One of the key tasks of any Parliament is scrutiny. But what is scrutiny? What makes it effective and how does it work?

Jessica Crowe from the Centre for Public Scrutiny gave us an insight as part of our Parliamentary Studies course. Parliament has recently altered its scrutiny powers but what effect has it had? Many things can hold back Parliament from scrutiny from party loyalty to lack of resources or lack of tools. Jessica measured Parliament’s performance against the CFPS’s own key principles of good scrutiny: that it serve as a constructive ‘critical friend’, amplifies the voices and concerns of the public, is led by independent people who take responsibility for their role and that it drives improvement in public services.

In Parliament, scrutiny comes in different forms, from formal arenas to informal pressure. We often see the high profile, attention grabbing scrutiny, such as the recent questioning of the heads of MI5 and GCHQ. This grabs the headlines and can initiate change. Yet it can also be counter-productive. In a highly political and adversarial place like Parliament, such scrutiny may look like, and may be, an attack. The danger is that ‘political theatre’ and point-scoring can replace proper scrutiny that ‘voices concerns’. Moreover, such behaviour can provoke resistance rather than change.

Yet there is more informal, more subtle sorts of scrutiny. This may be picking up on gaps or pointing out mistakes. It is what the Centre calls the ‘critical friend’ approach-questioning but constructive. The legislative change around mobile homes in 2013, calmly pressured for by the Communities Select Committee, was a nice example of a more soft but successful approach. This is also an area where the House of Lords performs well, though it usually gets little attention, as Lord Norton points out here.

The Wright reforms of 2010 have strengthened Parliament’s scrutiny powers in numerous ways, giving backbenchers and Select Committees more power and control. However, problems remain, particularly in the involvement of the public where the new e-petitions site appears to have evoked sound and fury without too much to show. Other Parliaments such as the German Bundestag may offer a model.

Jessica pointed out that, closer to home, one place Parliament could learn from is local government. Since 2000 a series of reforms have sought to make local government scrutiny better (see this report). Local government is typically less partisan, managing to successfully balance voicing concern while remaining a critical friend. As with many areas, local government is also a site of experiments and public involvement. Jessica pointed to the success of Boston, where the controversial local issue of immigration was confronted through a wide ranging local government discussion with residents (see here and other examples here). Perhaps the future of scrutiny is local.

The department would like to thank Jessica for an interesting and thoughtful talk. Thanks also to Dr. Meg Russell for her help and input.  You can see Jessica’s blog and slides here and visit the Centre for Public Scrutiny here.



John F. Kennedy’s standing among scholars may be in question but his popular appeal is stronger than ever; consistently ranked outside the top ten US presidents by historians, he has maintained the highest presidential approval rating in the modern era. On the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas, members of the Department or Politics at Birkbeck reflect on JFK’s relevance for their research. Continue reading

Here’s a first puzzle from our Parliamentary Studies Course.

On one level the answer to this question is obvious. Parliament, of course, makes the law. It is a ‘legislature’. It is where all those making the law gather. It’s the place where laws or Acts are passed. Technically speaking the House of Commons, House of Lords and Monarch together make law. So why would we ask?

As Philip Norton points out, legislatures may be slightly misnamed. If you ask a slightly different question, such as ‘who is responsible for most laws that get passed?’, the problem becomes a bit clearer. The government is responsible for most of the legislation that goes through Parliament, probably 95% per cent.

The government generally has a majority in the House of Commons that can (generally) get legislation through. Not always, as MPs can rebel as we saw over Syria. But generally government gets its way. It also controls most of the timetable, making it doubly powerful. The House of Lords can only delay and the Monarch hasn’t refused since the Eighteenth century.

This means that Parliament doesn’t make legislation. It gives assent. So it legitimises or authorises the law that the government wants.  The question is whether this matters?

It matters if you think about what Parliament can do. The UK Parliament cannot, except in very unusual situations, ‘stop’ a government. The Lords can only delay legislation and the Commons has a majority of pro-government MPs subject to party discipline and loyalty (though they are getting much less loyal). We could not see a US shutdown or gridlock.

It matters if we are researching Parliament. It means Parliament cannot normally make law but it can have an influence on the legislation pushed through by government. Occasionally the House of Commons or Lords can temporarily block or cause obstacles  but it is very rare that you ‘see’ influence like this-only when something goes wrong, like over reform of the House of Lords. More subtly, it can and does exert influence on a daily level in other ways-the informal quiet route, through amendments, questions and debates.

It may also matter a great deal for public expectations. If the public expect Parliament to be making laws and just see the government pushing through what it wants they may feel a little bit disappointed. The confusion among the public around what Parliament does or does not do may stem from this.

So Parliament has many roles and much influence, some subtle, some not so subtle. But it doesn’t really make the law.

