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The University of Southampton
Economic, Social and Political Sciences

Scrutinising power at Westminster

Published: 16 July 2008 Origin:  Politics and International Relations

The notion that government has too much power, and parliament too little, is a comment heard frequently in Britain. Research being conducted by Dr Alexandra Kelso seeks to explore and unpack this assertion.

Dr Kelso has a particular interest in the functioning of House of Commons select committees, which scrutinise the work of government departments and conduct in-depth investigations into how they function.

Yet, traditionally, the Prime Minister has not appeared before select committees, on the grounds that sufficient accountability is provided to parliament by his/her participation in Prime Minister’s Questions.

The substantial power of the premiership in Britain, however, has meant that, for many observers, there is something of a scrutiny black hole with respect to No.10 Downing Street.

Since 2002, however, there has been a new arrangement at Westminster, whereby the Prime Minister has come twice a year to the Liaison Committee, a select committee of senior backbench MPs, to give evidence on the broad range of his responsibilities.

Dr Kelso’s research is presently focused on studying the eleven evidence sessions that Tony Blair had with the Liaison Committee during his time as Prime Minister. The research seeks to examine a number of key issues, including the nature of the scrutiny pursued and the kind of accountability it facilitated.

However, it also aims to chart the way in which the Liaison Committee developed its scrutiny tactics and tools as the sessions progressed, and thus addresses a range of questions about institutional change and adaptation, questions which are fundamental to understanding how political institutions operate.

Dr Kelso hopes that this small and focused research project will help build new questions to be posed about the House of Commons select committee system more broadly, and which might form the basis of a future research funding proposal.

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