Prime Minister's Questions

Key concepts and language

Sovereignty/Parliamentary Sovereignty – the cornerstone of the British Constitution. AV Dicey “only parliament may make or unmake law and no body or institution  is recognised as having the right to set aside the will of parliament.” 1. Only parliament may make or unmake law. 2. There is no limit to the scale or scope of parliament’s legislative capacity. 3. No parliament may bind a successor parliament. 4. Government is drawn from parliament and accountable to it. Considerable debate about the extent to which these apply following the growth of executive power, EU membership, Devolution, the Human Rights Act (1998) and economic globalisation.

Parliamentary Government  –  a system of governance in which the government is able to command a majority or the continued confidence of the House of the Commons in the event it is the largest party, but short of an overall majority. There is a fusion of powers between the legislature and the executive. The government is derived from parliament and accountable to it under the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. The supremacy of parliament is sometimes referred to as the Westminster Model. The government is drawn from parliament and accountable to it.

Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011passed by the Coalition Government to ensure stability. This removes the PM’s discretionary power of dissolution and now an election can only be called between the fixed terms under very limited circumstances which are that a government loses a confidence motion and cannot form a new government within 14 days which commands the support of the house. If any potential alternative party or leaders cannot do likewise then parliament is dissolved and an election is called.

Functions of parliament – legislative; deliberative; representative; budgetary; scrutiny; recruitment and training ground for members of the executive.

Scrutinythe process whereby the government legislative proposals (bills) or policies are closely examined by parliament through a variety of mechanisms. These are PMQs and MQs; Debates and Emergency Debates; Correspondence with Ministers; adjournment debates and 10 Minute Rule Bills; Amendments; Legislative Committees; The BackBench Business Committee; Departmental Select Committees; The Liaison Committee; Confidence Motions; Rebellions (from the Government’s own backbenchers) and the scrutiny role of the House of Lords including amendments and the delaying power.

Backbencher – all MPs who are not either part of the Government or the Shadow Ministerial team for the opposition. Backbench MPs are expected to support the party to which they belong in the division lobbies though many do not.

Legislative (Public Bill/Standing) Committees Committees made up of MPs from all sides of the House responsible for piloting legislation through the HOC. They have an in-built government majority in proportion to the majority in the House. The Opposition may table amendments to bills but no more than about 0.5% are accepted by the government. There are also clause selection and time limit mechanisms (Kangaroo and Guillotine)

Departmental Select Committees pretty powerful committees comprised of backbenchers from all sides and chaired by very independently minded MPs. They are non partisan and are often very critical of government and departmental policy and operations. They have the power to call for persons or papers and Andrew McKinley MP once described DSCs as “the high court of parliament” The DSC criticised government policy on Arms procurement and the TSC criticised George Osborne over budget leaks in 2012, stating that such leaks were corrosive of good government.

Backbench Business Committee established by the Wright reforms of 2009 to help backbenchers have more influence of the parliamentary timetable and to have an impact on the debates and the votes that take place in the House of Commons.

Whip System – a system of party control over backbench MPs. The Whips are charged with maintaining party discipline and loyalty, quelling rebellions and staving off government defeats. they are an essential tool of party management in the House of the Commons. The opposition also has whips. Legislative committee members are whipped to ensure support for the government bill as it progresses through parliament.

Executive Control Mechanisms – devices deployed by the government to ensure that opposition scrutiny does not become so effective that it limits the government’s ability to steer its own destiny. The government seeks to evade scrutiny and exercise its own degree of control over parliament, despite being in theory accountable to it.

Rebellions – these occurs when a significant number of backbenchers in the governing party threaten the government’s majority on a vote in the House of Commons. They refuse to support the government’s policy. 119 Conservative MPs rebelled over the Same Sex Marriage Act in 2013 and 92 rebelled over proposed Lords reform in 2012. Tony Blair suffered a rebellion of 139 Labour MPs over the war in Iraq 2003, but parliament still voted for the war as a whole with the help of support from Conservative MPs. Rebellions do not necessarily lead to defeat (Iraq and Same Sex Marriage) but sometimes do result in government defeat (Lords Reform 2012; 90 Detention without charge (2005). Small rebellions can be significant if the government has a very small majority (John Major 1992-1997 (21) and David Cameron (2015-2020 (12).The last Parliament (2010-2015) was particularly rebellious (37% of commons votes produced a rebellion compared with 28% under Blair and Brown). Conservative Backbencher Peter Bone voted against the government 150x in the 2010-2015 parliament. There was a threatened rebellion which derailed George Osborne’s plans for a £ 1.3 billion cut in disability benefits.

1. The Structure of Parliament

Parliament consists of three distinct but related components. These are the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown, which is said to be ‘sovereign in parliament’. This is in fact a rather quaint and curious way of saying that the powers and the authority which were at one time vested in the Crown (or sovereign) now in fact reside in Parliament and therefore give rise to the term parliamentary sovereignty.

This process, whereby the crown or the monarch has ceded powers to parliament has occurred over a great deal of time and is what gives our constitution its unique character and flavour.

2. Definition of Sovereignty

The concept of sovereignty has sometimes proved difficult to define. Nevertheless there are certain characteristics which we may use to identify sovereignty as being large;y present or largely absent.

A) sole legislative authority within a clearly defined set of territorial borders which are recognised as sovereign territory by other sovereign powers

B) the capacity to recognise other states as sovereign states

C) the ability to grant or deny citizenship to persons residing, or wishing to take up residence, within the aforementioned territorial borders

D) complete jurisdiction and control over economic, foreign and domestic policy

3. Definition of Parliamentary Sovereignty

The essence of parliamentary sovereignty as defined by AV Dicey (1952: 39):

In the British system of government parliament is often referred to as sovereign. This means that:

The government (executive) is drawn from Parliament and accountable to it

Only parliament may make or unmake law (legislation). No body or institution is recognised as having the capacity to set aside the will of parliament

There is no limit to the scale or scope of parliament’s legislative capacity and it may therefore make laws on any matter of its choosing

No parliament may bind, or limit the actions of, a successor parliament.

4. Limitations on sovereignty and the sovereignty of Parliament

There exist a number of reasons for doubting any description of parliament as sovereign.

1. In 1949 the United Kingdom joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Since that time a debate has taken place as to the issue of control or sovereign control over nuclear weapons stationed on British soil. Would for example a British Prime Minister be able to veto the decision of an American President to deploy weapons based here? Who actually controls the movements of American troops based in the UK?

2.It is also often held that since January 1973, all British parliaments have had their legislative freedom curtailed by our continuing membership of the European Union.

Under article IV of the Treaty of Rome (1957) all member states must allow for the superiority of EU law over domestic law.

The ECJ (European Court of Justice) can effectively ‘strike down’ Acts of Parliament which conflict with community law. To what extent therefore may we call parliament sovereign when the UK parliament no longer has effective control over all our laws? Does that the fact that we may withdraw from both Nato and the EU at any time alter your thoughts?

Consider the following:

How possible is it in a global economy to conceive of classical economic sovereignty? Why for example is the level of UK interest rates sometimes influenced by the level of US or European Central Bank interest rates?

What effect has incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (2nd October 2000) into British law had on the ability of judges to comment on parliament’s legislative activities. Under the Human Rights Act (1998) judges are now able to issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ and invite parliament to change legislation which conflicts with the principles outlined in the convention.

Does Britain’s participation in a European Joint Military Force in any way undermine our sovereignty? What are the arguments both for and against this proposition?

5. Further Limitations

A. Only Parliament may make or unmake legislation.

Parliament’s primary function is as a law making body. Legislation (law) may only be enacted after the agreement of both Houses of Parliament and Royal Assent. We should focus on the constitutional principle of parliamentary sovereignty which states that parliament is both the supreme and sole legislative body. This implies that no institution other than parliament may make or unmake law. In fact this is not strictly true.

