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6.1.3 Government and Accountability Lecture - Hands on Examples

The following scenario aims to test your knowledge of the Government and Accountability. The answers can be found at the end of this section. Make some notes about your immediate thoughts and if necessary you can go back and review the relevant chapter of the revision guide.

Do not be concerned if the answer is not immediately obvious, problem questions require you to understand and to apply the law as opposed to just learning and repeating what you have learned. Refer back to the notes if necessary, this should help you understand how the Government is held to account through the Parliamentary process, through Ministers' questions, standing committees and through the courts.

Scenario

Part A:  The current leader of the opposition receives reports from her constituents that a nuclear power plant is being built on the East Coast of England; the local residents are concerned about the safety of the plant and ask her to raise the issue with the government. What options does the opposition leader have and do the government have to take action to stop building the plant?

Part B: The House of Commons Departmental Select Committee on Member's Expenses have raised concern's the MP's are claiming regularly for mortgages on second homes that they are renting out as private landlords. What action can the Member's Expenses Committee take to address this issues?

Part C: The Independent Newspaper has made a Freedom of Information request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to discover the details of the Cabinet decision to bomb Syria in December 2015. What is the likely outcome of such a request?

Part D: The Conservative government has introduced a new piece of anti-terrorism legislation, which enables them to introduce electronic tagging for terror suspects. It is being used by the police to tag anyone who has been involved in delivering material and financial aid to asylum seekers in Calais, France as the government consider them to be terrorist subjects. Refugee organisations claim that this is a violation of their human rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 and that the police are action outside of their powers. What scrutiny of the executive decision is their available through the courts?

Suggested Answers

A) Parliamentary scrutiny of the executive is accomplished in a number of ways, however, one of these is the opportunity for the MP's to put questions to government Ministers. The leader of the opposition is able to put oral questions to the Prime Minister in a half hour televised debate each week known as Prime Minister's Questions. The leader of the opposition would be able to bring the question about the power plant to the Prime Minister at this time, and the Prime Minister is obliged to answer the question. However, this does not always lead to action and would not impose any obligation on the government to take action for the building of the power plant to stop. MP's can also put their questions in writing to extract more detailed information from the government, such as the safety measures that are involved in the building of the plant. A debate might also be initiated in Parliament by the opposition party on issues of concern, during 20 days a month,

B) A dedicated House of Commons Select Committee overseas the policy and administration of each governmental department. The remit of the Select Committee is to examine the administration, expenditure and policy of the department to which it is attached. The Select Committee on Member's Expenses can operate an inquiry into the use of mortgage payments for second homes that are being rented out in the private housing market. It can seek written and oral evidence from those MP's who are accused of impropriety, at the end of the inquiry the Committee would make a report with recommendations to government. There is no obligation for the government to implement the findings of the report. There is also however, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Body that overseas MPs expenses which is likely to take action in such a situation.

C) The relevant case in this situation is Cabinet Office v Information Commissioner and Dr Lamb (EA/2008/0024 and 29), in which the Information Tribunal found that there was very powerful reasons why the disclosure of the Cabinet Minister's discussion on the decision to go to war in Iraq would be in the public interest.  In this case the court's must balance the public interest in disclosure of the information, with the public interest in the exemption from disclosure of the information. Information about defence decisions can be exempt from disclosure under Section 26 FOIA, however this needs to be balanced with the public interest in disclosure under section 2(2)(b) FOIA. The principle of Collective Cabinet responsibility might also be raised by the government, which requires that Cabinet Minister's discussions be confidential, as was argued in Cabinet Office v Information Commissioner and Dr Lamb (EA/2008/0024 and 29). If the court did order disclosure the government have the option to use their power of ministerial veto under the FOIA in order to avoid disclosing the information.

D) Electronic tagging is a breach of the right to liberty under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but also the right to a fair trial under Article 6 as there is no proof that by delivering humanitarian assistance to Calais, that the volunteers have any links with terrorist organisations. The volunteers would be able to bring a case of judicial review and argue that there is no links between the Refugee camps in Calais and international terrorism and that the delivery of aid to asylum seekers is not a threat to national security. National security concerns might override human rights concerns in certain circumstances, but in this case unless the police can prove specific national security concerns it seems likely that the court would find that they police are acting outside of their powers. The court is thus able to quash the decision of the police in this instance.


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