Parliament's effectiveness at Scrutiny
Parliamentary scrutiny is an essential function of a legislature. In addition to scrutinising a government’s legislative proposals, parliament also exercises a general scrutiny and oversight role. It scrutinises the actions of the executive and ensures government accountability by requiring ministers to explain and justify their actions. The convention of individual ministerial responsibility states that ministers are accountable to parliament; they must explain and justify their policies and actions —and those of their department — in parliament.
Select committee proceedings allow for more in-depth scrutiny of policy than the theatrical duels with the leader of the opposition that occur each week in Prime Minister's Questions. Of more practical value are oral and written questions to departmental ministers, although these receive less publicity.
Debates on major events, such as the one on military action in Syria in August 2013, can occasionally lead to government defeats, but this can be partly attributed to poor management of MPs by government whips. The opposition parties are allocated 20 days in each session to choose the topic for debate, but the government can ordinarily rely on its Commons majority to carry an amendment to a hostile motion. The Backbench Business Committee, created in 2010, has scheduled debates on topics that the government would not have chosen. It works on a cross-party basis. However, with some exceptions, such as the release of documents on the Hillsborough football-stadium disaster, its work has attracted limited media attention. It is also worth noting that the government determines how much time is allocated to its debates.
The largest party not included in the government forms the official opposition. The leader of the opposition has special privileges, including an additional salary, the right to respond first to the prime minister on major statements, and the right to ask six questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time — the only MP permitted to respond to the prime minister with further questions. He or she appoints a shadow cabinet to follow the work of government departments. The House of Commons culture and architecture is adversarial, with the government and opposition facing each other across the chamber. The opposition is expected to perform two major tasks that do not always sit easily together. First, it should oppose many of the government’s legislative proposals and harry the government by tabling amendments and forcing votes. But the opposition should also try to appear as an alternative government-in-waiting. It will need to develop its own policies and may support government measures that it agrees with. When the government has a small majority, the opposition may be able to force policy retreats.
The government enjoys significant institutional advantages in parliament. It can draw upon the expertise of the civil service, while the opposition relies on limited state funding known as ‘Short money’. Introduced in 1975, this is available to opposition parties that secured either two seats or one seat and more than 150,000 votes at the last general election. The funding is used to assist parties in carrying out their parliamentary business and cover travel expenses. A budget for the office of the leader of the opposition is also provided.
The opposition has limited opportunities to set the agenda in parliament. Opposition parties are permitted to choose the topic for debate on 20 days in the parliamentary year (‘opposition days’), 17 of which are allocated to the official opposition. This gives them an opportunity to advance their agenda or expose government failings. A 2009 Liberal Democrat motion on British citizenship for Gurkha veterans produced a rare government defeat on an opposition motion.