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The British Government: Checks and Balances
The British Government: A Brief Overview
Information courtesy of The British Information Services

In addition to the system of scrutiny by select committees, the House of Commons offers a number of opportunities for the examination of government policy by both the Opposition and the Government's own backbenchers. These include:

  1. Question time, when for 55 minutes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, ministers answer MPs' questions. The Prime Minister's question time is every Tuesday and Thursday when the House is sitting. Parliamentary questions are one means of seeking information about the Government's intentions. 'They are also a way of raising grievances brought to MPs' notice by constituents. MP's may also put questions to minister's for written answers; the questions and answer's are published in Hansard. There are about 50,000 questions every year.

  2. Adhournment debates, when MP's use motions for the adjournment of the House to raise constituency cases or matters of public concern. There is a half-hour adjournment period at the end of the business of the day, while immediately before the adjournment for each recess Parliament's Christmas, Easter, Spring and summer breaks - a full day is spent discussing issues raised by private members. There are also adjournment debates following the passage -three times a year- of Consolidated Fund or Appropriation Bills, which are financial measures. These take place after the House has voted the necessary money for the Government.

    In addition, an MP wishing to discuss a 'specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration' may, at the end of question time, seek leave to move the adjournment of the House. On the very few occasions when leave is obtained, the matter is debatecl for three hours in what is known as an emergency debate- usually on the following day.

  3. Early day motions (EDMs) provide a further opportunity for backbench MPs to express their views on particular issues. A number of EDMs are tabled each sitting day; they are very rarely debated but can be useful in gauging the degree of support for the issue raised by the number of signatures of other MPs which the motion attracts.

  4. Opposition days each session, when the Opposition can choose subjects for debate.

  5. Debates held on three days in each session to consider details of proposed government expenditure, chosen by the Liaison Committee, which consider's general matters relating to select committees.

    Procedural opportunities for criticism of the Government also arise during the debate on the Queen's speech at the beginning of each session; during debates on motions of censure for which the Government provides time; and during debates on the Government legislative and other proposals.

House of Lords
Similar opportunities for criticism and examination of government policy are provided in the House of Lords at daily question time and during debates.

Control of Finances
The main responsibilities of Parliament, and more particularly of the House of Commons, in overseeing the revenue of the State and public expenditure, are to authorize the raising of taxes and duties, and the various objects of expenditure and the sum to be spent on each. It also has to satisfy itself that the sums granted are spent only for the purposes which Parliament intended. No payment out of the central government's public funds can be made and no taxation or loans authorized, except by Act of Parliament.

The Finance Act is the most important of the annual statutes, and authorizes the raising of revenue. The legislation is based on the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget statement, made in November or December eacb year. It includes a review of the public finances of the previous year, and proposals for future expenditure. Scrutiny of public expenditure is carried out by House ot Commons select Committees.

European Union Affairs
To keep the two Houses informed of EU developments, and to enable them to scrutinize and debate EU policies and proposals, there is a select committee in each House and two Commons standing committees that debate specific European legislative proposals. Ministers also make regular statements about EU business.

The Common's Ability to Force the Government to Resign
The final control is the ability of the House of Commons to force the Government to resign by passing a resolution of 'no confidence'. The Government must also resign if the House rejects a proposal which the Government considers so vital to its policy that it has declared it a 'matter ot confidence' or if the House refuses to vote the money required for the public service.

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