UK Constitution and Government/Parliament
Previous Chapter | Next Chapter
Parliament is the supreme law-making body in the United Kingdom. It is made up of two Houses of Parliament, namely the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as the Sovereign. The Sovereign's involvement in the life and working of Parliament is purely formal.
In constitutional theory, Parliament in its strictest sense is sometimes referred to as the Queen-in-Parliament; this contrasts with the more ordinary use of the term "Parliament", meaning just the two Houses of Parliament. Within the British constitutional framework, the Queen-in-Parliament is supreme ("sovereign"), able to make, alter, or repeal any law at will.
Both Houses of Parliament meet at the Palace of Westminster.
Parliaments and Sessions
As with most legislatures, Parliament does not continue in perpetual existence. Typically, the "life" of a Parliament is around four years.
Parliament is initially summoned by the Sovereign. This now always occurs after there has been a general election. Once assembled, and a Speaker has been chosen by the House of Commons, Parliament is formally opened by the Sovereign. The business of the two Houses is arranged into sessions, which usually last a year (running from around October or November each calendar year). However, there is usually a long recess during the summer months, when business is temporarily suspended.
The opening of each parliamentary session is conducted in accordance with a great deal of traditional ceremony. The Sovereign takes his or her seat on the throne situated in the chamber of the House of Lords, and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (one of that House's officers) is commanded to summon the House of Commons. When Black Rod reaches the door of the Commons, it is slammed shut in his face, to symbolise the right of the Commons to debate without royal interference. Black Rod then solemnly knocks on the door with his staff of office; on the third knock, the door is opened, and he is permitted to enter and deliver his message. MPs then proceed from the Commons to the House of Lords, to hear the Speech from the Throne, more commonly known as the Queen's Speech. The Speech outlines the Government's legislative proposals for the session; while worded as if it's the Sovereign's own policy, the Speech is in fact entirely drafted by Government ministers.
Each session is ended by a prorogation. The Commons are formally summoned to the House of Lords, where another formal Speech is read out, summing up the work of the two Houses of Parliament over the course of the session. In practice the Sovereign no longer attends for the prorogation; Lords Commissioners are appointed to perform the task, and one of their number also reads out the Speech.
By law, each Parliament must come to an end no later than five years from its commencement; this is known as dissolution. Because a dissolution is necessary in order to trigger a general election, the Prime Minister was effectively able to choose to hold elections at a time that seems the most advantageous to his or her political party.
After the 2010 General Election the Liberal Democrat party made the introduction of a law on fixed term parliaments a requirement for forming a coalition government with the Conservative party. A coalition was necessary as the result of the election meant no party had an overall majority of seats. The main opposition party from the previous parliament, the Conservative party, gained the most seats and under parliamentary protocol had the first opportunity to try and form a government. They concluded a formal deal with the Liberal Democrats to govern together. The Liberal Democrats had insisted on fixing the term of parliaments to reduce the inherent advantage the governing party had in being able to choose the moment to hold an election. There are provisions in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to allow an early election with the consent of Parliament. These provisions were used in 2017.
Although the duration of Parliament has been restricted to five years since 1911, legislation was passed during both World Wars to extend the life of the existing Parliament; this meant that the Parliament summoned in 1935 eventually continued in existence for around ten years, until 1945.
House of Commons
While sometimes described as the "lower house", the House of Commons is by far the most important of the two Houses of Parliament. Members of the House of Commons are known as Members of Parliament, or MPs.
The entire United Kingdom is subdivided into constituencies, each of which returns one MP to sit in the House of Commons. There are presently 650 constituencies, however the exact number fluctuates over time as the boundaries of constituencies are periodically reviewed by Boundaries Commissions set up for each part of the UK. Constituencies are intended to have roughly equal numbers of voters, but in practice the smallest and largest constituencies can have a significant difference in size.
