In the UK the highest source of authority is Parliament- political power may only be exercised if authorised by Parliament.
All members of the government must come from either House.
A lack of separation of powers.
Government must be accountable to Parliament
In the US the legislature and the presidency are elected separately and hence both have separate sources of authority.
President is not part of the legislature
The President is accountable to the people as a whole and not to the legislature.
A clear separation o powers
A codified constitutional arrangement exists.
Is Parliament sovereign?
The source of all political power within the UK- what has been devolved may be taken back.
It is omni competent- it can make any law.
It cannot bind its successors nor be bound by its predecessors. Therefore, no laws can be entrenched and Parliamentary Sovereignty rules out a fixed, entrenched constitution.
Political sovereignty- less clearly located
The government of the day has a majority in the Commons. The consensus is that the Parliament will only block measures seen either as abusing its electoral mandate or operating beyond it.
Parliament has enormous reserve powers- House of Lords has blocked Commons’ bills frequently and in a vote of no confidence, can dismiss a whole government.
Institutions which have eroded parliamentary sovereignty
The European Union- EU law takes precedence in those areas of policy which it shares with the EU.
The growth of executive power over the legislature.
Increased use of referendums prior to transfer of power to devolved assemblies etc, entrenches the reforms which follow.
HRA and the ECHR. The UK is obligated by international treaty to accept, on appeal, the rulings of the ECHR at Strasbourg which remains the ultimate court of appeal concerning human and civil rights for member states of the Council of Europe and their citizens.
Devolution, again these powers have effectively become entrenched with their basis in referendums. Regarding the future status of Northern Ireland as either part of the UK or the Republic of Ireland, the Anglo Irish Treaty 1998 established that such status could not alter without the joint agreement of both UK and the Republic (confederal- see Bogdanor A New British Constitution )
General- most importantly Public Bill Committees. Between 20-40 members, ad hoc for the lifetime of the bill only and dissolve once its passage in Parliament completed or it is defeated. It is whipped.
Committees of the Whole House- rare and whip applies.
Departmental Select Committees (19). These scrutinise the workings of a department. 11-14 members, elected by the House as are the chairs. Whip does not apply, these are primarily investigative committees and hold hearings in public. About four hundred reports a year and, as in case of the Foreign affairs on Afghan Surge and PAC on cancer survival rates in UK both March 2011, can reach front page news. Ministers have to respond to a select committee report but do not have to implement its findings.
Public Accounts Committee (PAC above) is not a departmental committee (1861 and Gladstone). The oldest of the SCs and examines how public money is spent. It is highly regarded and prestigious. The Estimates Committee (1912) previews government spending estimates.
Standards and Privileges Committee deals with MPs disciplinary matters and that of ministers and public officials relationship with Parliament.
Statutory Instruments Cttee looks at delegated legislation- powers to pass legislation delegated to ministers by Parliament. The Education Act 1988 delegated responsibility for drawing up the new National Curriculum for England and Wales to the Secretary of State for Education.
European Scrutiny Committees look at how proposed legislation, regulations from the European Commission will impact on UK.
Liaison Committee comprises the chairs of all select cttees and questions PM twice a year. This was very important change under Blair in that for the first time a Prime Minister agreed to be called before such a committee.
Select Committees are in both houses. They last the lifetime of a Parliament. Select Cttes in the Lords are fewer and cross over policy and departmental areas. Currently, there are four select committees in the Lords of which the most regarded is that on the European Union. Membership of Lords SCs reflects expertise, the Lords Committee on the European Union was the most highly regarded such cttee on European affairs in the Union.
Significant reforms of Parliament in C20
The most significant reforms have involved the relationship between the Commons and the Lords. The 1911 Parliament Act finally established the primacy of the Commons with the removal of the Lords’ veto and any responsibility over financial matters.. A legal peculiarity however still requires a financial bill to be passed by both Houses, the Lords have to pass it without amendment although there have been instances where the Lords have proposed amendments to such bills. The 1949 Parliament Act reduced the delaying power to 1 year. Interestingly, the Blair governments wanted to pass reform for a partially elected 2 nd Chamber but with a caveat that to ensure the primacy of the Commons, the Lords would be forbidden to delay any bill which was in the government’s election manifesto. The Salisbury Doctrine by which the Lords agreed to this voluntarily has been suspended in Lords opposition to the removal of all hereditary peers 1999, the ban on hunting with Dogs and the detention without charge for 42 days of terror suspects.
