Features of Parliament
- Parliament is the supreme legislative authority in the UK. The word legislature (from the latin – legis meaning of the law), shows that the main role of Parliament is to create and amend laws. This however is not the only role of Parliament, which I talk more about below.
- Parliament also lies at the centre of the British Political system and is the main body of representation in the country. This feature of Parliament is perhaps the most important, as the UK has a parliamentary democracy meaning the public don’t vote themselves for how the country is run, but elect representatives to perform this function for them in their best interests. This shows that the heart of the British democratic system lies with Parliament.
- Parliament is also central in the creation of the government. Every 5 years after a general election, government is drawn from Parliament and not separately elected. To find out more about the creation of government, follow the link. This also means that government has no separate authority from Parliament.
Perhaps the most important feature of Parliament to understand is that Parliament is sovereign in Britain. Parliamentary sovereignty simply means that Parliament is the source of all legal power. This means that …
- No other individual body may exercise power, without it being granted from Parliament.
- Parliament may restore to itself any powers that have been delegated to others, e.g. devolved parliaments and assemblies.
- Parliament may make any laws that it wishes, and they shall be enforced by the courts and other authorities. There are no restrictions on what laws Parliament may make.
- Parliament is not bound by its predecessors. In other words, laws passed by parliaments in the past are not binding on the current Parliament. All existing laws may be repealed or amended.
- Parliament cannot bind its successors.
There have however been a couple of events in British History that have reduced the power of Parliament. Most notably these are ….
- The devolution of power to bodies like the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.
- The Human Rights Act 1998.
- The UK’s entry to the European Union in 1972.
- The decision to establish a UK Supreme Court in 2009, which ends the House of Lords function as the UK’s final court of appeal.
In theory all of these powers could be returned to Parliament, however in practice this would be very hard and also extremely controversial.
Structure of Parliament
Parliament is divided into three parts. These are the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarch.
Monarch – This section of Parliament is particularly confusing. The monarch is actually not allowed in the Palace of Westminster, except when she is performing the ceremonial opening of the new session of Parliament. This is down to the past when the monarch’s presence in the chamber was seen as a direct threat to the independence of its members. The only reason today that the queen is considered part of the legislature is that proposed legislation requires her signature (royal assent) to become legitimate and therefore law. But the monarch plays no active role in parliamentary politics and the royal Assent has not been refused since 1708. (This happened when Queen Anne resisted the passage of the Scottish Militia Bill, which abolished the Scottish Parliament. She was brought quickly back into line, and the Act then swiftly passed. No Monarch has since tried to defy Parliament).
House of Commons – Often referred to as the Lower House, and where MP’s sit. The House of Commons is made up of 650 MPs elected in by their constituents in the general election every 5 years. As the House of Commons is entirely elected, it is the main institution in the UK where representation of the public interest occurs. Members of the government make up the government front benches, and the senior members of other parties, make up the opposition front bench. MPs not on the front benches are known as backbenchers. A neutral speaker presides over the House’s proceedings.
The work of the Commons is very similar to the Lords, although the Commons alone is responsible for making decisions on financial Bills, such as proposed new taxes and authorising government spending. The Lords can consider these Bills but cannot block or amend them.
The House of Commons is also the location of the famous Prime Minister’s Questions, which happen every Wednesday while Parliament is sitting, where MPs from all parties can question the work and policies of the PM and government. This is one of the most public and important aspects to the Parliaments role in scrutinising government.
House of Lords – The House of Lords is the Upper House of UK Parliament, and is independent from the House of Commons, however they both complement each others work. Unlike the House of Commons most Lords are appointed and not elected. The actual makeup of Lords in the House is very complicated with many different types of Peers. To find out more, follow the link. A neutral speaker again presides over the house’s proceedings. Although the Lords is called the Upper House, it is actually seen as the junior House. This is because the Lords is seen to have less power than the Commons, and the following restrictions apply to the Lords….
- The Parliament Act of 1949 states that if a bill is rejected in the Lords, it will automatically become law if the Commons passes the same piece of legislation in the next session (year) of Parliament, effectively meaning the Lords can delay a piece of legislation for one year.
- The Lords have no power over financial arrangements of the Government (raising taxes or authorising government expenditure), they can only delay for a month (set out in the Parliament Act of 1911)
- Its members also agree voluntarily that they will not block any legislation that clearly appeared in the government’s election manifesto. This is in an unwritten convention. (Note – More information in the constitution section, here.)
To find out more about MPs and Lords, follow the link.
Work of Parliament
The main work of Parliament is examining and challenging the work of government (scrutiny) and debating and passing laws (legislation), however there are many other functions of Parliament.
Scrutiny – Checking and challenging the work of government. This happens mostly through select committees, Prime Minister questions, oral or written questions to Ministers, and general debates in the Commons and Lords. This is to ensure that the legislation, policies and conduct of the government is in the best interests of the country, and also that any failures in government departments are questioned and prevented from happening again.
Legislation – One of the most important functions of Parliament, is that it provides legitimation to legislation. This effectively means granting consent on behalf of the people for legislation created by government. MPs and Lords spend a great deal of time, debating and discussing proposed laws to ensure they are in the best interests of the country. MPs should also take into consideration the local implications of the bill to members of their constituency. MPs and Lords may also create new amendments to laws. For more information of the development and passage of laws, click here.
Representation – As the House of Commons is the only elected House, democratic representation only happens in the Commons. MPs are expected to represent the interests and needs of the locals in their constituency. The average MP will represent 70, 000 people.
Debating – Both Houses of Parliament hold debates in which Members discuss government policy, proposed new laws and current issues. Subjects are introduced as a proposal, or motion, by Members, then debated according to strict sets of rules. Debates are an opportunity for MPs and Lords to discuss government policy, proposed new laws and current issues. It allows MPs to voice the concerns and interests of their constituents, and Members of the House of Lords can speak about issues brought to their attention by the public. These debates also assist MPs and Lords to reach an informed decision on a subject or piece of legislation.
Checking the power of Government – Parliament retains the power to veto legislation, which represents a discipline upon government. Powerful departmental select committees can be publicly critical of Government, and in extreme circumstances the House of Commons can remove Government from power, through a vote of no confidence.
Accountability – Holding government to account is an essential feature of a democracy. At election times government becomes directly accountable to the people, but this only happens every 5 years and is not feasible for government to be continuously held accountable by the people, so Parliament must act on behalf of the people between elections. This is done by a number of activities, including questioning of government ministers, review and criticism of policies and exposing personal or departmental wrong doing or mistakes (this often leads to a resignation or apology)
Opposition – Political parties and the government opposition are an important feature of the House of Commons, and less relevant in the House of Lords. The importance can be seen even down to the seating plan of the Commons where the Government sit opposite the opposition party (the largest party behind the ruling party), and other smaller parties. The opposition party plays an equally important role in the Commons as MPs from the majority party which makes the government. In general, Opposition parties aim to:
- contribute to the creation of policy and legislation through constructive criticism
- oppose government proposals they disagree with
- put forward their own policies in order to improve their chances of winning the next general election
- create a powerful and popular shadow cabinet of ministers – In this way the opposition can make sure that it looks at every part of the Government and can question them thoroughly. It also means that the Opposition has MPs and Lords that are ready to take specific jobs in the Cabinet if they win at the next General Election.