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How much does parliament really matter?

The British Constitution makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK which can make or repeal any law and the courts cannot overrule its decisions. Membership of the European Union undermined this principle and one of the core objectives of the Brexit campaign was to restore Parliamentary sovereignty.

In the British Constitution Parliament comprises three parts, the Houses of Commons and Lords and the Monarch. All three have to approve every piece of legislation, though the Royal Assent to Bills is a formality. It is surprising then that the Government is refusing to give Parliament the ultimate authority about triggering Article 50, insisting that Ministers will exercise the royal prerogative to make the decision without Parliament’s involvement.

A House of Lords committee has argued this week that MPs and Peers should play a central role in both the content and timing of the negotiations with the EU either by means of legislation or resolutions passed in both Houses. Ironically, Brexit hardliner Peter Bone MP says Parliament gave up its right to decide and gave it to the British people. However, the referendum was simply about whether the UK should remain or leave the EU. Voters were not asked to vote on any of the details regarding the timing or terms of leaving. Does that mean that Parliament is not genuinely sovereign after all? The Government could reasonably argue that the details of foreign policy have always been handled by Ministers exercising the Royal prerogative but that has not stopped the Foreign Affairs Select Committee from criticising the Cameron Government this week for its involvement in removing Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan President.

A plan to reduce the number of MPs and carry out a major review of constituency boundaries also has some bearing on how much Parliament matters. The reduction of MPs from 650 to 600 was authorised by legislation in 2011. This was shortly after the expenses scandal and the intention was to cut the cost of Parliament but it will only save £12.2 million which is a small fraction of the total cost. The boundary review is necessary and overdue. There are substantial differences between the current constituencies, ranging from 22,000 to 110,000, meaning that all votes are not of equal value. The review will be conducted by the four independent boundary commissions on the basis of the number of registered voters in each constituency, not the number of adult citizens. The aim is to create constituencies of between 72,000 and 80,000.

The twin goals of the review are expected to favour the Conservatives when rural and suburban areas, where the Conservatives tend to do better, are merged with inner city areas where Labour tends to have more support, turning some Labour strongholds into marginal seats. Leicester West is an example of this, where Liz Kendall will be fighting to save her once 'safe seat'. More significant is the fact that fewer MPs will shift the balance of power in Parliament from the back benchers to the Government unless the size of Government is also reduced.

Public opinion tends to be cynical about politicians but they are the best means of holding the Government to account and we the voters have to keep them doing that on our behalf. Lobbying and praying for them are essential duties of citizens in a parliamentary democracy.