Within the United Kingdom local authorities may make by-laws and the devolved parliament of Scotland has legislative powers. On the face of it this would seem to contradict one of the principles of parliamentary sovereignty – but it does not. The powers under which both local authorities and MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) make laws are granted by Acts of Parliament and may, under existing constitutional arrangements be revoked at any time.

Therefore what parliament gives, parliament may take away. Further, unlike the judiciary in the United States, British judges cannot as yet strike down an act of parliament. They may only interpret and apply legislation handed down by parliament. There has already been some impact arising out of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the effect it has had on the relationship between the judiciary and parliament since it took place on October 2nd 2000. Judges have begun to use their power to issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ on legislation which, in their view, contravenes the convention, or more properly the Human Rights Act, 1998.

The most important area in which the legislative sovereignty of parliament has been affected arises from UK membership of the European Union. According to Article IV of the Treaty of Rome (1957) Community law must take precedence over the domestic law of any member state.

Where domestic law conflicts with EU law the European Court of Justice convenes and then instructs member states to repeal the legislation in question, in effect instructing the member state to comply with EU law. In no other area has the sovereignty of parliament been so significantly diminished, though this is not to say that in other crucial respects too parliament may be seen to be no longer sovereign.

B. There is no limit to the scale or scope of parliament’s legislative capacities & parliament may legislate on any matter of its choosing.

Whilst it remains theoretically true that parliament may pass or repeal (unmake) laws concerning any matter this is subject to considerable constraints. At the constitutional level if a government wished to suspend general elections, then the House of Lords is still able to veto any bill which extends the life of a parliament. Nevertheless it remains true that with Lords approval and Royal Assent, the government of the day would be constitutionally speaking able to do so.

There is in other words no Bill of Rights to guarantee certain fundamental civil liberties such as the right to vote against parliamentary or executive incursion. In other systems the judiciary is able to strike down legislation which contravenes certain rights and therefore limit the activities of their legislatures. It is perhaps the absence of such a mechanism in the UK’s constitutional arrangements that makes executive arrogance a major political issue in the UK .

It is true that through executive control of parliament, ministers and prime ministers are able to push through legislation for which there is no natural majority in at least one, if not both, of the houses of parliament. Examples would include the introduction of the poll tax by Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and the forcing through the House of Lords of the equalisation of the age of consent using the Parliament Acts, (1911. 1949) a mechanism that allows the government to pass legislation after one year of delay from the House of Lords without the Upper House’s approval. Watch former speaker Michael Martin invoking the Parliament Act in order to force through the Hunting with Hounds Bill after the Lords refusal to pass the bill. Parliament, as a whole, once again finds its scope of action constrained by continuing UK membership of the European Union.

C. No parliament may bind a successor parliament

Given that the concept of parliamentary sovereignty implies that there is no limit to the scale and scope of a parliament’s legislative activities it follows that any future parliament must not in any way be limited by the actions of a previous parliament. Successor parliaments are therefore able to undo the legislation a previous parliaments and repeal laws where they wish to do so. It also follows that no bill may be passed which contains clauses forbidding its repeal. One curious exception to this is that since January 1973 all parliaments have been limited in what they may do because the 1970-1974 (Heath Government) parliament took the decision to take Britain into the EEC and therefore limited the activities of future parliaments where their actions may have come into conflict with Community law. Nevertheless all parliaments retain the right to repeal the Act of Accession (1972) which took Britain into the EEC and therefore one may argue that, ultimately, no limit, or binding of successor parliament’s actually exists. Whether it would be in Britain’s interests to do so is, of course, another matter.

D. Wider Limitations & Summary

The principles this concept suggests have been severely undermined by the following developments

a) UK is no longer a sovereign state with membership of NATO 1948, and EU 1972/3

b) The EU can unmake any UK law it deems as conflicting with EU law as with the Factortame dispute with Spanish fishermen operating British registered vessels. The Merchant Shipping Act 1988, defining what was meant by British registered vessels, was ‘unmade’ by European Court, which found it discriminatory, unfair, and a breach of Community law.

c) Enforced EU law binds successor Parliaments.

d) Political constraints such as the activities of pressure groups such as Greenpeace, the trade union movement, the such as the Countryside Alliance, Fuel protesters, trade unions, the city and other business and economic groups such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute of Directors (IOD). It is also worth considering the growing influence of the media and public opinion.

6. Functions of Parliament

Parliament has SIX main functions. The Functions of Parliament are as follows

1. Legislative:Both the House of Commons and Lords must approve all legislation before it can become law.

The Legislative programme usually begins with the first Queen’s Speech following a general election.

The Speech is in fact written by the Prime Minister and outlines the legislative programme for the forthcoming parliamentary session. It states most (but not all) of the bills to be introduced to parliament in the forthcoming year. Other legislation may still need to be brought before both Houses which is not detailed in the Queen’s Speech.

Once the legislative programme is announced in this rather ceremonial ritual the real work of creating legislation begins.

2. Deliberative: Parliament is a forum for debate of the main issues of concern. It is often at its best when serious issues such as the decision to go to war in Iraq are being debated.

3. Representative: Each MP is representative of his or her constituents – and to a large extent their party. They may also of course represent business or other interests.

4. Budgetary: All government expenditure and taxation must be approved by parliament but not by the House of Lords.

5. Scrutiny: The Government is drawn from Parliament and accountable to it. There are a variety of scrutiny mechanisms that parliament has at its disposal such as questions to the PM and Ministers, Opposition Days and Select Committees. Each of these varies in its effectiveness. An impressive range of broadcasts on Westminster politics are available on the BBC iPlayer including the latest ministerial and prime ministerial questions. It is updated on a daily basis.

6. Training & recruitment ground for members of the executive: Ministers must be drawn from either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Over time, through experience of serving on the backbenches, or as junior or shadow ministers they compete for places within the executive.

7. Scrutiny Mechanisms

There are a number of mechanisms that parliament has at its disposal for scrutinising the executive: These include:

• Prime Ministerial and Ministerial Question Time

• Opposition Days

• Debates and Emergency Debates

• Standing Committees

• Departmental Select Committees

• Amendments

• Confidence Motions

• Rebellions

• The House of Lords

Prime Ministerial and Ministerial Question Time

One important way in which Parliament conducts its business is through regular Question Time sessions. Every day (except Fridays) MPs can ask ministers questions about the government’s policies. Ministers from each government department must come to the House roughly once a month, on a rota basis, to answer these oral questions. The questions are submitted two weeks in advance giving the minister and his or her civil servants plenty of time to prepare detailed replies. After the minister’s initial reply, the questioner is free to ask a `supplementary’ question, as long as it is on the same general topic. Other members may then intervene.

The procedure for Prime Minister’s Questions is slightly different. Each week on Wednesday afternoon the prime minister must come to the House of Commons to answer oral questions for half an hour. This system was changed by the previous Labour government shortly after they came to power in May 1997. Previously PMQs took place on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

The leader of the opposition may make up to six interventions (previously three) during PMQ’s and the leader of the Liberal Democrats will normally ask two questions (previously one). This change has prompted much debate. At the time of the change the Conservatives opposed the move saying it reduced the number of times the prime minister was forced to account for his actions in Parliament. But the government argues that it gives backbench MPs more opportunity to question the prime minister in depth, rather than for a relatively short session. Prime Minister’s Questions follows a different format to those of questions to other ministers. MPs do not normally give the prime minister prior notice of the subject which they are going to raise. This element of surprise allows opposition MPs, in particular, to try to catch the prime minister out with an awkward question. The prime minister must respond without delay, thinking on his or her feet. Government backbenchers can normally be relied upon to ask a `helpful’ question (often called patsy questions) which will allow the prime minister to tell the House about successful government policies or to rubbish the opposition. 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 importance of PMQs is often exaggerated by the media.