At each general election all seats in the House of Commons become vacant. If a seat becomes vacant during the life of a Parliament (i.e. between general elections), then a by-election is held for that constituency. The election for each constituency is by secret ballot conducted according to the First-Past-the-Post system: the candidate with the most votes is returned as MP.
Qualifications of voters
A person must be aged at least eighteen in order to vote.
The following nationalities are entitled to vote at parliamentary elections:
- British citizens
- citizens of the Republic of Ireland
- citizens of Commonwealth countries
Irish and Commonwealth citizens must have been resident in the United Kingdom. British citizens who are resident abroad are only able to vote if they had been resident in the United Kingdom within the previous 15 years.
Certain categories of people are unable to vote:
- the Sovereign
- members of the House of Lords
- people serving prison sentences
- persons convicted of "corrupt practices" (electoral malpractice) within the previous five years
- the insane
By convention, close relatives of the Sovereign also do not vote.
Qualifications of MPs
Anyone who is not disqualified to vote is also qualified to be an MP, except the following:
- undischarged bankrupts
- persons convicted of treason
- members of legislatures outside of the United Kingdom that are not in Commonwealth countries
- civil servants
- members of certain specific public bodies, and holders of certain specific statutory offices
- members of the armed forces
Resignation as an MP
Since the 17th century, the House of Commons has asserted that MPs may not resign. However, in practice members are able to resign by the legal fiction of appointment as Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough, and Burnham, or as Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. Neither of these offices carries any duties, but have been preserved in force so that those appointed to them automatically lose their seats in the House of Commons as having accepted an office of profit under the Crown.
Speakership and procedure
The House of Commons is presided over by the Speaker. There are also three Deputy Speakers, with the titles of Chairman of Ways and Means, First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, and Second Chairman of Ways and Means.
The Speaker and his or her deputies are elected at the commencement of a Parliament, and serve until its dissolution. Following a general election, the Father of the House (the member with the longest unbroken service in the House, who is not also a Minister of the Crown) takes the chair. If the Speaker from the previous Parliament has been returned as a member of the new Parliament, and intends to continue in office, then the House votes on a motion that the member take the chair as Speaker. Otherwise, or if the motion for his or her re-election fails, then members vote by secret ballot in several rounds; after each round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The election ends when one member secures a majority of votes in a particular round. Thereafter, the Speaker-elect leads the House of Commons to the House of Lords, where the Lords Commissioners (five Lords representing the Sovereign) officially declare the Royal Approbation (approval) of the Speaker, who immediately takes office. The Speaker traditionally lays claim to all of the House's privileges, including freedom of speech in debate, which the Lords Commissioners then confirm on behalf of the Sovereign.
If a Speaker should choose to resign from his post during the course of Parliament, then he must preside over the election of his successor. The new election is otherwise conducted in the same manner as at the beginning of a Parliament. The new Speaker-elect receives the Royal Approbation from Lords Commissioners; however, the ceremonial assertion of the rights of the Commons is not repeated.
The Speaker is expected to act impartially. He or she is an important figure within the House of Commons, controlling the flow of debate by selecting which members get to speak in debates, and by ensuring that the customs and procedures of the House are complied with. The Speaker and his deputies do not generally speak during debates, nor vote at divisions.
The Speaker also exercises disciplinary powers. He or she may order any member to resume his or her seat if they consistently contribute irrelevant or repetitive remarks during a debate. An individual who has disregarded the Speaker's call to sit down may be requested to leave the House; if the request is declined, then the Speaker may "name" the member. The House then votes on whether to suspend the member in question for a certain number of days, or even, in the case of repeated breaches, for the remainder of the session. In the most serious cases, the House may vote to expel a member. In the case of grave disorder, the Speaker may adjourn the House without a vote.
