The UK Parliament on the International Day of Parliamentarism

The 30th June is the International Day of Parlimentarism. Established by the United Nations and celebrated on this day every year, the day ‘is a time to review the progress that parliaments have made in achieving some key goals to be more representative and move with the times, including carrying out self-assessments, working to include more women and young MPs, and adapting to new technologies (un.org).’ In relation to this, Dr John McGarry, Senior Law Lecturer, discusses the UK Parliament.

On International Day of Parliamentarism it is appropriate to recognise the central and preeminent role that the UK Parliament plays in the legal and political landscape of the country. Parliament comprises three bodies: the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarch. It is sometimes, more formally known as the Queen in Parliament. The House of Commons is made up of 650 directly elected MPs. The House of Lords consists of 700-800 peers which include appointed Life Peers, up to 92 hereditary peers and up to 26 Bishops of the Church of England.

Parliament has a number of roles. First and foremost, it is the UK’s primary legislature which means that it legislates, it creates law. Its powers here are unusual (though not unique) in that it is sovereign which means, in this context, that it may make any law whatsoever. That is, there are no restraints on the legislative power of Parliament. If an Act of Parliament is enacted in the correct way then, regardless of how improper, immoral or unconstitutional it is considered to be, the courts cannot overrule it or strike it out. As I say, this is unusual. In many countries, the law-making competence of the legislature is constrained by the constitution. For instance, in the US, an Act of Congress (roughly the equivalent of an Act of Parliament) may be struck down by the courts if it breaches the Constitution.

Another important role of Parliament is holding the Government to account – obliging the Government to explain and defend its actions and respond appropriately to any criticisms. It is worth emphasising here that Parliament and the Government are two distinct bodies exercising distinct functions. This fact is sometimes lost because it is a rule of the UK constitution that all Ministers – the main political actors of Government – must be a member of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Moreover, the Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Commons (rather than the House of Lords) and is the person who commands – and must maintain – the majority of support in the House of Commons.

This requirement – that the Government is formed from Parliament and must maintain the confidence (the majority of support) of the Commons – is why the UK system of government is parliamentary in nature. It may be contrasted with a presidential system where the head of government is directly elected by voters.

The importance of Parliament’s role in holding the Government to account is demonstrated by it being one of the bases of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2019 that the Government’s attempt to prorogue Parliament for five weeks was unlawful. The Court held that parliamentary accountability – Parliament holding the Government to account –is a fundamental constitutional principle and that this principle would be frustrated by such a lengthy prorogation. So, unless there was a reasonable justification for the five week prorogation, it was unlawful.

The accountability of Government to Parliament occurs in many ways. Undoubtedly, the most well known is Prime Minister’s Question time when the Prime Minister answers questions from MPs about the Government’s actions and decisions. This accountability is facilitated by a number of non-legal rules governing how members of the Government ought to behave. One of the most important is that Ministers must be honest with Parliament. The Ministerial Code – which sets basic standards of ministerial behaviour – states: ‘It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity’. Without this obligation of honesty, Parliament would be seriously hampered in its ability to hold the Government to account.

This, though, raises questions which I will state but not answer. As I have indicated, many of the most important obligations under the UK constitution are non-legal in nature. As such, they rely on those in power knowing, and adhering to, the rules of the game. This is sometimes known as the ‘Good Chaps’ theory of Government – that those in power will act like good chaps (or chapesses) and comply with the non-legal rules. Yet, what happens when those in power no longer feel obliged to comply with these rules? Can Parliament exercise its function of holding the Government to account if the Government no longer feels obliged to, for instance, give accurate and truthful information to Parliament? As I say, this is not a question which I will attempt to answer here. It is, however, an important question and it is one that my colleague Donna Graham, Staffordshire University lecturer, is currently looking at as part of her PhD.

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