All About Parliament
What are parliament's methods of scrutiny?
Each method is explained and then the limits to it are given underneath in italics.
There are a number of ways in which Parliament is able to scrutinise the Executive
There is an exhaustive process of looking at legislation with Second and Thirds Readings and the Report Stage, with the possibility of passing amendments at the Report Stage. A Public Bill Committee listens to evidence from outside groups and can discuss and amend a Bill clause by clause. A Finance Bill that sets out the Government’s Budget (in effect its taxation proposals) goes through the same process. There is a similar process in the House of Lords. Some Bills are subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by Committees before they are introduced formally.
The whole of the discussion in the Commons is controlled by the whips and the Government whips will look to make sure that the Government prevails. Defeats are very rare even on amendments and Mrs Thatcher’s Governments only failed to carry one Bill in eleven years. After the Second Reading a programme motion is passed by the Government to limit the time for discussion on the Bill and Public Bill Committees never get to discuss all the clauses, even though Bills have been getting longer and longer on average. The Whips decide which MPs go on a Public Bill Committee and will look to keep off MPs who may not agree to aspects of the Bill and even keep off those with real expertise on the subject in case they argue against the Government. Almost all amendments come from the Government because civil servants have suggested last minute improvements. Major changes to legislation mostly come about because the whips find that a large group of Government backbenchers are unhappy with the provisions and so the Bill is amended to satisfy them. The Finance Bill contains complicated provisions in areas such as company taxation in which few MPs have much expertise and the discussions on it tend to become a battle between Government and Opposition on economic policy. The Government decides which Bills should go to pre-legislative scrutiny.
A principle of the Constitution is that Ministers are Accountable to Parliament. Thus Ministers have to be MPs (or members of the House of Lords) and appear in Parliament to justify their policies. 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 in 1982 had not been foreseen.
Although the House of Commons is pretty effective in these situations, MPs can only make individual points and not follow a whole line of questioning . Ministers have civil service resources to brief them compared with the limited research backing that MPs have. In most cases, Ministers resign because media pressure is intense and Government backbenchers are unhappy with their handling of the situation. In the Matrix Churchill case in 1992, Government Ministers had not told the Commons, despite questions from MPs, that the Government had changed its policy and was encouraging a firm to sell arms to Iraq. The Directors of the company were about to be prosecuted because the sale of arms was still illegal. The trial collapsed after the change of policy was revealed and the Scott Report detailed the misleading of Parliament, but no ministers resigned as a result.
The Prime Minister on Wednesdays answers questions from the Leader of the Opposition and other MPs. Prime Ministers do not know what questions will be asked and have to anticipate a whole range of issues and have almost always hated the process. Departmental Ministers take it in turn over the weeks to answer questions from MPs on issues related to their Department. The current Speaker has been increasingly ready to accept Emergency Questions from MPs, if an issue arises, so that they do not have to wait until the next available Departmental question time. MPs can also put down Written Questions to Ministers and receive a written reply. Questions thus provide a means by which MPs can investigate any issue and written questions can develop a line of investigation.
Prime Minister’s Questions, which only became significant after the Commons was televised, has become a gladiatorial contest with the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister and many of the MPs making political points rather than seriously trying to investigate an issue. Departmental questions are more effective but civil servants are expert in drafting answers that only give the bare minimum of an answer and can also argue that it is too expensive to collect the information that the MP wants or that the topic is a matter of national security or commercial confidentiality and so cannot be answered.
These can be initiated by the Government or the Opposition or by a Committee recently set up to allow Backbenchers to debate issues. Government Ministers will introduce a topic and can be questioned by MPs or reply to points made by MPs.
Government and Opposition debates are normally on topics that divide the parties and so become a set piece for party arguments rather than carry out any real investigation of the topic.
