The House of Commons is part of the legislative process of British Politics. The House of Commons currently has 647 MP’s sitting in it and the Commons is seen as a cradle of democracy where even a government with a huge parliamentary majority can see that majority dwindle if party members vote against the government – as the 2004 tuition fee issue demonstrated. With the exception of by-elections, every MP in the Commons has to go before their constituents every 5 years. The principle function of the Commons is to scutinise government bills and vote on them – therefore having a vital input in to how laws are made in this country.
Some would argue that one of the most important functions of the House of Commons is that it is the most important political forum in the country where, when in session, it can exchange views between spokes people for the Government and the opposition.
This idea of a political forum in theory is taken further in reality in that following a General Election, the choice of Government is a matter for the Commons in the senses that:
q the leader of the party with the greatest number of MPs (not necessarily the greatest number of votes) is expected to become Prime Minister.
q and that Prime Minister then chooses the political heads of the Government (the Cabinet and Ministers) from existing Commons Members of Parliament (though there are also about 25 out of about 120 chosen from the House of Lords). However, the most important Cabinet positions are given to serving MP’s from the House of Commons.
This picture of the Commons as a direct broker of Governments is probably exaggerated. The choice is now largely determined by the electorate, so that the Government is really settled on election night and not a week or so later when Parliament actually assembles – unless perhaps no party wins an overall majority which has not occurred in British politics in modern times. The conflicting interpretations being presented here have been categorised as two different models:
– the Westminster model – power flows from the electorate to Parliament which chooses and controls the executive;
– or the Whitehall model – the electorate chooses the Government and Parliament is there to confirm that choice as an electoral college and then to serve Government and ensure it works effectively in accordance with its mandate. The role of MPs is on this view to facilitate and improve a government’s programme by exploring and testing them but ultimately approving them. In short, Parliament is a critical rather than governmental body.
This prime role is bolstered by the televising of Parliamentary proceedings which began in November 1989. However, television coverage is rather stunted and tends to be confined to short excerpts from Question Time. Major debates are, however, often broadcast by radio.
Parliament is now virtually the only source of legislation. The main, but very limited, exception is legislation under the prerogative e.g. in regard to civil servants at GCHQ. This power to legislate is especially important in so far as Article 4 goes on to provide that Acts of Parliament alone (and not the prerogative as recognised in earlier common law cases) can authorise the levying of taxes. Together, these Articles are vital in ensuring that the executive accounts to Parliament, and both give Parliament some leverage over the Government. The Government constantly needs grants of taxation (the annual budget is about £250billion). Because of the effect of the Parliament Acts 1911-49 and convention, the House of Common is of far greater importance in these matters than the House of Lords.
But, as with the first function, one can exaggerate the power of Parliament. In reality, Parliament largely reacts to legislation initiated by the Government. It does not initiate its own legislative programme reflecting its own policies, and few Acts are passed which are not sponsored (i.e. put forward) by Government Ministers. As before, our constitution is said to enshrine the idea of Parliamentary Government. This does not mean that Parliament governs but that the Government must work through Parliament.
Scrutiny of policies and administration:
The Commons next has the task of scrutinising the Government’s policies and administration of its policies. Once again, Parliament has few policies of its own and certainly no coherent overall programme which rivals that of the Government – its functions are mainly to examine and react to the Government’s policies and actions. The alternative to the Government is the Official Opposition not Parliament per se
|“Instead of the function of governing, for which it is radically unfit, the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government .” J S Mills|
Parliament is expected to sustain, scrutinise and influence rather than block Government. After all, most MPs are elected on the basis that they support the Government’s policies. Parliament thus provides legitimacy for Government in the sense that its approval can be seen as representing the assent of the electorate.
The UK has a representative democracy rather than a participatory democracy. MPs, once elected, are not then the direct agents of the electorate but are allowed a wide discretion to represent their electorate as they think fit. The electorate has no further say, whether by referendum or otherwise, but merely endorses at election time – possibly as far apart as every five years – one candidate or another. This position has been changed to some extent by an increase in party activism in the Labour Party/government and more generally by a post-1945 growth in pressure groups.
The final task of the Commons is the redress of specific grievances. All MPs, even the Prime Minster, are elected by a specific locality (constituency) in which they are the sole representative and link with Parliament. It follows that they are seen as having constituency interests and responsibilities. In other words, they ask questions or raise matters in debate concerning the problems of their area and constituents. This work is often done informally and behind the scenes by meetings in the constituency and by letters to, and discussion with, ministers or civil servants. MPs receive millions of letters a year primarily from their constituents (as many as 50%). The majority of these letters are concerned with individual matters – council housing, welfare benefits and so on. The input is said to be about 40,000 letters per year per MP and the output around 30,000, so this work is an important part of the work-load as well as providing an important source of information. Its political impact may be limited nationally but is locally significant. The MP may meet 10% of constituents, and though it has been reckoned that the best efforts are worth only about 1500 votes, this number could affect the result in about 20 constituencies.
A report by the Fabian Society in 1998 suggests that there are far too many MPs and that they engage in far too much constituency work which they are ill-equipped to deal with. It recommends that the number of MPs be reduced by 200 and that a parliamentary official be appointed to look into individual grievances.
Another aspect of the redress of grievances is private legislation i.e. legislation sponsored by private individuals. This is now relatively rare, primarily as parliamentary time does not allow for it. Along similar lines is local legislation, i.e. legislation sponsored by local authorities and applying only to their own area e.g. West Yorkshire Act 1980. Again this is now rare as time does not allow for it.
The Commons finally fulfils this role by receiving public petitions which are then sent to the relevant Minister who is expected to print a reply or they may even be debated if urgent. The petition is an increasingly popular way of raising the political profile of an issue. It is also a way of allowing a small degree of participation by the electorate in the business of Parliament.