Her majesty’s Government, in spite of its name derives its authority and power from its party representation in Parliament. While the government machinery is frequently referred to as ‘Whitehall’, Parliament is known as ‘Westminster’, since it is housed in the Palace of Westminster, once a home of the monarchy. Like the monarchy, Parliament is an ancient institution, dating from the middle of the thirteenth century.
Parliament is the seat of British democracy, but it is perhaps valuable to remember that while the House of Lords was created in order to provide a council of the nobility for the king, the Commons were summoned originally in order to provide the king with money. The more money a king demanded, the more the Commons questioned its use. Because of its growing financial power, its ability to raise or withhold money, the House of Commons eventually – from the seventeenth century onwards – gained power not only in matters of finance but also of legislation over both the monarch and also the Lords. Parliament is the supreme legislative body of the state. Free from the constraints of a written constitution it may make any laws it pleases. It could even prolong its own life without consulting the electorate, if it chose to do so. Thus Parliament, rather than the will of the people, is clearly the real sovereign power in the state. The only guarantee against Parliamentary tyranny is the sense of tradition and reasonableness of its members.
Parliament’s functions today are to pass laws, to raise enough money through taxation to enable the government to function, to examine government policy and administration, particularly its financial programme, and to debate or discuss important political issues.
The life of a Parliament is not fixed, and the government of the day may call for a general election at any time during its five-year term. Each Parliament is divided into annual sessions, running normally from October to October with breaks for public holidays and for a long summer ‘recess’ (usually late July until October).
The activities of Parliament in Britain are more or less the same as those of the parliament in any other western democracy. It makes new laws, gives authority for the government to raise and spend money, keeps a close eye on government activities and discusses these activities.
The British Parliament works in a large building called the Palace of Westminster (popularly known as ‘the Houses of Parliament’). This contains offices, committee rooms, restaurants, bars, libraries, and even some places of residence. It also contains two larger rooms. One of these is where the House of Lords holds meetings. The other is where the House of Commons holds its meetings. The British Parliament is divided into these ‘houses’ and its members belong to one or other of them, although only members of the Commons are known as MPs (Members of Parliament).
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
659 members of the House of Commons represent 529 constituencies in England, 40 in Wales, 72 in Scotland and 18 in Northern Ireland. There are only seats in the Commons debating chamber for 370 members, but except on matters of great interest, it is unusual for all members to be present at any one time. Many MPs find themselves in other rooms of the Commons, participating in a variety of committees and meetings necessary for an effective parliamentary process.
The shape of the Commons debating chamber makes an important comment on the political process in Britain. Unlike many European chambers which are semicircular, thus reflecting the spectrum of political opinion in their seating plan, the Commons is rectangular, with the Speaker’s (the presiding MP) chair at one end, and the either side of its five rows of benches running the length of the chamber. On one side, to the Speaker’s right, sits Her Majesty’s Government and its supporters, and on the other Her Majesty’s Opposition, composed of all Members who oppose the government. The front benches on either side are reserved for members of the Cabinet and other Ministers, and Opposition spokesmen, known as the ‘Shadow Cabinet’, respectively.
Historically, in medieval times, the Commons first began meeting in a church, and churches of that time often had rows of benches facing each other. But after the House of Commons was badly damaged by bombing in 1941, it was deliberately rebuilt according to the old pattern (with one or two modern comforts such as central heating added). This was because of a belief in the two-way ‘for and against’ tradition, and also of a more general belief in continuity.
Behind them and further down the chamber, sit MPs from their own party, known as ‘back benchers’. The layout hints at two features of British political life: that is has traditionally been a two-party system and that the process is essentially adversarial (indeed, a red line on the floor in front of each front bench still marks the limit – a little more than two sword’s lengths – beyond which a Member may not approach the opposite benches). The Speaker is chosen by a vote of the entire House, although in practice the party leaders consult their supporters in order to achieve informal agreement beforehand. The Speaker is responsible for the orderly conduct of business, and is required to act with scrupulous impartiality between members in the House. MPs are paid salaries, approximately twice the average national wage, but substantially less than most MPs could earn outside the Commons.
The Commons has no special place for people to stand when they are speaking. MPs simply stand up and speak from wherever they are sitting. Second, there are no desks for MPs. The benches where they sit are exactly benches, just as in a church. MPs do not have their ‘own’ place to sit. No names are marked on the benches. MPs just sit down wherever (on ‘their’ side of the House) they can find room.
Frontbenchers and Backbenchers
Although MPs do not have their own seats in the Commons, there are two seating areas reserved for particular MPs. These areas are the front benches on either side of the house. These benches are where the leading members of the governing party (i.e. ministers) and the leading members of the main opposition party sit. These people are thus known as frontbenchers. MPs who do not hold a government post or a post in the shadow cabinet are known as backbenchers.
All these features result in a rather informal atmosphere. MPs normally speak in a rather conversational tone and, because they have nowhere to place their notes while speaking, they do not normally speak for very long either.
This is the best attended, and usually the noisiest, part of the parliamentary day. MPs are allowed to ask questions of government ministers. In this way, they can, in theory at least, force the government to make certain facts public and to make its intentions clear. Opposition MPs in particular have an opportunity to make government ministers look incompetent or perhaps dishonest.