Opposition Days

The Opposition has the task of checking and controlling the executive. Modern Oppositions are often accused of ineffectiveness and indulging in “yah-boo” politics. But this is all they can do, unless they are willing over a period of months to obstruct legislation and so halt the process of government. However, by taking opposition to this level, the Opposition lays itself open to the charge of extremism and irresponsibility, and may well lose the support of the mass of floating voters, which it must win in order to turn out the government. Hence the tendency of the Opposition to play safe. Also the government knows it cannot be brought down except by disloyalty among its own supporters. This would suggest that more effective opposition could be exercised by dissident groups of government supporters than by Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Debates and Emergency Debates

Most of the time in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords is taken up debating political issues. By holding debates Parliament is able to hear the views of those who are in favour and those who are against particular proposals.

Debates are conducted according to a set of rules and procedures which are interpreted by an independent chairman, known in the Commons as the Speaker. At the end of most debates the House decides whether to support or reject the proposals under discussion by holding a vote. During the fuel crisis in September 2000 William Hague demanded, but did not obtain, the recall of Parliament to discuss the crisis.

Standing Committees

Standing committees of MPs have the task of giving detailed, clause- by-clause consideration to legislation during its committee stage. When a bill reaches committee stage a standing committee of roughly sixteen MPs is appointed by the Committee of Selection and a chairman is appointed by the Speaker from the Chairman’s Panel. The membership of the committee always reflects the relative strengths of the parties in the Commons so a government majority is always guaranteed. They serve as an opportunity for the opposition to scrutinise government legislation but are relatively powerless in respect of their ability to amend or halt government bills.

Departmental Select Committees

Departmental Select Committees are used to scrutinise government departments and were streamlined along their present lines in 1980. However the Public Accounts Committee and several other none departmental committees precede this development. They are able to compel the appearance of ministers, junior ministers, civil servants and expert witnesses and can require the production of departmental papers- to ‘send for persons or papers’. Such powers however are subject to the rigours of the Official Secrets Acts, The five Grounds for non-compliance with requests for information and the strictures and advice for performance in committee by ministers placed on them by the Osmotherley Memorandum. Select Committee reports can embarrass the government, individual ministers and , in an interesting constitutional development even civil servants. They are of course televised.

Select Committees however have very little resources in terms of research back up and remain heavily dependant upon voluntary disclosure and co-operation from ministers and other witnesses. Furthermore the Code of Conduct drawn up for Civil Servants by Sir Robert Armstrong in February 1985 imbues in civil servants an ethos of evasion and obstruction. Constitutionally of course ministers are individually responsible for the actions and conduct of their department and personnel and this further arms civil servants when faced with hostile questions in select committee proceedings. During questioning civil servants will speak with one voice – that of the minister!

Nonetheless select committees – despite the dominance of the executive – have had some notable victories over the government, or individual ministers, and there work is much valued. They are perhaps the most effective weapon in parliament’s continuing battle to assert its supremacy over the executive.

The Departmental Select Committee for Foreign Affairs censured Foreign Secretary Robin Cook for his lack of transparency in dealing with the committee’s investigation into government policy on arms to Sierra Leone. In 2001 the government attempted to remove Gwynneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from their select committee responsibilities. Parliament fiercely guards its independence and in the subsequent vote, Blair endured his 1st Commons’ defeat.


As a Bill passes through Parliament, MPs and peers may suggest amendments or changes which they believe will improve the quality of the legislation. Many hundreds of amendments are proposed by members to major Bills as they pass through committee stage, report stage and third reading in both Houses of Parliament, although only a handful will be incorporated.

The Speaker, or the chairman in the case of standing committees, has the power to select which amendments should be debated. In practice all bills are subject to amendment, especially in the House of Lords. However very few opposition amendments are incorporated into legislation

Confidence Motions

During the course of a parliamentary session the Opposition may table a motion expressing a lack of confidence in the government and its policies. This is a called a censure motion but is more often referred to as a `vote of confidence’ or a `confidence motion’. If a motion of no confidence is carried, the government is in effect forced to resign and call a General Election.

The number of censure motions debated increased dramatically during the late 1970s when there was a minority Labour government which eventually fell after it was defeated on such a motion, on March 28th, 1979.

Votes on very important Bills are sometimes treated as matters of confidence and will be ‘three-line whip’ votes – all members of the governing party are ordered to vote with the government in order to demonstrate their confidence in it. In November 1994, John Major made a proposed Labour amendment to the European Community Finance Bill an `issue of confidence’ (though not an actual vote of censure) in his government. The Conservatives scored a comparatively narrow victory of 27 votes which resulted in seven members of the party who had voted against the government having the whip removed. This effectively meant that they were expelled from the Parliamentary Party, albeit for a short period.


One primary duty of an MP is to support the policy of his or her party in parliament, whilst another is to represent the views of his or her constituents whilst exercising a degree of individual conscience. These may often come into conflict. It must also be remembered that the main political parties are broad coalitions with a variety of opinions. Though Tony Blair reminded his MPs after the 1997 general election that their first duty was to support the government in parliament, all governments eventually come unstuck and suffer a defeat in the House of Commons because their own MPs have rebelled from the government’s line. In July 2001 the government was defeated for the first time on the floor of the House of Commons, after it tried to remove two particularly independent chairs of departmental select committees.

Blair’s administrations also suffered large scale rebellions from Labour backbenchers over changes to single parent benefits and disability allowances and the proposed privatisation of the National Air Traffic Control Service. John Major’s credibility as Prime Minister suffered as Euro-sceptics rebelled over the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and Mrs Thatcher suffered two defeats , despite enjoying a majority of 144, in 1985 over student loans and in 1986 over Sunday trading.

Cowley and Stuart (2000) note that Blair’s Labour administrations demonstrated a remarkable degree of cohesion and that no Prime Minister has enjoyed the level of back-bench support that Blair has enjoyed. This may itself be a product of the tendency of new Labour to wrest a great deal of control over prospective parliamentary candidate selection from the Constituency Labour Parties. Despite this there have been a number of rebellions by ‘new’ Labour backbench MPs.


Single Parent Benefits: (Rebellion 47)

Disability Benefits (Rebellion 65)

Part Privatisation of Air Traffic Control (Rebellion 37)

Tuition Top Up Fees (Rebellion72)

Iraq (Rebellion 139)

Pensions (Rebellion 41)

Foundation Hospitals (Rebellion 62)

Trial By Jury (Rebellion 33)

Amendments to the ATCSA (Rebellion 32)

10p tax rate abolition (Rebellion 30)

Sunday Trading (26)

The House of Lords

The Role of the House of Lords is to amend delay or reject government legislation.

<p><a href=”″>The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived</a> from <a href=””>Department of Political Science</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Government defeats in the Lords by Parliamentary Session

Parliamentary Session          Number of  Defeats

2016-2017*                                 15 so far

*Still in session

2015-2016                                    60

2014-2015                                     11

2013-2014                                     14

These have been on issues such as Crime and policing, The Lobbying Bill, The Modern Slavery Bill and immigration. a Much more detailed breakdown can be found by visiting this link here

Since the Parliament Act, 1949 the House of Lords has held the right to deny the passage of any bill seeking to extend the lifetime of the parliament beyond its maximum of five years.

Since the reform of the Lords in 1999 this power remains and as such is testimony to the fact that the Lords still acts as a powerful constitutional watchdog.

Powers of the House of Lords

Amend any non financial bills

Delay legislation for up to one year if the commons will not approve Lord’s amendments

Sit as The Final Court of Appeal (Power now transferred to the Supreme Court)

Scrutinise the Government


8. Executive Devices / Control Mechanisms

…in a period when effective power in all spheres of life, economic, social, political – is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, parliamentary control of the executive has been steadily decreasing, without being replaced by other methods of democratic control.

