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Parliament of the United Kingdom

The Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) in 2003,
with The London Eye in the background.

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of the Queen, an upper house of Parliament called the House of Lords and a lower house called the House of Commons and is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom and its overseas territories. The Parliament is bicameral in that it contains two houses. Both Houses meet in the Palace of Westminster, sometimes called the Houses of Parliament.

Table of contents
1 Composition of the Houses of Parliament
2 Sessions of Parliament
3 Parliamentary functions
4 Origins of Parliamentary Democracy
5 Note
6 External link

Composition of the Houses of Parliament

While the House of Commons is directly elected by universal adult suffrage on average every four to five years, the House of Lords is made up largely of appointed members, along with Bishops of the Church of England and a small number of hereditary peers elected by members of the hereditary peerage. All hereditary peers except those holding titles in the Peerage of Ireland used to have seats in the House of Lords by right, though females and Peers of Scotland (the latter having been represented by 16 of their number under the 1707 Treaty of Union) only obtained this right in 1963. That right was removed in 1999. Further reform of the membership of the House of Lords is planned by the present Government. See House of Commons and House of Lords.

The United Kingdom possesses an uncodified constitution (often called an unwritten constitution), that is to say that there is no one single constitutional document. Instead Britain's constitution consists of important Acts of Parliament, constitutional conventions and traditions. Many of these govern parliament and the relationship between the parliament, as the legislature, and the executive, Her Majesty's Government.

Sessions of Parliament

According to the current numbering, the current Parliament of the United Kingdom is the Fifty-Third. This numbering started with the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. For a list of MPs in the current Parliament, see: MPs elected in the UK general election, 2001, for a list of all the parliaments, see List of Parliaments of the United Kingdom.

Parliamentary functions

For the judicial function of the House of Lords see Judicial functions of the House of Lords.


Laws, in draft form known as Bills, may be introduced by any member of either house, a Member of Parliament or MP in the House of Commons, or Peer of the Realm with a seat in the House of Lords. Each Bill goes through a number of stages in whichever House it originated in, before being sent to the other House. Both Houses need to pass the Bill, but in the event of a disagreement, under a series of Parliament Acts, the House of Commons, after a set period of time, can deem a Bill to have gone through the Lords. The final stage involves the Bill being sent to the Queen of the United Kingdom to receive the Royal Assent. Without the Royal Assent, a Bill cannot become law. However no monarch since Queen Anne at the beginning of the eighteenth century has refused to give the Royal Assent (ie, vetoed a Bill). When the Queen signifies her Assent, a Bill becomes an Act of Parliament.

While any MP or peer can introduce a Bill, in reality most Bills are introduced by Ministers of the Crown (ie members of the cabinet) with regard to areas that are the responsibility of their government department. The role of Parliament is largely to revise and to improve legislation coming from the government.

For a list of Acts, see List of Acts of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

Supporting the executive

The British government is answerable to the lower house, the House of Commons. However, neither the prime minister nor members of the government are elected by the House of Commons. Instead, the Queen asks the person most likely to command a majority in the House, normally the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, to form a government. A government cannot operate without the confidence of the House of Commons.

Unlike some countries where the legislature and executive are separated, in the United Kingdom all ministers must be members of either House of Parliament. Thus, Parliament acts as a recruiting ground for ministers.

Scrutinising the executive

Parliament controls the executive by passing or rejecting its Bills and by forcing Ministers of the Crown to answer to parliament for their actions (known as Question Time or Parliamentary Questions - known as PQs: questions to the Prime Minister are called PMQs or to answer questions in a parliamentary committee) or in extreme cases by forcing a government to resign or call a general election (the option of which route to take if defeated rests in the first instance with the Prime Minister). The House of Commons can force a government down this route by

In any one of these cases, a resignation or a general election must follow.

Many votes are automatically considered votes of confidence. The new government's policy agenda is outlined in the Queen's Speech, also known as the Speech from the Throne, in which the Queen at the State Opening of Parliament formally reads a speech written by the government outlining its policies and what Bills it proposes to introduce into parliament. Once the speech has been delivered it is then debated in the House of Commons, allowing the MPs to approve or reject it. Sometimes other votes may be designated confidence votes by the Government, meaning that it will resign if it does not win the vote.

Where a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister must either (a) resign, or (b) seek a parliamentary dissolution and call a new general election. Where a prime minister has ceased to retain a majority in that vote and requests a dissolution, the Queen can in theory reject his request, forcing his resignation and allowing the Leader of the Opposition to be asked to form a new government. This power however is very rarely used, and is only used in emergencies. The conditions that should be met to allow such a refusal are known as the Lascelles Principles.

