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The government controls parliament but it cannot always rely on getting its own way

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A tendency to ignore the protestations and activities of parliament in issuing central, top-down directives and ‘memos’ is a criticism often levied at Tony Blair’s Labour administration. It is seen to signify a consolidation of executive power, often represented in the media as control-freakery on the part of the Prime Minister. Although any apparent increase in the power of the executive would be accentuated by the immense size of the 179 seat Labour majority, the present government is widely seen to have taken up a continuing trend towards centralised government, often revolving around Downing Street.

It is perhaps largely the power of Blair’s mandate in conjunction with the vice-like control of the party whips over MPs that has led to comments such as that of Lord Hailsham that we live under an “elective dictatorship. ” The power of the executive however, is based on long-standing constitutional principles and practise. The concept of ‘Queen in Parliament’ has long been used to describe the legislative sovereign created in the fusion of parliament and the executive.

The executive has come to govern through parliament, requiring in effect its assent for legislation, while drawing from it, as the nation’s chief representative body, the legitimacy it requires to sustain its authority. It comes as a surprise to many, given the ostensible thirst for power of the Blair administration, that since coming into power in 1997 it should have undertaken admittedly moderate reforms with the aim of empowering the House of Commons against the executive.

Under Robin Cook’s Leadership of the House for example, the efficiency of the Commons in its scrutinative role has been strengthened with allowances being made for the tabling of more topical questions, and further reform of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Given this climate of reform in the House of Commons, the extent of the government’s power over it is a particularly relevant topic for consideration. Any explanation of this issue, based on the statement contained in the title of this essay, should first seek to establish its two main presumptions: the government’s power over the executive and rebellions against it.

These analysed, it will be possible to draw a conclusion on the government’s ability to ‘rely on getting its own way,’ that is, on the extent of its control. Studies of British parliamentary government have identified four main factors upon a combination of which governments must rely for their power over the House of Commons. The first of these, and the most basic, is a working majority. It is one of the very most basic principles of the British parliamentary system that the majority party in the House of Commons forms a government.

A majority provides the means by which a government may govern in parliament, assuring it of at least a basic level of support upon which it may count to secure the passing of legislation. It is a reflection on its centrality to British politics that no election since 1945 has failed to return a party with a majority of seats in the Commons, with the exception of that of February 1974 in which Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was 34 seats off a majority. Indeed, two-thirds of all elections in this period have returned parties with an adequate majority of 17 seats or more.

Once in government, parties are able to exploit their majority, and the natural unity of its MPs on which this majority is based, through maintaining tight control of the parliamentary party with a system of whips and party meetings and committees. Thus they are able to dominate and greatly influence the workings and actions of the Commons. Governments are also able to dominate the legislative proceedings of parliament, largely as a result of their Commons majority. It is estimated that in the duration of any one parliament approximately 75% of parliamentary time is allocated to government business.

They are given priority in passing legislation, the Commons spending more time debating government bills than those initiated elsewhere. Consequently the legislative role of the House of Commons is somewhat restricted in that it is subordinate to that of the executive. The scrutinative role of the House of Commons too is limited by government control. The executive is able to cut short Commons and select committee debate on legislation it has proposed, and since such debate is parliament’s main instrument of scrutiny, such action has profound implications for parliament’s power.

The executive has at its disposal two key means of stopping parliamentary debate. First it can issue a request that the question under debate be put to a vote – a tool known as the closure. Alternatively, the guillotine may be used, instigating an ‘allocation of time’ motion which seeks to prompt the expiry of parliamentary time given to a bill. This move is the more commonly used, especially when a government is unsatisfied with the progression of a bill at the standing committee stage, and wishes to force its continuation.

Hence the government is able to, in effect, restrict the Commons’ powers of scrutiny, a fundamental role of parliament existing only subject to the executive’s tolerance of it. Such control of its opposition helps to facilitate its actions with minimal resistance. Commentators have noted in increasing inclination of the Prime Minister and cabinet to dominate policy-making procedure in parliament. Civil servants and central party policy-making units such as the Labour Party’s Joint Policy Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, control an increasing amount of pre-legislative consultation.