Richard Crossman (1963)

Despite the range of scrutiny mechanisms parliament has at its disposal, the executive is able to rely on a range of control which effectively serve to counteract parliament’s attempts at scrutiny. These include the following:

Whip system

Exploitation of MPs’ ministerial ambitions and the Payroll Vote

Restriction of Information: Voluntary ministerial disclosure and

Official Secrets Act 1999

Majority in parliament

Royal Prerogatives

Blair Code of Conduct For Labour MPs

Control of The Parliamentary Timetable

Parliament Act (1949)

Select Committees

Whip system

Each political party in parliament appoints a team of MPs as whips. Each of the two main parties will have about fourteen MPs appointed to their whips office. The smaller parties may only have two or three whips. There are also smaller teams of whips working in the House of Lords. Whips have two key tasks: First, by communicating through the ‘usual channels’, they seek to ensure that all parties in the House of Commons are satisfied with its business timetable. Second, they are responsible for overseeing their back-bench MPs, attempting to ensure that they vote in accordance with the party leadership on important issues.

MPs who defy the whips continually, or on a very important issue once, may find themselves removed from the whip, effectively banning them from membership of the parliamentary party, and threatening their prospects for reselection.

Exploitation of MPs’ ministerial ambitions and the Payroll Vote.

The term payroll vote refers to those MPs who can be relied upon absolutely by the government to vote in support of their policies. It applies mainly to those members of the government, such as ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries, who are paid increased salaries in recognition of their ministerial responsibilities.

The term also covers those MPs who are obliged to support the government if they want to keep their unpaid posts as ministerial aides, such as parliamentary private secretaries. MPs who wish at some stage to be government ministers will have to demonstrate loyalty to the government by supporting it in the division lobbies, and though backbenchers are theoretically held to be independent there is much pressure on them to support the party leadership.

Restriction of Information: Voluntary ministerial disclosure and Official Secrets Act 1999

Though ministers are constitutionally held to be accountable to parliament, through the doctrines of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary sovereignty, in practice there exist a number of mechanisms or devices that ministers may employ to evade such scrutiny.

Ministers have evolved five grounds with which they may refuse to answer parliamentary requests for information. These are:

Commercial Confidentiality

Information Not Held Centrally

Disproportionate Costs

National Security

The answer to the question sought is Some-one Else’s Responsibility.

Ministers have proved adept at refusing answers to written and spoken questions and indeed have formulated five grounds for withholding a response. This latter excuse is increasingly common with more and more government functions taken over by agencies and arguably points to a dilution of the doctrine of ministerial accountability and responsibility to parliament.

Majority in parliament

Factions and tendencies as well as organised interests within parliament can make life very difficult for a government with a small majority (Major and the Euro sceptics 1994-1997) and the Labour Party split over health charges in 1951.

Even governments with large majorities are not immune. Mrs Thatcher suffered two of her biggest defeats in the 1980s over Student Loans (1986) and Sunday Trading (1985) when her majority was 144, and despite a majority of nearly 100 Wilson suffered two defeats over his Industrial Relations Bill and his Bill to reform the Lords caving in under a combination of the influence of trade union sponsored MPs and the left’s distaste for reform rather than abolition of the lords.

More recently with huge majorities in both 1997 and 2001 it seems the Blair government was more or less invincible on the floor of the commons, especially given the much greater discipline and loyalty the parliamentary Labour Party exercises towards the leadership. Such majorities are still no guarantee that the executive shall have its way in the commons and least of all when the commons itself feels that its integrity and independence are being threatened by an over- mighty executive. Finally parliament can actually bring about the fall of a government if it carries a vote of no confidence as it did in March 1979. It remains to be seen how Theresa May copes with the small majority she has inherited from David Cameron.

Royal Prerogatives

The Prime Minister, rather than parliament, can exercise a number of powers known as the Royal Prerogatives without consulting parliament.

According to Benn, Time To Erase A Right Royal Legal Fiction, (1990)

“…any Prime Minister can, quite legally, do any or all of the following without consulting, or even pretending to consult parliament: go to war, make peace, sign treaties, invite foreign troops to bestationed on British soil, appoint, dismiss and reshuffle ministers and dissolve parliament…”

Osmotherly Rules 1980

These tell officials to confine their answers to matters of fact about existing policies and to refer broader policy questions to Ministers, whose responsibility they are.

Parliament Act

Where a bill has been expressed in the governing party’s manifesto, the government may use the Parliament Act to force through the bill if the Lords seeks to delay or oppose the bill.

Select Committees

Although select committees have been created to scrutinise the work of government departments there are ways in which the executive can control and influence select committees. Select Committees are often hampered in their work by party political considerations and minority reports may be issued. Nicholas Winterton was removed from the Departmental Select Committee on Health after it issued a report critical of government policy. Select committees are also the target of government interference and the chairs of select committees have sometimes found themselves removed when the have issued reports critical of the government. Nicholas Winterton’s Research assistant, Christopher Whitehouse, remarked at that time:

I was bitterly disappointed that he single-handedly ripped the guts out of the select committee system, the last bastion of defence against an over-mighty government


Blair Code of Conduct for Labour MPs

In 1997, shortly after the landslide election victory Tony Blair addressed all 419 Labour MPs.

…look at today’s Conservative Party. Pause. Reflect. Then vow never to emulate. Day after day, when in government, they had MPs out there, behaving with the indiscipline and thoughtlessness that was reminiscent of us in the early 80s. Where are they now, those great rebels? When the walls came crashing down beneath the tidal wave of change, there was no discrimination between those Tory MPs. They were all swept away, rebels and loyalists alike. Of course speak your minds. But realise why you are here. You are here because of the Labour Party under which you fought.

The message was clear. There could be no indiscipline and Labour MPs had a clear duty to support their government.


Iraq – 2003 (Carried)

Single Parent Benefits – 1997 (Carried)

90 Day Detention – 2005. (Defeated)

Same Sex Couples Act (2013 – Carried)

Lords Reform (2012 – Defeated)

Only 2 Government Defeats in 2010-2015 Parliament (Lords Reform and Syrian Intervention)

Following 2015 Women are now 30% of all MPs

Syria – 285-272 (2013) – It is now pretty established that the PM can only exercise his war powers following a commons vote. The basic position has not changed constitutionally but politically speaking (after Iraq) it is now difficult for a PM to launch military action without the consent of the Commons.

Defence Departmental Select Committee criticised overseas procurement of military equipment by the MOD (Ministry of Defence) in 2012.

Last Successful confidence motion was in March 1979

Small majorities tend to last but each government vote is usually on a knife edge. (1992-1997 – particularly over the Maastricht Treaty) The Government could lose a vote in the Commons at almost any point.

Lords and Tax Credit Cuts

Defeat over Sunday Trading (March 2016 – HOC)

Threatened rebellion on 1.3bn of PIP Disability Benefits

Writers wishing to downplay the influence of majority party dissidents emphasise the fact that Commons defeats remain extremely rare. However, this discounts the impact of rebelliousness on parliamentary anticipated reactions. Deals are done with backbenchers to avoid defeat and to minimise discontent. Rebellions therefore lead not only to defeats but also to retreats, and the impact of the latter is often significantly greater.’

The whole point of this piece is to suggest that the legislature is more effective in checking the power of the executive than often thought. This might happen in various ways but backbench revolt is one of these ways. Including details about HOW backbench revolt manifests itself, and examples of when this has taken place ie over disability benefit, is exactly the kind of detail I am (and the examiner) looking for.



June 2009: The role of Parliament

Study the following passage and answer the questions that follow.

Citizens need an effective Parliament. They need a body that can call the government to account, that can ensure that government answers for its actions and the actions of civil servants. They need a body that can scrutinise and, if necessary, change the legislative proposals brought forward by government. They need a body that can ensure that their voice is heard by government when they have a grievance, be it about the impact of a policy or the absence of a policy. They need the security of knowing that, if there is a problem, there is a body to which they can turn for help, a body that can force public officials to listen.

Government needs an effective Parliament. It needs it because its authority derives from Parliament. The more government distances itself from Parliament, the more it undermines popular consent for the system of government. It needs Parliament to give its approval to measures and, prior to doing so, to scrutinise those measures.

