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UK Parliament

UK Parliament

    Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy. This means it has a monarch as its Head of the State. The monarch reigns with the support of Parliament. The UK Parliament is one of the oldest representative assemblies in the world, having its origin in the mid-13th century. By the 1250s King Henry III (1216-1272) was running into difficulties with his nobility. They were angry at the cost of his schemes, such as rebuilding of Westminster Abbey and a proposed campaign to make one of his youngest sons King of Sicily. The provisions of Oxford (1258), imposed on Henry by his barons, established a permanent baronial council which took control of certain key appointments. The leader of the baronial movement was Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leister. In 1259 the Provisions of Westminster reformed the common law. Henry eventually renounced both sets of provisions and challenged the barons. Civil war broke out in 1264, initially going well for Simon de Montfort. During the conflict he sought to boost his baronial support by summoning knights of the shires and burgesses to attend his parliament. This was the first time that commoners had been represented. De Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, but his innovation of summoning the commons to attend parliaments was repeated in later years and soon became standard. Thus it is from him that the modern idea of a representative parliament derives.  From the 14th century parliamentary government in the United Kingdom has been based on a two-chamber system. The House of Lords (the upper house) and the House of Commons (the lower house) sit separately and are constituted on entirely different principles. In the 14th century, under King Edward III (1327-1377) it was accepted that there should be no taxation without parliamentary consent, still a fundamental principle of today. Two distinct Houses of Parliament were emerging for the first time, with the “Commons” sitting apart from the “Upper House” form 1342. The “Good Parliament” of 1376 saw the election of the first Speaker, Thomas Hungerford, to represent the Commons. It also saw the use of “impeachment”, whereby the House of Commons as a body could accuse officials who had abused their authority and put them on trial before the Lords. In the 15th century the Commons gained equal law-making powers with the Lords, under King Henry V. The 16th century saw the legal union of Wales – which had long been subject to the English crown – with England under King Henry VIII (1509-1547). Henry’s reign also saw the Church of England break away from the Roman Catholic Church. The “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 may have been hatched when it became clear that the new King, James I, intended to do nothing to ease the plight of the Catholics in the country. In the 17th century, tensions increased between parliament and monarch, such that in 1641 the King and Parliament could not agree on the control of troops for repression of the Irish Rebellion. Civil war broke out the following year, leading to the execution of King Charles I in January 1649. Following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the role of Parliament was enhanced by the events of 1668-1669 (the “Glorious Revolution” and the passage of the Bull of Rights which established the authority of Parliament over the King, the enshrined in law the principle of freedom of speech in parliamentary debates. 1707 brought the Union with Scotland and the first Parliament of Great Britain. Growing pressure for reform of parliament in the 18th and 19th centuries led to a series of Reform Acts which extended the electoral franchise to most men (over 21) in 1867 and finally to women over 21 in 1928. The legislative primacy of the House of Commons over the Lords was confirmed in the 20th century by the passing of the Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949.

   The legislative process involves both Houses of Parliament and the Monarch.

The main functions of Parliament are to:

·        Make all UK law

·        Provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of government

·        Protect the public and safeguard the rights of individuals

·        Scrutinize government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure

·        Examine European proposals before the become law

·        Hear appeals in the House of Lords, the highest Court of Appeal in Britain

·        Debate the major issues of the day

Parliament has a maximum duration of five years. At any time up to the end of this period, a general election can be held for a new House of Commons.

The House of Lords.

   The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Houses of Parliament. Members of the House of Lords (known as “peers”) consist of Lords Spiritual (senior bishops) and Lords temporal (lay peers). Law Lords (senior judges) also sit as Lords Temporal. Members of the House of Lords are not elected. Originally they were drawn from the various groups of senior and influential nobility in Britain, who advised the monarch throughout the country’s early history.

     Following the House of Lords Act 1999 there are only 92 peers who sit by virtue of hereditary peerage. The majority of members are now life peers and the Government has been consulting on proposals for further reform of the Lords.

     There were 689 peers in total in May 2003.

