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.