Recess negative: it's not perfect, but the portrayal of parliament as a government puppet bears little resemblance to reality
An article by Susanna Kalitowski, Research Fellow on the Hansard Society's Parliament & Government Programme, originally published on Comment is Free
The 11-week parliamentary recess is now under way, amid the familiar
annual charges of laziness and waste. Some MPs argue that the break
provides valuable time to catch up on important constituency work. Others, like John Redwood, disagree. Most political insiders seem to think it is too long.
do we really care whether MPs are sitting at Westminster anyhow? Many
believe the mother of parliaments no longer makes much of an impact and
that it simply serves to rubber-stamp the government's proposals. Even Gordon Brown waded into the debate over parliament's effectiveness in a recent interview
in which he derided the institution for spending the majority of its
time debating "minor clauses of minor sections of minor bills" instead
of "the big issues of our time" such as climate change and terrorism.
does spend a fair amount of time examining the PM's legislation -
roughly a third of overall Commons' sitting time and more than half
of time in the Lords - including bills this session on climate change
and terrorism. This is hardly a surprise, as parliament's primary and
best-known function is to make laws that affect all of us on a daily
basis, regardless of whether they are "major" or "minor". And although
the overwhelming majority of legislation is drawn up by the government,
it is parliament alone that has the power to pass, amend and even
Moreover, the portrayal of parliament as puppet
bears little resemblance to reality. If nothing changed between the day
that a bill left a government department and the day the Queen gave her
assent, then that would indeed be an indictment of parliament and the
legislative process. Thankfully, this is far from the case.
Parliamentary scrutiny does make a significant difference to the
content of legislation. In fact, thanks to the increase over the past
decade in public consultation, the publication of draft bills and backbench rebellions
- and a second chamber in which no single party enjoys a majority -
more changes are made to bills now than in the past. Sometimes this
change is dramatic - as in the case of the legislative and regulatory
reform bill, which the government was forced to re-write in order to
get it through the Commons. Usually, however, it is in small but
significant ways. For example, during parliament's scrutiny of the
immigration, asylum and nationality bill, the government was pressured
to preserve appeal rights for visitors to the UK who seek to vary the
terms of their visas.
Nonetheless, the law-making process remains
far from perfect and lack of time remains a central part of the
problem. This, coupled with the sheer volume of legislation
- and its increasing complexity - makes it difficult for parliament to
carry out one of its key tasks to its fullest potential.
Parliamentary time is precious. Therefore a shorter recess or a return to the ill-fated September sittings
might be welcome. At the very least, parliament and government should
explore further ways of using the existing parliamentary time more
Law in the Making: Influence and Change in the Legislative Process by Alex Brazier, Susanna Kalitowski and Gemma Rosenblatt, with Matt Korris, was recently published by the Hansard Society
This article was originally published on Comment is Free on 17 August 2008.