     In general, the functions of the House of Lords are similar to those of the House of Commons in legislating, debating and questioning the executive. There are two important exceptions: members of the Lords do not represent constituencies, and are not involved in matters of taxation and finance. The role of the Lords is generally recognized to be complementary to that of the Commons and it acts as a revising chamber for many of the more important and controversial bills.

     All bills go through both Houses before becoming Acts, and start in either House. Normally, the consent of the Lords is required before Acts of Parliament can be passed, and the Lords can amend all legislation, with the exception of bills to raise taxation, long seen as the responsibility of the Commons. Amendments have to be agreed by both Houses. The House of Lords is as active as the Commons in amending bills, and spends two-thirds of its time revising legislation.

     Following the Lord’s rejection of the Liberal Government’s budget of 1909, the Parliament Act of 1911 ended their power to reject legislation. A power of delay was substituted, which was further curtailed by the Parliament Act of 1949. The House of Commons can present a bill (except one to prolong the life of Parliament) for Royal Assent after one year and in a new session even if the Lords have not given their agreement. There is also a convention (known as the “Salisbury” convention) that the Government’s manifesto commitments, in the form of Government Bills, are not voted down by the House of Lords at second reading.

     The House of Lords is also the final court of appeal for civil cases in the United Kingdom and for the criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Only the Lords of Appeal (law Lords) – of whom there are 12 employed full-time – take part in judicial proceedings.

Organization of the House of Lords. The Speakership of the House of Lords has traditionally been performed by the Lord Chancellor.  The Lord Chancellor’s powers as Speaker have been very limited compared with the Speaker of the House of Commons, since the Lords themselves control the proceedings under the guidance of the Leader of the House. Lord’s business is expected to be conducted in an orderly and polite fashion without the need for an active Speaker. The Lord Chancellor sits on a special seat called the Woolsack except when the House is in Committee, but does not call upon members to speak and has no power to call the House to order.

     This has been due in part to the Lord Chancellor’s constitutionally unique position: before the reforms announced on the 12th of June 2003, the Lord Chancellor had been simultaneously a Cabinet minister with department responsibilities, the Speaker of the House of Lords and the head of the judiciary in England and Wales. The government is now intent on a separation of these powers and on the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor.

    Other office holders in the House of Lords include government ministers and whips, the Leader and Chief Whip of the main opposition party, and two Chairmen of Committees. The Leader of the House occupies a special position in the House of Lords: as well as leading the party in government he has a responsibility to the House as a whole. It is to him, and not the Lord Chancellor, that members have turned for advice and leadership on points of order and procedure.

    These office holders and officers, together with the Law Lords, receive salaries. All other members of the House of Lords are unpaid, but they are entitled to reimbursement of their expenses, within maximum limits for each day on which they attend the House. The Clerk of the Parliament, a role like that of a chief execute, is head of administration. The Gentlemen Usher of the Black Rod has ceremonial and royal duties and is in charge of security, access and domestic matters.

    Members of the House of Lords are not elected and, with the exception of bishops who leave the House on retirement, they retain their seats for life.


The House of Commons.

   The House of Commons is the centre of parliamentary power. It is directly responsible to the electorate, and from the 20th century the House of Lords has recognized the supremacy of the elected chamber. The House of Commons is traditionally regarded as the lower house, but it is the main parliamentary arena for political battle. A Government can only remain in office for as long as it has the support of a majority in the House of Commons. As with the House of Lords, the House of Commons debates new primary legislation as part of the process of making an Act of Parliament, but the Commons has primacy over the non-elected House of Lords. 'Money bills', concerned solely with taxation and public expenditure, are always introduced in the Commons and must be passed by the Lords promptly and without amendment. When the two houses disagree on a non-money bill, the Parliament Act can be invoked to ensure that the will of the elected chamber prevails. The House also scrutinizes the work of the Government - it does that by various means, including questioning ministers in the Chamber and through the Select Committee system.

The leader of the party that wins the majority of Commons seats in a general election is called on to form the next government. 

