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 Monarch.
The main functions of Parliament are to:
all UK law
by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of government
the public and safeguard the rights of individuals
government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure
European proposals before the become law
appeals in the House of Lords, the highest Court of Appeal in Britain
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 in
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 1979.
last General Election was held on 7 June 2001.
between general elections, by-elections are held as necessary to
elect a new Member of Parliament to an individual constituency.
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
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
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 election called.
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
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 days.
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
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
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 Law.
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 Parliament.
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
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
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 Member’s Bill.
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
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 be lost.
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
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
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.