How Effective Is The British Parliament?

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If a survey were taken of the whole country, you would find that every single person has his or her own opinion of how effective parliament actually is. The reason for this is that most of the issues involved can be argued both as evidence of an effective parliament and of an ineffective parliament, depending on individual perception.

One of the key issues affecting the effectiveness of parliament, that of scrutiny, is an obvious example of this. People who consider parliament effective would point out the sheer number of ways that parliament scrutinises the government. For a start, there is the opposition – every member of the house who is not in the government. During debates over legislation, every member of the opposition has the chance to voice his or her opinions and to suggest amendments to bills. This means that every member of the house, from Prime Minister Blair with his massive majority to the resident minority of one Martin Bell, has an equal say over changes to legislation.

The next way in which parliament is scrutinised is via the official Opposition. The difference between the official Opposition and the opposition is that the official Opposition is the second largest party in parliament (currently the Conservatives), rather than every non-government member. The official Opposition has certain privileges that the rest of the opposition doesn’t have, for example, William Hague is allowed more questions during PM questions because he is the leader of the official Opposition. This allows them to challenge the government more specifically on the issues, forcing the government to give more precise details of policy and thus provoking more detailed debate.

Another method of scrutinising the government is the House of Lords. This is different from opposition scrutiny in that there are both government and non-governmental Lords carrying out critical analysis of government work. This is fairer, as it allows both constructive and destructive criticisms to be made of legislation, rather than opposition scrutiny that can just be destructive in some cases when there is no real cross-party support for a policy.

Another cross-party method of scrutiny is committees, which will comprise of members from various parties in parliament. There are two types of committee, standing and select committees. Select committees are permanent, and relate to specific departments. Currently, there are 17 of these. An example is the Social Services Committee, chaired by Birkenhead MP Frank Field. Standing committees are temporary and either deal with the committee stage of a Bill or investigate a particular subject which falls outside the jurisdiction of any select committee.

The final method of scrutiny is not usually considered as this, but in my opinion is possibly the most effective. This is the media. Were it not for media scrutiny, Britain would have an even more secretive government than it has already, something which I doubt many people want. The media also scrutinises from a non-political perspective, which means that on many issues it will look at things in a different light than MPs, whose own perspective can be limited. This allows much more wide-ranging issues to be considered. The media is also a very effective method of scrutiny as it is this that the public are most likely to believe and media scrutiny prevents governments from attempting to pass unsavoury legislation that the public doesn’t want passed.

Aside from these arguments, there are others. Some people argue that parliament is less effective than it was because of the loss of sovereignty associated with Britain’s membership of the European Union. The is some logic in this, as in some areas of law, European law over-rules British law, even if it isn’t ratified by the supposedly sovereign parliament or even by an elected body. A good example of this is the so-called “Metric Martyr” case, in which a Sunderland market stall holder was successfully prosecuted for not following an EU directive over selling goods in metric as well as imperial measurements (he wasn’t, as many people believe, prosecuted for measuring in pounds and ounces, he was prosecuted for not having a set of scales that measured in metric). Still, this raises questions over the need for a British parliament when it doesn’t have complete control over British law.

Another similar argument is that parliament has redundant MPs following the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly – the so-called “West Lothian Question”. This asks whether Scottish and Welsh MPs should be allowed to vote on purely English issues when English MPs can’t vote on purely Scottish or Welsh issues. With MPs who represent areas that don’t have an interest in some issues, some people argue that it makes Parliament unfair, especially when there is a Labour government, as these traditionally rely upon their Celtic MPs to give them a majority. If Labour were to be voted in with a substantially reduced majority at the next election, this would become a political hot potato, especially if they had a minority of English MPs.

Another issue concerned with effectiveness is whether parliament can really check a government with the large majority currently held by the incumbent Labour government. With their majority of 179 MPs, Labour can only really be stopped in the House of Lords, which is more finely balanced between Tory and Labour Lords. However, this can’t really stop them because of the Parliament Act, which prevents the Lords from blocking legislation, merely delaying it for a maximum of a year. A recent example of this is the fight between the Lords and the Government over the homosexual age of consent. The Lords have continually blocked moves by Labour to equalise the age of consent with the heterosexual age of consent. Thus, Labour invoked the Parliament Act and forced the legislation through.

In conclusion, I believe that Parliament is less effective than it could be, although it isn’t completely toothless. The loss of sovereignty and the lack of control over strong governments simply outweigh the numerous and effective methods of scrutiny. The simple fact is that most of the methods of scrutiny can’t be enforced until a General Election, which can be as long as five years apart. However, I believe that there are ways of changing this. I believe that the first thing that has to be done to improve the effectiveness of parliament is to introduce a new Parliament Act. I envisage a changed version, where the status quo is retained for bills in the government’s manifesto, as they have a mandate for these, but putting anything else that is blocked three times by the Lords to a referendum, allowing the electorate to decide. If the public passes the bill, then it becomes law. Thus, the government will have to convince the public over some controversial, non-manifesto pledges that they may have disagreed with if they had known about the policy in advance. I also believe that a separate English parliament should be set up, with the current UK Parliament taking control of all UK-wide issues and purely English issues given to the new parliament. If this happened, then I would support an upgrading of the Welsh Assembly’s powers, which at the moment are rather limited. Finally, I believe that the powers of the European Union should be changed so that national Law takes precedence over European law.

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