The life of a Parliament is divided into sessions. Each usually lasts for one year - normally ending in October or November when Parliament is 'prorogued', followed shortly by the State Opening of Parliament, marking the beginning of the new session. The two Houses do not normally sit at weekends, at Christmas, Easter and the late Spring Bank Holiday. In the Commons there is also a 'half-term' break of a week in February. The traditional long summer break ('recess'), starting in late July and finishing in October is set to change from the 2002-03 session, with the Houses rising earlier in July, but returning to sit for two weeks in September. Sessions may be longer if there has been an election - for example the session following the 2001 general election ran for over a year, from summer 2001 to autumn 2002.

The average number of days when Parliament sits during the year is about 155 in the House of Commons. Traditionally the schedule in the House of Lords has been not so demanding, but in some recent years the Lords has sat on more days than the Commons.

There is often a surge in the number of Bills getting Royal Assent just before the summer parliamentary recess. Not all Bills are completed then, and some are held over until Parliament starts up again in October. Remaining parliamentary business is then completed. Each session is ended by prorogation. Usually, Public Bills which have not been passed by the end of the session are lost, although changes to standing orders in the 2002-03 parliamentary session allow for more public bills to be 'carried-over' and continue their passage in the following session, as private and Hybrid Bills may.

The House has frequently considered changing the hours at which it meets. These new sitting hours are designed to make things easier for those MPs with families and those with provincial constituencies. They include earlier sitting days on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and will mean fewer Friday sessions.

Certain business is exempt from the normal closing times. The Commons often sits later than the 'moment of interruption' -  and late night sittings will still be possible.

The House also meets for debate  in Westminster Hall (in fact in a specially converted room off the main Hall). Sitting hours are: Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 9.30 to 11.30am and from 2 - 4.30pm, and Thursdays from 2.30pm continuing for up to 3 hours. These sessions are designed to give backbenchers more time to debate issues which cannot find space in the crowded schedule of the Chamber.

     Parliamentary procedure is based on custom and precedent, partly codified by each House in its Standing Orders. The system of debate is similar in both Houses. Every subject starts off as a proposal or 'motion' made by a member. This may or may not be a substantive proposal on which the House will be asked to vote. Motions to 'take note' (of a report, for example), to adjourn the House, or, in the Lords, to 'move for papers', are all, in effect, opportunities for MPs and Peers to debate a matter without a concluding vote.

     During debates in the House of Commons all speeches are addressed to the Speaker or one of the Deputy Speakers. MPs speak from wherever they have been sitting and not from a rostrum, although front-bench members usually stand at one of the dispatch boxes on the Table of the House. MPs may not read their speeches, although they may refresh their memories by referring to notes. In general, no MP may speak twice to the same motion, except to clarify part of a speech that has been misunderstood or 'by leave of the House'.

     At the end of the debate the occupant of the Chair 'puts the question' whether to agree with the motion or not. The question may be decided without voting, or by a simple majority vote. In the Commons, voting is supervised by the Speaker who announces the result. Votes may be taken by acclamation - the norm for uncontroversial business. However, if MPs or Peers wish to 'divide the House', which generally happens on more controversial votes, then a division is held. Members have to file through one of two division lobbies, one for the Ayes to vote yes, one for the Noes to vote no. The numbers going through each lobby are counted and the result given (in the Commons) to the Speaker by the 'tellers' (MPs appointed to supervise the vote). In a tied vote the Speaker gives a casting vote, according to defined principles rather than on the merits of the question.

“Order! Order!” is one of the terms most associated with Parliament, conjuring up an image of the Speaker laying down the law when dealing with a host of unruly MPs. This image has become more widely known with the television of Parliament.

    The Speaker, currently Rt Hon Michael Martin, MP for Glasgow, Springburn, is in fact the chief officer of the House of Commons. He is elected by the House to:

·        Represent the House in its relations to the Crown, the House of Lords and other authorities;

·        Preside over the House and enforce the rules which govern its conduct.

    The Speaker is also a chairman of the House of Commons Commission. He has a number of duties concerning the functions of the House and is in control of the Commons part of the Palace of Westminster and its precincts. Control of Westminster Hall and the Crypt Chapel is vested jointly in the Lord Great Chamberlain (representing the Sovereign), the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker.

