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Select committees: Parliament is not dead

Sunday, September 25, 2011
by Mike McCartney

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There are ongoing debates about what useful purpose Parliament serves

A recent report by the Home Affairs Select Committee criticising the government’s policy on the police once again highlights how Parliament performs an important oversight function.

According to the BBC:

“The Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism role should be given to the new National Crime Agency when it becomes operational in 2013, MPs say.

The Home Affairs Select Committee says the change would mean less intervention in the Met by the Home Secretary and its accountability would be clearer.

Its adds that uncertainty over police reforms for England and Wales could be damaging to the 43 forces.”

We can add this latest example to a study note below that I have written on how Parliament checks the executive…

There is a range of ways in which Parliament can effectively control the executive

• In response to the idea that we live in a post-parliamentary system Parliament could say, as Mark Twain did, ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’

• In parliamentary systems, where the executive is drawn from the legislature, the government introduces legislation but it must gain the assent of both Houses of Parliament before it becomes law.  Debates on bills constitute around 40% of the time spent on the floor of the House and, in theory, give backbenchers the opportunity to influence the shape of legislation with their speeches.  Votes on bills don’t always go the way the government would like.  A good example of MPs defeating a major proposal by the government is the rejection of Blair’s plans to extend the detention of terrorist suspects to 90 days.

• The idea that MPs are simply lobby fodder has been challenged in recent times, and it can be argued that this picture is misleading. New research on the voting behaviour of coalition MPs suggests rebellion is at a postwar high. In the last parliament backbench rebellions began to cause government major headaches, and the party whipping system did not seem as strong as has traditionally been the case. The rebellions clearly went beyond the usual suspects given that 112 Labour backbenchers went against the government at least once – this was nearly one third of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Reporting on research by Phil Cowley at the University of Nottingham the This week the Guardian reported that Con-Lib MPs have gone against the whip on the majority of votes:

o “Backbench rebellions against the government have been more frequent in this parliament than any since the second world war, according to new research, with 59 rebellions out of the first 110 votes. This is double the rate during the last Labour government and almost nine times as frequent as the post-war average, suggesting for some MPs rebellion against the coalition is becoming a habit.”

• The ‘great reformer’, William Gladstone, said to Members of Parliament that ‘Your business is not to govern the country, but it is, if you think fit, to call to account those who do’. One of the ways in which MPs can do this is consider government actions on the floor of the House via debates and Question Time.  Viewer numbers for BBC Parliament are tiny but however small these numbers might be and despite politicians appear on TV in much less formal shows, e.g. Tony Blair on Richard and Judy, this does not diminish the fact that our national assembly sets the tone for political debate.  We mustn’t forget that Parliament was recalled for the Falklands as well as after September 11th.  Why? Because the people expect it.  How many times do we see political correspondents start off their report with ‘Today at Westminster…’?  Clearly our Parliament is effective in this respect and seeks to become even more so. 

• MPs have had some success in effectively controlling the executive off the floor, i.e. away from the chamber, of the Commons.  Early day motions (EDMs) are tabled by MPs to register disquiet about the direction of government policy.  An example of their effectiveness comes from 2002 when over 300 MPs signed a motion for a mostly elected second chamber, thereby helping to effectively torpedo the government’s plans for a 20% elected chamber.  In late 2005 an EDM signed by 33 MPs served as a warning to Blair that his plans for more independence for schools would need greater consultation with MPs.

• A major development in the ability of the House of Commons to control the executive is the introduction of departmental select committees in the UK in 1979.  These non-partisan bodies can call for ‘persons, papers and records’ and can be seen to have resulted in more open government and act as a useful deterrent on an over mighty executive.  Furthermore, the Prime Minister is now called to answer questions twice a year by the Liaison Committee. Peter Riddell has argued that select committees have ‘been a major factor in the opening up of the workings of government over the past twenty years.’  Successes include:

o Blowing the whistle on the government’s Arms-to-Africa affair in 1999 by the Foreign Affairs committee

o A scathing attack on transport policy in 2002, and in 2005 the House of Commons Select Committee covering the work of the ODPM has criticised the
work of the department calling it ‘ineffective’. 

o In July 2007, the constitutional affairs committee concluded that following a series of controversies the role of the Attorney General was ‘not sustainable’ and should be reformed.

o In October 2006, a report from the powerful Public Accounts Committee (which predates the 1979 committees and is traditionally headed by a member of the opposition) claimed that a shortage of high quality head teachers was to blame for at least a million children being taught in ‘second-rate’ schools.

• It is argued that the House of Lords has become a more effective check on the executive than the House of Commons: it has had more success in amending legislation than the usually more compliant Commons.  There is a certain irony here that the House of Lords has been more willing to give the government a bloody nose after it has succeeded in ejecting mass numbers of hereditary peers.  In 2005 there was the biggest dispute between the two chambers for nearly a hundred years over the Prevention of Terrorism, and in 2006 the Lords rejected plans for a compulsory ID card scheme for the third time.  Independence has been furthered by Lib Dem peers jettisoning the ‘Salisbury convention’ which traditionally restricted the ability of the Lords to vote down government manifesto bills.  Praise has also been made of the independent expertise in the Lords investigative committees.  Unlike the Commons equivalents they don’t shadow departments but tend to be ad hoc and focus on special issues.  The European Union Committee, which scrutinises draft EU legislation, has influenced the government in recognising the need to set up people smuggling units in urban police forces.

• The House of Lords continues to act as a useful check on government. In 2005-2006 the Lords defeated the government on 53 occasions. This was not a one off.  According to Meg Russell at the Constitution Unit, the average number of defeats since the 1999 reforms is 49 per year.  Russell also adds that many of these defeats are ‘substantial and lasting’. As Rachel Sylvester wrote in The Times recently: “Instinctively civil libertarian and surprisingly anti-establishment, the Upper Chamber is unpredictable and determinedly independent.”

• Ultimately the House of Commons can refuse to sustain the government in power.  On four separate occasions the government has been brought down by a confidence motion: 1895, 1924 (twice), and in 1979 when an Opposition motion of no confidence in the Callaghan Government was carried with a majority of one.  The result led to the dissolution of Parliament and the victory of the Conservative Party in the following General Election.

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