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
The legislative process involves both Houses of Parliament and the
The main functions of Parliament are to:
· Make all UK law
· Provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of
· Protect the public and safeguard the rights of individuals
· Scrutinize government policy and administration, including proposals
· Examine European proposals before the become law
· Hear appeals in the House of Lords, the highest Court of Appeal in
· 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
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
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
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
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.
By-elections sometimes attract a great deal of attention from the media,
and voters often use the opportunity to register a protest. Partly
because of this, the results are often very different from those of
general elections. Also, fewer people usually turn out to vote in
by-elections than in general elections – often fewer than 50% of those
entitled to vote.
For electoral purposes, Britain is divided into parliamentary
constituencies. Each returns one MP to the House of Commons. In the 1992
parliament, there were 651 constituencies, but this rose to 659 from the
1997 general election. Constituencies range considerably in area and in
the number of electors. In general, the intention is to ensure that
constituency electorates are kept roughly equal. However, this is not
always possible, particularly for the more sparsely populated areas
where it would be difficult for an MP effectively to represent a very
large area. The average size of constituency electorate over the UK as a
whole is around 68,000.
At the 2001 General Election, the Isle of Wight had the largest number
of electors – over 104,000. The smallest number of electors – some
21,900 – was to be found in the Western Isles. The constituency of Ross,
Skye and Inverness West was the largest by area at 918,319 hectares. The
smallest by area was Islington North at 727 hectares.
There are four permanent Parliamentary Boundary Commissions – one each
for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They recommend any
adjustments that may seem necessary in the light of population movements
or other changes. Reviews are conducted every 8 to 12 years. The current
(fifth) Review has to report in the period 2003-2007.
In between periodic general reviews, the Commissions hold interim
reviews of small groups of parliamentary constituencies, normally to
realign boundaries with altered local government boundaries. On
occasion, there can be more substantial recommendations, such as the
allocation of an additional seat to Milton Keynes in a review conducted
When the Fifth Review is complete, the Parliamentary Boundary
Commissions will become part of the independent Electoral Commission.
Each constituent part of the UK will, as now, have its own Boundary
Committee which will submit to the Electoral Commission recommendations
for redistribution. The system of periodic reviews remains unchanged.
General elections are held at least every five years. However not
all Parliaments run for the whole five years, and a general election may
be held before this period is up. In the event of a government having a
small majority the election may well take place much earlier. For
example, the general election of February 1974 resulted in a minority
Labor government. The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, therefore
called another election in October 1974, which resulted in Labor
increasing its representation to just above 50% of the number of seats.
Despite its small overall majority, the Labor government then remained
in power for four-and-a-half years, finally calling an election in May
The last General Election was held on 7 June 2001.
In between general elections, by-elections are held as necessary to
elect a new Member of Parliament to an individual constituency.
The House of Commons currently has 659 Members of Parliament (MPs), each
representing an individual constituency. Of the 659 seats, 529 are for
England, 40 for Wales, 72 for Scotland and 18 for Northern Ireland.
An Electoral Commission was established in November 2000 as an
independent body to oversee new controls on donations to and campaign
spending by political parties and others. It also has a remit to keep
under review electoral law and practice and to promote public awareness
of the electoral process. Its functions and powers are set out in the
Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
A backbencher is a Member of the House of Commons who is neither in the
cabinet, nor is an opposition party critic. The main job of Backbenchers
is to support the leadership of their respective parties in the House of
Commons. They are subject to the constraints of party discipline. Many
Backbenchers find roles for themselves on committees or through
introducing Private Members bills. Most independent concerns of
backbenchers are vented in party caucus meetings. Calls of Parliamentary
reformers have often called for the weakening of party discipline to
allow backbenchers a more individual or constituency focused role.
State Opening of Parliament
The State Opening of Parliament marks the start of the
parliamentary session. It occurs when Parliament reassembles after a
general election, and each subsequent year; it is normally in November.
It is the main ceremonial event of the parliamentary year,
attracting large crowds, both in person and watching on television. The
Queen drives in state from Buckingham Palace to Westminster.
The Queen’s Speech is delivered by the Queen from the Throne in the
House of Lords. The speech is given in the presence of members of both
Houses, the Commons being summoned to hear the speech by an official
known as ‘Black Rod’. In a symbol of the Commons’ independence, the door
to their chamber is slammed in his face and not opened until he has
knocked on the door with his staff of office.
Although the speech is made by the Queen, the content of the
speech is entirely drawn up by the Government and approved by the
Cabinet. It contains an outline of the Government’s policies and
proposed legislative programme for the new parliamentary session.
Following the State Opening, the government’s programme is debated by
both Houses. In the Commons the motion is that the House sends an
address to the Queen thanking her for the speech, but the debate, which
lasts several days, is in fact a chance for MPs to speak on any matter
of government policy.
Before the State Opening, the cellars of the Palace of Westminster
are to this day searched by the Yeomen of the Guard – a precaution
dating back to the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605.