Parliamentary Studies is a new course for 2013 that is jointly run by the Department of Politics at Birkbeck and the Parliamentary Outreach team. The course includes talks by officials from Parliament as well as guest lectures by a journalist, an MP and a Peer.  As part of the course we are holding a seminar open to all:

‘Holding to Account: How Effective is Parliamentary Scrutiny?’

Jessica Crowe, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny

6.30 pm Thursday 7th November

Room 633, Birkbeck main building

Free and open to all.


After the recent tragedy in Lampedusa, we have heard a number of politicians and commentators saying that what Italy needs to face the current refugee crisis is more support from the European Union. What does this really mean? First, there is a frequent misconception concerning actual volumes of EU financial assistance. This in turn raises two further issues. What is the current state of affairs in terms of funds received by Italy compared to other Member States? How much can the EU realistically provide in support for a national migration system? In other words, to what extent can the EU substitute for a functioning national migration system? Secondly, there is, as always in EU affairs, questions of power and sovereignty. I will address each of these points in turn. Continue reading

The UK government is committed to leading the world in openness. As part of the push to transparency, all English local councils have been asked to publish all their spending over £500 online on a monthly basis. These ‘swift and simple changes’ could ‘revolutionise local government’ and ‘unleash an army of armchair auditors’, with citizens analysing the data and holding their local councils to account.

For the last year I’ve been researching the impact of the publication, using a combination of surveys, FOI requests and interviews. I’m asking whether making this new financial information available has had an impact: are members of the public using the new information to make local government more accountable? Do they to participate more in local politics? Do they understand more about their local council?

The evidence to date shows a limited number of people are looking at the information. A mixture of journalists, local activists and a few citizens are using the data to hold councils to account and there have been some stories in the local press and the national press. There are a few armchair auditors appearing around the country such as here and here (especially, as Eric Pickles pointed out, inBarnet) but it takes time, resources and interest –something not many of us have.

There are obstacles. The data itself isn’t as informative as it could be, and it can’t yet be compared with other councils or give a full picture of what is being spent and how (see your own local council site-mine is here). Some councils are not convinced that the public will spend their time looking through spread sheets. When you contact your council it’s generally for amenities or services-bins or planning-rather than spending.

To make it more complicated the spending data is also very political: it isn’t clear exactly what the government wants to see and they are sending out ‘mixed messages’. Some feel the information, at a time of severe cuts, is intended to make councils look like reckless spenders or wasters.

The lack of use and obstacles does not mean the reform has failed. Far from it. Councils can see the benefits of all this information for both citizens and for themselves. It is very early days and the real changes will arrive when new applications such as Openly Local (still in development) allow you to quickly search the data, compare spending with other councils and join it up with other ‘local’ information. In the future, local councils could have applications that combine their spending data with local information in the style ofTheyWorkForYou or the Open Data Communities hub.

This post originally appeared on the ODI website. You can see here my written and oral evidence on Open Data to the Public Administration Select Committee.

If you are interested or would like to help with my research please contact me on


Pavlos Fyssas was no ordinary rapper. Born and raised in the working class district of Amfiali near Piraeus, one of several unemployment- and poverty-hit parts of the Greek capital, the 34-year old man had distinguished himself both through his art (as Killah P, he was part of the low bap music scene, alongside bands such as Active Member) and actions of solidarity, the two often combined. A well-known anti-fascist activist, he was murdered by a thug of the Golden Dawn neo-nazi party on 18th September 2013. This act of political violence has led to a major political defeat of the conservative-led Greek government. This is so for several reasons.

First, the Greek government’s long overdue reaction proves decisively that existing domestic legislation (specifically the penal code and anti-terror laws) offers powerful tools that ought to be used in the fight against the neo-nazis of Golden Dawn. Since, unlike in other European countries, a political party cannot be banned in Greece on historically-defined constitutional grounds, in the wake of Pavlos Fyssas’ murder, the conservative-led government asked the country’s top public prosecutors to investigate no less than 32 documented cases of attacks that had taken place across Greece and were thought to be linked to Golden Dawn. The idea is powerfully simple: on the basis of existing evidence, could – the government asked – a case be made that Golden Dawn is, in fact, an organised criminal group? An equally important implication on the operational level is the direct involvement of the state’s counter-terrorism and intelligence service apparatus in key parts of the investigation. It is as a result of this initial investigation that the country’s top prosecutors issued arrest warrants for more than 30 individuals including not only its leader (who reportedly had no license for the three fire arms that were found at his residence at the time of his arrest) and five other Golden Dawn MPs but also serving police officers. Aided by whistleblowers, the top prosecutors’ initial report refers, inter alia, to several cases of murder or attempted murder. These are charges that, if proven, carry lengthy jail sentences and, crucially, in these cases MPs cannot hide behind parliamentary immunity. Where there is a will, there is a way.

