The Functions of Parliament

Philip Norton distinguishes between legislatures in terms of their policy-making role and identifies three different types:

  • 1. Policy-making legislatures, for example, the US Congress, which can formulate and substitute their own policy as well as modifying and rejecting proposals from the executive branch.

  • 2. Policy-influencing legislatures, for example, the UK parliament and the German Bundestag, which can modify and sometimes reject measures proposed by the executive, but cannot formulate or substitute their own policy. The European Parliament would also fit in here.

  • 3. Legislatures with little or no policy effect, for example, China’s National People's Congress, legislatures in former European communist states, which had no power to formulate, modify or reject executive proposals and met when they are required to formally approve policy that has already been agreed.

Parliament is sometimes classified as an ‘assembly’, a ‘legislature’ or a ‘deliberative body’. The truth is: it is all these things. Parliament has many functions within the political system. The key functions of Parliament are:

How well does Parliament fulfill its functions?

Indeed, Parliament is the supreme legislature in the UK, in that it can make and unmake any law it wishes (subject to the higher authority of EU law), as expressed in the principle of parliamentary sovereignty (see p. 189). Parliament is not restricted by a codified constitution, and no other law- making body can challenge Parliament’s authority. Devolved assemblies, local authorities and ministers can only make laws because Parliament allows them to. However, Parliament’s effectiveness as a legislature has also been questioned:

• The bulk of Parliament’s time is spent considering the government’s legislative programme. Only a small number of bills, private member’s bills, are initiated by backbenchers, and these are only successful if they have government support.

• Party control of the House of Commons means that government bills are rarely defeated, and most amendments affect the details of legislation, not its major principles. It is more accurate to say that legislation is passed through Parliament rather than by Parliament.

• The Lords play a subordinate role in the legislative process. It is essentially a ‘revising chamber’; most of its time is spent ‘cleaning up’ bills not adequately scrutinised in the Commons.


The main functions of Parliament

  • Both the Commons and the Lords perform three main functions:

  • · passing legislation

  • · scrutiny of the executive (including debating)

  • · providing ministers.

In addition the Commons has the function of representing the electorate.

Passing legislation (Commons and Lords)

This is the most important function of Parliament. Parliament is the supreme legislative body in the UK, with authority to pass or amend laws on any subject. The House of Commons has exclusive power to give consent to taxation — as the elected chamber it represents the public, and the Lords is not allowed to interfere with the passage of what are known as `money' bills. The Lords has the right to amend non-financial legislation.

Most legislation is initiated by the government and there is limited opportunity for backbench and opposition MPs to propose measures of their own. Parliament mostly reacts to measures put before it by the executive, rather than developing its own legislative proposals, and it is rarely able to defeat or significantly amend legislation. To succeed, this requires solid opposition from the opposition parties, combined with rebels on the government side. An example is David Cameron's defeat in March 2016 on plans to extend Sunday trading, when Labour and the SNP joined with Conservative dissidents.

The adversarial nature of the party system, in which the opposition constantly confronts and challenges the government, is reinforced by the work of the party whips. They are responsible for ensuring that MPs attend parliamentary votes (known as `divisions') and for granting leave of absence if their vote is not essential. They issue MPs with a written instruction to attend —also known as a `whip' — which indicates how important it is for an MP to be present. The most important votes are underlined three times and these occasions are therefore known as a three-line whip'. Less important requests for attendance may be underlined just once or twice. Government whips may offer the prospect of ministerial posts in order to encourage and reward loyalty. Whips can also impose sanctions on those who do not accept the party line. Persistent rebels may have the whip withdrawn, meaning that they are effectively suspended from the party and have to sit as an independent. This can also happen in cases of misconduct where it is felt that an MP has damaged the party's reputation. Smaller teams of whips operate in the Lords.