Prorogation. A parliamentary session is usually ended by prorogation,
although it may be terminated when Parliament is dissolved and a general
Prorogation usually takes the form of an announcement on behalf of
the Queen made in the House of Lords. As with the State Opening, it is
made to both Houses. Unlike the Queen’s Speech, the prorogation
announcement receives relatively little media coverage.
The prorogation announcement sets out the major Bills which have
been passed during that parliamentary session and also describes other
measures which have been taken by the Government.
Prorogation brings to an end nearly all parliamentary business.
Following a recommendation of the House Modernization Committee it was
agreed that, in certain circumstances, Public Bills should be able to be
carried over from one session to the next, in the same way that private
and hybrid Bills may be.
Budget day is one of the key dates in the parliamentary year. The
Budget covers both the Government’s taxation plans for the coming
financial year and its assessment for the economy and public finances
over the next few years. The Budget is announced by the Chancellor of
the Exchequer in the House of Commons and details are published in the
Financial Statement and Budget Report (the ‘red book’).
Great secrecy surrounds the Budget, and there is intense
speculation in the run up to Budget day. There is considerable
anticipation of the contents of the speech, which is broadcast live on
television and radio.
The announcement of the contents of the Budget signals the release
of a flood of information by the Government. News releases giving
further details of the Chancellor’s measures are put out by the major
government departments. Information, including the Chancellor’s Budget
speech, news releases and the Financial Statement and Budget Report, is
made available on the Internet (see below).
The Chancellor’s speech is then followed by debate in Parliament on
the measures which he has announced. The initial response is not by the
Shadow Chancellor, but by the Leader of the Opposition. The Shadow
Chancellor speaks later in the debate which continues over a period of
The shadow cabinet is a specific group of critics in each opposition
party, especially for those in the Official Opposition party.
Traditionally the shadow cabinet of the Official Opposition was viewed
as a body likely to form the actual cabinet should the party win power.
Each member of the shadow cabinet is the critic of a specific government
department or portfolio, thus holding the government to account on
matters concerned with that area. In smaller opposition parties, members
of a shadow cabinet may carry several areas as critic. Members of the
shadow cabinet in the Official Opposition receive an increase in pay
from the Government of Canada. Critics in other opposition parties still
receive an increase in pay but not to the same extent as their
counterparts in the Official Opposition. Each member of the shadow
cabinet is allocated responsibility for `shadowing’ the work of one of
the members of the real cabinet. The Party Leader assigns specific
portfolios according to the ability, seniority and popularity of the
shadow cabinet’s members.
The Accountability of Government. The parliamentary system contains many
checks to ensure that a government remains accountable and does not
abuse its powers. Ultimately, the Government can only remain in office
for as long as it has the support of a majority in the House of Commons.
Parliamentary questions (PQs) are often regarded as the best means of
seeking information about the Government’s intentions. They are also
seen as an effective way of raising, and perhaps resolving, grievances
brought to MP’s attention by their constituents. There are two main
types: oral and written questions. About 50000 PQs are raised each year
– most are replied to through written answers. Questions and answers are
published in Hansard, the official record of proceedings. Oral questions
are answered by ministers at question time in the House of Commons. An
MP may ask up to two oral questions and any number of written questions
a day, although he or she may ask one oral question of a particular
minister on any day. An MP is entitled, at the Speaker’s discretion, to
ask a supplementary question. This is followed by a further answer by
the minister, and there may then be further supplementary questions
House of Lords. Question time in the Lords is much briefer than in the
Commons and follows a different procedure. Up to four “starred”
questions – which appear on the order paper with an asterisk against
them – may be asked at the beginning of business each day, but not more
than one by any Lord. Starred questions are asked in order to obtain
specific information, rather than with a view to making speech or
raising a debate. “Unstarred” questions in the Lords are in fact
opportunities for short debates. These are taken at the end of the day’s
business or occasionally at lunchtime. Any Lord may put down questions
to the Government for written answer, up to six for each peer on any
day. Private notice questions may also be asked.
Making New Law.
A draft law takes the form of a parliamentary bill. It must go
through the necessary stages in both Houses of Parliament. The Queen
must signify her approval, which is a formality. The Bill then becomes
an Act and enters into force on the day the Bill receives the Royal
Assent, unless the Act provides for the dates.
The law undergoes constant reform in the courts as established
principles are interrupted, clarified or reapplied to meet new
circumstances. Occasionally old laws become outdated, and there is
pressure on the Government to update the law. Sometimes new laws are
needed to ensure that the UK complies with the International or European
Before Bills are introduced into the Parliament, there has often
been consultation or discussion with interested parties such as
professional bodies, voluntary organizations and pressure groups.
Proposals for legislative changes may be contained in government White
Papers. These may be preceded by consultation papers, sometimes called
Green Papers which set out government proposals that are still taking
shape and seek comments from the public. There is no requirement for
there to be a White or Green Paper before a bill is introduced into
The Government have acted on the recommendations of the
Modernization Committee, by introducing a new way of “timetabling” bills
known as “programming motion”. Previously there were two ways in which
the House of Commons could timetable bills:
· Allocation of time motions (commonly called “guillotine motions”)
which were used to curtail debate after a considerable time had already
been spent on a bill, and
· The “usual channels” – voluntary, informal and unpublished agreements
between the government and opposition Whips.
