As Norton has noted, Parliament ceased to be a policy-making legislature in the nineteenth century and is now a ‘policy-influencing’ legislature. Parliament is thus expected to subject policy to a process of scrutiny and influence. This essay will assess the extent to which the present mechanisms available to parliament to call the government to account can be said to have a meaningful ability to effect governmental decision making. In order to evaluate the role of parliament in this matter, some of the procedural mechanisms of the House must be examined.
Question Time in the House of Commons is one of the principal means by which information is obtained from ministers by Members of Parliament. Prior notice of the questions is given to ministers, however, supplementary questions may then be asked on matters arising out of the minister’s reply, of which notice will not have been given. Question Time is widely publicised and therefore has the effect of drawing public attention to matters of particular concern. The process can also highlight the capabilities of individual ministers as they will need to ‘think on their feet’ in order to answer the supplementary questions. In April 1995 the then Health Secretary announced that several London hospitals were to be closed to curb public expenditure. The announcement of this unpalatable policy was made through a written answer rather than orally in the House. At Question Time the Health Secretary was accused of ‘lacking moral courage’ and the episode gained considerable publicity.
Question Time is the only regular occasion upon which the government is obliged to account to Parliament for its management of the nations affairs. Other merits of the system are that it provides an opportunity for the opposition to select issues as well as an opportunity for backbench MPs to question ministers. This in turn allows for local and regional issues to be given hearing in full parliamentary session. It also offers ministers the opportunity to become aware of issues which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Parliamentary questions are very useful in highlighting existing governmental policy and bringing any controversial issues surrounding it to the attention of the media and hence the public. This allows effective scrutiny of government. However, the process does not provide a direct mechanism for effecting governmental decision making, although indirectly, the resulting public pressure may provide a mechanism for influencing policy change. Further limitations are that it operates on a rota system, with departments being subject to questions only once per 3 or 4 weeks; time restraints make ‘in depth’ questioning impossible; and, sensitive questions can be avoided. Moreover, government backbenchers are able to reduce the time available for opposition questions by presenting favourable questions to ministers.
Each Wednesday the House of Commons hosts Prime Minister’s Questions which lasts approximately 30 minutes. This procedure allows the Leader of the Opposition to put up to three questions to the Prime Minister. This presents an opportunity for immediate argument between the parties and can affect MP’s perceptions of their leaders. Other MPs are then able to ask questions of the Prime Minister. As above, this allows for raising public awareness of issues and for questioning government policy. However, similar problems also exist, with the use of government backbenchers to praise government action rather than question it. This process has lead Loveland to conclude:
“That MPs and ministers feel it appropriate to waste the Commons’ evidently limited and supposedly valuable time on such nonsense is in itself regrettable. That such questions are also manifestly an insult to the intelligence of voters provides further justification for the contention that the House of Commons is a quite inadequate vehicle for the sensible representation of political opinion in a modern democratic society.”
Another way in which parliament may effect governmental decision making is via debate. There are several types of debate which happen in the House of Commons. Debate will occur after the second reading of legislation, yet there are other provisions as well. Emergency debates may exceptionally occur where a matter is deemed to be of urgent national importance. There are also daily adjournment debates, where backbenchers can initiate short debate on matters for their choosing. Selection is by ballot through the Speaker’s Office. Members may also express concerns about issues by tabling a written motion requesting debate ‘at an early day’. However, such early day motions rarely result in debate and instead are primarily confined to shoeing the strength of parliamentary feeling on particular issues. Where pressure grows significantly the government may feel inclined to respond but again the influence is often indirect.
Carroll provides an evaluation of debate as a whole. He states that the merits of debates are that: they force ministers to explain and justify policy initiatives to the House; they provide an opportunity for the opposition to expose flaws in government policy and decisions and present suggestions; they help to educate public opinion; they provide an opportunity for government ministers to display dissent, enabling policy changes to be considered; and, they give MPs the opportunity to present the views of constituents and interest groups. However, the demerits of debate according to Carroll are high in number: in the main it is the government, rather than parliament, which decides what will be debated and when (there are twenty Opposition Days when the Opposition chooses the subject for debate); most debates are dominated by the frontbenches; there is not time to engage in full detailed debate or to debate crises as and when they arise; they are often poorly attended; they attract little public attention. Furthermore, Carroll alleges that policy is formed and decisions made before parliamentary debate takes place. The government therefore defends its decisions during debate regardless of any merits of alternative proposals or exposed defects in its decisions and therefore debates appear to have ‘very little immediate effect in terms of influencing government thinking or action’.
Perhaps the most effective scrutiny of government is through select committees. These committees are chaired by senior backbenchers and consist of between 9 and 13 backbench members. They allow in depth analysis of departmental action and investigate a wide range of topics. Examples of issues investigated by select committees include the ‘Westland Affair’, although the government refused to allow witnesses from the Department of Trade and Industry to give evidence; and the Arms to Iraq controversy, where the Select Committee on Trade and Industry examined the sale of equipment to Iraq during the first Gulf conflict. Media interest may also influence the topics investigated by select committees, as evidenced by the examination of the decision to go to war in Iraq by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2003.
Select committees are empowered to send for persons, papers and records and can expect full government co-operation. Furthermore, persons giving evidence must take a formal oath. However, as illustrated above, the co-operation of government, although expected, is not always assured.
Once a select committee has investigated an issue it will publish a report. Around one third of these reports result in debate in the House, which are subject to the analysis above. Carroll has provided further evaluation of the merits and demerits of select committees, stating in support that: they provide a systematic infrastructure for detailed scrutiny of government conduct; they are the only parliamentary forum in which ministers and public servants may be questioned ‘in depth’ on topics not determined by party leaders; there is a less party-political atmosphere; the members gain expertise in a particular area; the reports attract media attention. However, the demerits include: they cannot impose any sanctions or direct pressures on government if dissatisfied with departments’ conduct; as noted, few reports result in debate; the government can dictate when persons will not give evidence; they are poorly supported in terms of resources; facilities and research staff.
From the analysis above it may be seen that although Parliament has several option open in terms of scrutinising government action, these procedures offer little in terms of direct effect of government decision and policy making. The Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons has produced a report which suggests reforms to make better use of non-legislative time and strengthen the role of the backbench MPs. So far this has resulted in minimal reforms such as a reservation of time for Topical Questions in departmental question time and a consideration of ways in which opportunities to debate the plans of government departments may be guaranteed. However, without further reform, Parliament is currently unable to influence government decision making in any significant per-event sense.