The House votes on all questions by voice first. The Speaker asks all those in favour of the proposition to say "Aye," and those opposed to say "No". The Speaker then assesses the result, saying "I think the Ayes have it" or "I think the Noes have it", as appropriate. Only if a member challenges the Speaker's opinion is a division, or formal count, called. During a division, members file into two separate lobbies on either side of the Commons chamber. As they exit each lobby, clerks and tellers count the votes and record the names. The result is then announced by the Speaker. In the event of a tied vote, the Speaker (or other occupant of the Chair) has a casting vote; however, conventions exist that the Speaker would cast a vote to maintain the status quo. In effect moving bills on to further scrutiny, but not pass a bill into law.
House of Lords
Generally speaking, membership of the House of Lords is by appointment for life. However, up until 1999, hereditary peers were also members of the Lords; when this right was abolished, a compromise measure allowed them to elect ninety of their number to continue as members.
Certain office-holders are also ex officio members of the House of Lords:
- the Earl Marshal
- the Lord Great Chamberlain
- the Archbishop of Canterbury
- the Archbishop of York
- the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester
The Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain are mostly ceremonial offices. In addition to the three ex officio bishops, the 21 longest-serving diocesan bishops also sit in the Lords.
The general qualifications for sitting and voting in the Lords are:
- to have reached the age of 21
- to be a British citizen, or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, or a citizen of a Commonwealth country
- to not have been convicted of treason
- to not have been declared insane
Speakership and procedure
The Lord Speaker is elected by the House. Until recently his or her duties were carried out by the Lord Chancellor, a Minister of the Crown.
In contrast with the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Speaker has a relatively minor role, since the House of Lords is generally self-governing: the House itself decides upon points of order and other such matters. The seat used by the Lord Speaker is known as the Woolsack.
Similar to the House of Commons, the Lords also vote by voice first. The Lord Speaker (or whoever else is presiding) puts the question, with those in favour saying "Content," and those opposed saying "Not-Content." If the Lord Speaker's assessment of the result is challenged, a division follows, with members voting in the appropriate lobby just as is done in the Commons. The officer presiding may vote from his or her place in the chamber rather than from a lobby. In the case of a tie, the result depends on what type of motion is before the House. A motion that a bill be advanced to the next stage or passed is always decided in the positive, while amendments to bills or other motions are decided in the negative, if there is an equality of votes.
Acts of Parliament
Legislation passed by Parliament is in the form of an Act of Parliament.
A draft law is known as a Bill. A bill passes into law provided that it has either been passed by both Houses of Parliament, or the provisions of the Parliament Acts have been complied with; and provided it has received the Royal Assent.
A bill must pass through several stages in both of the two Houses. A bill is "read" three times in each House. The First Reading for Public Bills is almost always a formality. The Second Reading is a debate on the merits of the general principles behind the bill. Next follow the Committee and Report stages. The Third Reading is a vote upon the bill as a whole, as amended during the Committee and Report stages. Once the House into which the bill was first introduced has finished with it, the bill is then introduced into the other House. Any amendments by the second House then have to be agreed to by the first before the bill can proceed.
Bills are classified as either Government Bills or as Private Members' Bills. Ministers of the Crown introduce Government Bills; private members introduce Private Members' Bills.
Bills are also classified as Public, Private, Personal or Hybrid. Public bills create laws applied generally (for instance, reforming the nation's electoral system). Private bills affect a specific named company, person or other entity (for instance, authorising major constructions on specific named public lands). Personal bills are private bills that confer specific rights to specific named individuals (for example by granting the right to marry a person one would not normally be allowed to wed). Hybrid bills are public bills that directly and specially affect private interests.
A Public Bill's First Reading is usually a mere formality, allowing its title to be entered in the Journals and for its text to be printed by the House's authority.
After two weeks, one of the bill's supporters moves "that the bill be now read a second time". At the second reading debate, the bill's general characteristics and underlying principles, rather than the particulars, are discussed. If the vote on the Second Reading fails, the bill dies. It is, however, very rare for a Government bill to be defeated at the Second Reading; such a defeat signifies a major loss.