Adapted from Report of the Commission to Strengthen Parliament.

(a) With reference to the source, describe three functions of Parliament.

 The following functions can be found in the passage:

Calling government to account, making it account for its actions. For example DSCs (Departmental Select Committees) are scrutiny committees of the House. They can “call for persons or papers” compelling the production of documents and the appearance of ministers. They issue reports which are sometimes damaging. The Treasury Select Committee criticised the 2012 budget leaks as being “corrosive of good government.”  There are many other modes of holding government to account such as correspondence with ministers, ministerial and prime ministerial question time, debates and emergency debates  and opposition days.

Scrutinising and possibly amending legislation.  A key function of parliament is to scrutinise and amend government legislation. This is normally done through legislative committees but any MP can table an amendment if he or she so wishes. The current Justice and Security Bill has had a number of amendments made to it as it works its way through the House of Commons.

Ensuring that the grievances of citizens are expressed to government and forcing government ministers and officials to listen to them. MPs can act to raise the concerns of their constituents. Andrew Brigden MP has raised a number of constituent concerns over the proposed development of HS2. One of the key functions of parliament is to act as a representative body on behalf of constituents.

Granting authority and approval to government to allow it to govern legitimately.  Parliament is also a place where the government can defend its policies and lend those policies legitimacy.

(b) With reference to the source, and your own knowledge, explain why government needs an effective Parliament.

The source refers to the fact that government needs the approval of Parliament in order to give it authority (and therefore legitimacy). In order for popular consent to be granted there must be opportunities to examine, scrutinise and pass legislative proposals. In addition to these source based needs could be added:

it needs Parliament as a representative body so that the views of different sections of society can be expressed by MPs and peers It is often said that a government can only be effective if it gains consent for its measures in a robust commons and Lords. Thus MPs and peers bring many different viewpoints to bear on the government

the scrutinising function of Parliament can improve the quality of legislation by identifying problems, lack of clarity and possible improvements . A very large number of amendments are called ‘technical amendments’ designed to introduce clarity into a bill and reduce loopholes. The Lords also tables a large number of usually non-controversial amendments which are nearly always accepted b the government of the day. This improves the quality of the legislation.

it needs parliamentary opposition and scrutiny in order to justify publicly its actions and decisions. The  legitimacy of a policy is enhanced by the scrutiny process. Parliament acts as a forum whereby the government can justify its decision.

it needs Parliament as the official forum where it can introduce proposals into the public arena. Parliament retains sovereignty in the UK system. Because most bills are government bills, government requires the scrutiny and support of parliament for its legislative programme.

The government needs Parliament as a recruiting ground for new ministers. All ministers (and PMs) start off life as an ordinary back bench MP. Over time they get a ministerial or shadow ministerial post or obtain a leading position in their party. This is the only training ministers ever receive. Governemts require a steady stream of fresh talent which the commons 9and occasionally the Lords) supplies.

The government needs Parliament to check its own power to maintain its own integrity. A strong parliament and robust and independent backbenchers mean that the government has to manage parliament with courtesy and respect.

(c) Analyse the main factors that limit the effectiveness of Parliament.

The following factors limit the effectiveness of Parliament:

The discipline exercised by the whips and party leaders prevents MPs and peers operating independently (the ‘lobby fodder’ issue). Divisions and standing committees are usually strictly whipped. The whip system, natural allegiance, & desire to forge a party political career keep most MPs in line. No MP wishes to be seen as disloyal. Only a few are content to remain on the backbenches. Votes (divisions) and the work of standing (legislative)  committees are subject to the party whip. MPs who are regularly disloyal may have the whip withdrawn from them as Major did in 1994 when he withdrew the whip from 9 Eurosceptic Tory MPs. Having the whip withdrawn means that the leadership is sending a strong signal to the constituency association or party that the MP should be deselcted for the next election.

MPs and peers do not have sufficient time, expertise, knowledge and research back-up to be able effectively to examine legislation and government policy. The 535 members of congress has 38,000 research and admin staff between them. MPs in totality will have around 1500 between them

The Commons may be said to lack legitimacy because of its distorted representation (the electoral system), while the Lords is unelected.

Collective responsibility, the anonymity of officials and traditional secrecy of government make it difficult for MPs, peers and select committees to obtain information and examine policy effectively. Government often seeks to evade it constitutional responsibility to be accountable to parliament. Often any papers supplied to select committees for example may be heavily redacted. Witnesses may prove evasive or inconsistent. Ministers have evolved 5 grounds for not complying with parliamentary requests for information including: National Security; Commercial Confidentiality; Disproportionate Costs (does not represent value to the taxpayer) Information Not Held Centrally and Someone Else’s Responsibility. In addition the existence of the doctrine of collective responsibility means that cabinet proceedings are effectively secret. Furthermore, the prime minister wields an enormous array of powers in relation to patronage and the exercise of the royal prerogatives. According to Benn (1990) parliamentary sovereignty is a ‘myth’ or ‘legal fiction’ disguising unrivalled prime ministerial power.

January 2010: Study the following passage and answer the questions that follow. White Paper on reform of the House of Lords

This White Paper sets out the government’s proposals for a reformed second chamber of the UK Parliament. The proposals are based on the House of Commons votes for an 80% or 100% elected second chamber and follow cross-party talks on how this could be achieved. The White Paper makes proposals for reform in a number of areas:

Role and composition

The House of Lords plays a valuable role in holding the government to account and revising legislation. The reforms would strengthen those roles and make the second chamber more accountable. The House of Commons would continue to be the primary chamber in the UK legislature.

Membership of the chamber

The proposed reforms would create a second chamber with directly elected members, which would be smaller than the House of Commons. The remaining rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the second chamber would be removed.

Powers of the new chamber

The government proposes no changes to the powers of a reformed second chamber.

The possible role of appointed members to ensure independence

If it is decided that there should be a 20% appointed element, the government proposes that its key purpose would be to provide a significant independent element in the second chamber. A statutory appointments commission would seek nominations and applications for membership. The government is also proposing changes to the arrangements for eligibility, remuneration and accountability.

Source: White Paper, An Elected Second Chamber, July 14, 2008.

(a) With reference to the source, what changes to the second chamber are proposed?

The hereditary peers would be removed. Note – the remaining 92 Hereditary peers following the House of Lords Act 1999.

The whole House might be elected. The vast majority of other countries which are bicameral have no substantial issues arising from having both chambers elected.

It may be that it would be 80% elected and 20% appointed

It would be smaller than at present  – there is not sufficient seating and office space for all those currently  entitled to attend.

The Appointments Commission  – In the case of an unelected component there would be an Independent appointments commission which would scrutinise nominees.

(b) With reference to the source, and your own knowledge, explain the arguments for a fully or partly elected second chamber.

The source refers to two of the functions of the second chamber – revising legislation and calling government to account and that the reforms would strengthen these functions. Election would make the chamber more accountable – a key element in a democracy. The source also refers to bringing an independent element into the chamber if there were 20% elected members. This implies that all or many of the appointed members would be crossbenchers and have no party allegiance. Additional reasons for reform include the following:

Full or partial election would raise the democratic authority and legitimacy of the second chamber, making it more effective. It is undemocratic to have people wielding legislative power on the basis of appointment. Appointment also allows the pm to shape the political composition of the 2nd chamber without any effective check or oversight.

Election might inject a more ‘professional’ element into the second chamber. Elected members of subject to pressures of re-election. There is no method for deselecting incompetent peers.

Removal of hereditary peers would further enhance the chamber’s democratic legitimacy. The House of Lords Act 1999 was unprincipled. It purported to remove hereditary peers but allowed 92 to remain. Occupying a place in the legislature on the basis of birth right is profoundly undemocratic.

