How effective is the House of Commons?

The Commons could be argued to be effective in scrutinising the government through questions. Although main questions require advance warning to ministers, supplementary ones do not, and ministers are expected to regularly appear to be ‘interrogated’. ‘Urgent Questions’ can be particularly effective – in 2012, Education Secretary Michael Gove had to seriously consider GCSE reforms after they were met with opposition in the Commons. This showed that questions can help in the function of holding the government to account. However, the scripted nature of rituals like PMQ’s means that it can be more of a media contest between leaders than an actual way to find out details of government policy.

The Commons can also be effective in carrying out its reserve power of blocking legislation, despite the power of party whips. This was particularly evident in the two most recent Labour majorities – governments Sir Philip called the most rebellious since WW2. In the 2005-10 governments, 171 Labour MPs disobeyed the party whips at least once when voting. Some rebellions caused bills to not be passed. This ensures that the government does not gain too much power and consequently abuse the rights of citizens. Recently the Coalition government faced 2 defeats from backbenchers, one over a EU budget (tabled by Labour) and one over Syria. However, the control of whips, through threats of demotion or promises of promotion, means that MPs often sacrifice their own beliefs and toe the party line. This was seen over Tuition fees where both Lib Dems and Conservative backbenchers were forced to make compromised of principles for the government. Moreover, the other reserve power of calling a vote of no confidence could remove the government if successful, therefore stripping them of their positions.

Departmental select committees are another example of how the Commons can be effective in scrutinising government and holding it to account. Many reports have made executives seriously reconsider decisions, especially because of the legitimacy committees have due to the fact that their Chairs are elected by other MPs. For example, after the 2004 Belmarsh case, the committee’s report on the unjust nature of detaining terrorist suspects without due process undoubtedly contributed to the amendment of the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act. Recently Between 1997 and 2010 select committees probably produced almost 1500 inquiry reports (or 110 a year) and almost 40,000 recommendations and conclusions, of which 19,000 (or 1450 a year) were aimed at central government. Around 40% of recommendations are accepted by government, and a similar proportion go on to be implemented. However, the fact that committees have no actual authority over ministers – the latter do not have to comply with any report proposals – undermines the effectiveness of how this function is carried out.

The Commons could also be said to be effective in representation. MPs must not only represent their constituents, but also their party, the national interest and outside bodies which they are paid to promote. According a 2005 Hansard Society study, MPs spend half of their time doing constituency work. This seems to be effective, as in a 2007 audit, 41% of constituents said that they are happy with their local MP’s work. MPs can also represent outside interests by raising issues in times allocated by Parliament, such as ten minute rules. Their speech becomes a matter of public record and can be used in future campaigns. However, representing their party seems to come first for many MPs, due to the excessive control of the whips. This means that other elements of the function are secondary to the importance of toeing the party line.

Overall, the House of Commons seems technically effective in carrying out its functions – MPs do what is required to get re-elected. However, the less tangible markers of Commons effectiveness seem more compromised because of the dominance of the executive. Although in theory parliamentary sovereignty is a principle upheld in Britain, in recent years especially it seems clear that the Commons only carries out its functions to the extent desired by the executive.

Maya Tikly-Young

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