The powers and organisation of the Executive

The PM

The prime minister is the single most important figure in the UK political system. He or she is the UK’s chief executive. But what this means in practice is the subject of considerable debate.

· Chairs the Cabinet and manages its agenda

· Appoints all members of the Cabinet and junior ministers, and decides who sits on Cabinet committees

· Organises the structure of government — can create, abolish or merge departments

The Cabinet

  • The cabinet in Britain has the following characteristics:

  • · It is composed of between 20 and 25 senior politicians, all appointed directly by the prime minister.

  • · Members of the cabinet must be members of either the House of Commons (i.e. they are MPs) or the House of Lords (i.e. peers).

  • · Normally one party wins an overall majority of the seats in the Commons and so forms a government alone. In this case all members of the cabinet will be from that governing party.

  • · Where, as in 2010, there was a coalition, the members of cabinet can be from either or all of the parties in a coalition. In 2010, therefore, there were both Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the cabinet.

  • · Cabinet meets normally once a week, more often if there is a crisis or emergency.

  • · The prime minister normally chairs the meetings. Together with the cabinet secretary, the most senior civil servant, the prime minister decides what will be discussed in the cabinet and notes in the minutes (the detailed accounts o meetings) what was decided.

  • · A number of cabinet committees are created to deal in detail with specific area of government policy. These have a small number of members (perhaps between four and six) and will be chaired by the prime minister or another senior cabinet member. Typical examples are defence, foreign affairs, environment, education health.

  • The minutes of Cabinet meeting remain secret for at least 30 years.

  • ·Cabinet decisions are, in effect, official government policy.

  • · The prime minister has the power to dismiss ministers from the cabinet, to appoint new cabinet ministers, to create new cabinet posts or abolish old ones, and may move ministers around into different posts (known as a 'reshuffle').

Government Departments

· Each one responsible for an area of policy, e.g. the Ministry of Defence, Department for Transport

· Each headed by a Cabinet minister, supported by several junior ministers responsible for specific aspects of the work of the department

Executive Agencies (Quangos) Quasi Autonomous Non Governmental Organisations

Semi-independent bodies that carry out some of the functions of government departments, e.g. the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) is overseen by the Department for Transport.

The main roles of the executive

The executive decides how the country is run. The executive is, technically, responsible for executing or implementing government policy. As such, it is the ‘sharp end’ of government, the bit that impacts on the public. However, its role is much wider and more significant. It is the chief source of political leadership, and controls, most importantly, the policy process. In short, the executive ‘governs’. It represents the UK abroad and manages the defence of the country. It is responsible for public services including the National Health Service, welfare benefits and the criminal justice system. Since devolution, some of these functions have been transferred from the core executive in London to devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The UK is unusual in that many of the organs of the executive are described as being under the control of the monarch, for example ‘Her Majesty’s ministers’ or ‘Her Majesty’s Treasury’. However, this is an illusion. In practice the executive branch is under the control of the prime minister (using his or her ‘prerogative powers’) and the cabinet. The civil service — the unelected permanent officials who serve the government — is expected to act in a neutral fashion, standing outside the party battle, and is forbidden from serving the political interests of the government, but it, too, is technically within the control of the prime minister, who is officially ‘head of the civil service.

Proposing legislation, proposing the budget and making policy are all important roles of the UK executive.

Proposing legislation

The executive introduces proposals for new laws, or amendments to existing laws. It announces a new programme at the start of each parliamentary session in the Queen's speech, which is read out to both Houses of Parliament by the monarch, but is written by the government. For example, the May 2015 Queen's speech reflected the priorities of the Conservative government that had just been elected under the leadership of David Cameron, including proposals for:

  • · an in/out referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union

  • · measures to ensure that decisions affecting England, or England and Wales, would be taken only with the consent of MPs from those parts of the UK

  • · legislation to protect essential public services against strikes.

The executive does not, of course, confine itself to measures proposed in a party manifesto at a general election. It also has the power to introduce legislation to contend with emergencies, such as the threat of terrorism, and to amend existing statutes in order to bring the UK into line with international law. This is known as a 'doctor's mandate'.

Ministers will often consult with interested parties, such as pressure groups and professional bodies, before introducing legislation. For example, in 2015 the Cameron government undertook a consultation exercise with employers on its proposal to introduce an apprenticeship levy,

a requirement for large companies to contribute towards the cost of training new workers. This was introduced in 2017.

Secondary (or delegated) legislation is law made without passing a new act of Parliament. Instead the government uses powers created by an earlier act. The most common form of secondary legislation is statutory instruments. These enable a government to modify or repeal existing legislation without introducing a new bill. Clearly it would be pointlessly time-consuming to enact new legislation every time the government needs to amend or update the detail of existing regulations. However, critics have raised concerns about the growing use of statutory instruments to make more controversial changes. For example, in 2016 statutory instruments were used to abolish maintenance grants for university students and to allow fracking in national parks. Opposition politicians and press commentators argued that the government was sneaking these changes through the back door. Statutory instruments are sometimes called 'Henry VIII clauses' because they enable the government to evade parliamentary scrutiny. Although Parliament can debate and, in theory, reject a statutory instrument, about two-thirds of them simply become law on a specified date in the future, without being put before MPs.


Proposing the budget

The government needs to raise revenue in order to fund public services and to meet its spending priorities. The budget is created by the chancellor of the exchequer in consultation with the prime minister, and is revealed to the rest of the Cabinet shortly before it is delivered. The budget is an annual statement of the government's plans for changes to taxation and public spending, presented to the House of Commons for its approval in March. If a new government comes to power after a general election, it introduces a budget of its own, even if the previous government has already presented one. For example, in June 2010 George Osborne, chancellor in the new coalition government, delivered an 'emergency budget' only 90 days after the previous Labour government's budget.

Making policy decisions

The executive has to decide how to give effect to its aims for the future direction of the country. Examples of important policy decisions taken by the 2010-15 coalition government include:

· streamlining the welfare system by introducing a single benefit for working-age people, known as Universal Credit

· allowing parents and voluntary groups to set up 'free schools, independent of local councils

· introducing more competition into the National Health Service (at least in England) and putting GPs in control of the commissioning of care for patients.

Prerogative powers

Patronage

These are powers exercised by ministers that do not require parliamentary approval. They are collectively known as the royal prerogative and date from the time when the monarch had direct involvement in government. The monarch still has some personal prerogative powers, including the appointment of the prime minister and giving royal assent to legislation, but in exercising these, the monarch seeks to avoid controversy and acts under the direction of ministers.

Most prerogative powers are exercised by ministers acting on behalf of the Crown. These include:

■ making and ratifying treaties

■ international diplomacy, including recognition and relations with other states

■ deployment of the armed forces overseas

■ the prime minister’s patronage powers and ability to recommend the dissolution of parliament

■ the organisation of the civil service

■ the granting of pardons

Some prerogative powers have been clarified and limited in recent years. It has become a constitutional convention that parliament votes on the deployment of the armed forces overseas. Parliament voted against airstrikes on Syria in 2013 and then gave its approval in 2015. Prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the prime minister could ask the monarch to dissolve parliament and call an early general election. Now, an early election can only be called if two-thirds of MPs approve in a vote in the House of Commons. In April 2017, MPs approved a motion for an early general election by 522 votes to 13. The prime minister’s powers to award honours and make public appointments have also been restricted.