Governments can use the argument of overriding necessity to push through legislation. The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act, which introduced control orders for individuals suspected of terrorist offences, completed all its stages in just 18 days. On the other hand, only a small number of bills are so poorly drafted that they are virtually unworkable. The usual example given is the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which was passed in response to a series of tabloid stories about dog attacks. Critics argued that, instead of prohibiting certain breeds of dog, it should have targeted irresponsible owners. A review by the RSPCA, 25 years later, showed that of 30 deaths caused in that period by dogs, 21 involved breeds that were not specified in the act.

Parliamentary scrutiny (Commons and Lords)

Parliament has a responsibility to exercise oversight of the executive's actions. The opposition seeks to hold the government to account and to expose its errors. Ministers have a duty to explain and defend their policies in Parliament. Most senior ministers sit in the Commons, where the main action of politics takes place. Theresa May's Cabinet, appointed in July 2016, contained only one member of the Lords (the Leader of the Lords, Baroness Evans), which is typical of recent practice. However, most government departments are represented in the Lords by a junior minister, whose role is to oversee the passage of business through the upper house.

There are a number of ways in which the function of scrutiny is performed. The most important are:

· Questions to ministers, which may call for oral or written answers. Prime Minister's Questions, a weekly question-and-answer session in the chamber of the Commons, has been criticised for being unduly theatrical and largely a point-scoring exercise dominated by the PM and the leader of the opposition.

· Select committees, which shadow individual government departments in the Commons.

· Debates, which can be impressive set-piece events, such as the August 2013 House of Commons debate in which the Cameron government was defeated on its proposal to undertake military action in Syria. Since 2010 the creation of the Backbench Business Committee has given MPs more power to shape the agenda by allowing them to choose the topic for debate on one day per week. Debates in the Lords are often given credit for their high quality, with participants commonly including recently retired individuals with expertise in a particular field, but they rarely influence the course of events.

Parliamentary Committees

Providing ministers (Commons and Lords)

In a parliamentary system of government, the convention is that ministers must sit in one of the two houses. Parliament acts as a recruiting ground for future ministers, with the whips making recommendations to the prime minister on suitable candidates for promotion. The prime minister possesses wide powers of patronage.

The award of a peerage can on occasion be used to secure the services of a particular individual as a minister, if that person is not an MP. For example, following the 2008 financial crisis, Gordon Brown recalled Peter Mandelson from the European Commission, appointing him to the Lords so that he could serve as Business Secretary.

Representing the electorate (the Commons only)

The Commons has a representative function since it is the elected house. The Lords is representative only in the sense that it contains people with a wide range of professional backgrounds, but this aspect is not organised systematically. By long-standing tradition, MPs are not delegates of their constituencies — they use their judgement on how to vote, rather than taking instructions from those who elect them. The first-past-the-post system means that there

is a strong link between an MP and his or her constituency. MPs are expected to respond to issues raised by individual constituents and to stand up for local interests at Westminster. For example a number of the 44 MPs who voted against plans for the London to Birmingham High Speed Rail link (H52) in March 2016 represented constituencies that would be affected by the planned route.

If an MP does not fulfil the expectations of the local electorate, the voters have a right to choose a different representative at the next general election.

How effectively does Parliament perform its representative function?

· One concern is that an MP's loyalty to his or her party, reinforced by the desire to win promotion to the government, may come into conflict with the need to represent a constituency. However, skilful MPs are good at reconciling the two roles. The ministerial code, which regulates the conduct of ministers, advises them to take care to avoid conflicts of interest. But they are allowed to make representations to colleagues in government, as long as they make it clear that they are acting as their constituents' representative and not as a minister. For example in 2006 Hazel Blears, a member of Tony Blair's Cabinet, supported protests against a planned closure of part of a hospital in her Salford constituency.

Another issue is that, although there has been considerable improvement since the 19805, the Commons is still not truly representative of society as a whole. 29 per cent of MPs elected in May 2015 were female — an increase on the 2010 figure, which was 23 per cent — compared to 51 per cent of the UK population. Similarly ethnic minority MPs make up 6 per cent of the Commons, compared to 13 per cent of the population. A pattern has also been developing in recent decades in terms of the class and occupational background of MPs.