An elected second chamber might create a balance against the power of the majority in the Commons which is largely controlled by the executive. The executive is too dominant over parliament and in particular the house of commons. A government with a five year mandate and an effective whips office amounts to an elected dictatorship. A more, democratic, representative Lords would be a more effective check on executive arrogance than the supine HOC.

Greater accountability should bring the second chamber closer to public opinion.  Members of the Lord would need to be more representative of pubic opinion and more sensitive to it in order to secure re-election

(c) Make out a case against an elected second chamber.

The arguments against an elected chamber include the following, together with evaluation:

Too many elections might cause voter fatigue, apathy and low turnouts. On the other hand it could be argued that people would vote if they felt their vote was of value. Turnouts are already historically low. The last election was 65% and the AV referendum in May 2011 was at 31%. The most recent elections for Police Commissioners had a staggeringly poor 14% turnout. In these circumstances elections for the second chamber could attract similarly low turnouts and actually damage the credibility of the new 2nd chamber.

If the democratic status of the second chamber were increased it might challenge the authority of the Commons. Challenging the authority of the commons is perhaps inevitable. If elected the second chamber would seek the same powers and rights as the house of commons. This could lead to a constitutional crisis and gridlock.

This might be seen as positive as it would challenge the ‘elective dictatorship’ of government. It would be a powerful check on growing executive power.

If it contained no majority for the government, it might result in political deadlock. Again such a balance might be desirable and might result in more consensus building

Election would eliminate the many current appointed members who represent groups in society or are experts in their field, but who would not stand for election. There is considerable expertise in the current HOL. Baroness Warnock for example is one of the world’s leading authorities on Human Embryo technology and ethics. Losing that expertise in favour of a party selected career politician would be a mistake. This is true, though the current social balance of the Lords is poor with insufficient women, younger people and members of ethnic minorities. Election might reduce this feature.

There have already been too many constitutional reforms which have proved ineffective incomplete or undesirable. This destabilises the UK political system and upsets three hundred years or more of slow evolutionary change. Whatever proposals are adopted for the Lords, each would have as many defects as virtues.

January 2011 House of Commons

Study the following passage and answer the questions that follow.

Extracts from three days proceedings of the House of Commons

January 12, 2010

x Questions to the Secretary of State for Health

x Third Reading of the Personal Care at Home Bill

January 13, 2010

x Questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland

x Questions to the Prime Minister

x Opposition Motion presented by the Leader of the Opposition: ‘That this House notes with concern the increase in the number of young people not in employment, education or training….[continued]’

x Report presented by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on global security in Afghanistan and Pakistan

January 14, 2010

x Public Bill Committee on the Financial Services Bill to consider proposed amendments to clause 26.

Source:, January, 2010.

(a) With reference to the source, describe two functions of the House of Commons.

The following functions can be identified:

Making government accountable (questioning ministers is acceptable). Ministers are held accountable through a variety of mechanisms including debates and emergency debates, pre – legislative scrutiny, correspondence with ministers, ministerial question time, opposition days and the role of departmental select committees.

Legislating. One of the primary roles of parliament is to legislate. The government’s programme rests on parliamentary approval and the government must secure the support of both the commons and the lords to retain any bill it presents

Debating issues.

Amending legislation. All legislation undergoes technical amendment to improve the quality of the legislation. IN conjunction with backbenchers the government may be willing to adopt an amendment if does not conflict too much with the intention of the bill or if it is a minor concession to backbench sentiment which increases overall support for the bill.

Scrutinising the work of government. This is really the same as point one.

(b) With reference to the source, and your own knowledge, explain how the House of Commons can control the power of government.

Methods identified in the source include:

By calling ministers to account through questioning and criticism by members or select committees. Both ministers and prime ministers are obliged to present themselves to the HOC to for questioning. Although the value of PMQT in particular is often overstated, ministerial questions, by contract, are an effective method of holding ministers of the crown to account. IN particular Select Committee appearances can be very inquisitorial and demanding of ministers and ministers may face very public and embarrassing criticism from the DSCs. The leaks from the Treasury regarding the 2012 Budget were criticised by the TSC as being “corrosive of good government.”

By questioning the prime minister and subjecting him to examination and criticism. This may still be an effective form of scrutiny although the significance of PMQs is often overstated. PMs may sometimes suffer a bruising as Brown did over his abolition of the 10p tax rate.

Through select committee investigations and reports. Select Committees matter. Their proceedings are televised, they are fiercely independent and their reports are widely distributed in the media. A critical report can cause the government acute embarrassment. When Blair tried to interfere in the Chairs of two Select Committees (Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson) he was heavily rebuffed by the commons in 2001, losing his first commons vote.

Through legislative committees examining proposed legislation. Legislative committees provide for detailed examination of a bill and opposition MPS are present. IT is their first chance to see the detail and they can therefore scrutinise exactly what the government is proposing. It should be noted though that Legislative Committees are heavily whipped.

Through debates. Debates are an important means of airing concerns, allowing government to hear from a variety of perspectives on a particular topic. Debates may have some influence on how the government proposes to legislate. In April 2013 debates were held on Human trafficking, government policies towards the disabled and gender inequality in the workplace.

Own knowledge may also include additional methods, for example:

In extreme circumstances the House can veto legislation. Even with a large majority the government can sometimes find itself on the end of a large rebellion which can threaten the bill. Blair’s proposed extension of detention without trial to 90 days was defeated on the floor of the commons. Thus far though, the coalition has not had any defeats, despite two large rebellions on Tuition Fees and Gay Marriage.

In even more extreme circumstances it can pass a vote of no confidence in government and dismiss the government. The last time the government was defeated on a commons confidence motion was in March 1979. This led to the downfall of the Callaghan administration.

Individual MPs may draw attention to grievances of constituents. Andrew Brigden has raised constituent concerns over HS2 whilst Stella Creasy (MP for Walthamstow) has raised constituent concerns over extremely high interest short term loans and the seeming lack of regulation.

Public Accounts Committee can be critical of government financial management. In March 2013 the PAC issued a report critical of the coalition’s austerity measures.

Under coalition a junior partner could exert pressure through its MPs. Nick Clegg for example threatened to veto Andrew Lansley’s health reforms by instructing Lib Dems to vote against them in 2011.

(c) To what extent is the House of Commons effective in carrying out its various functions?

Factors in effectiveness can include:

It has, albeit rarely, defied the government, e.g. Ghurkhas, In April 2009 Brown was defeated on legislation restricting the rights of Ghurkas to settle in the UK. holding terrorist suspects without trial or similar. As noted above Blair was defeated on increasing detention without trial to 90 days. Blair was also defeated on the floor of the commons when he tried to interfere with the Chairs of 2 DSCs in 2001. Thatcher was defeated in 1985 and 1986 on Student Loans and Sunday Trading despite having a parliamentary majority of 144. In 1994 Major was defeated on a plan to increase the level of VAT on domestic fuel. In October 2012 an amendment to cut the European Budget was passed despite government opposition.

Select committees have a good record of bipartisanship and forcing government to be accountable and to amend policy on occasions (e.g. defence procurement). Recently the Defence DSC criticised the government’s plans to hand over defence procurement to a non UK based company. In March 2012 the Public Administration Committee criticised the way Liam Fox’s resignation from the government was handled.

Ministers do have to be accountable regularly. This is achieved through written an oral questions and by appearances before DSCs

There is scrutiny of legislation, though limited in scope. Legislative committees provide for the detailed scrutiny of government legislation. The current Justice and Security Bill has been subject to a substantial number of amendments

There are many examples of good constituency representation.

Factors in the lack of effectiveness of the Commons can include:

The power of party loyalty, the whips etc. MPs have a natural allegiance to the party they represent and will  therefore support it most of the time. In any event they are whipped I to supporting government policy and the ultimate price for disloyalty can be deselection.

