Post No.: 0482
The government watches over us, to protect us as well as keep us in line, and we should all do our bit to watch over the government in return – that’s how it should work. No body should hold absolute power. We cannot trust politicians to self-regulate or self-police, any more than we can trust other people in general to completely self-regulate or self-police – for politicians are people too after all.
In the United Kingdom, select committees, joint committees and general committees are another fundamental way how the government is scrutinised. Such committees can examine, check and report on issues regarding spending, legislation, policies and administration for each governmental department, and more. (Congressional committees are the US equivalent.)
Both the House of Commons and House of Lords each have their own select committees. They’re each set up to investigate a specific remit and to report back on their findings (inquiries and reports, such as the Leveson Inquiry/Report on press culture, practice and ethics, and the Chilcot Inquiry/Report on the UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War). Some issues are multifaceted and complicated, and we cannot expect every Member of Parliament (MP) to immediately know everything in the world that matters to the citizens of their country, thus dedicated select committees need to be set up to investigate such issues in detail. They are a key way to make sure government ministers can explain and justify what they’re doing and how they’re spending taxpayers’ money.
These committees can call in officials, demand answers, and the government must respond to their findings. Here, grilled ministers must answer the questions asked before them because if they don’t then they will get pressed and pressed again until the questioners are satisfied. External/public specialists or experts can also be called in or appointed on a daily basis for their advice. In fact, any member of the public can submit evidence to a select committee, not just academics or (partisan) think tanks.
Select committees usually consist of 11 or 12 cross-party members, with no government or party having a majority of members. They are voted in, via secret ballot, for their experience and diversity. Committees can be permanent, or one-off, ad hoc or temporary. There are Grand committees that meet together to consider matters that relate only to Wales, only to Scotland, or only to Northern Ireland. Backbench committees meet to discuss, on behalf of backbench (non-governmental or non-frontbench-of-opposition) MPs, areas of policy that are considered vital in keeping leaderships informed of backbench opinion. House of Lords select committees and sub-committees look into public policy, proposed laws and government activities, and take advantage of the professional experiences of Lords and Baronesses to carry out investigative, subject-focused work. Generally, House of Lords select committees look into broad and long-term governmental issues, and House of Commons select committees look into specific government departments.
There exist informal and unofficial (and therefore strongly arguably under-regulated) All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), which should not be confused with select committees.
Government ministers usually take less than 60 days to respond to reports. The public can engage with select committees – select committees are keen to gather input from the public (and that means from anywhere, even across the world from those who have experience with a particular problem). Anyone can attend a committee meeting or watch it online for free. Members of the public can, in general, visit the Houses of Parliament whenever it’s open, for free, and even attend debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords chambers. Spaces in the galleries are limited though so one may need to book a ticket in advance, but technically people can just go without prior permission and queue to get in and watch proceedings.
However, the reports provide recommendations but these are not legally binding or therefore always followed (~40% are accepted and implemented). The government does tend to respond with a lot of ‘we’re doing that already’ or ‘we already have a world-class system here’, or likes to pass the blame onto others, such as claiming that ‘successive governments have failed here too’ when a problem has persisted(!) For example, many racial inequality reviews and recommendations have led to too little change. Leaving a recommendation to the private sector to voluntary implement usually results in little change too. Unless something becomes law, little changes. Yet it’s worth remembering that most changes cost money i.e. taxes, public spending cuts or borrowing. A new law often needs further policing resources, such as compliance inspectors and their training. So how should we pay for something and/or what funding should be sacrificed from elsewhere?
If they’re not immediately accepted, their reports can fuel pressure groups, charities and the media to prod the government for eventual change. Also, any British citizen or UK resident can start or sign an e-petition to press the UK government or House of Commons to do something. An e-petition needs to be supported by a minimum of 6 people before it will be published online for other people to be able to sign. It’ll then stay open for 6 months. Public (paper) petitions still exist – these can only be presented to the House of Commons by an MP but only require the signature of 1 petitioner to be presented. (Please read the end of Post No.: 0460 for a little more about petitions. There are some links that Fluffystealthkitten has already handily included there too.)
