Parliament v. the Executive

by ukcivilservant

David Gauke made an interesting and entertaining presentation at a recent Constitution Society conference. The background was that many (and certainly many of those attending the conference) believed that the Executive has become over-mighty and that Parliament has been sidelined.

Here is a summary. You can listen to the full presentation here.

Mr Gauke began, as devil’s advocate, by listing a number of reasons why the Executive might make better decisions than Parliament:

  • Ministers are much better informed and supported than are other MPs.  Getting good/sensible policies (including sensible amendments to government Bills) through Parliament can be very difficult without civil service support.
  • MPs are more parochial.  If they had their way there would be at least 650 General Hospitals, and planning new housing and infrastructure would be near-impossible.
  • Parliament is a mixed ability class! The brighter MPs tend to end up on the front bench – ‘though less so recently.
  • The Executive is much better at taking difficult decisions.  Parliament failed to identify any ways forward on Brexit, assisted dying, and relocating Parliament.
  • The Executive can move more quickly:-  Covid.
  • Parliamentarians play games.  The Opposition is incentivised to vote against all government proposals, however sensible, and the addition of a few others can derail vital policies:-  The Syria vote in 2013 is a good example.
  • Accountability:- The Government is to a great extent entitled to implement the policies for which it was elected at the previous General Election.

But checks and balances are important:-

  • Parliamentary control is a price worth paying for democracy.
  • Parliament has an important role in challenging groupthink in the Executive.
  • There are some experts in Parliament – esp. in justice and defence. They should be listened to, and more are needed.

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding the Civil Service
Author – How to be a Civil Servant & Speaking Truth to Power