Parliament is essentially the legislative section of the British political system. It is an asymmetric bycameralist system, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is easily the more dominant. Its’ functions are fundamentally five fold; representation; legislation; scrutiny and influence of the executive; debate on contemporary issues; and recruitment to Government. The House of Lords generally holds the same functions, but can be seen as weaker. It also holds extra elements such as judicious and constitutional safeguard roles.
Policy making can therefore no longer be seen as a role for Parliament. This essay will show that Parliament does not have much impact on the policy making process. Furthermore, the extent on to which parliament does influence policy is due to the personalities involved rather than any constitutional precedent. It is difficult to argue for a change in the roles as it appears to the author that this is the correct way for the British system to work. In this essay, the main focus of exempla will be the British parliamentarian system and its decline in power in the face of the executive.
The basis of my initial argument shall rest on the most established model of Core Executive interactions: the Westminster Model was proposed by Jennings in 1966 to explain the distribution of power. The model was constructed around the central premise of Parliamentary sovereignty; that each parliament had the right to make decisions on almost any issue and enforce them. The notion of Parliamentary sovereignty also allows the current parliament to rescind any previous legislation or decision.
The evidence supporting this premise was both constitutional and conventional, the latter being very important in the absence of a complete codified constitution. Notable examples of Parliamentary sovereignty include the removal of Chamberlain from power in 1940 as Parliament lost faith in him and some of his Cabinet The extension of the Westminster model from this premise was based on analysis of governmental and party politics, the growth in strength and coherency of the leading parties combined with a deferential and hierarchical culture granted the majority of power to Cabinet Ministers and the Prime Minister himself.
Thus the Westminster Model argues that Parliamentary sovereignty entails Executive sovereignty in a party governmental system. Throughout the world, three types of legislature can be identified, Policy-making; Policy-influencing; and those with little or no policy effect. Parliament is generally regarded as a policy-influencing body, it relies on the executive to formulate policy and then reacts to it. The growth of the party machine has reinforced the power of the executive to initiate policy. Parliament fundamentally is not involved in the policy making process as this is the role of the executive.
Parliament does however retain a minor number of initiation processes, which, to a small extent allows policy not from the executive to be passed. The Government controls Parliament but cannot always rely on it passing bills, there are four main factors which allow control; its possession of a majority and loyal voting by its own supporters; its ability to determine the parliamentary timetable; its ability to curtail debate; and its control of drafting. The policy making process is usually a lengthy one. Bill Jones identified three main stages; initiation, formulation and implementation.
Initiation is where the original idea comes from. More often than not, it arises from debate or a general climate of opinion. It can originate from any part of the political spectrum; from the Executive, the Civil service, Parliament, Pressure groups or the General public, and can gain entry into the political system either from personal beliefs or influence by others who hold a certain view. A principle source of policy is the Governments’ election manifesto. Winning parties have a very good record in implementing their manifestos.
Different parties have different ways of forming them, it could however be generalised that the executive of the party together with appointed interests have the largest amount of influence. Appointed interests may include leaders of back-bench committees but there is little evidence to support the idea that they contribute greatly to the policy process. Other measures are introduced due to a particular crisis (Dangerous Dog Act 1991), international agreements (Maastricht 1993) and as a result of discussion with Government departments.
Private members’ bills (those introduced by Parliament) contribute very little in the way of legislation, in the 1987-1992 Parliament, 584 private members’ bills were introduced, most were never debated and only 65 (11%) were passed. When this is compared to 202 out of 213 (95%) Government bills passed over the same period. This example is greatly enforced when the lengths of bills are compared. The total number of private members’ bills pages passed would probably only equal four or five Government bills.
Policy formulation is where the idea is put into the system to create a coherent proposal that will create legislation that applies to the original idea. Parliament has an input in what it feels a bill should include but has little impact on the formal drafting of the measure. The details of Government bills are determined by ministers after substantial discussion. Members of Parliament (MPs) and peers have no formal involvement in these discussions. Considering evidence from ministers and advisers, little consideration is given to back-bench dissatisfaction when formulating a major bill.