1958, the Life Peerages act made possible the ennoblement of people without the need to transfer the peerage through the family line. Interestingly, it allowed the male successor to decline the peerage. Tony Benn, determined to remain as an MP was a cause celebre. In 1963, female peers were allowed to take seats in the Lords, previously, they had been allowed to stand as candidates for Westminster. A notable example of whom was the Duchess of Athol, first elected in 1923 as a Conservative and was the first woman to be elected in Scotland. Nancy Astor the first woman MP in Parliament was also a Conservative. The Duchess won the reputation as the ‘Red Duchess’ for her championing of the cause of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War 1936-9.
1979 The Commons elected to reform select committees. Fourteen departmental committees were established to shadow the work of specific departments. So popular was the reform that these have been re elected at the beginning of each new parliament.
1997 Prime Minister’s Question Time was combined from two 15 minute slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays whilst Parliament is in session to one half hour slot on Wednesdays beginning at midday to allow its live reporting on lunchtime news and early reporting in the Evening Standard.
Significant reforms of Parliament continued
In 1999, the government got through, in part, an election pledge to remove hereditary peers from the House of Lords. The compromise resulted in all but 92 being forced out. Interestingly, the 92, the symbol of the last bastion of unelected class privilege are the only elected peers. Each was elected following a short spoken manifesto by the removed hereditaries, who elect a replacement from among themselves when one of the 92 dies.
An independent Appointments Commission was set up under the first New Labour Government to vet appointments of new life peers to the Lords. New Labour also introduced the concept of popular nominations via application forms, the so called ‘Peoples’ Peers’. This has largely fallen away. Greater openness
In the appointment of peers has been compromised by the fact that the Prime Minister still appoints from the list and media allegations of cash for peerages scandal which led to the first time a modern sitting Prime Minister was questioned by police for his alleged involvement in breaking the law.
Brian Cook. Brian Cook as Leader of the House (I/c of driving the government agenda through the Commons) was a keen advocate of reform to increase the ability of Parliament to hold the executive to account. In 1997 a record number of women were elected, mostly from Labour. ‘Family friendly’ hours were introduced with the ending of all night sittings. The current speaker has replaced the Commons Bar on the sight the present Portcullis House with a crèche.
Significant reforms of Parliament continued
Legislation. 1997 the New Labour government introduced Special Standing committees which allowed certain standing committees in the early stages of considering a bill passed after the second reading to be open where the committees could hear ‘expert advice’ on the implications of the bill and its causes. In the latter stages of the Labour governments, terminology was changed with public bills now being considered by the newly termed public bill committees. Another experiment was the removal of the automatic sessional cut off point for bills by which bills were rushed through the dying weeks of a Parliament to avoid being lost. This has aided greater scrutiny of legislation.
The Speakers. The tradition has been that in the Commons these would be elected unopposed. The speaker of the House of Lords has always been the Lord chancellor and therefore automatic. The Constitutional reform Act stripped the Lord Chancellor of his judicial role, no longer having to be automatically chosen from the Lords, this meant that for the first time, the role of speaker in the House could be elected. This new role fell to Baroness Hayman who was also the first woman speaker in the Lords. The expenses scandal 2009 forced the resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons- Michael Martin, the first catholic speaker since the Reformation and brought forward calls for a reform of the way in which the speaker of the Commons was elected. The new speaker, Michael Bercow, was elected by secret ballot from among MPs. The new rules required that the winning candidate achieve 50%+1 vote, hence the series of ballots before the winner could be announced.
Functions of Parliament
Legitimation- Parliament as the source of legal authority legitimises government action. All Laws have to be passed by Parliament whose consent is also required for the raising and spending of public money. In this way, Parliament rubber stamps the decisions made by government. Promulgation refers to the formal procedures by which laws are passed and proclaimed. If answering a question on parliamentary functions this has to be mentioned as a priority.
