There are a few checks and balances on the power of the government
Government by definition is ‘civil government of a sovereign state which can be local, national, or international’ (Wikipedia). Its main purpose is to maintain social order and protect the citizens and property within the constitutional boundaries of its governance. There are 195 countries in the world and 123 of those are democratic states as is the UK (ONS). A democratic government is created by way of citizens of a particular state voting for whom they wish to govern; this is in comparison to socialist dictatorship’s that do not allow its citizens to participate within the political system. Even though the UK government is democratically voted in to power there is a need for that government to be adhering to rules and regulations and be answerable for its actions and policies. With this said there needs to be a way of ensuring that the majority party in power is scrutinised, examined and certifiably fit for purpose and are not acting in a totalitarian manner irreverently discarding duties and abusing its position of power. This can be done by creating checks and balances.
The checks and balances are a system for separation of powers, or to be precise a system of shared power. It is there to make sure that no one group or branch of government can have exclusive control. Government in the UK is made up of executive branch (Prime Minister), legislature (House of Commons and House of Lords) and judiciary (the Courts). Each of the three branches has their own powers to check the action of the other branches. The executive branch is the Prime minister. As head of the majority party s/he has the ability to appoint ministers to his/her cabinet, implement policies and get legislation passed without too much difficulty. The PM is also the main spokesperson for government and has the authority to exercise powers of the crown without consulting parliament. This however does not make the PM all powerful and the main check on the Prime Minister’s power comes from the British people. Voting in a general election is the key check with an un-popular PM and his government being ousted from power. The PM can also be ousted by members of his/her own party via a vote of no-confidence. This also applies to the government in general. If a government suffers a vote of confidence resolution compels the government to resign and a general election to be called, this happened to the Callaghan Government of 1979.
The governing majority party is kept in check by those from other parties, the opposition. Prime ministers question time is an example of open debate where the PM and his government are accountable to parliament as a whole. In addition to this the opposition gets several days per Parliamentary session to hold debates on subjects of their choosing. Parliamentary procedures are designed to scrutinise legislative proposals and the government will not always get its own way, PACE 1984 was substantially altered due to pressure from MPs from all sides.
The UK government is Asymmetrical Bicameralism, meaning that there are two chambers of parliament, the Commons and The House of Lords. The House of Commons exercises more power than the House of Lords, prior to 1997 each house had equal power. The House of Commons use the Lords as an advisory medium and passes legislative proposals through for ratification. The House of Lords can amend and delay most legislative Bills for up to one year before the Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949 take effect (bypassing the Lords and going straight to the Queen for the Royal Assent). Instead of having its proposals being obstructed by The Lords government may favour a compromise to its proposals or bow to amendments made by the House of Lords. This shows the legislature holding the executive to account.
Outside of main parliament there are other influences exerted that help to shape policy and keep those with power up to date and in check with public opinion. Pressure and interest groups each have a vital role to play. The aim a pressure/interest group is to influence the people who actually have the power to make decisions. Being part of such a group is a way for the ordinary man in the street to be involved within the political landscape and actually make a difference by campaigning for whatever reason the group has been set up. Such groups can make a difference by standing alone but have far better chance of being taken seriously by being part of policy networks. Policy networks bring together powerful state ministers with non-state political actors in order to thrash out issues that are felt should be part of government policy. Such networks use bargaining in order to shape and influence policy. It is an ideal arena for interest groups to get their say and visa-versa it is essential for government to be in tune with the populous that voted them in and such networks should be viewed as an arena for them to see if current policies are working and what needs to change in order for on-going progress to be made. Pressure groups are sometimes able to gather sufficient support to force government to amend or even scrap legislation; one such example was in 1998 when 300,000 supporters of the countryside alliance marched in London in protest against the then Labour government’s new rural policies. The magnitude of support resulted in the creation of the Ministry of Rural Affairs. It would also be fair to say at this point that the assistance of the media in such instances also help to keep government in check. A poor performing government or ill thought out policy making is very often lambasted and take up many columns of national press. Whilst no newspaper campaigns can be singled out as being instrumental in ousting a government from power it can be said that their influence on public opinion cannot be discounted. However the media coverage of the 2009 expenses scandal clearly indicates the potency of the media when there is a clear abuse of power and was pivotal in ensuring the accountability of government ministers.
The two houses of parliament coupled with the judiciary, policy networks, pressure/interest groups and media all assist in balancing power and ensure that government is kept accountable for its actions. In order for a system of direct democracy to properly function it relies on citizen participation, a factor that the UK has been seen in decline for some time. However participation is the ultimate check. Government from the centre in unitary systems has always hindered the wider spectrum of checking and balancing. In recent years we have seen additional de-centralisation of power with devolution in Scotland, the Welsh assembly and in Northern Ireland. Moving powers to local areas increases the need for accountability and thus creates new checks and further reduces the instances of one party having a stranglehold and becoming all powerful. Some very important legislative and policy changes can also be dealt with by way of referendum allowing the public to vote on significant changes to issues such as continued integration within the European Union that may result is loss of sovereignty or conversion to the Euro from the Pound.
The UK has, under The Constitutional Reform Act 2005, taken the legislature away from the law lords and created a Supreme Court away from Parliament. It also removed the Lord Chancellor from Judicial and removed him/her from being speaker for the House of Lords. This indicates government responding to the need for continued constitutional change and separation of powers by formulating judicial independence away from government with no political affiliations. The continued evolution within constitutional reform in the UK, evident since the late 17th Century, has resulted in more checks and balances in recent history. In my opinion there are many ways in which government is held accountable for its actions even though there is still overlapping of the three branches of government and no formal separation between them. The acceptance of the Human Rights Act 1998 has further seen dilution of centralised power in the UK and ended the Home Secretary’s role in criminal sentencing it also allows judges to check the executive in judicial review cases increasing culpability of the executive and ensures that the executive does not exceed the powers with which it has been bestowed by parliament. However with more and more powers being transferred to the European Union via the Lisbon Treaty 2009 are we not in a situation where we stand the risk of being governed by an unelected three-tier centralised executive in Brussels? After all the hard work of separating powers and implementing checks and balances over the past 300 years we may risk inadvertently taking several steps backwards.