Law Library Stacks

Back to Parliamentary Oversight of the Executive Branch

I. Introduction

The United Kingdom (UK) does not have a formal written constitution; thus, there is no provision that specifically allocates responsibility for different areas of the law to the legislative or executive branches. Instead, the process of overseeing the work of the executive is governed by long-established custom and conventions. The role of the executive is not defined in legislation and, in response to a question in the House of Commons calling on the government to introduce legislation to clarify the boundaries of the executive, the Prime Minister responded that his role, “including the exercise of powers under the royal prerogative, have evolved over many years, drawing on convention and usage, and it is not possible precisely to define them.”[1]

While there is no single body that has been created with the sole purpose of overseeing the work of the executive, there are many checks and balances on the operation of its powers and tools that are used to ensure its work is monitored and the public made aware of its actions.

Back to Top

II. Accountability

Ensuring the accountability of government ministers has been undertaken over the centuries through constitutional conventions. The primary convention providing for oversight of the executive is that of accountability—that government ministers are accountable to Parliament and the public for their actions:

Individual ministerial responsibility had its origins in the need for Parliament to act as a check on Ministers, without having to resort to their impeachment, and in the recognition by Ministers that they must ultimately rely on the support  of the Commons for their policies.[2]

Ministerial responsibility and accountability has been set out in a Ministerial Code.[3]

One major area where concerns remain about the lack of parliamentary oversight and scrutiny is in the exercise of the royal  prerogative. A government report in 2004 recommended that if ministerial accountability was to be taken seriously, oversight of the exercise of the royal prerogative was necessary.[4]

Back to Top

III. Select Committees

At the heart of parliamentary oversight of executive power are select committees. These committees are appointed by either House and can perform a wide range of functions, which are specified in their remit (the scope of the committee’s review).[5] They examine the work of government departments, and ad hoc committees may be established to review a specific topic or area of concern. The leading treatise on the work of Parliament, Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, notes that these committees “[m]ost notably . . . have become over recent years the principal mechanism by which the House discharges its responsibilities for the scrutiny of government policy and actions. Increasingly this scrutiny work has become the most widely recognized and public means by which Parliament holds government Ministers and their departments to account.”[6] Select committees can summon persons, papers, or records within the jurisdiction of the UK, but are limited by not having the power to compel members or officers of the House of Commons or the House of Lords to give oral or written evidence.[7]

Back to Top

IV. Question Time

Members of Parliament have the opportunity to question government ministers and the Prime Minister either directly on the floor of the House during regular oral question times or in writing.

Back to Top

V. Statutory Bodies

The expenditure of public money is overseen by the National Audit Office, a statutory body.  This office “works on behalf of Parliament and the taxpayer to hold government to account for the use of public money and to help public services improve performance.”[8] It publishes reports to Parliament, audits accounts, and provides select committees with support.[9]

Back to Top

VI. Recommended Sources for Further Research

In addition to those items cited in the footnotes, the following items are useful research sources:

Back to Top

Prepared by Clare Feikert-Ahalt
Senior Foreign Law Specialist[*]
August 2017


[*] This report was prepared with the assistance of Law Library intern Conleth Burns.

[1] 372 Parl. Deb HC (6th ser.) (2001) col. 818W, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmhansrd/vo011015/text/11015w06.htm. The “royal prerogative” refers to powers that are held by the Queen, typically exercised on her behalf by the government, that do not require parliamentary approval.

[2] PUBLIC SERVICE COMMITTEE, MINISTERIAL ACCOUNTABILITY AND RESPONSIBILITY, 1995–96, HC 313-II, at 56, available in the ProQuest UK Parliamentary Papers database, by subscription.

[3] Cabinet Office, MINISTERIAL CODE, Dec. 2016, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/579752/ministerial_code_december_2016.pdf.

[4] PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION SELECT COMMITTEE, FOURTH REPORT, TAMING THE PREROGATIVE: STRENGTHENING MINISTERIAL ACCOUNTABILITY TO PARLIAMENT, 2003–4, HC 422 at 3, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmpubadm/422/422.pdf.

[5] House of Commons Select Committees, PARLIAMENT.UK, http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees%20committees-a-z/commons-select (last visited July 25, 2017).

[6] ERSKINE MAY, PARLIAMENTARY PRACTICE 799 (Sir Malcome Jack et al. eds., 24th ed. 2011).

[7] House of Commons, Standing Orders of the House of Commons – Public Business 2016, Feb. 2016, HC 2 2015-16, Standing Order No. 148A(6).

[8] Resources for Parliament, NATIONAL AUDIT OFFICE, https://www.nao.org.uk/highlights/resources-for-parliament (last visited July 24, 2017).

[9] Id.