THE EXECUTIVE AND LEGISLATIVE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT

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1 THE EXECUTIVE AND LEGISLATIVE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT The political institutions of the United Kingdom are divided into the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. The last of these will be developed in Unit 8. Walter Bageot, a close observer of the English political institutions, which he describes in his monumental work The British Constitution published in 1867, wrote: The efficient secret of the English constitution is the nearly complete fusion of the executive and legislative powers. The link between them, he said, is the Cabinet. This is a committee of ministers chosen from Parliament. Therefore, they are members of both the executive and the legislative branches of governement, showing the near omnipotence of the legislature. The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons and is head of the executive part of the government. The queen is only the dignitary, the symbolic head. Bageot continued saying that the Cabinet is an absolutely secret committee, which can dissolve the assembly which appointed it. It is part of the executive branch which is simultaneously appointed by the legislature and it is capable of annihilating this legislature. The system stands in precise contrast to the presidential system in which the legislative and executive powers are entirely independent. Similarly the Lord Chancellor, one of the most important men in England, used to be both head of the judiciary and, as a member of the Cabinet, part of the executive. He used to be the highest judge in the country, a sort of minister of justice, and he appointed all the judges. He also presided over the House of Lords in Parliament, a legislative body. In order to improve the separation of powers in Britain, the Labour government reformed the status of the Lord Chancellor in The Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, reducing his functions to the executive power. I. THE EXECUTIVE As in France, there is a government made up of government departments and a Cabinet. The Prime Minister heads the Government and, symbolically, so does the monarch. There are about 100 government departments employing a large number of civil servants. Each government department is headed by two people: a political head, who is a Minister and an administrative head, the Permanent Secretary who is a civil servant. The minister can be replaced following changes in political circumstances, but the 1

2 Permanent Secretary holds office permanently, guaranteeing the stability of the department. All government departements are responsible for implementing Government policy and the laws passed by Parliament. The Treasury, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Education etc. are among the most important departments. The Cabinet is at the core of the Government. It is composed of about 20 of the most important ministers. It is headed by the Prime Minister. All major decisions are made by the Cabinet during weekly Cabinet meetings. Also part of the Executive is the Privy Council, a vestige of the time when the Sovereign had greater power. Today one of its roles is to advise on the exercise of prerogative powers and certain functions assigned to the Queen by Act of Parliament. However, its major role is exercised through its Judicial Committee, an ultimate court of appeal for several Commonwealth countries. The judicial committee of the Privy Council also serves as an arbiter for devolution issues, which makes it also part of the judicial branch of government. As mentioned earlier, the monarch has to carry out some governmental duties. The Queen officially appoints the Prime Minister after general elections. She must receive him or her after each Cabinet meeting in order to be informed of the current agenda. In addition, when the Queen summons Parliament, she must open each session by reading the legislative programme prepared for her by the Government. II. THE LEGISLATIVE The legislature consists of the Monarch (symbolically) and a bi cameral Parliament. The right to enact laws lies solely with the two houses of Parliament: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Lords is the older of the two. It was originally a chamber of the aristocracy whose membership was inherited. It used to be called the Upper House, out of respect and courtesy. Gradually, it has lost almost all of its prerogatives and has become the second house, leaving the leading role to the House of Commons which is now by far the dominant branch of Parliament. All members of the House of Commons are elected by the people. The term MP (initials of Member of Parliament) is used to designate the members of the Commons. Members of the House of Lords are called Lords or peers. 2

3 1. Legislation UNIT 2 LEGISLATIVE & EXECUTIVE P. KAPITANIAK Parliament was established during the second English Civil War and has expanded ever since. The first English civil war took place from 1139 to 1153 and began with a conflict over the succession to the throne. The second civil war occurred between 1264 and 1265 and resulted from a conflict between the king, Henry III, and the barons. They objected to his policies favoring relatives and friends and they called a meeting, which they called a parliament. This was the beginning of this institution. After a long series of disputes between kings and Parliament, culminating in the Glorious Revolution, the principle of Parliamentary supremacy was included in the Bill of Rights. Under this principle, Parliament can pass, repeal and alter any British law, even constitutional rules. Contrary to what is possible in some countries, no other body of government can declare a law passed by Parliament unconstitutional. The procedure to pass a law begins with the introduction of a bill in either house of Parliament. The bill must be discussed in this house, then voted on which will lead to either rejection of the bill or its passage. If the bill is passed in the first house, it must go to the other house where it will go through the same procedure. A bill, passed by the two houses of Parliament goes to the Monarch for the Royal Assent, the signature of the Monach signifying his/her approval, and then it becomes an Act of Parliament. Until receiving the Royal Assent, it is called a bill. The only bills which cannot be introduced in either house are public money bills. Under the Parliament Act 1911, money bills are always introduced by the Government in the House of Commons and the Lords have to pass them without amendment. Public bills deal with matters of public importance, private bills deal with local matters and individuals. They are passed in Parliament in more or less the same way as public bills. In reality, a majority of bills are introduced in the House of Commons where they are debated, amended if necessary, and voted on. If they are passed, they go to the House of Lords where the same procedure is repeated. If they are rejected there, they return to the Commons to be amended, then go back to the Lords to be passed. The Lords may not delay public bills for more than two parliamentary sessions. Thus, the Lords can only delay the passage of a public bill, they cannot reject it. The power of the Lords to reject a bill has been severely curtailed. In order to be enforced by the judges, an Act of Parliament has to be published in a Statute Book. 2. The House of Commons This is a democratically elected body, consisting of 650 members (of which 533 represent England, 59 Scotland, 40 Wales and 18 Northern Ireland). These 3