This shift is mirrored within the Labour Party by Tony Blair’s consolidation of policy-making power in the party leadership and at Downing Street, curbing the influence both of the annual conference and of the NEC, which has in effect been demoted to the status of a partner of the Labour Party in decision making. This realignment has often led to major policy development decisions being made by senior civil servants, party committees, government advisors or ministers, without reference to the nation’s official representatives in the House of Commons.

The legislative aspect of parliament’s role, and in particular that of the House of Commons, has in this way become subordinate to the powers of the executive. Accordingly, its influence in the policy making process is guaranteed. Although not one of the four main factors in governmental control, a consideration of the workload of MPs may also be useful. The increasing complexity of government business places a great strain on the time of MPs, and curbs their ability to fully scrutinise, analyse and debate government policy.

Much of this burden has now shifted to parliamentary standing committees, which, although drawn from parliament, cannot harness the full power of opposition in the House of Commons for use in the examination of the executive’s actions. Hence the Commons’ scrutinative power is limited. The same complexity of issues has led to a doubling of the use of Statutory Instruments between 1989 and 1994 – regulations issued by the executive ignoring Commons opinion.

Such powers give government the means to override those charged with holding it to account, securing it at least basic dominance of parliament. The executive’s four key prerequisites of Commons control are essentially guaranteed for any British government by the comparative stability and continuity of the parliamentary system: a majority government is assured by the First Past the Post system, while an ability to restrict opposition is inherent in the basic instruments of government.

Yet equally the British system shelters innate means by which opposition can be exercised. Perhaps the most rudimentary of these is the opportunity for disruption presented by the government’s reliance on at least certain level of consensual cooperation from the opposition. For on matters of little controversy where there is scarce reason for division of parliamentary opinion, such as on matters of administration for example, governments have come to rely on the acquiescence of official opposition and the safe support of their MPs in order to secure the passing of bills.

In general this assistance is given and the majority of government bills go unchallenged in the Commons, partly since oppositions are all too aware that if they were to undermine the government’s programme similar tactics could be expected against them when in government. Nonetheless when there are political points to be scored, opposition parties have a number of means by which they may stall the government’s proceedings. They may first table a censure – a motion of no confidence in the government – a series of which could prompt an administration’s resignation.

Alternatively bills can be delayed at committee stage with unnecessary debate and scrutiny. The most commonly employed tactic however, and that which tends to win an opposition and its leader most media acclaim, is good debate in the Commons with the aim of harassing ministers. Opposition troublemaking such as this can, at best humiliate a minister or administration, and at least make the task of convincing the public of their value and ability somewhat difficult. The metaphor of the Trojan Horse is one all governments would do well to keep in mind, since even for those with a large majority, the greatest danger can often come from within.

Backbench disobedience plagues all governments at some point in their period in office, but can be most testing for those with a marginal majority. Norton noted that “the smaller it [an overall majority] is, the more vulnerable the government is to defeat as a consequence of its own supporters voting with opposition MPs. ” Naturally governments have means to control unruly backbenchers, with three-line whips often issued on matters provoking great strength of feeling, but for those unafraid of Prime Ministerial and party wrath rebellion is often an attractive option.

Edward Heath’s Conservative government of 1970-74, for example, even with a majority of 30, was defeated three times on votes to which a three-line whip was applied. The 1974-79 Labour administration meanwhile, first of Harold Wilson (majority: 3), and latterly of James Callaghan (34 seats short of a majority), suffered 42 defeats as a result of backbench rebellion during its time in office. Despite any government’s domination of the legislative process of a parliament, the ability to initiate legislation is still retained by MPs.

