Parliament is the supreme law-making body
The UK Parliament is the UK’s supreme law-making body. Normally the Prime Minister will be able to enact a programme through its majority in Parliament. For much of the later 19th and 20th Century, this form of rule of the country has been possible and the Prime Minister who enjoyed a good majority and loyal support of its MP’s (Members of Parliament) has been in a very powerful position. Yet at times the government has had a slender or no majority and has had to bend to the will of Parliament, as can be seen in the current Parliament which has been called “a backbenchers’ Parliament” (Hilary Benn).
The call of history
Today’s Parliament is the product of a long history of periodic struggle and is very respected within the UK. Britain’s democracy evolved and was not an instant creation. Parliament is a very old body, dating back at least to the reign of Henry III when Simon de Montfort called an English Parliament in 1258 that included representatives from the shires and boroughs, the “Commons”, as well as the peers of the realm or “Lords”. Parliament evolved as a useful tool for the monarch for raising taxes and for making laws that had been consented to and thus more enforceable. It was Parliament that enacted the massive religious changes of the English Reformation or break with Rome in the 1530’s.
In the 17th Century, Parliament became the focus of a conflict between the authoritarian and quasi-Catholic tendencies of the Stuart Monarchy and the increasingly libertarian and Protestant ambitions of the gentry and part of the aristocracy. After a Civil War (1642-6), the regicide of Charles I (1649) and the restoration of the monarchy (1660) this eventually in 1688-9 resulted in a Revolution Settlement that guaranteed a fundamental role for Parliament and the rule of law in the system of government. In 1707 Parliament became the Parliament for Great Britain as a whole, when the Scottish Parliament dissolved itself.
By the time of Queen Victoria, the role of Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament was established as the head of the Queen’s government. A Prime Minister who lost a majority usually at a general election and/or in a Parliamentary “motion of no confidence” would resign. The House of Commons was the elected body and the House of Lords consisted of peers who inherited their titles or were given them by the monarch. The convention had emerged that the primary law-making body of the two Houses was the Commons.
Anybody attending Parliament will find that its activities are full of the echoes of this history. One only has to watch the ceremony of the royal opening of Parliament to see this. The Queen arrives to sit on a throne in the House of Lords and she instructs an official, called Black Rod, to summon the Commons. As he approaches the House of Commons through a corridor, the door to the Commons is slammed in his face. He has to knock with his rod for it to be opened. This ritual celebrates the historic independence of the Commons from the Lords and the Monarchy.
The sovereignty of Parliament is a key principle of the UK system of government and one which was long fought for.
Parliament is the UK’s legislative body and, according to the unwritten constitution, as the Queen-in Parliament, it is the sovereign body in the system of government. Bills that are passed by Parliament, Lords and Commons, and receive the Royal consent become law. In practice, in normal times, Parliament is controlled by the majority party with its leader as Prime Minister. In the Queen’s Speech opening a new session of Parliament, the government’s legislative programme is announced and is then followed by a series of government bills which Parliament scrutinises and generally passes.
The key power of Parliament is to approve “supply”, namely to approve the Budget and then the Finance Bill that gives it lasting authority. No government can last that cannot get its finance bill through Parliament.
Laws start their progress through Parliament as Bills, often preceded by a White Paper announcing government intentions. A bill will receive a formal first “reading”, then a second reading that is debated and voted on in principle. It then goes to a committee for clause by clause detailed review, and returns for a third reading and final vote. It then receives a similar treatment in the Lords, although quite often bill will start in the Lords and go the other way to ease pressure on the Commons. Once the bill passes both Houses, it goes to the Queen for formal approval, known as the Royal Assent
Parliament also passes what are called “Statutory Instruments” or secondary legislation, often known as regulations. These are often complex and detailed laws that are made within the principles of a general piece of “enabling legislation” that has been passed to cover a particular subject area. They are “laid before” the House(s) by the Government and some are passed without debate if very uncontroversial whilst others go before a Scrutiny Committee, who might insist that the full House discusses it. Under the EU Withdrawal Act, a very large amount of detailed legislation will be of this kind.
