Until relatively recently Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates were rarely used parliamentary devices. However, in recent years, their use has grown dramatically, largely as the former Speaker John Bercow was keen to consider ways in which he could “champion the rights of backbenchers”. This article seeks to explain what Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates are, when they are granted and how big an impact they have on the ability of parliament to scrutinise the executive.Continue reading
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Britain is a parliamentary democracy which means there is a fusion of powers between the Executive and Legislature. The Executive, led by the Prime Minister, is formed from the House of Commons and yet one of the key roles of Parliament is to scrutinise the actions of the Government. To answer this question the following issues need to be considered: legislative scrutiny, the role of backbenchers and question time. Ultimately, it is clear that parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive is woefully ineffective because of the elective dictatorship that is usually formed after a Government has won a clear majority.
Legislating is one of the most important roles of Parliament and is therefore an important area of executive scrutiny. This is as under Standing Order 14 the legislative agenda is largely controlled by the Executive. Most bills are Government Bills, with 76.9% of bills from 2015-2021 being tabled by the Executive. This dominance over the Commons agenda is reinforced by the notion of the elective dictatorship – that because of the FPTP voting system most governments have a clear majority and can govern as they please without having to worry about undergoing effective scrutiny. For example, Tony Blair had a majority of 179 and did not lose a single Commons vote in his first 8 years as PM, whilst the average government majority since 1945 has been 57.4 seats. This means that the Executive is normally capable of pushing through its agenda because it consistently has the parliamentary arithmetic on its side. Further to this, MPs are very heavily whipped. This means they rarely rebel against their party leaders. This is because MPs are beholden to their party for their seat and they rely on the patronage of party leaders for personal advancement. This might help explain why since the 2019 General Election there are 321 MPs who have never once voted against their own party. The combination of large government majorities and heavy whipping of backbenchers means that often legislative scrutiny in the House of Commons is ineffective. However, there are times when the House of Commons can offer effective legislative scrutiny, usually when the issue is very controversial or is so important that MPs are prepared to defy the whip. For example, whilst in a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP in January 2019, Theresa May’s Brexit deal was defeated by a record 230 votes with 118 Conservative MPs rebelling. This shows that, depending on the issue and the size of the government majority, the power of the whips can weaken. In addition, the second Chamber of the House of Lords can be said to offer more effective scrutiny because of the time, expertise and independence it puts towards legislation. Firstly, the House of Lords are said to go through a bill ‘line by line’ spending much more time scrutinising legislation, particularly by adding ‘reasoned amendments’. For example, the Agriculture Act (2020) was considered for 32 hours by the House of Commons but for 96 hours by the House of Lords. In addition, in the Lords this scrutiny is carried by people who have been appointed to the House precisely due to their expertise. For example, Lord West was a former First Sea Lord and Intelligence Minister who has voted 725 times in the House Lords to help improve bills relating to military and diplomatic matters. Finally, unlike the House of Commons, the Lords are not heavily whipped. There is more independence and a collegiate atmosphere in the House of Lords which is helped by the fact that there are 184 crossbench peers and 26 Bishops who do not belong to a political party. However, despite these positive factors, the House of Lords is structurally limited by both statute and convention. The Parliament Acts mean the House of Lords cannot block legislation for the Commons while conventions like the Salisbury Convention and Financial Privilege limit the power of the House of Lords to effectively scrutinise Government legislation. Overall, the scrutiny of Government legislation is ineffective. The House of Commons is normally unable to provide effective scrutiny due to government majorities whilst the effectiveness of the House of Lords is undermined by the structural limits placed upon it.