Relative weakness of legislative committees which are subject to partisan whipping. In addition the opposition is in a minority and highly unlikely to see any of its amendments adopted

Government controls the Commons agenda and MPs are given little time for their own business. Government can limit effective debating time. The PM controls the parliamentary timetable. In addition MPs have very little opportunity to effectively scrutinise the vast amount of legislation that now comes through via secondary means such as Statutory Instruments. In 2009 3,699 SIs were issued. Legislative committees are subject to the pressures of the guillotine and kangaroo motions.

MPs have poor research facilities. The 535 members of congress have 38,000 research and admin staff between them. MPs in totality will have around 1500 between them

Extensive use of prime minister’s prerogative powers. Attempts to make the exercise of the royal powers of prerogative and patronage more open and democratically accountable have failed.

Transfer of jurisdiction to the EU. This has occurred through the European Communities Act (1972) and subsequent treaties such as Maastricht and Lisbon. Devolution also limits Parliament’s influence especially in Scotland where many matters are now devolved.

The commons is still insufficiently socially and politically representative. There are 146 female MPs (about 25%) and 37 MPs from ethnic minorities (about 0.5%). In addition there is very little to zero political representation. The greens have one seat and UKIP (an emerging force) have no seats.

June 2011 Parliamentary reform

Study the following passage and answer the questions that follow.

Extracts from the document: ‘The Coalition: our programme for government ’.

We will establish five-year fixed term Parliaments. We will put a binding motion before the House of Commons stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May, 2015. Following this motion, we will legislate to make provision for fixed term Parliaments of five years.

We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies.

We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing.

We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.

We will bring forward proposals… for reform to the House of Commons… starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.

We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for public debate in Parliament.

Source: ‘The Coalition: our programme for government’, Cabinet Office, May 2010 © Crown copyright 2010

(a) With reference to the source, describe three proposals that seek to strengthen parliamentary representation by increasing popular participation.

The four proposals that increase representation are:

The electoral reform proposal. Following the decisive rejection of AV (70%-30%) in May 2011 this is no longer a viable option for the foreseeable future.

Power of recall. Recall is a term used to describe a process whereby the electorate can petition to trigger a vote between scheduled elections on the suitability of an existing elected representative to remain in office. There is currently no recall procedure in the UK although the expenses scandal of 2009 his stimulated wide debate and desire for this to be put in place. There has been the publication of a draft bill on the issue in 2011 but as yet the legislation has not been passed.

An elected/part elected second chamber Members of the Lord would need to be more representative of pubic opinion and more sensitive to it in order to secure re-election

Petitions for public debates in parliament. These petitions have been partially successful. So far, 10 petitions have reached the 100,000 signature threshold and of those, eight have been debated in Parliament, with a further one scheduled for debate when MPs return from their summer break in September. Convicted London rioters should lose all benefits (258,261 signatures); Drop the Health Bill (179,434 signatures); Full disclosure of Hillsborough documents (156,202 signatures); Return VAT on Air Ambulance fuel payments (150,885 signatures); Put Babar Ahmad on trial in the UK (149,433 signatures). Only one – which called for the government’s NHS reforms to be dropped – was not accepted by MPs because, at the time, they were already debating the issue in Parliament as part of their scrutiny of government legislation.

(b) With reference to the source, and your own knowledge, explain how three of these proposals seek to make government more accountable to Parliament.

The three proposals which are designed to make government more accountable are:

Fixed term Prior to this  reform it was held to be one the PM’s major advantages over the opposition. Thatcher and Blair elected on each occasion of choosing to favour four year terms. Callaghan on the other hand 1979 and Brown, 2010 allowed the parliament to run a full term and subsequently lost. Thatcher and Blair successfully exercised this power in 1983, 1987 and 2001& 2005 respectively. If the economy is favourable or there has been a foreign policy success Prime Ministers will look closely at the polls and seek re-election. Fixed term elections have removed this possibility

The elected/part elected second chamber. The executive is too dominant over parliament and in particular the house of commons. A government with a five year mandate and an effective whips office amounts to an elected dictatorship. A more, democratic, representative Lords would be a more effective check on executive arrogance than the supine HOC.

Committee for backbench business The committee for backbench business gives backbenchers more control over the parliamentary timetable

The proposed business committee. This was proposed by the Wright Committee of 2009 and takes some of the control away from the government.

(c) To what extent will the coalition government’s proposals bring about an effective reform of Parliament?

Either implicitly or explicitly knowledge and understanding should include material about the problems faced by parliament currently. These may include, for example,

The House of Lords lacks democratic legitimacy. It is undemocratic to have people wielding legislative power on the basis of appointment. Appointment also allows the pm to shape the political composition of the 2nd chamber without any effective check or oversight.

The House of Commons has fallen into public disrepute. This is particularly so in respect of the expenses scandals of 2009

MPs have too little time and opportunity to debate their own concerns and so call government to account. The 535 members of congress have 38,000 research and admin staff between them. MPs in totality will have around 1500 between them. It is difficult if not impossible to scrutinise the vast array of statutory instruments in each session

There has, arguably, been excessive executive control of parliament. The PM controls the parliamentary timetable. In addition MPs have very little opportunity to effectively scrutinise the vast amount of legislation that now comes through via secondary means such as Statutory Instruments. In 2009 3,699 SIs were issued. Legislative committees are subject to the pressures of the guillotine and kangaroo motions.

Parliament is politically and socially unrepresentative as a result of the electoral system and the system of appointing peers. There are 146 female MPs (about 25%) and 37 MPs from ethnic minorities (about 0.5%). In addition there is very little to zero political representation. The greens have one seat and UKIP (an emerging force) have no seats. Peerages are in the prime minister’s gift and the pm can use this power to shape and mould The House of Lords.

The discretionary exercise of the royal powers and the power of patronage reside fully with the PM with very few modifications

Knowledge and understanding should be shown of which of the coalition proposals will address these issues with accurate links made between the problem and the proposal(s) designed to create improvement.

Note: Responses which refer to only one house of parliament cannot be awarded above a level 2 mark for AO1

January 2012 Parliament:

Study the following passage and answer the questions that follow.

Select Committees

There is a House of Commons select committee for each government department, examining three aspects: spending, policies and administration. These departmental select committees have a minimum of 11 members, who decide upon a line of inquiry and then gather written and oral evidence. Findings are reported to the Commons, printed, and published on the Parliament website. The government then usually has 60 days to reply to the committee’s recommendations.

Following the adoption by the House of Commons of recommendations from the Reform of the House of Commons Committee:

x Departmental select committee chairs are elected by their fellow MPs

x A backbench business committee has been established with the ability to schedule business in the Commons chamber and in Westminster Hall on days, or parts of days, set aside for non-government business.

Legislative committees

Both Houses of Parliament refer legislation to committees for detailed discussion and approval. These committees are part of the process of making laws. They scrutinise proposed laws and may consider amendments to improve the legislation. Amendments approved in legislative committees must be approved by the whole House.

Source: adapted from, October, 2010.

(a) With reference to the source, why are legislative committees needed?

They are needed to scrutinise proposed legislation. The legislation must be looked at in detail. This may imply checking that it is clear, fair and takes account of the interests of different groups.

MPs may be able to improve the legislation from its original draft. For example the current crime and Justice Bill has received very thorough scrutiny. Many amendments made to legislation are also to improve the quality of the bill.

(b) With reference to the source and your own knowledge, explain the ways in which backbench MPs can call government to account.

From the source, MPs can call government to account in these ways :

By examining critically proposed legislation (legislative committees). Both Houses refer legislation to committees for detailed discussion and approval. These committees are part of the process of making laws and include public bill committees, delegated legislation committees and committees on private bills

By examining the work of government departments (select committees). These will take evidence from witnesses such as civil servants and ministers and may call for official papers. They report back to parliament, possibly being critical and proposing reforms. Recently the Defence DSC criticised the government’s plans to hand over defence procurement to a non UK based company. In March 2012 the Public Administration Committee criticised the way Liam Fox’s resignation from the government was handled. Select Committees matter. Their proceedings are televised, they are fiercely independent and their reports are widely distributed in the media. A critical report can cause the government acute embarrassment. When Blair tried to interfere in the Chairs of two Select Committees (Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson) he was heavily rebuffed by the commons in 2001, losing his first commons vote.

