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ble because rebellions can lose momentum once they have been unsuccessful; rebels
therefore hold back from striking until the most advantageous moment . . .
But by 2003 the nuclear option was looking increasingly attractive to many of Labour™s back-
benchers. This was partly just frustration; having seen so many pieces of legislation reach the
statute book as a result of carefully calibrated concessions that placated just enough backbench
opinion to get through the Commons, plenty of Labour MPs began to think that it was better
to stop legislation as early as possible. There was also a feeling that the changes to the
Commons procedures introduced as part of the government™s package of ˜modernisation™ “
especially the automatic programming of government legislation “ squeezed out backbenchers
from the later stages of Bills. Programming, many backbenchers began to complain, divided
the time up between the front benches, but meant there was no guarantee that backbench
amendments would be chosen for debate (or, if they were chosen, there was no guarantee
that they would be the right amendments, the ones with most chance of maximising back-
bench support). Therefore, increasingly, the view on the back benches was that when faced
with objectionable legislation, the thing to do was to stop it outright.

See further P Cowley, Revolts and Rebellions: Parliamentary Voting under Blair
(2002); Cowley and Stuart, ˜Parliament: more bleak house than great expecta-
tions™ (2004) 57 Parliamentary A¬airs 301 and ˜Parliament: hunting for votes™
(2005) 58 Parliamentary A¬airs 258; Whitaker, ˜Backbench in¬‚uence on gov-
ernment legislation?™ (2006) 59 Parliamentary A¬airs 350; P Cowley, The Rebels:
How Blair Mislaid his Majority (2005).
Even though the majority of government bills pass through the House of
Commons unscathed, the in¬‚uence of government backbenchers is not to be
measured solely in government defeats. A less obvious but continuous and
powerful restraint (or spur) operates on government through the anticipated
603 Parliament and the responsibility of government

reactions of its backbenchers. As Philip Cowley has put it (The Rebels: How Blair
Mislaid his Majority (2005), p 9):

MPs may not make policy, but they do constrain (and occasionally prod) government. All but
the most technical of decisions are affected by some considerations of party management.

Backbench opinion, transmitted through the Whips or expressed in party
committees or in private meetings with ministers, indicates to the government
the limits of the possible, and may cause it to discard or trim a policy which
backbenchers will not support. A famous instance was the Labour Govern-
ment™s abandonment of its proposal to legislate on industrial relations (˜In Place
of Strife™) in 1969 when it became evident that Labour backbenchers would not
support the bill. (Opposition in the Cabinet and from the TUC also contributed
to this major reversal of policy.) Both Conservative and Labour Governments
have been induced by backbench opinion or threats of revolt to reverse or
modify their policies on many occasions. Cowley and Stuart have written that
one reason why some of the revolts under the present Labour Government have
not been even larger ˜is that the government, like all other recent governments,
have been prepared to compromise with backbench critics in order to smooth
the passage of legislation through the Commons™ (˜Rebelliousness in a
Westminster system: Labour MPs under the Blair Government™ (2006), avail-
able at www.revolts.co.uk).
Cross-party combinations of backbenchers can be formidable. It was such a
combination (the ˜unholy alliance™ led by Mr Foot and Mr Powell) that in 1969
defeated a scheme for the reform of the House of Lords which was supported
by both Government and o¬cial Opposition. At a remove from the battle-
ground of party politics, all-party subject groups of members (such as the all-
party disability group), often linked with outside interests, can on occasion
exert a signi¬cant in¬‚uence on government policy. (See further D Judge,
Backbench Specialisation in the House of Commons (1981), pp 141“4; S James,
British Government (1997), pp 170“94; Whitaker, ˜Backbench in¬‚uence on gov-
ernment legislation?™ (2006) 59 Parliamentary A¬airs 350.)

(c) The House
There are occasions, not very frequent, when members on both sides of the
House of Commons combine to assert the power of the House against what
they see as an encroachment by the executive upon its rights or privileges.
On these rare but instructive occasions we see the House acting as a body to
claim its constitutional authority over the executive. One such instance
occurred in 1980.
Following the seizure of American hostages in Iran on 4 November 1979 the
United Kingdom Government introduced in the House of Commons on 8 May
1980 the Iran (Temporary Powers) Bill, providing for economic sanctions
604 British Government and the Constitution

