In what ways can the House of Commons influence a British Government
To fully assess the contribution of the House of Commons as an influence over British Government a basic understanding of its background must be acquired. On top of this the role of the house and how these roles are fulfilled must be assessed to reach a balanced answer. The House of Commons has been constantly evolving over the past seven centuries. Over the years it has played a varying role in the affairs of the nation, however its power has been limited in the past by royal patronage and in recent times the theory of the mandate.
The House of Commons currently contains 659 members all of whom are theoretically independent of any political bias. However in practice it is dominated by the parties. This theory developed during the electoral reforms of the nineteenth century when the franchise was extended and the MP’s were not fighting as individuals but as parties. The theory states that the winning party has the mandate of the people and can control what passes through the House of Commons. The House of Commons has a number of roles in its contribution to governing the UK. Its major role comes under the legislative process.
This is the process that decides what will become law. The legislative process goes through three stages and both Houses of Parliament before a law is made. Firstly a party will propose an idea by a formal introduction to the Floor in the House of Commons If there is no debate on the bill then it is moved on to the second legislative stage. However if there is debate on the general principles of a bill it may be voted on and even defeated. The second stage is the committee stage where a standing committee acts as an overviewing committee that regulates all bills that are passed through the House of Commons.
However the government has the majority of the seats on the committee so they are rarely defeated. Once accepted the committee reports the bill to the floor of the House of Commons, here amendments can be made. After the report stage is the final reading which is generally a formality for all except the most controversial of bills. The report stage of the legislative process is the final of the House of Commons, the bill is then sent on to the House of Lords for further examination.
The actual contribution of the House of Commons to this vital part of governing the UK is somewhat debatable because the process is so strongly dominated by the governing party, and therefore the actual House does not have the influence that it is assumed to have. Any party can propose a bill but in practice about 90% of legislation will come from the party in power at the time. A bill will rarely be questioned at even the first reading because if it came to a vote the government’s majority would make them almost guaranteed winners.
Even at the standing committee stage the government has a majority which further reduces the contribution of the House as a whole. Further as in any profession; Members of Parliament are striving for promotions which will bring them higher wages and increased responsibility, therefore it would be unusual to see an MP debating a bill proposed by his own party. The House of Commons has a further influence over the British Government. It is responsible for scrutinising the day to day business of the government, this is vitally important as we have no written constitution and parliament is a sovereign.
This means that anything that is passed cannot be stopped. Members of Parliament scrutinise the government by questioning them at question time. Question time is held at the start of each session and the Prime Minister will attend about twice a week. Questions can be asked orally but the MP that the question is addressed to must be informed of the question beforehand, and s allowed to draft an answer. The MP asking the question is then allowed a supplementary question, and the MP’s response is taken as official policy. 95% of the MP’s are able to second-guess the second question, and are able to draft an answer.
The MP can obviously give an elusive answer, but by doing so will lose respect. Question time gives an opportunity for the House to question the government and greatly influence UK government, however it is a time when the government shows its power. As the government has the majority of seats it is their questions that are more likely to get chosen by the speaker and they will generally be sympathetic to their own party, i. e. the government. A government minister can be asked anything, but he will be aware that if he makes an MP’s life too difficult he will find it harder to progress.
Question time does keep MP’s on their toes because if they are asked a question they have to respond. Another major function of the Hose of Commons is the selection of investigatory committees. To understand the role of select committees further understanding of the background of the House of Commons is needed. In theory the House of Commons controls the government but over the years it has become clear that this is not the case. The government has never achieved full control over the House of Commons, however the House of Commons has very little control over the government.
People became worried about this and they felt that without a constitution it was dangerous. To resolve this they diversified and set up select committees, made up of backbench MP’s with party representation in the select committees being proportional to the current political position of the House of Commons. The committee is chaired by either party and in theory when an MP is selected for a select committee their party loyalty is dropped and they become neutral. In reality an MP always has a degree of loyalty to his or her party, however over the years they tend to develop a certain loyalty to their committee.
Committees are relatively permanent and specialise within one area with a view to become experts. Thatcher introduced select committees for all government departments and when looking into a specific department they are able to look into what they want. A select committee has the power to call for persons, papers and records. The persons or departments under investigation must respond with all the relevant requested information. Once a committee has finished their investigation they issue a report that is released to the media and therefore having an effect on public opinion.
This shows the effective power of a select committee, not only is it able to demand any information from ministers but it also has the power to reveal its findings to the public. This is a prime example of the House of Commons’ influence over a British government. However even the power of the select committee is limited by the dominance of the government because the select committees rarely look into topics that are likely to receive media coverage and therefore effect public opinion. They generally look at issues of less excitement because party loyalties get in the way.
If the committee wishes to investigate a topic that may prove to be damaging to the party then the ministers will simply veto it. The government will always have a majority on the committee so they can veto any topic with ease. Generally reports are dull and do not receive any publicity. There has however been a decreasing influence of the House of Commons over the years and it has become a major point of concern. Attempts have been made to reinforce the house and increase its importance as a body for scrutinising and influencing government through behavioural, attitudinal and structural changes.
Before 1970 party voting was almost total in the division of the lobbies, however more recently governments cannot take their natural majority completely for granted, MP’s are becoming more independent in their voting behaviour. The Conservative party under Sir Edward Heath suffered six defeats in the division lobbies when the Tory backbenchers rebelled against the government. This seemed to set a precedent for future governments as the backbenchers realised that collectively they were able to take an active role in the actions of the House.
However the effectiveness of the actions of the backbenchers depends upon the size of the majority of the Government. Under the previous two governments cross voting has become much less obvious and effective. Despite the changes that are occurring, the House of Commons remains to be Britain’s premier assembly, however its effectiveness as an influence over British government is somewhat limited. The overall power of the government dominates the House. The Houses main contribution is as a law making and scrutinising body that keeps check on all government procedure.
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