Through questions to ministers and the prime minister, MPs highlight areas of policy and specific decisions which need to be explained and justified and which may be criticised. Both ministers and prime ministers are obliged to present themselves to the HOC to for questioning. Although the value of PMQT in particular is often overstated, ministerial questions, by contract, are an effective method of holding ministers of the crown to account.

In debates, general and on bills, MPs may force government to explain and justify policies.

There are also opportunities for backbench MPs to call government to account on the floor of the house, for example in adjournment debates, 10 minute rule and on supply days now controlled by the backbench business committee. For example DSCs (Departmental Select Committees) are scrutiny committees of the House. They can “call for persons or papers” compelling the production of documents and the appearance of ministers. They issue reports which are sometimes damaging. The Treasury Select Committee criticised the 2012 budget leaks as being “corrosive of good government.”  There are many other modes of holding government to account such as correspondence with ministers, ministerial and prime ministerial question time, debates and emergency debates  and opposition days.

(c) To what extent has the formation of a coalition altered the relationship between Parliament and government?

The nature of a coalition will be explained, either explicitly or implicitly. The following key issues are likely to be raised :

Collective responsibility has been weakened and so there are more opportunities for parliament to examine and exploit conflicts within government. Vince Cable (Business Secretary) for example has clashed with George Osborne (Chancellor) on more than one occasion. Government have more problems passing controversial legislation as party discipline is weaker. Some conservative MPs resent power sharing with the liberal democrats. This was demonstrated, for example, in the vote on the raising of university tuition fees. 21 Lib Dem MPs rebelled and refused to support the policy.

In a number of policy areas coalition means that MPs from either coalition partner are allowed to vote how they wish, in other words, whipping is used less so the Commons is more independent than it used to be. There is in effect a dual whip system – one for each of the parties to the coalition.

The House of Lords has become more assertive partly because the governments mandate has become unclear.  In 2012-2013 the government has suffered 48 defeats in the Lords on issue s such as legal aid reform, welfare reform and local government finance.

Some can argue that there has been no fundamental change in the relationship between the Commons and the government. Because of the need both parties have to see that the coalition does not unravel, there has been a very deep commitment to the coalition programme especially from Clegg and Alexander.

It is also true that the government has not lost any of its legislation in the Commons and the way in which committees and scrutiny operate have not changed fundamentally. Coalition has had only minor effects on the way in which parliament conducts its business.

January 2013

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With reference to the source, outline two criticisms of David Cameron’s appointments to the House of Lords.

The source contains the following criticisms :

  • It is becoming too large.
  • Cameron is rewarding party donors.
  • It is generally undemocratic.
  • If too large it will be cumbersome and find it difficult to legislate or do its other work effectively.
  • Rewarding party donors which may be viewed as politically corrupt and certainly undemocratic as it is an unjustified reason for such appointments.
  • Any cogent explanation of the term ‘undemocratic’.

With reference to the source and your own knowledge, explain three considerations that are taken into account when appointing life peers

The source contains the following considerations :

In order to restore the balance of party support in the Lords to close to that of the Commons, reflecting the popular will.

In order to reward donors for their support for the governing party(ies)

Other considerations not in the source might include :

As a reward for a career as a loyal party supporter.

An individual might represent a significant section of society.

A ‘worthy’ citizen might be able to contribute effectively to the legislative process.

In order to reflect the more diverse nature of society.

Simply as an honour.

Assess the arguments in favour of a largely or wholly elected second chamber.

The main arguments in favour of the a largely or wholly elected second chamber, together with the possible problems associated with them, might include some of these :

It would be more democratic. BUT this might depend on the electoral system used.

It could be a counterbalance to the overwhelming power of the Commons. BUT it may simply be a mirror image of the Commons.

It would raise the legitimacy of the second chamber, making it more effective. BUT it might become too powerful and make government ineffective.

It would make the Lords accountable, BUT it might also strengthen party control over the second chamber.

Any other arguments with accompanying assessments. Structures may simply explain the arguments in favour first and then explain the issues in the second part of the answer.

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June 2010 To what extent does Parliament control executive power?

The reasons why Parliament is considered so weak, and the analysis of the reasons why this is so, include :

Government usually has an overall majority. The analysis is that the electoral system virtually guarantees this.

The power of prime ministerial patronage renders many MPs excessively docile and loyal. Hence the term ‘lobby fodder’. The analysis is that many, perhaps most, MPs are ambitious and therefore prefer to be loyal to the P.M. who has sole power over government appointments.

Party loyalty is very strong. The analysis is that MPs are elected under a party manifesto and have a strong mandate to support the party’s policies. Defying the party leadership might be seen as a betrayal of the mandate.

The whips have great influence. The analysis is that they can be both persuasive and threatening. They have influence over careers and in extreme circumstances can threaten suspension from the party or can persuade a local party to ‘de-select’ them.

MPs lack research back-up, expertise and political support. This is set against the fact that government is backed by political advisers and the massive civil service.

Collective responsibility inhibits parliament’s ability to call government effectively to account. The analysis is that collective responsibility means govt. presents a united front making it difficult to elicit information about policy.

Individual ministerial responsibility is also weak, making accountability difficult to enforce.

The House of Lords is weak because it lacks democratic legitimacy and, arguably, professionalism as well as some of the other weaknesses suffered by the Commons.

The lack of constitutional checks and balances (notably over prerogative powers) renders parliament weak.

The reasons why Parliament remains effective are:

Select Committees are able to act independent and scrutinise departments effectively.

Parliament does ultimately have a veto on legislation and has used it, albeit sparingly.

The House of Lords has been effective in recent years in amending and delaying legislation.

Ultimately Parliament can dismiss a Government.

Under some circumstances, notably a small Government majority, or no majority the effectiveness of parliament may be increased.

June 2012: How Effective are backbench MPs?

The roles of backbench MPs (also the role of the Commons in general) include the following, together with factors determining positive and negative factors affecting effectiveness. :

Representing the interests of constituents – Some opportunities exist to raise issues. MPs vary in how much constituency work they do.

Representing various sections of the community and political causes. Varies from MP to MP. Some can be effective, e.g. Caroline Lucas.

Debating issues in the Chamber. Largely ritualised, unlikely to influence outcomes.Work on select committees. Strong influence and becoming stronger. Examples include work of Tom Watson

Work on legislative committees. Whipped and unlikely to have any influence.

Work on party policy committees. Decreasing role in view of think tanks and policy agencies.

Sometimes developing private member’s legislation. Rare and difficult.

Calling ministers and government generally to account. Some success, though ministers are adept at avoiding answers. MPs lack the resources and formal powers to compel ministerial compliance.

January 2012 To what extent has the location of sovereignty in the UK changed in recent years?

(Also could be seen as a constitutions question)

Full knowledge and understanding of the meaning of sovereignty.

Knowledge shown of distinctions between the classic account of sovereignty and political meanings of the softer, more flexible approach to sovereignty.

The legal sovereignty of parliament is mainly challenged by the EU. Knowledge of the relationship between the UK and the EU should be full and exemplified.

Devolution is often seen as a de facto transfer of sovereignty.

Knowledge of the relationships between Westminster and the devolved administrations. Referendums can also be seen in the same light as devolution.

Investigation of the transfer of political sovereignty over a long period to executive government and the prime minister.

There should be a clear statement of how legal sovereignty remains with parliament.

 June 2013

‘The House of Lords is now more effective than the House of Commons in checking government power.’ Discuss.

June 2014

Parliament carries out none of its functions adequately. Discuss.

June 2015

The House of Commons is in greater need of Reform than the House of Lords. Discuss.

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