Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain: The Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom

By Stuart Weir; David Beetham | Go to book overview

Introduction

We have described a very powerful, many-headed executive in Part 2. In chapter 11, we examined the internal rules governing the conduct of this executive, and the relationship between ministers and civil servants and their departments. We now go on to consider the major external mechanisms by which this executive is held to account. The body charged with the political responsibility for doing so is of course Parliament, and primarily the elected chamber, the House of Commons. Individually and collectively, ministers have a duty to account fully and frankly to Parliament for the policies, decisions and actions (and non-policies, non-decisions and non-actions) of their departments, executive agencies and other public bodies—as well as their own decisions and actions—under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility to Parliament. They therefore answer formally in Parliament for the actions and decisions of officials.

Government is becoming far more open with Parliament and the public. The voluntary Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, introduced in 1994 (Cabinet Office 1995–97), was a big step forward, in principle at least. The Labour government is introducing a statutory regime of openness. And as Lord Armstrong, the former head of the civil service, has pointed out:

British government today makes public a torrent—a veritable Niagara—of information in one way or another: through statements and answers to questions in Parliament, speeches in parliamentary debates, written and oral evidence to parliamentary select committees, government replies to reports of such committees, Command papers presented to Parliament—White Papers, Green Papers, Blue Books, annual estimates, reports and accounts of government departments, quangos and other public boards and bodies, and so on.

(Armstrong 1995:55)

Under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, however, government ministers were authorised to withhold substantial amounts of official information from Parliament and the public—and naturally among the information they tended to withhold was that which could hurt or embarrass them. The 1996 Scott Report on the export of defence equipment to Iraq showed conclusively that the government was deficient in its duty of openness in various ways, including answers to Parliamentary Questions, letters to MPs and their constituents, ministerial statements

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