In the House of Commons, following the Second Reading, various procedural resolutions may need to be passed. If the bill seeks to levy or increase a tax or charge, then a Ways and Means Resolution has to be passed. If it involves significant expenditure of public funds, then a Money Resolution is necessary. Finally, the government may proceed with a Programme Motion or an Allocation of Time Motion. A Programme Motion outlines a timetable for further debate on the bill and is normally passed without debate. An Allocation of Time Motion, commonly called the Guillotine, limits time available for debate. Normally, a Programme motion is agreed to by both parties while an Allocation of Time Motion becomes necessary if the Opposition does not wish to cooperate with the Government. In the House of Lords, there are no Guillotines or other motions that limit the time available for debate.
Next, the bill can be committed to a committee. In the House of Commons, the bill may be sent to the Committee of the Whole House, a Standing Committee, a Special Standing Committee or a Select Committee. The Committee of the Whole House is a committee that includes all members of the House and meets in the regular chamber. The Speaker is normally not present during the meetings; a Deputy Speaker normally takes the chair. The procedure is used for parts of the annual Finance Bill and for bills of major constitutional importance. More often, the bill is committed to a Standing Committee. Though the name may suggest otherwise, the membership of Standing Committees is temporary. There can be from sixteen to fifty members; the strength of parties in the committee is proportional to their strengths in the whole House. It is possible for a bill to go to a Special Standing Committee, which is like a Standing Committee except that it may take evidence and conduct hearings; the procedure has not been used in several years. Finally, the bill may be sent to a Select Committee. Select Committees are permanent bodies charged with the oversight of a particular Government department. This last procedure is rarely used; the quinquennial Armed Forces Bill, however, is always referred to the Defence Select Committee.
In the House of Lords, the Bill is committed to the Committee of the Whole House, a Public Bill Committee, a Special Public Bill Committee, a Select Committee or a Grand Committee. The most common committee used is the Committee of the Whole House. Sometimes, the bill is sent to a Public Bill Committee of twelve to sixteen members (plus the Chairman of Committees) or to a Special Public Bill Committee of nine or ten members. These committees correspond in function to the Commons Standing and Special Standing Committees, but are less often utilised. Select Committees may also be used, like in the Commons, though it is rare for this to be done. The Grand Committee procedure is the only one unique to the House of Lords. The procedure is reserved for non-controversial bills that must be passed quickly; a proposal to amend the bill is defeated if a single member votes against it.
In both Houses, the committee used considers the bill clause-by-clause and may make amendments. Thereafter, the bill proceeds to the Consideration or Report Stage. This stage occurs on the Floor of the House and offers it an opportunity to further amend the bill. While the committee is bound to consider every single clause of the bill, the House need only debate those clauses which members seek to amend.
Following the Report Stage, the motion that the bill be now read a third time is considered. In the House of Commons, there is a short debate followed by a vote; no further amendments are permitted. If the motion passes, then the Bill is considered passed. In the Lords, however, amendments may be moved. Following the vote on the third reading, there must be a separate vote on passage.
After one House has passed a bill, it is sent to the other for its consideration. Assuming both Houses have passed a bill, differences between their separate versions must be reconciled. Each House may accept or reject amendments made by the other House, or offer other amendments in lieu. If one House has rejected an amendment, the other House may nevertheless insist upon it. If a House insists upon an amendment that the other rejects, then the bill is lost unless the procedure set out in the Parliament Acts is complied with.
Once a bill has passed by both Houses, or has been certified by the Speaker of the Commons as having passed the House of Commons in conformity with the Parliament Acts, the bill is finally submitted to the Sovereign for Royal Assent. Since 1708, no Sovereign has failed to grant Royal Assent to a bill. Assent may be given by the Sovereign in person, but is usually given in the form of letters patent read out in each of the Houses; in the House of Lords the Clerk announces the Norman French formula "La Reyne le Veult", and the Bill thereupon becomes an Act of Parliament. In 1708 the formula used for the Scottish Militia Bill was "La Reyne s'avisera" (however, this was on ministerial advice).