against Iran. The minister in charge of the bill assured the House that the
bill and orders to be made under it would apply only to future contracts,
and would not a¬ect the implementation of those already made by British
exporters. The bill was duly passed by both Houses and received the royal assent
on 15 May 1980.
On 18 May it was agreed at a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the
Member States of the European Community that sanctions should be jointly
applied against Iran and should extend to all contracts entered into after
4 November 1979. Since the Iran (Temporary Powers) Act 1980 did not apply
to contracts already made, the Government proposed to rely upon earlier
legislation, the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939,
under which orders could be made prohibiting the export of goods to Iran
under contracts entered into at any time after 4 November 1979. When this
decision was announced in the House of Commons by the Lord Privy Seal
(speaking for the Foreign O¬ce) he was strongly criticised, from both sides of
the House, by members who considered that the House had been misled. After
the announcement an Opposition MP sought and obtained leave from the
Speaker to move the adjournment of the House ˜for the purpose of discussing
a speci¬c and important matter that should have urgent consideration™ and,
the required support of not less than forty members having been given, an
emergency debate was set down for the next day. On 20 May 1980 the Lord
Privy Seal made the following statement to the House (HC Deb vol 985,
cols 254“5):

After my statement yesterday about decisions taken on the implementation of sanctions
against Iran by Foreign Ministers of the European Community meeting informally in Naples
over the weekend, the House made its view very clear that the inclusion of retrospection,
however limited, was unacceptable.
The Government have therefore decided that sanctions will not be retrospective.
No orders will be laid before the House which ban the supply of goods under arrangements
made before the date on which those orders were laid. Last night we informed our
European Community partners and the Government of the United States that, in view of
the opposition of this House to retrospection, we would no longer be prepared to proceed
to apply any element of retrospection among the decisions that we agreed to at the
meeting in Naples.

4 Control and scrutiny
The e¬ectiveness of parliamentary control and scrutiny of government
depends much less on the formal powers of Parliament than on the recogni-
tion by governments of the authority of Parliament and their voluntary
submission to the constraints of parliamentary government. In the view of
some parliamentarians, successive governments have failed in these respects
605 Parliament and the responsibility of government

in their constitutional duty to Parliament. These discontents were expressed
by Mr Alan Beith (a Liberal Democrat) in the following motion in the House
of Commons (HC Deb vol 316, col 932, 21 July 1998):

That this House, reiterating the importance of a strong parliamentary democracy in Britain,
deplores the fact that successive governments have increasingly diluted the role of
Parliament by making announcements to the media before making them to this House; by
undermining the legitimate revising role of the House of Lords; by giving access to lobbyists
at a time when the representations of elected Members are dealt with in an increasingly
dilatory fashion; by inhibiting the rights of backbenchers to make criticisms of their own side;
by encouraging planted supplementary questions which fail to hold the Executive to account;
and by responding to questions and arguments with meaningless soundbites and partisan
rhetoric instead of constructive answers.

Grounds for some of these strictures may appear later in this chapter. For the
present we may note that in the debate on Mr Beith™s motion particular concern
was expressed about governments™ breaches of the principle, declared in the
Ministerial Code (1997), para 27 (rea¬rmed in the 2001 edition), that ˜the most
important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the ¬rst
instance, in Parliament™. The Speaker from time to time rebuked ministers for
lapses in the observance of this convention (see eg, HC Deb vol 306, col 565,
12 February 1998) but they continued to occur. In response to criticism in
a report of the Public Administration Committee of the House of Commons,
the Government undertook to strengthen the provision of the Code on this
point: see now the more precise requirements set out in the Ministerial Code
(2005), paras 7.1“7.5.
A more optimistic view than that expressed in Mr Beith™s motion (above) is
taken by some observers, among them Philip Norton who discerned ˜an
improvement in the capacity of Parliament to subject government to scrutiny
and to in¬‚uence what government does™ (in R Pyper and L Robins (eds),
Governing the UK in the 1990s (1995), p 100). The same author has placed
emphasis on parliamentary procedure as a factor constraining government: all
governments must operate through Parliament and its procedures (such as
those relating to the passage of bills) present obstacles to arbitrary or uncon-
sidered action by government. See Norton, ˜Playing by the rules: the con-
straining hand of parliamentary procedure™ (2001) 7 Journal of Legislative
Studies 13.
On the other hand, developments in the organisation and working of central
government (eg the creation of executive agencies, the accrual of power to the
Prime Minister™s O¬ce and the Cabinet O¬ce, the more prominent role of
special advisers to ministers, contracting out of governmental functions)
present new challenges to parliamentary scrutiny. In the judgement of the
606 British Government and the Constitution

Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny (The Challenge for
Parliament: Making Government Accountable (2001), p 6), Parliament™s:

response to developments has been inadequate. It has failed to adapt sufficiently and
remains, in many ways, the last unreformed part of the constitution. As a result Parliament
is not effectively performing its core tasks of scrutinising and holding Government to account.

