? Essay, Research Paper
British Parliament has four primary functions. These are representation, legitimisation,
scrutinising and informing and legislative. Each of these are performed, by
our parliament with a varying degree of success, and this essay is targeted
at examining how well each of these functions are carried out.
Firstly, there is the issue of representation. How well does Parliament represent
the people of Great Britain? To begin with, Britain is a pluralist society.
We have complete freedom of speech and MPs are open to lobbying and are accessible
to pressure groups, which therefore enables the views of different people to
be heard and ensures that matters of public concern can reach the political
agenda. However, the UK is subject to party politics, and it is impossible for
a party to represent every person on every issue, and in order to win the support
of the majority of the population it is important that they focus on wider issues.
Because of this, minority opinions are not properly represented.
Furthermore, Britain has a First Past the Post electoral system. In such a
system up to seventy per cent of the votes are ignored, as they are used on
losing candidates, and the winning party very rarely gains a majority of the
votes. In fact, at the last election, Labour won a landslide victory having
only received 13.5 million votes, and although not the entire population have
the right to vote, this figure is equal to just a quarter of the population.
Although such a system does lead to a stronger government, the government is
not as representative of the people as it could be.
A further drawback with the First Past the Post system is that an MP can and
often is elected with a minority of the votes in his constituency. Therefore
a significant proportion of the people in the constituency are not represented.
Although they are free to make their opinions known to the MP at surgery, the
MP can only act on their behalf if it is in keeping with their party principle,
as they are forced, by the whips, to tow the party line. Furthermore, the primary
role of an MP is to serve the constituency that elected him, and MPs who are
made cabinet ministers do not really have time to serve their constituencies
as well as they should. For example, Tony Blair has very little time in which
to serve the people of Sedgefield.
For true and full representation, all viewpoints, majority or minority should
be represented in some way in Parliament. Indeed, Parliament should be a microcosm
of the country, yet to take a brief glance at the House of Commons it is made
up, in the main, of middle-aged, middle-class men. There are relatively few
women MPs, and very few MPs from ethnic minorities. In practise, this makes
the issues that are specifically concerned with these two groups face lower
representation in parliament. Moreover, the House of Lords is made up mainly
of people who are there by the queen?s appointment, and others who are present
simply via hereditary right. This entire chamber, although it has limited powers,
represents a tiny minority of the population, massively disproportionate to
the parliamentary significance it has.
In conclusion, whilst our electoral infrastructure leads, in theory, to a
high level of political representation, the First Past the Post system does,
in almost every example, lead to an under-representation of a majority of the
population. Furthermore, minority opinions can only be presented if they are
in keeping with an MP?s party?s view, due to the prominence of party politics.
Perhaps most importantly of all though, an MP, although there is an accountability
and the presence of party whips, has the power to ignore the people whom he
represents, and many of them, the so-called party rebels, do so on a regular
It is fair to say that the British government is more or less completely legitimate.
Legitimisation is the term used to describe the confirmation of authority. At
a general election by electing a government people transfer their sovereign
power to the government. However, it can be said that the government is not
legitimate because there is no alternative than to elect one. In spite of this
though, anybody can be stand for election, anyone can form a party and, if the
people choose, anyone can hold office. There is also a sense of legitimacy in
the sense that if the government lose a vote of confidence they are expected
to hold an election. However, most governments do not hold a majority of the
votes and a large number of people do not vote. Also, the government is only
legitimate if they hold a majority in the commons.
When looking at legitimacy the basic question that needs to be asked is do
we recognise the authority of the government to govern? In Britain at the moment
the answer to this is yes. On the whole the population respects the law and
pays taxes and there is not a ?tyranny of the minority.? There is no large-scale
rebellion and no significant instigators of revolution. There have been places
in the US where people refused to pay taxes and openly broke the law as they
did not respect the right of the government to govern. There has been one example
of this in Britain ? the poll tax riots. The British people did not believe
Mrs. Thatcher had a right to introduce such a measure as almost nobody ? even
in her own cabinet, supported such a measure. As a result of the wide-scale
riots the tax was abolished.
To summarise, the British government is indeed legitimate. Whilst the population
may object to some of its measures, there is no objection to the fact that they
are allowed to be in office, in spite of the fact that they do not have a majority
of the votes.
As I have already said Britain is a pluralist society, parliament houses more
than one party, and so therefore all the government?s measures are subject to
scrutiny from other parties and also from backbench MPs in their own party.
Scrutinising and informing is a further function of parliament. It an MPs job
to ensure that laws made by parliament are laws that are beneficial to the country,
and this is via the intense scrutiny of every bill that is introduced.
Scrutiny occurs at question time, where MPs have the right to stand up and
ask questions to the relevant MP (usually a cabinet minister or the Prime Minister)
about a proposed bill, and to criticise it, both positively and negatively.
Whilst this is a function parliament performs well, particularly because of
the presence of other parties, there are often planted questions. This is where
MPs from the government are given fixed questions to ask by the person being
questioned in an effort to promote the measure, particularly as question time
is live on television. However this is opposed by the fact that other parties
often use this opportunity to not just criticise the proposed bill, but to put
down the government as a whole. It is extremely unlikely for the opposition
to fully support a government measure and usually they simply pick out the downfalls
of the bill and use this for their own political gain.