This begs the question of why the conservative-led government did not act earlier; why did the relevant minister not do anything more than merely stating that he is ‘worried’? Why did we have to get to Pavlos Fyssas’ murder for the government to act? Incompetence is certainly a factor (as it was in the case of the closure of the public broadcaster) but there are more sinister causes at play here. Indeed, one idea behind the government’s initial inaction was that many of those who voted for the Golden Dawn (or declared their support for it in opinion polls) were working class voters who could – in the absence of this option – have voted for parties of the Left, especially SYRIZA, the main opposition party. This demonstrates the strategic importance of the Golden Dawn’s significant presence in working class constituencies like the one where Pavlos Fyssas was murdered.

In addition, at the level of political narratives, the conservative-led government systematically used Golden Dawn’s presence and actions to propagate its own so-called ‘theory of the two extremes’. According to that theory, SYRIZA too could be considered to be an extremist party, or at least one that harboured some sympathies for (left-wing) extremism. Implicit here is the idea that SYRIZA is not a legitimate option, especially for the ‘law-abiding citizens’ that traditionally vote for the two ruling parties but deserted them in the wake of the crisis. This kind of argument was propagated not only by the government’s official spokesman but also conservative MPs such as Chrysanthos Lazarides, a senior aide to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, both of whom come from the nationalist wing of the ruling Nea Dimokratia. Even by their standards, relying on this rhetoric after Pavlos Fyssas’ murder and the revelations that followed about Golden Dawn’s criminal activity, would be far fetched. Both they and PASOK, the other ruling party, are in desperate need of an alternative strategy and narrative. Arguably the same applies to SYRIZA. Its rates in opinion polls have been stagnating since the last election possibly because it has not yet established itself as a party with a single voice on key issues and, more importantly, it has not yet completed its long overdue turn to pragmatism.

Pavlos Fyssas’ murder has also been a long overdue wake-up call for the government in terms of the implications of the support that Golden Dawn enjoys amongst Greek police and armed forces. In democracies citizens are free to choose which party they vote for and we know for sure that the election results in the Athenian polling stations where most Greek police voted in 2012 showed a much higher degree of support for Golden Dawn than the country’s average. However, taxpayers pay police and soldiers’ salaries in order to be kept safe rather than see them tolerate, turn a blind eye to, help prepare or even contribute to criminal acts such as those that Golden Dawn is alleged to have perpetrated. This is not a problem that can be kept under the carpet for long, especially in a crisis-hit country like Greece. In that sense, the policing minister’s decision to move, replace or effectively sack several senior police officers, including at least one senior official involved in the investigation on Golden Dawn, and the charges brought against police across the country who had links with Golden Dawn are steps in the right direction.

Finally, Pavlos Fyssas’ murder ought to be a wake-up call for ordinary Greeks who have voted for, declared their support for (even in opinion polls), or turned a blind eye to the Golden Dawn’s hate-filled activity and rhetoric. After his murder, they can no longer claim that they did not know what the Golden Dawn is really about. The era of innocence, if it ever started, is well and truly over.

Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck. This post was previously published on openDemocracy.

By: Anna







And so the annual autumn ritual of American masochism begins again in New York. Like inviting your least likeable in-laws to detail your worst features to your nearest and dearest after an agreeable Christmas lunch, this week’s 68th UN General Assembly welcomes heads of state and government from its 193 member states. With its plenary session overshadowed by Syria, and issues from Iran’s nuclear programme and Israeli-Palestinian relations vying for competition on the agenda, the media expectancy is even greater than usual. “The stakes are very high,” according to PJ Crowley, a former assistant US secretary of state.

What fatuous nonsense. Continue reading

The House of Lords is one of the great conundrums of British politics. Every radical government since 1911 has tried to reform it, with varying degrees of success. Yet it still remains, 102 years later, unelected, half reformed and, to some, a matter of ‘unfinished business’. The House of Lords is now increasingly packed (if not after the recent ‘top up’ full to the brim) with political appointees. Any new attempt at change faces two obstacles: the lack of agreement in the House of Commons and a lack of interest among the public. Continue reading

Many of my Egyptian friends joined the celebrations on Tahrir Square in July when General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared that Muhammad Mursi is no longer president. Believing in the power of people, they were convinced that their peaceful protest ousted a president who they deemed incapable of managing the country’s deep economic crisis and political stalemate. Continue reading

With London experiencing its first heat wave in recent memory, members of the Department of Politics at Birkbeck write about their favourite summer fiction with a political theme. Recommendations range from Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup to Don DeLillo’s Mao II. Continue reading