One concern has been that Government is more and more making laws in this way and thus tipping the balance too much in favour of the executive. A counter-argument is that there is not enough time for Parliament to discuss so many of such detailed measures and that this is a more efficient way of proceeding. In an age where there are a very number of pieces of legislation going through at any one time, this is a major issue.
Scrutiny of the executive
Another major function of Parliament, particularly in an age of growing executive power and activity, is to scrutinise the actions of the executive. Government is accountable to Parliament, as well as to the electorate.
One important way it does this is through Select Committees. These are bodies chosen by the House, their Chairpersons in turn elected by a secret ballot of all members. There are a range of committees each covering a particular subject area of public affairs or the activities of particular Government departments. Among the most prestigious are the Public Accounts, the Treasury and the Home Affairs Select Committees. This system is in part long-standing but was given additional impetus in 2010 when the Chairs were elected by secret ballot and not in effect appointed by Government Chief Whips (Whips are people responsible for managing party discipline). The Chairs have developed a reputation for assertive and insightful management of inquiries, both with government and public affairs in general. A good example was Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee who was very strong in leading a critique of corporate tax avoidance.
Under this system, Parliament has gained a considerable amount of leverage over the executive, although it does have its limits. One difficulty is enforcement. It asks for persons and papers but when these are not forthcoming it has to fall back on obtaining the support of the House, and thus the majority party, to gain compliance. However, it is generally agreed that the system of “public grilling” has been very effective.
Private Member Bills
Not all legislation is sponsored by the Government. On Fridays, “backbench” MP’s can introduce their own bills. At the start of each session there is a ballot amongst MP’s to decide which bills can be discussed, the most popular going forward and scheduled for debate. This is to ensure that at least some bills stand a chance of discussion. Getting a Private Member’s Bill, as they are called, through Parliament is a precarious business and most don’t make it. They are not helped by Friday being poorly attended, most MP’s leaving on Thursday night for their constituencies. In fact they stand most chance if there is some degree of Government support. If a bill lacks support, they can be “talked out”, ie run out of time for further debate, and determined opposition can also halt them. However it should be born in mind that some of the most significant reforms in modern times have been backbench legislation, most famously “social” legislation such as the abolition of the death penalty (1965), the Abortion Act (1967), the Sexual Offences Act (1967) that legalised homosexuality, which received considerable Government support, and the Female Genital Mutilation Act (2003).
Observers of Parliament need an understanding of its procedure to make sense of its ways. These are controlled by the rules (“Standing Orders”) of the House and by the Speaker of the House of Commons or Lords. The former is a particularly powerful and independent figure. He or she is the “servant” of the House and in cases of dispute their rulings are respected by the House. He or she is in particular responsible for ensuring orderly debate and in rowdy sessions may be heard crying out “Order! Order!” to bring a situation under control. The Speaker is responsible for discipline and can “name” individuals who are “out of order”, which means they are suspended. The Speaker can also investigate any contempt of the House by outsiders and potentially Parliament has a judicial function and can try and punish offenders, although this is rarely used today.
A revival in the power of Parliament
As the above discussion suggests, Parliament has considerable power as the sovereign body in the constitution, but through the Prime Minister of the day enjoying a Parliamentary majority and control over legislation real, effective power lies with the Prime Minister. Today’s difficulties of Mrs May, who lacks a majority, has boosted Parliamentary power, although time will tell whether this lasts after a party wins a majority in the next election.
What should be said however, is that party discipline has been weakening in recent years and backbenchers are more assertive and more prone to rebel against their leaders. Whereas once this was a characteristic of Labour, where the left would be rebellious and Labour was described as the party of factions, since the EU became a contentious issue in the Conservative Party, backbench rebelliousness has spread to that party too. This makes it harder for the Government to get its legislation through and therefore has to be more attentive and receptive to the views of backbenchers. Along with the growth of the influence of Select Committees, this period has seen a swing of the pendulum back in favour of Parliamentary power.
Given the recent concern about the effectiveness of MP’s and Parliament in general, in the context of a broader disillusionment with politics, this is perhaps a healthy development.