A Committee matches each Government Department and can investigate any issue within the remit of that Department. It consists of about 11 MPs from the various parties, in proportion to how many MPs they have in the House of Commons as a whole. Only backbench MPs can sit on the Committees. The MPs can call for evidence and interview anyone, for example, interest groups, private sector firms and the bodies that represent particular industries, Government agencies, Government ministers, civil servants, academics and so on. Although they do not have the power of a court of law to force people to attend their hearings it is now pretty much accepted that people do attend and it would be very difficult for a Government minister not to come. Select Committees have generally been seen as the most effective form of scrutiny in the Commons and have produced reports that are authoritative
The Public Accounts Committee has been in existence much longer than the Departmental Committees but operates on similar lines, with the Chair always an experienced Opposition MP. It can investigate any area of Government expenditure. There is also a National Audit Office which has a trained staff and can go into and investigate any Government Department and Agency and reports to Parliament and not to Ministers.
The quality of investigation by Departmental Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee depends on how well briefed MPs are and how skilled they are in following a line of questions to the witnesses. MPs do not have the experience and training of, say, barristers in questioning witnesses in court. Select Committees do not have the power of a court of law to require people to attend or require information to be made available. They can only cover a limited number of topics in any one session compared with the range of things that Government is doing. The Public Accounts Committee only really looks at spending after it has happened and waste has already occurred. The Government has to reply to a Select Committee report but does not have to act on its recommendations. Few reports are debated in Parliament. Although they are improving, Select Committees have tended to investigate a topic and then not come back to it to see what has changed. They have also had limited ability to investigate Departmental spending and also tend to choose immediate problems rather than look forward to major issues that will have to be dealt with.
There is a general imbalance between Parliament and Government and aspects of the British system that limit Parliamentary power:-
Party loyalty and control is strong. MPs have been chosen to stand by their local parties, they are elected on a party basis and their constituency parties expect them to follow party policies. They have often spent their whole lives being involved with their party. A Government with a majority can rely on its MPs to almost always support it. In addition, the MPs who are Government Whips work constantly to head off any potential rebellions. If MPs are too rebellious they can have the whip withdrawn so that they will be opposed by an official candidate of their party at the next election.
The Government does not require Parliament’s approval under the legal principle of the Royal Prerogative which means that the powers that used to belong to the monarch have passed to Government ministers. These include the appointment of ministers, refusal to give someone a passport , the declaration of war, whether countries should be recognised and the signing of treaties. It has now been accepted though that major changes in EU powers such as the Maastricht treaty and key decisions such as the war against Iraq in 2003 and the recent decision on airstrikes in Syria and Iraq should be approved by Parliament .
Some areas of legislation are so large that Parliament does not have time to look at them. Most legislation gives ministers the power to issue secondary legislation to fill in the details and Parliament receives draft EU directives. There are thousands of these each year and Parliament only considers a tiny proportion.
Government ministers run large departments with full-time civil servants while backbench MPs have only one or two researchers to investigate issues. The imbalance in resources means that MPs have difficulty in investigating more than a few Government policies.
Departmental Select Committees
Parliament has for some time had Committees of MPs to investigate issues, but in 1979 a comprehensive system of Select Committees was set up. It has the following features:-
- A Committee matches each Government Department and can investigate any issue within the remit of that Department.
- It consists of about 11 MPs from the various parties in proportion to how many MPs they have in the House of Commons as a whole. Only backbench MPs can sit on the Committees.
- The Chair of each Select Committee is chosen by MPs in a secret ballot. The Whips did decide which MPs go onto Select Committees but since 2010 they are now chosen by their respective backbenchers
- The MPs can call for evidence and interview anyone, for example, interest groups, private sector firms and the bodies that represent particular industries, Government agencies, Government ministers, civil servants, academics and so on. Although they do not have the power of a court of law to force people to attend their hearings it is now pretty much accepted that people do attend and it would be very difficult for a Government minister not to come.
- The Committee almost always agrees a report with recommendations across party lines. The Government has to reply to the report but does not have to implement it.