How Well Does Parliament Fulfil Its Functions

? 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?



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