Parliament is no longer as central to UK democracy as it could once claim to be. A significant proportion of UK law is now derived from EU legislation, while devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has also had a profound effect on the development of democracy in the UK. At the same time, there is long-run evidence to suggest that Parliament has struggled to hold the executive branch of government (the Prime Minister and cabinet) to account.
Despite these trends, the Westminster Parliament remains the focal point for party politics, representation and accountability in UK political life. As such, Democratic Audit has consistently argued that measures to strengthen the influence of Parliament vis-à-vis the executive must be at the heart of any democratic reform agenda. Two of our recent initiatives illustrate the work we have undertaken on this theme.
Parliamentary Oversight of External Policies
Foreign policy has a huge impact on our daily lives and people have strong views about Britain’s role abroad – as a Democratic Audit opinion poll from 2006 made clear. However, while the general public want to play a part in decisions about going to war, or selling arms, or giving aid, or making trade fairer, decisions are, in reality, taken in our name by the Prime Minister, by other ministers and even by unknown officials. Even MPs, our elected representatives, have little or no say in these decisions. The ‘royal prerogative’, a pre-democratic relic of monarchical rule, gives the Prime Minister, ministers and officials the power to make ‘foreign policy’ and go to war without ever being required to seek parliamentary or popular approval.
We published a full analysis of the weaknesses in democratic control over foreign policy jointly with the Federal Trust and One World Trust in Not in Our Name: Democracy and Foreign Policy in the UK ,Politico’s, 2006.
Reforming the House of Commons
During 2010, Democratic Audit joined forces with a number of other organisations concerned with democracy to support the proposals put forward by the Wright Committee report for reform of the House of Commons. The campaign was led by the Constitution Unit, the Hansard Society and Democratic Audit with the support of Unlock Democracy, Power2010, the Electoral Reform Society and the Better Government Initiative.
- The campaign was launched as a result of genuine concerns that sufficient parliamentary time would not be made available to debate and vote on the reforms prior to the 2015 General Election. It consisted of three main elements:
- An open letter (also released to the press) sent on 2 February to Harriet Harman as Leader of the House, emphasising the urgent need to find Parliamentary time to debate and vote on the reforms.
- Letters to all MPs in advance of the debate on the Wright committee reforms on 22 February and again in advance of the votes on the main proposals on 5th March.
- A coordinated letter to The Guardian, published on the day of the votes:
Andrew Blick, ‘Parliamentary reforms worth fighting for’, OurKingdom, 27 November 2009
Stuart Wilks-Heeg, ‘Vote on the options to clean-up Parliament’, Left Foot Forward, 15 January 2010
Stuart Wilks-Heeg, ‘Trust the people on Commons reform’, Parliamentary Brief, 8 February 2010.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg, ‘Parliament, heal thyself’, OurKingdom, 5 March 2010