Scrutiny- all bills are subject to debate, standing committees and votes. Government departments and the EU is also subject to review by select cttees.
Opposition. Parliament is an adversarial chamber- the government proposes and the opposition opposes. The leader of the largest party in opposition is the Leader of the Opposition and forms a shadow cabinet.
Accountability. Governments must account for their actions to Parliament. Bills are subject to debate and scrutiny. All ministers must attend ministerial question time and account for their actions and departments. Select Committees call ministers to give evidence concerning the workings of their departments.
Financial Control. Only Parliament can raise taxes and any bill requiring the spending of public money must be accompanied by a financial resolution passed by Parliament.
Representation. MPs must represent their constituents whether they voted for them or not and regardless of whether they are in government or opposition… MPs also represent their parties. 75% are either paid a retainer to represent an outside group or regularly support for free an outside group.
Redress of grievances-Constituents may lobby their MPs concerning a grievance within their constituency. MPs hold regular ‘surgeries’ in their constituencies where they can hear grievances of constituents.
Legislative. MPs vote and debate on legislative proposals. Public Bills are whipped and MPs must vote according to party line. However, MPs may propose Private Members’ Bills. Such bills only succeed if the government supports the proposal or has no serious objections.
Deliberation. As a debating chamber, the Commons may vote to suspend normal business in order to allow MPs to debate an issue of national importance- the 2003 Iraq War, House of Lords debates on indefinite detention of foreign nationals as terror suspects.
Reserve powers. MPs can remove a government by a vote of no confidence. A sufficient number of rebellious MPs voting with the opposition can force a government defeat- 2005 90 day detention without charge, 2009 government over limits to former Ghurkhas’ tights to settle in UK. The House of Lords can also use its delaying power to hold up bills passed in the Commons.
House of Lords acts as a constitutional safeguard. Use of delaying power can force government to rethink. The 42 day detention bill was dropped despite being passed in the Commons after its defeat in the Lords. The Lords retains an absolute right of veto over any bill to extend the life of a Parliament beyond five years and over a bill to remove a judge. Judges can only be removed by an act of Parliament.
The House of Lords
Bishops of the CofE
Archbishops of the CofE
Significance of membership
1999 the Labour Government removed all but 91 hereditary peers form the Lords and the remaining are likely to lose their sitting rights in the near future.
At the same time, the then Prime Minister established the Independent Appointments Commission to vet nominations to the Lords including the so called ‘peoples’ peers’ nominated by the public. However, the PM still decides who to pick from the vetted list and when.
As a result of the above reforms, no party has a majority in the Lords. In this respect it removed the inbuilt Conservative majority as the majority of peers were the 800+ hereditary peers.
Why has the House of Lords become more significant?
Large government majorities in the commons pre 2005 meant that opposition there was weak, hence increasing the importance of the House of Lords as a reviewing chamber.
The development of a new professionalism- An increasing number especially of life peers began to attend more regularly and becoming de facto professional and ‘expert’ politicians.
The removal of most hereditary peers did appear to increase the legitimacy of the chamber. Lib Dem peers in particular questioned the legitimacy of the government in attempting to push through legislation when it lacked a clear majority of the popular vote. Indeed a Lib Dem and Conservative alliance in the Lords was enough to inflict a defeat on the government. . 1997-2010 the government had 514 defeats in the Lords compared with six in the commons.. The Coalition Government has also experienced a number of defeats since May 2010.
The development of a stronger rights culture in the UK whereby the Lords have on a number of occasions the Lords have challenged the government- notably the terror legislation 2001 and 2004-5. However the chamber has been slow in recent years to extending rights of homosexuals- 1999 it voted against lowering age of consent from 18 to 16 and 2010 persuaded the Commons to accept the right of the Church of England to be exempt from the Equality bill.
The increased willingness of the Lords to vote against the government. This has even extended to bypassing the Salisbury Doctrine by which the Lords agrees not to challenge a measure based on a government’s manifesto- the opposition in 2001 to the Hunting with Dogs bill.
What are the key contrasts between the Commons and the Lords?
There are far more independents in the Lords- the so called crossbenchers.
As it is not elected, the House of Lords lacks the legitimacy of the Commons.
It can only delay non financial bill for one year (Parliament Act 1949).
