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Topic updates

An update on a key British Politics topic

Mike McCartney

14th January 2021

The ability of the legislature to check the executive

There is lots of evidence on the one hand to support the idea that 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.’

For example:

  • 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 – much of this based on research on MPs voting by Philip Cowley
  • 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.
  • MPs have had some success in effectively controlling the executive off the floor, i.e. away from the chamber, of the Commons – eg Early day motions (EDMs) are tabled by MPs to register disquiet about the direction of government policy.
  • 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.
  • 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. Research Meg Russsell of the Constitution Unit at UCL and detailed in her book ‘The Contemporary House of Lords: Bicameralism Revisited’. The Lords now defeats the government over 50 times a year, on average.

But one trusts that readers of this blog are aware of the scant level of parliamentary scrutiny given to the post-Brexit trade bill. It is something akin to situational irony where leaving the EU was supposedly intended to lead to the restoration of the British parliament’s ability to govern the country free from the interference from faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, when the nation’s legislature was reduced to nothing more than an afterthought on the very piece of law that determines the UK’s trade relations with its biggest trading bloc. The scrutiny of the bill was allotted just one day of the Parliament’s timetable and in the end the committee stage (which was a committee of the whole house, given the bill’s supposed ‘importance’) was completed in under five minutes (more or less the time this writer can run a mile in).

As the Guardian noted: ‘The government published an 80-page draft version of the bill on Tuesday, giving MPs less than 24 hours to study it ahead of parliament being recalled for a day on Wednesday to approve the deal. The bill, expected to be voted on by MPs at 2.30pm, will then also have to clear the Lords before it receives royal assent either late on Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.

The fast-tracking of the legislation has been strongly condemned by the Hansard Society, a leading source of independent research on parliamentary affairs. Brigid Fowler, a senior researcher who is a highly respected expert on parliamentary processes, said it amounted to an “abdication of parliament’s constitutional responsibilities to deliver proper scrutiny of the executive and the law”.’

Source: Johnson to hail 'historic resolution' as Brexit bill comes before Commons | Brexit | The Guardian

And while we’re at it, on a similar vein, questions need to be asked about Parliament’s role in scrutinising other trade deals made by the government. In this case, Turkey.

Without getting into discussion of post EU membership trade rollovers, suffice it to say, that questions have been asked about the nature of a fast-track deal with a country with a less than glossy human rights record. This is what Simon Tisdall in The Observer had to say on the matter:

The UK’s new trade agreement with Turkey, signed last week, ignores the Turkish government’s continuing human rights abuses, boosts its dangerous president, and undermines ministerial pledges that “global Britain” will uphold international laws and values. The deal took effect on 1 January without even rudimentary parliamentary scrutiny. Here, stripped of lies and bombast, is the dawning reality of Boris Johnson’s scruple-free post-Brexit world.

Source: ‘Global Britain’ is willing to trade away everything. Including scruples | Foreign policy | The Guardian

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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