Members may ballot for the right to introduce a piece of private legislation to parliament, usually on a matter of morality or one broader than most government policy neglected in party manifestos, known as a Private Member’s Bill. Few of these ever reach the statute book however. Those that have been successful have included legislation on homosexuality, capital punishment and divorce. The difficulty in securing the passing of such bills is that in order to succeed in a Commons vote they generally require the support of the government majority, as well as the use of parliamentary time allocated to government legislation.

Whether they succeed or not, Private Member’s Bills are an useful tool for exploitation by backbenchers of any party in attempting to influence and guide the focus of government legislation and the attentions of the House of Commons, regardless of the government’s official stance on the issue. Recent decades have seen the rise and development of another instrument of the backbenches, now a crucial part of the process of government scrutiny. In 1978 the Select Committee on Procedure proposed a series of far-reaching reforms of the parliamentary committee system.

These were carried out under the supervision of the Leader of the House, Norman St John Stevas. All but four of the existing select committees were abolished and replaced with a system of departmental select committees designed to conduct in-depth examination of the work of individual government departments. The four committees that were retained were intended to scrutinise government policy outside direct parliamentary control, such as the management of government expenditure.

Following the reforms committees would be permitted to call “persons, papers or records” from which to draw evidence in the compilation of reports on departmental and executive conduct. They were to draw their legitimacy from the fact that their 11 members represented all the parliamentary parties in a quota corresponding with the distribution of seats in the House of Commons. The 1978 reforms were an enormous boost to the status of the committee system in parliamentary government, and saw them become a central aspect of parliamentary scrutiny of government.

Philip Norton identified two main categories into which their effects may fall: the deterrent effect, and the delayed-drop effect. The deterrent effect refers to the idea that ministers are encouraged to ensure that their proposals and actions are entirely justifiable in the knowledge that they could come under the scrutiny of their Departmental Select Committee. Alternatively, the specialisation and expertise that an MP hones while serving on a select committee contributes to Norton’s delayed-drop effect by building up an authority around the committee system unassailable by normal backbench MPs with little specialised knowledge.

Yet for all their applications select committees are still limited in their abilities and powers by the executive. They are ultimately controlled by the executive, which secures its own supremacy in continuing the under funding of committees and retaining the limits on their powers and the extent of their remit. Indeed, there remain ways for government ministers to avoid select committee scrutiny, since they are not bound to appear before them when called.

Furthermore, the government is perfectly entitled to ignore select committee recommendations, as Michael Heseltine did when confronted with the Trade and Industry Select Committee’s findings on the government’s programme of pit closures in 1992-93. Many parliamentary reformists advocate granting select committees the same superior powers enjoyed by their American equivalents. They recognise that any body charged with securing accountability is severely bound in its duties by being subsidiary and subject to the executive it must scrutinise.

The consolidation of power in the hands of the executive has, since the 18th century, been detracting from the original powers of the British parliament, in particular those of scrutiny. The executive has for centuries drawn its authority and its legitimacy from parliament – from the House of Commons from which it is primarily drawn. The executive comes from parliament, and the two bodies are inseparably fused. With the consolidation of government power however, this principle has given rise to somewhat of a paradox.

The appointment of the first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, arose from the need for some central focus in the workings of parliament, and yet over two centuries later the executive of which the Prime Minister is head has come to define and control those very workings of parliament that gave rise to his office. Such a situation would be tolerable if parliament were truly able to hold the government to account – if it were able to tie it down to its mandate – but the government’s domination of parliament has led it to control parliament’s means of scrutiny and opposition.

Among them, select committee powers, the time allocated to government scrutiny and the success of Private Member’s Bills are all subject to the government’s patience with them. Indeed it is largely due to governments’ compliance with ‘the rules’ of British parliamentary government – the uncodefied conventions of our constitution that demand the ability of parliament to hold government to account – that parliament retains any real powers of scrutiny at all. The government is bound to constitutional moderateness by its need to keep the electorate onside: only in this context can government ever expect not to get its own way.

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