     It has become a generally accepted principle that, once a Speaker has been elected in one Parliament, he or she is reelected in subsequent Parliaments and thus remains in office until he or she chooses to retire. On some occasions the Speaker is returned to Parliament unopposed, but this is no longer always the case. When seeking reelection at a general election, the Speaker remains aloof from party issues and stands as “the Speaker seeking reelection”.

    The House of Commons selects its own Speaker. There is no requirement for the Speaker to be a member of the governing party. Speakers are elected at the beginning of each new Parliament or when the previous Speaker dies or retires.

    During the Speaker’s election the House is presided by the Father of the House – an honorary title bestowed upon the member who has the longest unbroken record of service as an MP.

    Following a General Election, if the Speaker from the previous parliament is still a Member, the Father of the House asks whether he or she is willing to be chosen as Speaker again. If this is the case, the Father of the House calls on one member to move the motion than the former Speaker should take the Chair as Speaker-elect.

     Following the death or resignation of the previous Speaker, or if the previous Speaker does not return after a General Election, there may be more than one candidate wishing to stand. On October 23, 2000, when Speaker Martin was first elected, eleven other candidates were proposed. The House voted on each one, taking p many hours of parliamentary time.

     The Speaker has full authority to enforce the rules of the House of Commons. He or she has discretion on whether to allow a motion to end discussion so that a matter can be put to the vote and has powers to put a stop to irrelevance and repetition in debate, and to save time in other ways. In cases of grave and continuous disorder, the Speaker can adjourn or suspend the sitting, but this is rarely necessary. If an alleged breach of parliamentary privilege is raised against the member, the Speaker decides whether or not the matter should be brought before the House. The Speaker may order an MP who has broken the rules of the House to leave the Chamber or can initiate their suspension for a period of days. This process is normally known as “naming” an MP. Once the MP has been named by the Speaker, if necessary the House then votes on whether the MP named should be suspended. Often it is agreed without a division. The first naming of a particular MP results in a brief suspension; subsequent offences within the same session result in longer periods.

Prime Minister's Question Time is an important aspect of parliamentary control of Government, when issues and grievances are raised by MPs and information sought about the Government's plans. The Prime Minister now answers questions at the new time of 12 noon for half an hour every Wednesday when Parliament is sitting.

Prime Minister's question time usually starts with a routine question from an MP about the Prime Minister's engagements. Following the answer, the MP then raises a particular issue, often one of current political significance. The Leader of the Opposition then follows up on this or another topic. He and the Liberal Democrat leader are the only MPs allowed to come back with further questions. Exchanges may become heated, and this is often the spectacle presented on television.

Subjects raised during Prime Minister's question time vary widely and usually include the key issues of the day.

Prime Minister's question time is particularly important for the leaders of the main political parties as the way in which they handle questions is regarded as a key measure of their overall performance

Deferred Divisions. In November 2000 the House of Commons agreed, on an experimental basis, to allow for some divisions to be deferred until another sitting day. This means that Members can vote on a series of motions using ballot papers at a convenient time (currently from 12.30pm on Wednesdays) instead of holding divisions immediately at the end of a debate when the hour is already late.

General Elections. General elections are elections of the whole House of Commons at one time: one Member of Parliament for each constituency in the United Kingdom. Each MP is elected from the various candidates through secret ballot by a simple majority system in which each elector can cast one vote. The candidates may be from one of the three major political parties, from a minor party or from any other organization that has been registered with the Electoral Commission. If a candidate does not represent a registered party or group s/he may stand as an 'Independent'. One Independent MP was returned at the 2001 General Election - Mr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest).

Most voting takes place in polling stations, but any citizen eligible to vote in Great Britain can apply on demand to vote by post. British citizens living abroad are also entitled to a postal vote, as long as they have been living abroad for less than 15 years.

General elections are held at intervals of up to five years. The Government can, and often does, decide to hold one at an earlier date. In times of national emergency, such as war, general elections can be postponed, but this is very rare.

     A parliamentary by-election is held when a seat falls vacant in the House of Commons, because an MP dies, resigns or can no longer be an MP for some other reason, such as being made a member of the House of Lords. By tradition, the procedure for initiating a by-election (known as 'moving the writ') is usually initiated by the political party which held the seat before the vacancy.

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