Parliament carries out none of its functions adequately
In the UK, Parliament consists of the monarchy, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It’s existed for centuries, and has stood the test of time, in that it still exists. However, a number of concerns have been raised over how well it carries out its functions, and how this effects the electorate. In this essay, I will evaluate how well Parliament really does function.
One of Parliaments functions is legislation – creating laws. As Parliament is the supreme legislature in the UK, it can make, amend and abolish any statute law it wants. This is called parliamentary sovereignty. It can also give power to other bodies to make laws on its behalf – these are the devolved assemblies and local governments.
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Because there is usually a majority government in the UK (thanks to the First Past the Post electoral system, which over-represents the larger parties), laws can be passed quickly. This is because the majority of the government MPs vote in line with the government, and so the government’s policies can be passed easily. This differs from the US system, where it can take years to pass a single Bill, whereas it can take a matter of days in the UK.
However, this raises some concerns. Because of the majority government, Parliament could be seen as a ‘rubber stamp’ for the government – legislation is passed through Parliament, not by it. This could easily lead to an elective dictatorship, which is where the current government can do anything it likes, and can use their power to pass any bill, the only constraint being the need to win the next general election.
Another problem with this is that the majority of Parliament’s time is spent debating the government’s own political agenda, or manifesto. If all the policies come from the government, is Parliament really effective at passing legislature? However, as a counter to this, 13 Fridays are set aside for Private Member Bills. An example of this is the Bill on Bedroom Tax, proposed by Andrew George, which is currently in the second stage of being passed.
I think that Parliament has not carried out this process well in the past, but now, with a coalition in power, there is a larger degree of debate around Bills – two parties are in control, not two.
Another function of Parliament is representation – linking the people to the government. This is carried out by the Commons – each MP represents a constituency, and if any member of the electorate wants to make a complaint, or suggest an improvement, they have someone in a position of power that can put this forth in Parliament.
The trustee model of representation (formulated by Edmund Burke) and the doctrine of the mandate suggest that MPs go out of their way to represent the views of the people who voted them in. Also, because of FPtP, there is only one MP per constituency. This is better than having multiple MPs, as some electoral systems require (for example, STV) as decisions can be made faster, and there are less arguments among themselves, allowing for clearer long-term goals.
However, there are issues with representation in Parliament. Firstly, the House of Lords is an unelected body, and it has influence on the Commons, meaning that Bills can be postponed undemocratically, not representing the view of the people. However, the Lords cannot stop legislature relating to the governments manifesto, as outlined in the Salisbury convention. This is democratic, as the electorate has voted in the policies of the manifesto, and it would be unjust to stop them. As a further counter, however, because of the current coalition there is not one clear government manifesto, so the Convention is no longer in play.
Another issue with representation is that the FPtP does not represent the majority of the electorate’s views – in the 2010 election, 52.8% of votes cast were wasted. If the electorate is not fairly represented, then all illusion of a democracy falls away.
I think that Parliament falls at this hurdle, as it does not represent the majority of the public’s views, so is not a democratic process.
A third function of Parliament is to promote legitimacy – governments that govern through Parliament hold more legitimacy than those that do not. This is because Parliament stands for the public – it’s considered a representative assembly, so when it passes a law, it is as if the public has passed it. However, because it’s un-elected, the House of Lords holds no democratic legitimacy. Also, because of the numerous scandals that surround the MPs of the Commons, for example the expenses scandal, where it was uncovered that one MP claimed a duck house on expenses, respect for Parliament is declining. The less respect Parliament has, the less legitimacy it holds.
I think that Parliament does a decent job of legitimacy – the majority of MPs require large expenses to keep two homes running, and, as already discussed, there are democratic aspects to the Lords.
Another function of Parliament is scrutiny – to check that the government does its job: govern. This is, arguably, the most important function, as it is responsible for calling the government to account and ensuring a responsible government. Parliament attempts to scrutinise the government in a number of ways.
An example of this is Question Time, when ministers of the government take questions from MPs throughout the week. This allows the scrutiny of the ministers, and holds them to account for their actions. Perhaps the most notable of these are the Prime Ministers Questions, which happen every Wednesday. In some respects, this is done well – it allows for direct, focused questions, ensuring better scrutiny. However, the sessions are very short – only half an hour each. The debate it inspires can also become very gladiatorial, focusing less on scrutiny and more on each party attacking the other.
Select committees are also part of how Parliament’s scrutinises. There are around 19 select committees in the Commons – one for each government department. The members of these committees are selected from the backbenchers, and they can hold inquiries into anything relevant to their department. An example of this is the Home Affairs Select Committee that investigated the phone hacking scandal, involving news of the world.
An advantage of select committees is that they can highlight an issue and bring it to the medias attention. They have unlimited time to debate, so can probe deeply into all matters. However, the majority of the members are from the government, and these committees are supposed to be scrutinising the government. This isn’t a large a problem as it originally seems, though, as it’s made up of rebellious backbenchers, who don’t always follow the party line. One of the biggest disadvantages of select committees is that they cannot actually make any real changes. They can advise the government, and report their findings, but they can’t do anything further than that.
I think that Parliament scrutinises the government well, although there are a few issues that could be addressed – specifically the paradox that arises when the government tries to scrutinise itself.
Another function of Parliament is recruiting and training ministers. All ministers of Parliament must be either an MP or a peer. In order to become a frontbencher, they must first gain experience on the backbenches by participating in debates and asking parliamentary questions. This is effective, as it gives them and understanding of how Parliament and government work, and how policies are formulated and developed.
However, there are problems with this system. Ministers are only recruited from a select pool of talent – the majority party. Also, although they do gain some experience in debates, MPs and peers do not gain experience in leading a department or any managerial role.
I think that Parliament does perform this function well, but it is such a marginal aspect of Parliament, it has little effect on the overall performance of Parliament.
To conclude, I feel that Parliament does carry out the majority of its functions adequately, but there is room for improvement on some sections, such as representation, that need to be addressed in order for Parliament to run efficiently and democratically.