A Petitions Committee reviews all petitions. Currently, petitions with 10,000+ signatures will receive a response from the government, and petitions with 100,000+ signatures will be considered for debate in the House of Commons. They frequently get dismissed though because a particular issue is not the government’s responsibility (such as forcing a private company to lower its prices) or something has already been debated. There are many petitions that unwittingly duplicate others that have already existed before. Rejections are usually explained on a petition’s page.
But if this is unsatisfactory, a petition can gain publicity for a campaign or be referred to a relevant select committee, who can then investigate it further and be more persuasive. For example, that’s how the Soft Drinks Industry Levy or ‘sugar tax’ (effective from April 2018) got passed – that was headed by a group that included the furry chef Jamie Oliver; a member of the public. So when we hear about recommendations such as this ‘sugar tax’ – we need to understand the amount of people, views, research, work and the process that was involved before coming to such conclusions and recommendations. These things take time and involve lots of different people with usually lots of different views. This is in the United Kingdom at least.
The fluffy footballer Marcus Rashford directly demonstrated how a petition can succeed – although you would’ve thought that the answer should’ve already been a no-brainer (tackling child food poverty) and, as of posting, you may have hoped that the current government’s response went a little further. I assure you that you don’t need to be a celebrity to successfully lobby the government though; albeit it appears to help.
Some select and joint committee members will even explicitly ask for input from the public via social media when they provide an open call for evidence. You don’t need to be considered an expert on the subject – anyone with views and experiences can provide input. You can again even sit in on a committee meeting for free and hear evidence being submitted – evidence that perhaps you suggested to the committee – or watch it live online, or be invited as a witness to provide evidence live. You can then read the committee’s report afterwards for free, which will be published online. (Just to shoehorn it in here – freedom of information (FOI) requests are also important tools for transparency and scrutiny too.) You’ve generally got to do a lot of reading or at least listening if you want to be an active and well-informed citizen!
The more views that say the same thing, the more likely that view will be heard and used to make an actual resultant decision in parliament. But few issues produce unanimous conclusions. Thus a pitfall with all this opinion and information-gathering is that, with potentially thousands of views to sift through – MPs could consciously or subconsciously cherry-pick evidence that supports their already-existing biases, whilst they ignore any disconfirming evidence they don’t wish to hear; such is human nature.
Also, this digital age is making democracy more workable and effective in many ways – but fake/false news that can spread fast, wide and deep via social media, and digital filter bubbles and echo chambers, are also said to be an enormous threat to democracy! Moreover, it does assume that everyone has access to a computer of some sort that’s reliably connected to the internet – but many poor people don’t hence they’ll find it difficult to get their voices heard, which might potentially skew the views gathered and in turn the views considered by committees.
So the poor are once more disadvantaged, even in democracies, because democracy is hardly only about being able to vote once every few years or so. General Elections and referenda are just the tip of the iceberg of public political participation. (The closure of public libraries therefore compounds such problems for the poor, even though most other people barely need or use them anymore.) Non-digitally-educated people, or people who are but simply don’t want to use certain popular social media platforms, may also miss out; as well as those who are blind, deaf, physically or mentally disabled, homeless or illiterate.
This means that those who especially need their voices heard the most are ironically often the least heard. Groups that are particularly digital media savvy can even flood the digital channels with their own opinions, propaganda, trolling, conspiracy theories and fake/false news. Making it so easy to share one’s opinions online therefore doesn’t mean everyone takes the time and effort to research and use facts and hard evidence before submitting their emotively-charged or strongly partisan opinions, thus polluting the information space.
Woof. So there’s a lot of good in our democratic processes but also a lot of room for improvement too. Progress is seldom straightforward or comes without costs or drawbacks, such as those related to moving things into the digital realm (this will include something like electronic voting too). Perhaps online access should be a fundamental right for all? But what about ‘free speech’ versus spreading lies or inciting violence? Is it acceptable for any voice to be completely banned on a social media platform, and what kind of precedence will this set? Lots of experts in their fields are currently looking into and debating these exceptionally tricky issues already, but if you have any novel ideas on how to solve these or other related problems then please share them via the Twitter comment button below, and perhaps suggest them to your country’s parliament too.