Via the Salisbury Doctrine, the Lords agree not to oppose a bill based on the government’s manifesto.
The Lords continues to act as a constitutional safeguard in that it retains the right of veto over any bill to extend the life of a Parliament beyond five years and to remove a judge.
Why the government is able to dominate Parliament
In general, the election system of FPTP has delivered a government with a clear party majority in the Commons. The partisan balance on all parliamentary committees reflects the party balance in the Commons.
Party loyalty in the UK is traditionally strong and most MPs of the government party will toe the line. In any case, ‘awkward’ MPs can have the party whip withdrawn and this will result in their deselection before the next election as a parliamentary candidate for that party.
Britain has a bloated executive- over a hundred strong this power of patronage is useful in ensuring the loyalty of ministers who always vote with the government.
The Lords lacks legitimacy and it can only delay non financial bills for a year.
Traditionally a Prime Minister has been able to call into order recalcitrant MPs from his own side by threatening to call a General Election.
Where the government’s majority is smaller, the government is vulnerable. Despite a majority of around 70, the government was defeated in 2006 over attempts to introduce 90 day detention orders for suspected terrorists. Indeed, 1997-2010 the governemnt suffered six defeats in whipped votes in the Commons.
If the Coalition is successful in introducing fixed term parliaments it will mean the Prime Minister will no longer be able to call a snap election.
There has been increasing tendency among MPs to defy the party whip- defeats suffered by the last Labour governments in the Commons is significant in that they always had a clear working majority. BBC NEWS | UK | Blair's backbench rebellions . More recent research has shown that Gordon Brown’s premiership was badly affected by a growing tendency among Labour backbenchers to revolt. Gordon Brown suffers backbench rebellions as he struggles to control party – Telegraph .
The formation of a coalition government has created new problems with marrying between the priorities of two different parties- the Liberal Democrat revolt 2011 against increase in tuition fees marks the largest party back bench rebellion suffered by a government in peace time since 1945. Backbench rebellions at postwar high for coalition | Politics | The Guardian
The ability of MPs to hold the government to account- a significant reform by the Coalition has been the removal of the influence of the party whips from select committees whose chairs are elected by the backbenchers. Each candidate requires 15 nominations including from other parties. Additionally, the attempt by Prime Minister Cameron to reinvent Conservative Party rules to allow ministers to sit on the influential Conservative back bench committee were dropped due to opposition from his own backbenchers.
Also consider the current referendum on the Alternative Vote the latter if carried forward would greater reduce the likelihood of single party dominance and therefore seriously weaken the ability of party leaders to pressure their MPs.
Reform of the House of Lords
Reform of the Lords has been erratic since the removal of their veto and influence on financial matters since 1911.
The Labour government elected in 1997 introduced a two stage reform. The original intention to remove all of the hereditary peers was amended in 1999 to leave 91 remaining. A royal Commission under the Conservative Peer Lord Wakeham was set up to suggest different options between a fully elected and a fully appointed chamber.
Reform on the Lords has stalled- such a major constitutional issue has to be based on cross party and cross chamber consensus. Currently the positions of the parties is as follows- the Labour Party wants either a fully elected or largely elected chamber- this was a reflection of growing back bench pressure for a largely elected option over the face of front bench opposition to such an idea notable from the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. From initial hostility to reform in 1997, the Conservatives have now moved to a part elected and appointed option with the Liberal Democrats in favour of a fully elected chamber. However, with the formation of the Coalition the Coalition agreement was that there would be an all elected chamber probably under a form of proportional representation by 2015.
A fully appointed chamber is not a viable political option.
How much elected?
It would remove the problem of a two status peer in the partly elected option.
It would confer greater legitimacy on the chamber and increase the checks and balances on the executive.
It would, if elected by a means of proportional representation, prevent a winners takes all result as generally happens in the Commons and could ensure thereby representation of smaller parties.
If a fully elected chamber mirrored the Commons it would create party deadlock as happens in the US Congress.
A great strength of the current chamber is that it allows appointment of peers who represent sections of the population such as ethnic groups not represented in the Commons. Until the election of 2010, there were no Muslim female Mps, but two female peers- Baronesses Warsi and Uddin. Also experts from the professions are often appointed to the Lords and this has raised the level of debate and scrutiny of Commons legislation and the expertise of the House of Lords Select Committee, notably the Science and Technology Committee and the Select Community on the European Union.