There are a number of limits that backbenchers face in attempting to scrutinise the Government in the House of Commons. One is that, unlike most members of the House of Lords, they have to be generalists and not specialists. Backbenchers have to represent the diverse range of opinions and concerns across their constituency. For example, as of 18/02/22 Conservative Backbencher Huw Merriman’s last ten questions were all about different subjects ranging from tourism to knife crime. In addition, backbenchers have limited power to initiate change themselves and instead rely on working within a party to bring any change about. This can be seen in the very low number of Private Members Bills that become Acts of Parliament. For example, since 2015 only 16.2% of Acts started as Private Members Bills. This often means backbench MPs do not introduce bills because they will pass but instead because they might push forward the issue in the media. As evidence of this since 2015 Christopher Chope has introduced 119 PMBs of which none have become law. Conversely, despite these limits, it is clear that some backbenchers are influential and can influence policy. This is particularly the case when a backbencher is seen to be either particularly experienced or have particular expertise. For example, Theresa May (Backbencher of the Year 2021) was able to persuade the government to incorporate her Ten Minute Rule motion on dangerous driving sentences into the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill. In addition, the Wright Reforms of 2009 have increased the influence of backbenchers. Firstly, the Backbench Business Committee provides them with an opportunity to put forward ideas for debate that might provide scrutiny of the government. For example, on the 21/04 a backbench debate was held on the two-child limit for universal credit – a key government policy. Secondly, backbenchers may serve on Select Committees which since the Wright Reforms have seen committee chairs elected by the whole house and select committee members elected by their own party. This has substantially loosened the grip of the whips over Select Committee and increased their independence. For example, the DCMS Select Committee were critical of the Government’s Online Safety Bill saying it did not go far enough to tackle harmful content online – despite a Conservative majority on the Committee. Therefore, whilst backbenchers are still limited in their ability to provide security of the executive overall this ability is growing, and in addition, there are certain MPs who are able to provide more effective scrutiny than others.
One of the most important mechanisms of parliamentary scrutiny is Question Time. The most prominent example of question time is Prime Ministers Questions which takes place at 12.00 on Wednesdays. PMQs sees the PM questioned by Government and Opposition MPs with the Leader of the Opposition given six questions. PMQs is however both the most visible and the most theatrical form of Question Time. MPs spend significant time trying to score political points rather than scrutinise the Executive in detail – for example Diana Johnson’s recent question that over ‘partygate’ saying that the PM ‘was trying to convince people he was a stupid rather than dishonest’. Whilst the questions are often political, so are the answers, with the Prime Minister being able to avoid giving a detailed response. As such PMQs gives a bad indication of how effective Parliament is in its function of scrutiny. Importantly, however, it must be noted that PMQs is just one form of question time and the others that take place at the start of the parliamentary day from Monday to Thursday are far more productive. MPs can ask a department any question and can also table questions in advance or in writing, therefore encouraging a more detailed response. Further, since the speakership of John Bercow, the use of Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates has grown significantly. Under the previous speaker there were 0.02 UQs a day but under Bercow this rose to 0.88 per day with the Speaker ensuring the Government could be held to account immediately if required – a trend that has largely continued under Lindsay Hoyle. In addition, Emergency Debates have been increasingly granted, for example the Emergency Debate granted to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. During this debate the Government were asked detailed questions about what they were doing to support the Ukrainian Government. Overall, whilst the visible PMQs might make it appear that Question Time is an ineffectual method of scrutiny this is not a realistic depiction. PMQs is the theatre of Parliament whilst the Daily Questions allow MPs to force Ministers to account for their actions whilst the growth of Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates shows the Speaker is helping backbench MPs to do this.
In conclusion it is the case that parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive is largely ineffectual. This is because of the predominant role of the House of Commons and the fact that due to the fusion of powers the Government normally dominates that chamber. Whilst there are exceptions to this rule, they only really occur in the rare occasions when a government does not have a clear majority. The House of Lords does offer detailed scrutiny, particularly of legislation, however it is limited by the structural power the House of Commons has over it. Whilst Select Committees and Question Time are examples of effective scrutiny they do not enable Parliament to enforce change, so are therefore still fundamentally limited. Therefore, it is clear that the dominance of the Executive over the House of Commons ensures that parliamentary scrutiny of the executive is largely cosmetic.
Why is this a Level 5 Response?
- The introduction immediately shows the examiner the candidate understands the topic. It also lays out the different themes that will be discussed and sets out a clear argument.
- Three body sections are completed each which put forward a clear point and corresponding counter point.
- Detailed knowledge is deployed throughout the piece, which is often very specific.
- Analysis is built upon this detailed knowledge, with a consistent focus on answering the question.
- Clear mini-conclusions are used at the end of the section which consider what the view on the question is as regards the issue that has been discussed.
- The conclusion is comparative in nature and synthesises the entirety of the arguments made before coming to a clear judgement.
- Political terminology is deployed throughout the essay.
- Synoptic links are made to Paper 1 through considering of FPTP. (This in only required in Paper 2).