The Power Report (Power to the People (2006)) was persuaded of the inability of
Parliament to control an executive which has acquired greatly enhanced power,
concluding that ˜the Executive in Britain is now more powerful in relation to
Parliament than it has probably been since the time of Walpole [˜the ¬rst Prime
Minister™ d 1745]™. On the other hand, as Seaward and Silk remark (in
V Bogdanor (ed), The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (2003),
p 186): ˜it is easy to overstress the growth in executive powers, and just as
striking, over the course of the century, has been the survival of a belief in the
importance of scrutiny and accountability, and the development of devices to
assist that process™.
(See generally P Giddings (ed), The Future of Parliament (2005); A Brazier et
al, New Politics, New Parliament? (2005) and Tomkins, ˜What is Parliament
for?™, in N Bamforth and P Leyland (eds), Public Law in a Multi-layered
Constitution (2003), ch 3.)

(a) Policy and administration
(i) Debates
The main contest between the parties takes place in debates on the ¬‚oor of the
House. Battle is joined on such general issues as unemployment, immigration
or the government™s expenditure plans, or debate may focus on speci¬c gov-
ernmental decisions such as the closure of a hospital, the deportation of a non-
British resident or the sale of arms to a foreign government.
Each session begins with a debate on the address in reply to the Queen™s
speech, continuing over some ¬ve or six days, which allows for discussion of
items of government policy chosen by the Opposition. Debates are held in every
session on certain matters, such as Budget proposals, foreign a¬airs, reports of
the Public Accounts Committee and developments in the European Union.
Debates on policy and administration initiated by the government, opposition
parties and backbenchers continue throughout the session, interspersed with
debates on legislation and other business of the House. Debates on particular
subjects may be arranged through ˜the usual channels™. As an exercise in
˜control™, debates are most e¬ective when governmental proposals are presented
to the House, it may be in a Green Paper, before they have become ¬rm, as a test
of parliamentary and public opinion.
Since what is said in a debate on the ¬‚oor of the House rarely a¬ects the result
of the vote at its end or induces the government to reverse a decision already
607 Parliament and the responsibility of government

taken, it is apparent that debates are not a strong instrument of control. But they
are an essential part of the continuous parliamentary scrutiny of government,
compelling it to explain and defend its policies and decisions.

Philip Norton, The Commons in Perspective (1981), p 119

[G]eneral debates are . . . not without some uses in helping to ensure a measure of scrutiny
and influence, however limited. A debate prevents a Government from remaining mute.
Ministers have to explain and justify the Government™s position. They may want to reveal as
little as possible, but the Government cannot afford to hold back too much for fear of letting
the Opposition appear to have the better argument. The involvement of Opposition spokes-
men and backbenchers ensures that any perceived cracks in the Government™s position will
be exploited. If it has failed to carry its own side privately, the Government may suffer the
embarrassment of the publicly expressed dissent of some of its own supporters, dissent
which provides good copy for the press. On some occasions, Ministers may even be influ-
enced by comments made in debate. They will not necessarily approach an issue with closed
minds, and will normally not wish to be totally unreceptive to the comments of the
Opposition (whose co-operation they need for the efficient despatch of business) or of their
own Members (whose support they need in the lobbies, and among whom morale needs to
be maintained); a Minister who creates a good impression by listening attentively to views
expressed by Members may enhance his own prospects of advancement. . . . A Minister faced
by a baying Opposition and silence behind him may be unnerved and realise that he is not
carrying Members on either side with him, and in consequence may moderate or even, in
extreme cases, reverse his position.

See also A Adonis, Parliament Today (2nd edn 1993), pp 142“8 and, for a sceptical
view, S Weir and D Beetham, Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain
(1999), pp 382“4.
Adjournment debates initiated by backbenchers on local or narrow issues
of administration may take place in an almost empty House and attract no
publicity, but a minister is obliged to attend and answer what is sometimes
a skilfully presented case. If the minister is not often persuaded to change his
mind, the debate may serve at least to bring into the open the way in which
a decision was reached.
Foster and Plowden have noted “ and deplored “ a recent decline in the
signi¬cance and value of debates in the House of Commons, which they ¬nd to
be no longer central to the parliamentary process or, what formerly they were,
˜a stringent check on ministerial misbehaviour™. A factor in this trend has been,
they say, ˜the catastrophic decline in the attention the media give to parliamen-
tary debates, precipitous since 1992™ (The State under Stress (1996), pp 203“4),
and they call for a revival of ˜the great tradition of parliamentary debate™ on
important issues (at p 238). ˜The main arena of British political debate™, says
Peter Riddell, ˜is now the broadcasting studio rather than the chamber of the
House of Commons™ (Parliament under Blair (2000), p 160).
608 British Government and the Constitution

(ii) Questions
The Procedure Committee of the House of Commons declared in its Third
Report, HC 622 of 2001“02, para 1:

The right of Members of the House of Commons to ask questions of Ministers, to seek
information or to press for action, is an essential part of the process by which Parliament
exercises its authority and holds the Government to account.


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