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Does the UK parliament limit executive power?

In modern Britain the UK Parliament is meant to play the role of checking the Executive or Government and scrutinising what it does.

Political philosophers argued that the separation of powers in a political system was important for democracy. This was so the Executive/Government, the Judiciary and the Legislature are mostly independent of each other and act as a system of checks and balances.

These ideas were fundamental to the American constitution. This was partly as a reaction to the British system. At the time the Monarch was appointing judges. The Monarch also had ministers and election managers in Parliament. They sought, using bribery if necessary, to make sure that the Government won elections.

Checking and Scrutinising the UK Executive

The two ideas of checking and scrutiny are not the same, though they do overlap. 

Parliament will check the Government if it stops it from doing things because it does not agree with them. 

Scrutiny is a process by which Parliament examines what the Government is doing and forces the Government to make a reasoned case for its policies and proposals. Parliament should ask:-

The questions the UK Parliament should ask of its Executive

  • Is Government 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?

If Parliament does this job of scrutiny well then it may have the effect of checking the Government. Why? Because the evidence of things not being done properly, especially if highlighted in the media, may cause the Government to change what it is doing.

The only real means of forcing the Government to change is through a Parliamentary vote and not even all of these are binding on the Government. For example, the vote in October 2014 on recognising Palestine as a state.

The Powers of the UK Parliament

Parliament does have ultimate power over the Executive because:-

  • The Government can be removed if it loses a vote in Parliament on a motion of confidence
  • Parliament has to approve legislation
  • Parliamentary votes on many issues are seen to be binding on the Government, for example the vote against air strikes in Syria.
  • Parliament can vote a reduction in a Minister’s salary as a sign of disapproval of what they have done.

In practice a Government with a Parliamentary majority can normally get through what it wants.