4 representatives are known as Members of Parliament, or MPs. Members are elected by a first past the post system of election for limited terms and hold office until Parliament is dissolved (after a maximum of five years). Each member represents an electoral district, known as a constituency. All adults aged 18 and over, who are registered on the electoral roll, may vote in parliamentary elections also called general elections. General elections occur whenever Parliament is dissolved by the Sovereign, however, a parliamentary term may not last for more than five years. Most British subjects over the age of 21 may stand for election to the House of Commons. Certain classes of people cannot become MPs, such as minors, members of the House of Lords, prisoners and people declared insane. Also uneligeable to stand for Parliament, pursuant to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, are holders of nonpolitical and permanent offices, such as civil servants, high judges, members of the regular armed forces, members of foreign legislatures. 3. The House of Lords Before 1999, this House was a vestige of the feudal system consisting of: Lords Temporal: over 750 peers sitting by right of hereditary title alone, completed with roughly 500 life peers, appointed to hold office as long as they live, for service rendered to the country Lords Spiritual: 26 archbishops and bishops representing the Church of England Law Lords: 13 judges (including the Lord Chancellor) sitting on the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, which functioned as the highest court of the land. The House of Lords Act (1999) suppressed the immemorial privilege given to the nobles to sit in the House of Lords simply because of their nobility. Section I of the Act provides that No one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage. Under the Act, a commission was appointed to report on the future composition and future role of the House of Lords. For the time being, the transitional composition of the House is 821 members: Lords Temporal: of the 92 hereditary peers left after the 1999 House of Lords Act reform, only 2 remain, while 14 were elected by the whole House while 74 were chosen by other hereditary peers (they will be allowed to remain until their death). Lords Spiritual: no change up to now (but this group might be reduced from 26 to 12 in the near future). 4

5 The Constitutional Reform Act (2005) suppressed the judicial function of the House of Lords. Since October 1 st 2009, the 12 Law Lords have left the House of Lords to become the 12 Justices of the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Parliament enacts laws during a period of time called a parliament, divided into sessions, there being at least one a year. Under the Parliament Act of 1911, a parliament may not last more than 5 years. The Fixed term Parliaments Act of 2011 prevents the Prime Minister from anticipating the election date by scheduling the Election Day for the first Thursday of the fifth year. Another official duty of the monarch together with giving the Royal Assent to all bills, is to summon Parliament at the beginning of a session and to prorogue it at the end. III. RELATIONS BETWEEN THE EXECUTIVE AND THE LEGISLATIVE It should become clear that there are strong links between Parliament and the Government. It is always the leader of the party which has won the general elections in the House of Commons who becomes Prime Minister. Thus, when electors vote for their MPs, they know, as soon as the results are published, who is going to be the head of Government, even though it is the Queen who will officially appoint him or her a few days later. Upon accepting office, the Prime Minister selects ministers from amongst MPs of his own party in Parliament to form his Government. Consequently, all the Cabinet members also sit in Parliament. The decisions of the Cabinet are made collectively and must be taken unanimously. All members of the Cabinet (including the Prime Minister) are collectively responsible to Parliament and must be ready to answer for their decisions and actions. This is the principle of Responsible Government. By convention, the Prime Minister is answerable to, and must maintain the support of, the House of Commons. When a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is obliged to resign, thereby precipitating a general election. Another way for Parliament to exercise control over the Government is by scrutinizing the spending of public money. As long as a party retains its majority in the House of Commons, its leader remains the Prime Minister. Consequently, following the general elections in 2005, Tony Blair was reappointed Prime Minister for the third time. The party having the second biggest number of members in the House of Commons forms the Opposition Party. They make sure that the Government respects the principles of responsible government. They do this through Question Time, a period during which Opposition members 5

6 have the opportunity to ask questions of the Prime Minister and of other Cabinet ministers. The members of the Opposition also form the Shadow Cabinet which must be ready with their own policies to form the Governement, if they win the next elections. In the general elections of May 2010 no party obtained a straight majority which resulted in a hung parliament. As a consequence the party that obtained the highest number of seats (in this case the Conservative Party led by David Cameron which scored 36% of the seats) had to form an aliance with another party (here the Liberal Demoncrats led by Nick Clegg with 23% of the seats). The coalition governement thus had a 79 seats majority in the Commons and the Prime Minister (David Cameron) was assisted by the Deputy Prime Minister (Nick Clegg). 6

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