backbench revolts and legislative defeats. The House of Lords in recent years has on numerous occasions defeated the will of the government (Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011) and their committees have acted to amend government legislation regularly. Parliament, the Commons in particular, provides representation for the electorate and a forum for debate for the political issues of the day.
Executive dominance is clearly helped by parliament’s inability to check the government in the key areas of policy formulation, legislation and financial control. It would be wrong however especially in 2010 to regard parliament as irrelevant due to the fact coalitionism limits the government’s control of the commons since they do not enjoy an overall majority. This clearly has implications in terms of legislation and policy formulation where compromises between the government parties are the order of the day. Coalitionism clearly improves parliament’s scrutiny function as well as its ability to influence legislation. Parliament still clearly performs a representative function and it could be argued that parliament is more representative of British society with the recent changes to the composition of the House of Lords concerning the decreasing numbers of hereditary peers.
The government cannot function without Parliament. While its key functions of legislation, scrutiny and representation can all be criticised, parliamentary sovereignty remains a political reality with the legislature’s legitimation required for all government policies. Parliamentary debates and votes provide a national-media focus for the business of government along with Prime Minister’s Question Time. Mechanisms for effective scrutiny do exist (DSCs and non-DSCs) and the advent of the Coalition government has increased the relevance of Parliament. As a legislative body Parliament is weak, and it may well be subordinate to the Executive. It is however multi-functional and possessed of significant powers ensuring that it remains a highly relevant political institution. The current Prime Minister, Theresa May leads a minority government which arguable eliminates the concept of an ‘elective dictatorship’ within parliament, whilst additionally allowing MPs to have more of a say on the legislative agenda. Additionally, May’s own party members within the Commons given the absence of majority (lost in the 2017 snap election) are able to potentially have more of a say on government policy, as the government may collapse with large rebellions or inner party schisms. Whilst the current minority government is fragile and given prior instances of minority governments (1979 James Callaghan Labour government), unlikely to survive a full term, it completely eradicates the possibility of an overly-dominant executive and forces the government to achieve cross-party support in all areas of policy.
In conclusion, it would be fair to say that the British political system over the last 30 years has become increasingly executive dominated. This has developed due to the frequency of governments with large parliamentary majorities, cohesive (unified) political parties, a strong whipping system allied to the PMs patronage, and the rarity of government defeats in both the commons and the lords. During these years there has also been an erosion of parliamentary sovereignty due to the increasing legislative powers of Europe and devolution to the regions during the 1990s. The absence of effective parliamentary scrutiny of the executive further reinforces the view that parliament is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Parliament still retains the power to remove the executive by a vote of no confidence and the absence of an overall government majority for one party clearly threatens executive dominance. Parliamentary legitimation is still required for all government policy and parliament still performs a deliberative function despite its limitations.