In theory the Sovereign has the right to either withhold or reserve the assent, however this right is not exercised. If assent were withheld, then the bill would fail. If assent were reserved, then formally a final decision on the bill has been put off until a later time; if Assent were not given before prorogation of the session, then the bill would fail.
Private, Personal and Hybrid Bills
In the nineteenth century several hundred private Acts were passed each year, dealing with such matters as the alteration of local authority powers, the setting up or alteration of turnpike trusts, etc. A series of reforms has eliminated the necessity for much of this legislation, meaning that only a handful of private Acts are now passed each year.
A private bill is initiated when an individual petitions Parliament for its passage. After the petition is received, it is officially gazetted so that other interested parties may support or contest it. Counter-petitions objecting to the passage of the bill may also be received. To be able to file such a petition, the bill must "directly and specially" affect the individual. If those supporting the bill disagree that such an effect exist, then the matter is resolved by the Court of Referees, a group of senior Members of Parliament.
The bill then proceeds through the same stages as public bills. Generally, no debate is held on the Floor during the Second Reading unless a Member of Parliament files a "blocking motion". It is possible for a party whose petition was denied by the Court of Referees to instead lobby a Member to object to the bill on the Floor. After the bill is read a second time, it is sent to one of two committees: the Opposed Bill Committee if there are petitions against the bill, or the Unopposed Bill Committee if there aren't. After taking evidence, the committee may return a finding of Case Proved or Case Not Proved. In the latter case, the bill is considered rejected, but in the former case, amendments to the bill may be considered. After consideration, third reading and passage, the bill is sent to the other House, which follows the same procedure. If necessary, the bill may have to face two different Opposed Bill Committees. After differences between the Houses are resolved, the bill is submitted for Royal Assent.
Personal bills relate to the "estate, property, status, or style" or other personal affairs of an individual. By convention, these bills are brought first in the House of Lords, where it is referred to a Personal Bill Committee before being read a "first" time. The Committee may make amendments or even reject the bill outright. If the bill is reported to the House, then it follows the same procedure as any other private bill, including going through an Unopposed or Opposed Bill Committee in both Houses. A special case involves bills that seek to enable marriages between those who are within a "prohibited degree of affinity or cosanguinity". In those cases, the bill is not discussed on the Floor and is sent at the committee stage to a Select Committee that includes the Chairman of Committees, a bishop and two lay members.
Hybrid bills are public bills that have a special effect on a private interest. Prior to the second reading of any public bill, it must be submitted to the Clerk, who determines if any of the House's rules have been violated. If the Clerk finds that the bill does have such an effect on a private interest, then it is sent to the Examiners, a body which then may report to the House that the bill does or does not affect private interests. If the latter, then it proceeds just like a public bill, but if the former, then it is treated as hybrid. The first and second readings are just as for public bills, but at the committee stage, if petitions have been filed against the bill, it is sent to a Select Committee, but the Committee does not have the same powers of rejection as Private Bill Committees. After the Committee reports, the bill is recommitted to another committee as if it were a public bill. Thereafter, the stages are the same as for a public bill, though, in the other chamber, the bill may have to be considered once more by a Select Committee.
Supremacy of the House of Commons
Under the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, the House of Commons is essentially the pre-eminent chamber in Parliament. If the Lords fail to pass a bill (by rejecting it outright, insisting on amendments disagreed to by the Commons, or by failing to vote on it), and the bill has been passed by the Commons in two consecutive sessions, then the bill may be presented for Royal Assent unless the House of Commons otherwise directs, and provided that the bill was introduced in the Lords at least one month before the end of each session. However, twelve months must have passed between the Second Reading in the first session, and the final vote on passage in the second one. Also, the bill passed by the Commons in each session must be identical, except to take into account the passage of time since the bill was first proposed.
