Scrutiny of the Government's Policies and Administration
SCRUTINY OF THE EXECUTIVE
To some extent, this overlaps with legislation. For example, the annual taxation proposals in the Budget are put into effect by an annual Finance Bill. But a great deal lot of Parliamentary scrutiny is not linked directly to legislation.
The scrutiny of Government policy and administration takes three main forms:
a) First, there are debates "on the floor of the House" - ie within the main Commons debating chamber.
b) Next, there are questions to Ministers.
c) Third, there is scrutiny by Select Committees.
Of the 600 hours per session available for debates, about 400 hours are designated Government time - under SO No (1). The remaining 200 hours are accounted for as follows:
a) Under SO No.13(2), there are 20 Opposition Days when the Opposition parties select the matters to be debated - this amounts to about 100 hours.
Twenty allotted days in each session shall be at the disposal of Her Majesty's Opposition and matters selected on these days shall have precedence over government business ...
b) Then under SO No. 13(7)+(8) there are sessions reserved for Private
Members' motions, when backbenchers determine what is debated. This amounts
to about 50 hours.
c) Miscellaneous - 50 hours.
The advantage of the Government is not, however, as great as it seems, for, by custom part of its time is allocated either to backbenchers or to the Official Opposition. And Government time does offer the opportunity for the Opposition to state its own case and to cross-examine.
The review by the Commons of policy and administration (whether in legislative form or not) is unsystematic and often ineffective. Parliament is rightly reactive under the UK Constitution in terms of the formulation of policy, but it has been inappropriately supine and reactive in terms of the running of its own affairs. Thus, many of the changes in recent times have been inspired by the Government rather than by Parliament itself.
Some of the reforms which have been suggested to strengthen Parliament include.
- more staff and power for MPs in general and select committees in particular. The House of Commons employs just 700 staff (much of the research work is done through the House of Commons Library - see Factsheet on the House of Commons Library Department,) and has rather cramped office facilities for MPs (see Factsheets on The Palace of Westminster, The Norman Shaw Buidling and the Parliament Street Buidlings. The pay of MPs might also be considered modest, so that they cannot themselves pay for more than one or two assistants (see Factsheet on Members' Pay, Pensions and Allowances). The institutional support for an MP is considered to be poor in international terms; compare for example, the US Congress. Indeed, the temptation to bolster salaries by taking consultancies and outside commissions to represent the interests of outside businesses and groups in Parliament has caused much controversy in recent years, with allegations of "sleaze". The response was the (Nolan) Committee on Standards in Public Life (Cm.2850, 1995), which has in turn lead to the establishment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (an independent officer who can investigate allegations of corruption).
- special advisory bodies
- placing the management of Parliament in independent hands so that any Ministerial interference is visible
Such changes would indeed ensure better participatory democracy, but they are unlikely to secure greater power for Parliament in the shaping of public affairs owing to resistance from party influence. The problem is that political life is too much centered around government and not enough around Parliament. If that situation is to be changed, then some of the following more radical reforms would need to be considered:
- the development of career structures for politicians within in Parliament to rival those for politicians in Government.
- changes to the electoral system so that no party has an overall majority in Parliament.
For further reading, see:
Harden, I and Lewis, N. The Noble Lie (1986) ch. 10
Jones, B., Politics UK (4th ed., Pearson, London, 2000) chap.17
Wass, D. "Checks and balances in Public Policy Making"  P.L. 181