Scrutiny also occurs at parliamentary select committees. These are committees
set up in attempt to improve the accountability between the government and parliament
as a whole. These improve scrutiny because they are smaller and so therefore
more successful, in terms of efficiently and effectively scrutinising a bill,
be it positively or negatively, and help the opposition to have a clearer understanding
of the government?s plans. Also, they force ministers to form clearer policies.
However, it can be said that the idea of having MPs and constituencies is that
in theory as many as possible have a say in the issue, and these committees
reduce the role of the House of Commons. Furthermore, these committees do not
have the power to force a Minister into changing policy.
To bring the above points together, scrutiny in parliament is structured well.
The government does not have the power to bring in an act without it being criticised
by the opposition. However, this platform the opposition has is easy to abuse,
merely by using it to publicly put down the government at question time. This
can be, and usually is countered by using planted questions, which therefore
has a detrimental effect on the effectiveness of scrutiny. As an answer to this,
parliamentary select committees are advantageous in that they increase the knowledge
other parties have on government policy, allowing for more constructive debate.
They are also more effective than the House of Commons, though sadly this comes
at the expense of fundamental democratic principle.
The main function of parliament is to make the laws that run the country.
The government does this by introducing legislation using political bills. There
are four ways to introduce a bill. These are private members? bills, private
bills, bills introduced in the House of Lords and bills introduced by the cabinet
or the Prime Minister. It is important to realise that introducing a bill changes
the law that runs the country. It is therefore essential that all bills passed
are discussed thoroughly, and necessary amendments are made in the light of
this discussion. Because of this all bills introduced must go through a very
rigid and thorough infrastructure. The bill must go through a discussion and
a debate in the House of Commons, then to a committee stage where it can be
amended. The bill is then read out again and there is a further debate. If by
this stage it has not been rejected it is passed on to the Lords. The Lords
repeat this entire process and send it back to the commons to be accepted in
its new form or re-debated. This then continues for as long as necessary, although
the Lords only have the power to delay a bill for a year and a day at the very
The basic advantage of this system is that it is very thorough. By the time
a bill is passed there should, in theory, be no stone left unturned, and the
introduced law should be unimprovable. However, this is not always so as there
have been several ?knee-jerk reaction bills? passed. An example of this is the
Criminal Justice Bill, which was rushed through the legislative process in a
very poorly drafted state while parliament was not supposed to be in session,
as an instant reaction to the Omagh bombing.
This complicated and intricate system, does however contain a number of significant
flaws. Firstly, the Lords? power to delay a bill for up to a year means that
it has the power to reject a bill stemming from a government in its final year
in office. Also, it is obvious that laws are brought in with a view to improving
the nation, and so therefore it would be beneficial for them to be brought in
as quickly as possible. The slow process and particularly the power of the Lords
to delay affects this greatly.
To add to this, there is the case of Private Members. Bills. These are bills
introduced by MPs whose names are drawn at random, often on behalf of members
of the public, twelve times a year. Because of the lack of time Parliament has,
these bills are subject to a time limit and so any one MP has the power to reject
such a bill simply by standing up and talking out the time limit. This means
that only non-controversial bills tend to get through, and is also highly undemocratic.
Perhaps most important of all though is the fact that all prospective laws
are subject to a great deal of party politics. After all the debating is finished,
it simply comes down to voting for or against, and usually the party whips ensure
that MPs vote in accordance with their party. Whilst this is justifiable by
the fact that the vast majority of the electorate vote with parties in mind
not individual candidates, it does however lessen the significance of scrutiny.
Basically, parliament on the whole is very thorough and very meticulous with
the introduction of new legislation and it is a function it fulfils well, portrayed
by the lengthy complicated process necessary for this to occur. However there
are numerous cracks in the system, such as the power of the Lords and the lack
of time to discuss private members? bills, which are very hard to overcome.
In conclusion, Parliament is a well-structured and well-planned establishment
which fulfils its functions to a more than adequate level. Whilst its First
Past the Post system does not lead to the best possible representation, it does
give rise to strong and efficient government, and because Britain enjoys complete
freedom of speech, leading to a pluralist society, the government can never
truly hide from any major issue. The government can also be said to be completely
legitimate. The people respect the right of the government to lead them. Scrutiny,
in the main leads to the improvement of laws, although sadly it is often used
as a device to gain public support as it is the parliamentary session which
is available to the widest television audience. The legislative process is thorough
and should, in theory prevent the introduction of rash measures.
However, the above paragraph is only true in theory. The fundamental problem
with today?s parliament is the absolute prominence of party politics. Britain
is a democratic society, but parliament, at the end of the day can be said to
be a game of numbers. If one party has a majority and either the full support
or respect of its members they are a force very difficult to stop. In 1774 Edward
Burke said to his constituents, ?Your representative owes you not his industry
only but his judgements; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices
to your opinion.?
In spite of parliament?s well structured democracy and ability to fulfil its
functions, its major problem lies in the fact that many MPs are beginning to
stop being free-thinking individuals keen to fight for the interests of their
constituents and the country and becoming sheep pushed in whichever direction
the ministers deem appropriate. Whilst this is extremely prominent in the government
itself, it is perhaps more worrying in what appears to be the opposition?s policy
to reject out of sight any idea a government may have. What point does a meticulous
and complex parliamentary system serve if it watches blinkered following of
party principle and scripted debates at question time?