How well does Parliament perform its various functions?
There are several important functions that Parliament must perform. The word Parliament derived from the Latin ‘parliamentum’ and the French word ‘parler’ which originally meant a talk- which is what Parliament does most of the time. Parliament consists of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarchy. Parliament is the highest judicial, legislative and executive body in Britain. A parliamentary form of government acknowledges that it derives its power directly from the consent of the people. This sort of system ensures democracy and an active interaction between the people and their representatives. The three functions that I am going to focus on are Scrutiny, Representation and Law Making.
Scrutiny is carried out in four main ways- Prime Ministers Questions, Select Committees, The Back Benches and The House of Lords. Prime Ministers Questions is a weekly opportunity for backbenchers to scrutinise the Prime Minister. This happens every Wednesday and is an opportunity for the leader of the opposition as well as other MPs to highlight government failings or ask the Prime Minister a question. This is a good way to scrutinise the Prime Minister as it puts them under pressure to justify their actions and normally with potentially no pre-warning of what topics will have to be defended. The element of surprise allows opposition MP’s as well as backbenchers and sometimes members of the cabinet to catch the prime minister out with an awkward question. The relative performance of each of the main party leaders is closely watched and each is under great pressure to get the better of their opponent. The main weakness of this form of scrutiny is that it is often accused of being more like ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ as many believe the questions are “planted” and therefore the Prime Minister and Opposition can prepare their answers beforehand.
Select Committees in both the House of Commons and the Lords investigate the work of government departments and produce reports of policy proposals. They have the power to call witnesses in the course of their proceedings. Their role is multi-faceted and includes many tasks such as investigating the work of the government departments to determine whether they have acted efficiently and effectively. This is a strong form as scrutiny as it reports back to the public what is happening behind the scenes in the government but the Select Committees lack resources, expertise and power to create damage if the government weren’t doing their job properly. Select Committees have been described as a “mere irritant”.
The government relies on backbenchers in providing services to their constituents and relaying the opinions of their constituents. Although backbenchers do not hold power, a concerted revolt could topple the ruling party through a “no confidence” vote. An example of a successful rebellion occurred during November 2006 over the Terrorism Act 2006 when a large number of backbenchers voted against the 90-day detention provision of the anti-terror legislation in order to stall the bill. This provided to be the single largest defeat for then Prime Minister Tony Blair since his government. Recently David Cameron faced a threat of a fresh backbench Tory revolt as traditionalists lined up to oppose government plans to legalise gay marriage but many debated that this in fact could not be counted as a rebellion as backbenchers would probably be given a free vote in any vote on legalising gay marriage. This therefore is a strong form of scrutiny as it has been proven extremely powerful and has even overthrown past governments for example Margaret Thatcher and James Callaghan. One of the main issues with scrutiny and backbenchers is that they are often under the control of the Whips (MPs or Lords appointed by each party in Parliament to help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business) and one of their main...
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