Parliamentary democracy in the UK has seen many dramatic changes in the twentieth century. For many countries it has been a consolidation period, where a democratic society has been formed. As well as the global effectiveness of a democracy here in the UK there have been many questions into the power and roles of the members of parliament. Parliament took all major control of the sovereign, in the day-to-day exercise of constitutional power many years ago. It was recognised by monarchs as early as the fourteenth century that the very people they depended on to maintain their authority must, for this reason, be consulted on major issues in the country (M. James, 2009, pg 39). Thus ‘Parliament of ‘commoners’’, which has enabled them to have an active part in the converting of bills into statues (acts). In this essay I will explore, in detail, the British government that the country devotes trust and faith into. I will be looking at the roles and responsibilities that parliament has and what the various institutions of parliament do and as equally important - the effect this has on us.
The UK public elects 650 Members of parliament that represents a seat or constituency. The constituency will usually represent the interests and concerns of the local public. The concerns are raised in the House of Commons were MP’s will consider and propose new laws. MP’s will also have the opportunity to look over the government polices on current issues by asking ministers questions, this will either be in the Commons Chamber or in the Committees. The commons chamber is ranged along two sets of opposing benches with the main authority being ‘the speaker’. On the right hand side of the speaker is the government benches (government party and its allies) and on the left hand side of the speaker is ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’ (normally the second biggest party after a general election). : (M.James, 2009, pg 39/40)
There are usually between 80-100 MP’s in each constituency, the rest are known as ‘shadow ministers’ they are situated on the opposition frontbench and are known as backbenchers’. Some of the main roles and responsibilities that the MP’s discharge within their constituency is to hold weekly ‘surgeries’ in their constituencies; canvassing support among fellow MP’s for ‘early day motions’ and to introduce Private Member’s Bill – this can be a potential legislation that, if passed could make it a law of the land. Any MP’s main duty lies within their constituency with their constituents, they also have a responsibility to Parliament and the Great British Public who can get involved in the debate, question and hold accountable any decisions that the executive make. One of the main ways in which their decisions can be checked is through a committee system to ensure the transparency and accountability of government. Most backbench MP’s are usually a member of at least one committee, a committee consists of around 11-14 members and chaired by a sitting member. There are four types of committees, there are; Select committees, public Bill committees, ad hoc committees and joint committees. (M.James, 2009, pg 46-48)
Firstly, Select committees are the most publicised committee within the select committees. This committee examines the workings of each government department, at the moment there are 19 select committees covering departmental issues such as education, health services and culture. This committee holds the power to call up MP’s, senior servants and public officials as witness, this information will then be published in a report. Secondly there is the Public Bill also known as the standing committee and the most influential type. This committee has a function to: scrutinize, comment on, amend, and/or refer back to the Commons for further consideration on Bills that are currently in the process of becoming acts of Parliament (M. James, 2009, pg 49). As the Bills will be under recognition for a possible new law this process often takes a considerable amount of time, as a result of this government have tried to avoid them when rushing to pass a legislation they say is urgent. If they are agreed by the speaker in these circumstances, the Commons itself with actually take on the role of the Public Bill Committee as a ‘Committee of the Whole House’. Thirdly there are Ad hoc committees, this committee deals with more specific issues of wide public concern. The House of Lords Ad Hoc Committee was established in December of 200 and under the inter-governmental Organizations examined how cross border policy issues are being addressed (through the UK’s membership of intergovernmental bodies i.e. the EU) (M. James, 2009, pg 50). Lastly we have Joint Committees; they get the name ‘joint’ because this group is made up of MP’s and peers. They will consider a range of points of view for the work of the Upper House. The joint committee dates back to the late 18th century – the committee was established to rationalise the amount of Acts in the statue book. In turn this means that the Lords are able to bring together a range of different Acts on the same or very similar areas in an ‘all-encompassing Act’.
As mentioned above MP’s in Britain is usually associated to a political party; however Party Membership is known as a game of two halves. On the one hand if one is selected to become an official candidate for a major party they will gain a good excellent support network and financial backing in the run up to the election. On the other hand, an independent person(s) that wish to become part of a major party will have to use their own personal money to fund their campaign to gain donations. Parties in Britain are said to ‘represent people with the same ideas’, however in recent years party leaders have been criticised for disagreeing with their ranks using a whip system to force their MP’s to back the official line when voting. The whip system is a very controversial system within the political democracy. ‘Whipping’ has been frequently accused of bullying MP’s into doing their leaders bidding. (M. James, 2009, pg 52). There are three broad definitions of the term whip, there are; whips, the party whip and three line whips. Briefly, the three main whips are explained below:
WHIPS are people who persuade MP’s whose views are known to differ from those of the party’s leadership to ‘toe the party line.’
THE PARTY WHIP – An MP’s or peer’s membership of their parliamentary party. If they are found to broken the rules of the membership then they can be withdrawn.
THREE LINE WHIPS – this is an instruction given to members of parliament by the leaders of their party telling them they must vote in the way that the party wants them to on a particular subject. (The MP must always attend as this is generally the most important).
(Above definitions are from: M.James, 2009, pg 50/51)
Whipping is a way of managing their own party; a whip will tell an MP which way they should be voting. One could argue that the personal morals of each MP could be affected as if they have vowed to stand for certain issues/ideas through this system they may not always stick to it. So in turn does this mean they are compromising their previous aims and objectives? Is this fair?
Local people in Preston and the surrounding area were asked three main questions;
• What do you consider to be clear wrong doing for local MP’s?
• How willing would you be to sign a petition to oust the errant MPs?
• Would it help you to trust politicians more?
The response was interestingly similar between all those who partook in the questions. Below are two of the more general reposes of ten interviewees.
Alex Jones, a local business man said, “I think any type of sex scandal would be bad, I would lose a lot of respect for them. I don’t think we should judge them with double standards but with the power they do have, we have the right to hold them responsible for what they do. I would definitely sign a petition and if people are more involved and care about people in charge if their local area they would do what we elected them to do. I would never trust our government, democracy is flawed already”.
Joanna Bates, a dentist said: “If they made a promise to us then totally went against it which has already been done, I would class that as morally and ethically wrong as it is abusing our trust and it defies the whole purpose of a democracy. I wouldn’t sign a petition as I don’t think it would make any difference as they are all consumed by money. I don’t think a petition would make much difference because most MP’s have neglected their rights to us as our elected MP’s, which is a shame because it would be nice to have an MP who does the job properly but there are a lot who don’t and that it all we seem to see. I’m not sure if it is because of the media and what the media chooses to show us, however I do think it’s all a big mess”.
To conclude, the results that of the interviews show that most people simply want their local MP’s to stick with original pledges they made and to keep a professional, moral and ethical stance on what they do. Even though most people said they would sign a petition it seems that either way this would not make a difference to the mass Politian’s if just a few were taken out. Nine out of the 10 people that were asked said that this would not make change the level of trust they have for local MP’s and politicians.