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.

 

 

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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.