In practice, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the Government is very weak. Since there is a first-past-the-post voting system in general elections (rather than e.g. proportional representation) the governing party tends to enjoy a large majority in the Commons; there is often limited need to compromise with other parties. Since many governing party MP's are employed within the government, then they form part of the so-called payroll vote and are reluctant to oppose the government in the divisions (when the MP's divide to enter the voting booths to cast their votes). Modern British political parties are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MP's, and the power of Parliament vis-a-vis the Executive has definitely declined since the late 19th century. Nonetheless, power is still exercised in less dramatic and obvious ways, by select committees (set up in 1979 to scrutinise government departments) and by government backbenchers through the party.

Origins of Parliamentary Democracy

Prior to the 1640s, there was no standing Parliament in England. The word 'parliament' designated one of a series of temporary committees, summoned occasionally at the pleasure of the King. Parliaments had no right to give orders to the King, and no means to enforce their wills. Their power was based primarily on the fact that the King, lacking a centralized bureaucratic government, greatly needed the willing and sympathetic cooperation of the English gentry in order to govern. Their power also had some basis in the prestige they held in the eyes of many Englishmen. By the early 17th century a King who mistreated his parliaments courted unpopularity.

Interior of Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster

Parliamentary supremacy arises primarily from the English Civil War in the seventeenth century when members of the Long Parliament organized a Parliamentary army to resist the army of King Charles I. Parliamentary forces defeated the forces of King, and the remaining members of Parliament declared themselves the legitimate government of England. They tried and executed the King (the first time in European history that a King was tried by his own subjects) and reorganized the nation as a republic. In order to avoid certain connotations that the term republic carried at the time, they chose to describe the new state as the Commonwealth. The new government failed to become stable, however, and had to be reorganized several times, until finally Oliver Cromwell, whose military successes in the war had made him the most respected man in the government, took supreme power as Lord Protector (a politically acceptable term for dictator).

After Cromwell's death, no single man was able to fill the same role. The Monarchy was reinstated and Charles II invited back in 1660, with Parliament remaining as a full-time part of the system of governance. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament deposed the Roman Catholic King James II/VII [1] and his infant heir and gave the throne to his protestant daughter and her husband, William of Orange. They reigned jointly as Mary II and William III. Parliament excluded all catholic descendants of James II/VII from the throne. Since then the monarch has been generally subservient to parliament. But full parliamentary control of the executive did not occur until the Great Reform Act of 1832, that broadened the voting franchise and so made parliament the full representative of public opinion. Since then, parliament had been dominant, though the monarch still remains an important player in government, with government governing through the Royal Prerogative (ie, powers of the monarch) and with the monarch's formal approval still being required for Acts of Parliament and Orders-in-Council (executive orders).

Since the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain that unified the crowns of England and Scotland in 1707, Parliament has been very nearly sovereign (known as the supremacy of Parliament), with the power to make or repeal nearly any law. That dominance continued in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (formed in 1801 when the crowns of Great Britain and Ireland were merged) and the modern United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (formed in December 1922 when twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties left to form the Irish Free State. However Parliament has never been completely sovereign, although it has often acted as if it were. In particular its sovereignty over the Church of Scotland was disputed for three centuries with Parliament finally admitting its lack of sovereignty in the 1920s. More recently sovereignty has been further eroded by the European Union which, since Britain's accession to the European Economic Community in 1973, has the power to make laws which must be enforced in each member state, including Britain. On a regional level, a series of sub-parliaments or devolved administrations took over the day to day governance of certain regions, specifically Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However, whereas it cannot block European legislation from the European Union (to which at a governmental level it can contribute and help shape) it can vary the powers of the devolved parliaments or even abolish them by a simple Act of Parliament.

A Parliament of sorts (consisting of the Barons, without any commoners) has existed for a very long time; the Barons first started stripping the King's powers away with the Magna Carta in 1215 but Parliament in a more recognisable form did not arise until many centuries later. Also, unlike now, Parliament only convened for short periods of time, and was then disbanded until the King called it again. Kings disliked calling Parliament, because the Members of Parliament were not under their control and so could cause problems. However, Parliament held the purse strings, so the King could not always ignore them, or bribe them, given that parliaments were not representative of public opinion, with many MPs elected from Rotten boroughs (corrupt constituencies where often only a handful of electors lived and could be bribed to elect a supporter or opponent of the King). These origins are reflected in the modern role of the monarch. It is she who formally summons, prorogues and dissolves parliament. At the moment that the latter royal order is made, all the MPs cease to hold office, with the resultant vacancies being filled by a general election. However this is always done on the advice (instruction) of Her Majesty's Government, which as it is answerable to parliament does parliament's wishes, or at least does not ignore the view of parliament, though parliament itself is not consulted.

See also:


[1] James II/VII's two ordinals denote his position as King James II of England and King James VII of Scotland. After England and Scotland were joined by the 1707 Act of Union British monarchs ceased to use Scottish ordinals. Were they still doing so, the modern Queen Elizabeth II would be Queen Elizabeth II/I, reflecting the fact that there never was a Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland. In fact GPO letter boxes in Scotland do not have EIIR for the insignia for this very reason. They use ER for the insignia unlike English, Welsh and Northern Irish letter boxes.

External link