What are the functions of parliament?
Parliament is held to have a range of roles within our political system:-
In a formal sense the Parliament has to approve legislation, taxation and public spending. But these originate from the Government, ministers and civil servants, rather than Parliament and, in practice, a Government that has a majority in Parliament can get through what it wants without much in the way of change. Nevertheless the Governments backbenchers are important and if they strongly disapprove of a proposal the Government may have to modify it or even abandon it as the Major Government had to on Royal Mail privatisation.
In a general sense passing the Government’s proposals give legitimacy to them in the eyes of the public. Political Legitimacy might be seen to exist for the Government because it has been elected but writers have seen the concept as more complicated than that. Weber basically saw legitimacy as existing because people in society see their institutions as legitimate and this may have come about because they have been there a long time, because people have faith in the leaders than operate these institutions, or because they see the legal system that surrounds these institutions as fair in its operation. At present in Britain we could argue that there is a crisis of legitimacy in relation to political leadership even though there may be respect of Parliament as an ancient institution and in the legal system. David Beetham, much more recently, has argued that more important is both input legitimacy, whether people believe in the way the people who run Parliament are chosen, and output legitimacy, whether people are satisfied with the policies that emanate from Parliament. The first raises questions about how MPs and members of the House of Lords are chosen, including the electoral system, and the second about whether peoples concerns are being addressed by Parliament.
Parliament is meant to bring the Government to account and question it if it looks as if it has done something wrong. The constitutional principle of Ministerial Accountability is that ministers have to be in Parliament to answer for what their Departments are doing. When there is a major change of policy or a serious international situation or major blunders in the Department the Prime Minister or the appropriate Minister will make a statement and be questioned by MPs. Sometimes Ministers have resigned because of major mistakes that their Department has made for example the Foreign Office Ministers because the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina had not been foreseen.
Parliament is also meant to carry out a broader process of the scrutiny of Government legislation, spending and policy. Scrutiny is a process by which Parliament examines what the Government is doing and forces the Government to make a reason case for what its policies and proposals. Parliament should ask:-
- Is its legislation clear and capable of being implemented in practice? Will it have the desired effect? Does it harm particular groups unfairly?
- Is it spending public money efficiently? Are the agencies that spend the money accountable?
- Are its proposals for taxation workable and are they fair as between different groups?
- Are its policies in domestic and foreign affairs working? Do they have clear aims? Is Government monitoring their effect? Is it assessing alternative policies?
There are a number of ways in which this happens with the Departmental Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee being the most effective in the Commons because they do not work on political party lines. The House of Lords, where party control is weaker, is often more effective than the Commons in scrutinising legislation.
Parliament should be the forum for debate about major decisions such as whether to commit to military action or whether to change the voting system. Another major debate is the relative merits of the policies of the Government and the Opposition. In practice this mostly takes place through media reporting of these debates, although many people now watch Prime Ministers Questions live on television.
Parliament is a place where the concerns of different groups in society can be raised. Backbench MPs have various means by which they can raise issues including Questions, Adjournment debates and Westminster Hall debates. These also provide ways in which issues brought to them by their constituents can be discussed. It can also be used by MPs to raise questions about the problems in other countries and what the Government is doing about it.
As Ministers have to be in Parliament, Westminster acts as a way of recruiting and developing political leaders. Raising issues in Parliament demonstrates the quality of backbenchers and may lead to them being picked for ministerial office. Facing questions in Parliament tests the ability of Ministers to deal with issues and can make or break their reputations.