The questions and answers, however, are not spontaneous. Questions to ministers have to be ‘tabled’ (written down and placed on the table below the Speaker’s chair) two days in advance, so that ministers have time to prepare their answers. In this way, the government can usually avoid major embarrassment. The trick, though, is to ask an unexpected ‘supplementary’ question. After the minister has answered the tabled question, the MP who originally tabled it is allowed to ask a further question relating to the minister’s answer. In this way, it is sometimes possible for MPs to catch a minister unprepared.
An MPs Life
Traditionally, MPs were not supposed to be specialist politicians. They were supposed to be ordinary people who gave some of their time to keeping an eye on the government and representing the people. This is why MPs were not even paid until the beginning of the twentieth century. Traditionally they were supposed to be doing the public service, not making a career for themselves. This tradition meant that only rich people could afford to be MPs. This earlier amateur ideal does not, of course, reflect modern reality. Politics in Britain in the last half century has become professional.
The basic procedure by which the Commons conducts it business is by debate on a particular proposal, followed by a resolution which either accepts or rejects the proposal. Sometimes this resolution just expresses a viewpoint, but most often it is a matter of framing a new law of approving (or not approving) the government’s plan to raise taxes or spend money in certain ways. Occasionally, there is no need to take a vote, but there usually is, and at such times there is a ‘division’. That is, MPs have to vote for or against a particular proposal. They do this by walking through one of two corridors at the side of the House – one side for the ‘Ayes’ (those who agree with the proposal) and the other for ‘Noes’ (those who disagree). Most divisions take place along party lines. MPs nearly always vote the way that their party tells them to. The people whose job is to make sure that MPs do this are called the Whips. By tradition, if the government loses a vote in Parliament on a very important matter, it has to resign. Sometimes, the major parties allow a ‘free vote’, when MPs vote according to their own beliefs and not according to party policy.
How a bill becomes a law
Before a proposal for a new law starts its progress through Parliament, there will have been much discussion. If it is a government proposal, it will probably have been published, explaining the ideas behind the proposal. After this, lawyers draft the proposal into a bill. Most bills begin in the Hose of Commons, where they go through a number of stages:
This is a formal announcement only, with no debate.
The House debates the general principles of the bill and, in most cases, takes a vote.
A Committee of MPs examines the details of the bill and votes on amendments (changes) to parts of it.
The House considers the amendments.
The amended bill is debated as a whole.
The bill is sent to the House of Lords, where it goes through the same stages. (If the Lords make new amendments, these will be considered by the Commons.)
After both Houses have reached agreement, the bill received the royal assent and thus becomes an Act of Parliament which can be applied as part of the law.
THE HOUSE OF LORDS
The House of Lords has no real power and only limited influence. Although the Lords can delay a bill, they cannot stop it becoming law in the end, even if they continue to refuse it. Its role, therefore, is a consultative one. In the Lords, bills can be discussed in more detail than the busy Commons has time for – and in this way irregularities an inconsistencies in these proposals can be avoided before they become law. In addition, the Lords act as a forum for discussion, and can sometimes bring to attention matters that the Commons has been ignoring.
But who are the members of the House of Lords and how do they get there? Its name suggests that its members are aristocrats. In fact, only a very small proportion of them are there by hereditary right. Until 1958, all of the Lords were indeed aristocrats. Then the first step was taken. A law was passed which made it possible to award ‘life peerages’ through the honours system. These gave people entitlement to sit in the Lords but not the children of these people. During the second half of the twentieth century, the life peerage system established itself as a means of finding a place in public life for distinguished older politicians who no longer wished to be as busy as an MP in the Commons but still wished to voice their opinions in a public forum. Four of the last six Prime Ministers, as well as hundreds of former ministers and other respected politicians, have accepted the offer of a life peerage. Political parties are, in fact, especially keen to send their older members who once belonged to the leadership of the party to the House of Lords. It is a way of rewarding them with prestige but removing them from the Commons, where their status and reputation might otherwise create trouble for the present party leader and party unity. Informally, this practice has become known as ‘being kicked upstairs’.
It is widely believed that the value of the lords lies in the fact that its members do not depend on party politics for their positions. Because they are there for life, they do not have to worry about losing their positions. This means they can take decisions independently, purely on the merit of a case.
The Lords conduct their business in a far more orderly fashion than the Commons. The House is presided over by the Lord Chancellor, the senior law officer of the state. The Lord Chancellor is not impartial, but a government officer. He or she is responsible for the administration of justice and is also an automatic member of the Cabinet.
Each parliamentary session begins with the ‘State Opening of Parliament’, a ceremonial occasion in which the Queen proceeds from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster where she delivers the Queen’s Speech from her throne in the House of Lords. Her speech is drafted by her government, and describes what the government intends to implement during the forthcoming session. Leading members of the Commons may hear it from the far end of the chamber. Then the government and the Opposition debate the aspects of the Queen’s Speech in the Commons and vote on the amendments which the Opposition proposes. Since the speech is a statement of policy, defeat on any such vote would oblige the government to resign.
What are the functions of Parliament?
Where does Parliament work? What name is Parliament usually referred to?
What chambers does Parliament consist of?
What is the shape of the Commons debating chamber?
What does the layout of the chamber reflect?
In what ways do the seating arrangements, general facilities and pay for British MPs differ from those of parliamentary representatives in other countries?