The “programming motion” is intended to be used earlier in the
bill’s progress than was the case with the “guillotine motion”.
Pressure groups are the organizations which aim to influence
Parliament and government in the way that decisions are made and carried
out. They have become much more important in politics in recent years,
with many people no longer choosing to involve themselves in the
traditional political parties and instead to work through single-issue
groups. There is huge range of pressure groups, campaigning on issues
including animal welfare, education, the environment, equality for
ethnic minorities, health, housing, rural affairs and welfare rights.
Some pressure groups work through radical protest; others seek influence
in more traditional ways.
Types of Bills. Most Bills are Public Bills which change the general
law. The majority of public bills that become Acts of Parliament are
introduced by a government minister and are known as government bills.
Bills brought in by other members of Parliament are known as Private
The latter type should not be confused with Private Bills. These are
proposals for legislation affecting the powers of particular bodies,
such as local authorities, or the rights of individuals. These are
subjects to a special form of parliamentary procedure. Hybrid Bills
are a cross between a Public Bill and a Private Bill. They are generally
introduced by the Government but are fairly rare.
“Report Stage” of a Bill.
House of Commons.
A fortnight after a standing committee has examined a bill it then
reports its decisions for consideration by the House as a whole. The
report stage is an opportunity for members not serving on the standing
committee to propose further amendments or new clauses to a bill. All
members may speak and vote and for lengthy or complex bills the debate
may be spread over several days. Bills which have had their committee
stage entirely on the floor of the House do not normally receive a full
report stage debate. In the House of Commons the report stage is usually
followed immediately by the bill’s third reading debate.
House of Lords.
Although most bills have their committee stage on the floor of the
House of Lords, a report stage, similar to that in the Commons, still
follows two weeks later for bills of considerable length and complexity.
“Third Reading” of a Bill.
At the bill’s third reading it is reviewed in its final form
including amendments made at earlier stages.
In the Commons substantive amendments cannot be made to a bill at
this stage and the third reading debate is usually short.
In the Lords, amendments can be made at third reading provided the
issue has not been voted on at an early stage.
After passing its third reading in one House a bill is sent to the
other House where it passes through all the stages once more. Financial
legislation is not scrutinized in detail by the Lords. The passage
through the second House is not a formality, and bills can be further
amended. Amendments made by the second House must be agreed by the
first, or a compromise agreement reached, such that both Houses have
agreed the same text, before a bill can receive Royal Assent. Bills with
contentious amendments pass back and forth between the Houses before
agreement is reached. If each House insists on its amendments a bill may
Limitations on the power of the Lords. Most government bills introduced
and passed in the Lords pass through the Commons without difficulty, but
a bill from the Lords which proved unacceptable to the Commons would not
become a law. The Lords do not generally prevent bills from Commons
becoming law, although they will often amend them and return them for
further consideration by the Commons. The assent of the Lords is not
essential, subject to certain conditions, in the case of “money bills”.
Bills dealing solely with taxation or expenditure must become law within
one month of being sent to the Lords.
If, after the process of considering amendments, it proves
impossible to reach agreement on non-financial bill, then the bill may
be lost. Alternatively, the Commons can use its power to present a bill
originating in the House of Commons for Royal Assent after one year and
in a new session, even if the Lords’ objections are maintained.
These limits to the power of the Lords are contained in the
Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. They are based on the belief that the
main legislative function of the non-elected House is to act as a
chamber of revision, complementing, but not rivaling the elected House.
When a bill has completed all its parliamentary stages, it receives
Royal Assent from the Queen. Royal Assent nowadays is generally declared
to both Houses by their Speakers and is listed in Hansard, the official
record of proceeding in Parliament. After this a bill becomes part of
the law of the land and is known as an Act of Parliament. Royal Assent
was last given in person by the Sovereign in 1854. The Royal Assent has
not been refused since 1707 when Queen Anna refused it for a Bill for
setting militia in Scotland.
“Queen in Parliament” is the formal title of the British
legislature, which consists of the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the
House of Commons. The Commons, a majority of whom normally support the
elected government of the day, has the dominant political power. As
constitutional monarch, the Sovereign is required, on the advice of
Ministers, to assent to all Bills. The role of the Sovereign is the
enactment of legislation is today purely formal, although The Queen has
the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. The Queen in
Parliament is most clearly demonstrated in the annual State Opening of
Parliament, when The Queen opens Parliament in person and addresses both
Houses in The Queen’s Speech. This speech drafted by the Government and
not by The Queen outlines the Government’s policy for the coming session
of Parliament and indicates forthcoming legislation. Each session
therefore begins with The Queen’s Speech and the Houses cannot start
their public business until the Speech has been read.
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