Would a fully elected chamber lead to over kill on elections and voter fatigue with low turnout. In any case governments generally are committed to maintaining the primacy of the Commons which undermines the case for a fully elected second chamber.
Reform of the Commons
New Labour was committed to reform. A modernisation committee was established. However reforms were limited with the introduction of a longer half hour slot for Prime Minister’s question time instead of two fifteen minute slots, new office space for MPs at Portcullis House and the election of the Speaker of the House of Commons-requiring an overall majority of 50%+1 of the house. The first speaker to be elected under the new rules was John Bercow in 2009.
Since the formation of the new government there has been the direct election of select committee chairs by back bench MPs.
The government are committed to introducing equal electoral districts which will also lead to the reduction of the number of MPs by 50.
The promised referendum on the Alternative Vote which will take place on 5 th May will have significant implications if carried forward.
The coalition have also called for the introduction of the right of recall by constituents of corrupt MPs and the forcing of a by election.
The Coalition Government is also committed to removing the right of Prime Ministers to influence the timing of a general election by bringing in fixed term parliaments of five years in duration. A dissolution beforehand could only be triggered by a vote of 55% of the MPs in a vote of no confidence in the government. .
A Conservative manifesto commitment in 2010 was to put to a debate in Parliament a bill which had received a million signatures. This was a revival of the epol idea of the later Labour Governments. . In December 2010, Sir George Young, Leader of the House announced the above would be introduced and that the e-petition receiving the most signatures might be drafted and introduced as a bill.
E-democracy is the greater use of the internet, mobile phones and other electronic media to encourage grater political participation.
In what ways is Parliament representative?
The UK is a representative democracy.
Unlike a direct democracy such as Ancient Athens electors do not generally vote on specific policy unless it is a referendum. Electors vote for MPs who represent their interests in Parliament. Whilst all constituents in an Mps constituency have right of access to their MP, the latter has complete freedom to speak and vote in parliament according to the dictates of their conscience.
Is Parliament representative?
All MPs are elected representatives.
MPs by their professional and educational backgrounds represent either public or private sector.
Many Labour MPs are sponsored by a trade union to represent its interests.
To an extent Parliament is representative of different ethnic and gender backgrounds.
The House of Lords is representative of the hereditary peerage, the State church (Bishops and Archbishops), other religions and via creation of life peers distinguished representatives in the fields of public life
First past the Post over represents the winning party. Although the norm has been for single party government in the UK, no government since 1945 has been based on a majority of the popular vote. Technically, the current coalition is, but this was formed after the election as neither coalition party secured a majority of either votes or seats. Indeed, given their number of MPs, the Liberal Democrats are over represented in terms of the number of ministerial posts they hold.
Parliament is still predominantly male, middle class and white, although in terms of gender and ethnicity the current parliament elected in 2010 is the most diverse ever both in terms of gender and ethnicity.
Although the House of Lords is representative in ways outlined opposite, it is not democratically representative. Ironically, the hereditary peers are the only elected element- the 91 were chosen by their peers and on the death of a hereditary peer, a replacement is elected from the remainder by their peers.
The government intends to equalise, as far as possible, the number of voters per constituency and to reduce the number of MPs by 10% Opponents have argued this will increase the gap between constituents and their MP.
Supports of AV have asserted the system will mean all MPs will have 50% of the popular vote in their constituency, but opponents in the No to AV campaign have argued this means that more MPs will be voted on basis of 2 nd and third preference therefore beating candidates who had more first preference votes. . BBC News - What is the new face of the House of Commons?
Implications of Alternative Vote
It is likely to end single party government and therefore reduce the power of parties to dominate their MPs.
The influence of the whips will be significantly reduced as no party has an overall majority.
Mathematically, it could be argued that Parliament will appear more representative as each MP will nominally have 50% of the votes in his constituency.
There will need to be greater consensus and ‘horse trading’ in the wake of a hung parliament emerging after an election with post election deals between parties which will not be based on single party manifesto commitments.