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

By Stuart Weir; David Beetham | Go to book overview

14
Heckling the Steamroller
The imbalance of power between government and Parliament

The House should no longer rest content with an incomplete and unsystematic scrutiny of the activities of the Executive merely as a result of historical accident or sporadic pressures, and it is equally desirable for the different branches of the public service to be subject to an even and regular incidence of select committee investigation into their activities.

(House of Commons Procedure Committee, 1978)

The holding of Ministers and officials to account for their policies, actions and decisions …is carried out by the departmentally related Committees in a far more vigorous, systematic and comprehensive scrutiny than anything which went before.

(House of Commons Procedure Committee, 1990a)

Since the mid-1960s, reform-minded MPs of all parties have been seeking to rescue the House of Commons from servility. The major impetus for change was a Procedure Committee report in 1978, which recommended that a new system of select committees should be established to subject the executive to more systematic scrutiny. Their existence, however, failed to check the arrogance of the executive during the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Scott Report revealed the corruptions of power and the proliferation of executive agencies and raised new alarms about Parliament's surveillance of the executive. In 1995–96, the Public Service Committee (PSC) analysed the weaknesses of the House's arrangements for scrutiny of the executive and pressed the case for clearer rights for select committees and MPs. In the dying hours of the last Parliament, the PSC persuaded the government to propose a symbolic resolution of the House clarifying the duties of ministers and officials to the House (see Chapter 12). It remains to be seen whether MPs in the current Parliament will take up the baton.

In Chapter 13, we analysed the roots of the political executive's dominance over Parliament and saw how its control of the House led to the great mass of legislation, primary and secondary, being whipped through largely unexamined and unchanged. But it is not simply the political executive and its legislation which benefits from Parliament's weakness. The whole unco-ordinated machine of central government, executive agencies, quangos, the intelligence services, regulators, and local quasi-public bodies, plus policy communities incorporating major industrial interests, all shelter behind the loyalty of the majority party in the Commons and escape effective scrutiny thanks to the deficient machinery of ministerial responsibility (see Chapter 12) and the weaknesses of current arrangements for scrutiny.

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