If such a reaction is anticipated then it is more likely that relevant MPs are ‘encouraged’ to support it. This, together with party partisanship usually means that the bill will be passed. However, a minister will not wish to continually annoy his contemperies and may alter a bill before it reaches Parliament; due to the secrecy of the system, it is not known exactly how often this occurs. The second part of policy formulation is the drafting by Parliamentary counsel. The bill is drawn up how the Government wish it to appear on statute.
MPs have little or no influence in this stage. Private Members’ Bills are either drawn up by the relevant MP, peer or group behind the motion. Little assistance is provided for this practice and as such the bill has a high risk of being technically flawed. Policy implementation takes up around one third of the time in the House of Commons and nearly two thirds of the House of Lords. Parliament is a public arena where much debate occurs and ministers are called to justify their bills, this allows Parliament considerable authority in its achievement of its duties.
However it can be argued that bills leaving Parliament are rarely of substantial difference to when they entered and so little influence has been enacted on them. The considerable amount of time does not create notable changes to many bills, Government is usually assured of having both the principles and the details being passed. There are a number of constraints that may mean the Government does not get the backing of its own MPs in sufficient numbers to allow a bill to pass unamended or even at all. All these constraints increase the power of the legislature.
Firstly, there are financial constraints, resources may not be available to implement a policy or key decision makers are unwilling to free relevant finances. The minister instigating the policy needs to be competent enough to push the bill through at sufficient speed and with enough support. Furthermore, not all decision makers are rational; they may have other personal aims such as a desire for status, ambition and rivalries that may lead them to oppose certain policy objectives. The European Union (EU) is a good example of how key decision makers may not agree with Government policy.
Time in the legislature is extremely overloaded and the Government must make time to introduce a policy so it can be passed before the end of a parliament. The actual timing of a bill is also crucial, a controversial bill is more likely to be passed soon after a general election because the Government has a fresh mandate from the public and the threat of loss of seats at the next election is minimised. The public are believed unlikely to vote against the Government because of a bill passed up to five years previously.
Policies that are not clearly under the control of one department tend to be at a disadvantage because, certain critics ague that their co-ordination is inefficient. A bias for the South-east is often noticed in Government policies, for example, the granting of defence contracts, this is because most Decision makers live in the home counties, it has a more buoyant economy and it is the Conservative heartland. A past example of the power of the executive being altered was the actions of, now, Baroness Thatcher.
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected to government, she was to enact a radical series of institutional reforms embracing the Civil Service and the Cabinet which shifted the balance of power significantly. Thatcher saw it as a goal to ‘deprivilege’ the Civil Service; she achieved this in two ways by downsizing it and introducing a strict culture of managerialism. Thatcher also expanded the extent Prime Ministerial decision-making power in structural ways; these included the expansion of the Prime Ministerial staff by 60% between 1983 and 1993.
She used the increased staff in conjunction with think tanks to bypass the Civil Service and Cabinet reinforcing her own power base. The magnitude of her power was evident in the creation of the Poll Tax, a very unpopular tax maintained for a period by the will of Thatcher alone. The resulting national and political unpopularity lead to her deposition and the promotion of John Major to prime Minister, many saw his style of leadership as more consensual and the general assumption was that power would return to the other two actors.
During his tenure this was partially true but strong tensions in the Cabinet over European issues meant that policies were often discussed collectively but decided individually. As his term progressed may saw his malaise surrounding party discipline as the result of a structure intended for a strong leader being occupied by a weaker one. The conclusion from this thread of historical progression is that Thatcher fundamentally shifted the decision-making power toward the Prime Minister both through structure and agency.
This conclusion may also superficially answer the question as recent history demonstrates power is flowing toward the Prime Minister Parliament does not greatly impact the policy making process. This is the role of government. Consequently it is difficult to perceive how it could have a large impact. A small provision still exists in the form of Private Members’ Bills but these are insignificant when compared to the level of legislation passed by government. The enormous majority of the governments in the 1980s together with a strong leader, led to Parliaments ability to amend or reject was reduced. he demise of Margaret Thatchers’ Government has allowed Parliament to reassert some of its authority over the executive. The enormous strength of the Conservative Governments during the 1980s did appear to be excessive. Some form of safeguard against such dominance does appear to be needed, the greater use of Select Committees and specialised Standing Committees for scrutiny of the executive does begin to increase Parliamentary power, but more is still needed.