PM's powers need more clarity

24 June 2014

Political and Constitutional Reform Committee calls for more clarity on the Prime Minister’s powers, and says more of them should be put into statute to allow for greater transparency and accountability.

In a report published Tuesday 24 June 2014, the Committee says:

Clarity about role and powers

  • Many of the Prime Minister’s powers are obscure “prerogative” powers, that are not well understood or defined. The Committee says more of these prerogative powers should be codified in statute to make them more transparent and increase accountability to Parliament
  • Government should consider consolidating the existing Prime Ministerial powers in one place  - the way the role has evolved means there is no single and authoritative source of information on the powers

Changes to the role

  • There is widespread agreement that the Prime Minister’s role has increased in recent decades—including in policy making – driven by the rise of 24-hour mass media, the increased importance of international bodies, and the lack of clear statutory constraints on executive power

Impact of coalition government

  • Coalition government has to some extent constrained the powers of the Prime Minister but this might not persist under single-party government

Checks and balances

  • The need for support by a majority of Members of Parliament and the Cabinet acts as a check and balance on the Prime Minister, and MPs can, as history demonstrates, remove a Prime Minister from office by withdrawing their support. However, these political mechanisms are not effective on a “day-to-day” basis
  • The Liaison Committee has the potential to be a very effective mechanism  for Parliament to hold the Prime Minster to account, and should continue to improve the way it works
  • The Government should consider a role for Parliament in the investiture of the Prime Minister, or the Government, after a general election

Accountability to Parliament and the electorate

  • Some consider that accountability of the Prime Minister would be strengthened by direct election by the public, US style

Structures of power

  • The current confusion about the nature of the relationship between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office is unhelpful.  The Government should consider the creation of a combined Department for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, with a departmental Select Committee specifically to scrutinise that Department. 

Chair's Comments

The Chair of the Committee, Graham Allen MP, said:

"The Prime Minister is the chief of the executive in the UK.  As well as not being directly elected by the public, most of the powers exercised by the Prime Minister aren’t defined in statute and can’t be found in one place.  Without any clear definition, the PM’s role and powers have been able to grow and add to the massive over-centralisation in Britain. 

Effective checks and balances on Prime Ministerial powers are good for Parliament, for the Government, for the Prime Minister, and, most importantly, for the public.  Our inquiry came up with some practical reforms for improving accountability, but we are also opening up discussion on some more radical reforms with the hope of provoking debate about how the role and powers of the Prime Minister should change in the years to come."

This report contributes to the Committee’s wider work on codifying or not codifying the UK’s constitution. The Committee is expected to produce a full report on this theme next month.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto 

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