The effect of the procedure set out in the Parliament Acts is that the House of Lords may delay a bill for at least thirteen months, but would ultimately be unable to overturn the concerted will of the House of Commons. However, this procedure does not apply in the case of private or personal bills, nor to bills seeking to extend the life of Parliament beyond five years.
Under the Parliament Acts, a special procedure applies to "money bills". A bill is considered a money bill if the Speaker certifies that it relates solely to national taxation or to the expenditure of public funds. The Speaker's decision is final and cannot be overturned. Following passage by the House of Commons, the bill can be considered by the House of Lords for not longer than one month. If the Lords have not passed the bill within that time, it is submitted for Royal Assent regardless. Any amendments made by the House of Lords are ignored unless accepted by the House of Commons.
In addition to the Parliament Acts, tradition and conventions limit the House of Lords. It is the privilege of the House of Commons to levy taxes and authorise expenditure of public funds. The House of Lords cannot introduce bills to do either; furthermore, they are barred from amending supply bills (bills appropriating money to expenditure). In some cases, however, the House of Lords can circumvent the rule by inserting a Privilege Amendment into a bill they have originated. The Amendment reads:
- Nothing in this Act shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds, or vary the amount or incidence of or otherwise alter any such charge in any manner, or affect the assessment, levying, administration or application of any money raised by any such charge.
The House of Commons then amend the bill by removing the above clause. Therefore, the privilege of the Commons is not violated as they, not the Lords, have approved the tax or public expenditure.
Many Acts of Parliament authorise the use of Statutory Instruments (SIs) as a more flexible method of setting out and amending the precise details for new arrangements, such as rules and regulations. This delegated power is given either to the Queen in Council, a Minister of the Crown, or to other named office holders. An Act may empower the Government to make a Statutory Instrument and lay it before both Houses, the SI to take legal effect if approved by a simple vote in each House; or in other cases, if neither House objects within a set time. In theory, Parliament does not lose control over such statutory instruments when delegating the power to make them, while being saved the necessity to debate and vote upon even quite trivial changes, unless members wish to raise objections.
English Votes For English Laws
During the creation of the Devolved Administrations of Scotland and Wales, the idea of an English Parliament or Regional Assemblies were discussed but ultimately not implemented. This created an issue where the UK Parliament is acting as a de facto English Parliament on matters devolved to the national assemblies. MPs from all regions were free to debate and vote on issues which did not effect their constituencies or constituents.
The Conservative Government of 2015 decided to address the issue in a controversial manner. Instead of bringing a bill to the Parliament, they proposed changes to the Statutory Instruments (SIs). Any bill brought before the Commons which is adjudged by the Speaker to only effect English Constituencies (or in some limited cases England and Wales) can have a ”double majority” rule imposed. In short, all MPs are allowed to debate and vote, but for a vote to be won both a count of votes of all MPs and a vote for English only MPs must be won.
Each House has a body of rights that it asserts, or which are conferred by statute, with the aim of being allowed to carry out its duties without interference. For example, members of both Houses have freedom of speech during parliamentary debates; what they have said cannot be questioned in any place outside Parliament, and so a speech made in Parliament cannot constitute slander. These rights are collectively referred to as Parliamentary Privilege.
Both Houses claim to determine their own privileges, and are acknowledged by the courts as having the authority to control their own proceedings, as well as to discipline members abusing the rules. Furthermore, each House is the sole judge of the qualifications of its members. Collectively, each House has the right of access to the Sovereign. Individually, members must be left free to attend Parliament. Therefore, the police are regularly ordered to maintain free access in the neighbouring streets, and members cannot be called on to serve on a jury or be subpoenaed as a witness while Parliament is in session. (Arrest for crime is still possible, but the relevant House must be notified of the same.) Parliament has the power to punish contempt of Parliament, that is, violation of the privileges and rules of a House. Any decisions made in this regard are final and are cannot be appealed to any court. The usual modern penalty for contempt is a reprimand, or brief imprisonment in the precincts of the House, but historically large fines have been imposed.