Parliament of the United Kingdom

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government

The Houses of Parliament, seen over Westminster Bridge
The Houses of Parliament, seen over Westminster Bridge

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom and British overseas territories. It alone has parliamentary sovereignty. At its head is the Sovereign.

The parliament is bicameral, with an upper house, the House of Lords, and a lower house, the House of Commons. The House of Lords includes two different types of members: the Lords Spiritual (the senior bishops of the Church of England) and the Lords Temporal (members of the Peerage); its members are not elected by the population at large. The House of Commons is a democratically elected chamber. The two Houses meet in separate chambers in the Palace of Westminster (commonly known as the "Houses of Parliament"), in the City of Westminster in London. By constitutional convention, all government ministers, including the Prime Minister, are members of the House of Commons or House of Lords.

Parliament evolved from the early medieval councils that advised the sovereigns of England and Scotland. In theory, power is vested not in Parliament, but in the " Queen-in-Parliament" (or "King-in-Parliament"). The Queen-in-Parliament is often said to be a completely sovereign authority, though such a position is debatable. In modern times, real power is vested in the House of Commons; the Sovereign acts only as a figurehead and the powers of the House of Lords are greatly limited.

The United Kingdom Parliament is sometimes called the "Mother of Parliaments", as the legislative bodies of many states, most notably those of the members of the Commonwealth, are modelled on it. However, it is a misquotation of John Bright, who had actually remarked on 18 January 1865 that "England is the Mother of Parliaments", in the context of supporting demands for expanded voting rights in a country that he considered had pioneered parliamentary government.


In the Middle Ages and early modern period there were three kingdoms within the British IslesEngland, Scotland and Ireland — and these developed separate parliaments. The 1707 Acts of Union brought England and Scotland together under the Parliament of Great Britain, and the 1800 Act of Union included Ireland under the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Parliament of England

English parliament in front of the king c. 1300
English parliament in front of the king c. 1300

The English Parliament traces its origins to the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot. In 1066, William of Normandy brought a feudal system, where he sought the advice of a council of tenants-in-chief and ecclesiastics before making laws. In 1215, the tenants-in-chief secured the Magna Carta from John, which established that the king may not levy or collect any taxes (except the feudal taxes to which they were hitherto accustomed), save with the consent of his royal council, which slowly developed into a parliament.

In 1265, Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester summoned the first elected, Parliament. The franchise in parliamentary elections for county constituencies was uniform throughout the country, extending to all those who owned the freehold of land to an annual rent of 40 shillings ( Forty-shilling Freeholders). In the boroughs, the franchise varied across the country; individual boroughs had varying arrangements. This set the scene for the so-called " Model Parliament" of 1295 adopted by Edward I. By the reign of Edward III, Parliament had been separated into two Houses: one including the nobility and higher clergy, the other including the knights and burgesses, and no law could be made, nor any tax levied, without the consent of both Houses as well as of the Sovereign.

The Laws in Wales Acts of 1535– 42 annexed Wales as part of England and brought Welsh representatives to Parliament.

When Elizabeth I was succeeded in 1603 by the Scottish King James VI, (thus becoming James I of England), the countries both came under his rule but each retained its own Parliament. James I's successor, Charles I, quarrelled with the English Parliament and, after he provoked the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, their dispute developed into the English Civil War. Charles was executed in 1649 and under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth of England the House of Lords was abolished, and the House of Commons made subordinate to Cromwell. After Cromwell's death, the Restoration of 1660 restored the monarchy and the House of Lords.

Amidst fears of a Roman Catholic succession, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 deposed James II (James VII of Scotland) in favour of the joint rule of Mary II and William III, whose agreement to the English Bill of Rights introduced a constitutional monarchy, though the supremacy of the Crown remained. For the third time, a Convention Parliament, i.e. one not summoned by the king, was required to determine the succession.

Parliament of Scotland

Parliament House in Edinburgh, the former home of the Estates of Scotland.
Parliament House in Edinburgh, the former home of the Estates of Scotland.

From the time of Kenneth mac Alpin, the early Kingdom of Scotland (see Kingdom of Alba) had been ruled by chieftains and petty kings under the suzerainty of the King of Scots, all offices being filled through election by an assembly under the Gaelic system of tanistry, which combined a hereditary element with the consent of those ruled. After Macbeth was overthrown by Malcolm III in 1057 the feudal system of primogeniture was gradually introduced, as Scotland came increasingly under Norman influence.

In the High Middle Ages the King's Council of Bishops and Earls evolved into the unicameral Estates of Parliament, with the colloquium at Kirkliston, of 1235 (the first meeting of Parliament for which records survive), which had both a political and judicial role. From 1326 the Three Estates (Scots: Thrie Estaitis) had clerics, lay tenants-in-chief and the burgh Commissioners (approximately equivalent to early burgesses, later Members of Parliament, in the contemporaneous Parliament of England) sitting in a single chamber, with powers over taxation and a strong influence over justice, foreign policy, war, and legislation. The Parliament chose a committee called the Lords of the Articles (comparable to a modern select committee) to draft legislation, which was then presented to the full Parliament to be confirmed.

Following the Reformation and pressure from the Kirk, Catholic clergy were excluded from 1567, and after Protestant bishops were abolished in 1638 (see Bishops' Wars) the Scottish Parliament became an entirely lay legislature. During the reign of James VI, the Lords of the Articles came more under the influence of the Crown, and following his accession to the throne of England in 1603 (see Union of the Crowns) he used them to run Scotland from London. During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the Covenanting period ( 1638– 51) the Scottish Parliament took control of the executive, effectively wresting sovereignty from Charles I. After Scotland was invaded by Oliver Cromwell, his Protectorate government imposed a brief Anglo-Scottish parliamentary union in 1657.

The Scottish Parliament returned after the Restoration of Charles II to the thrones of England and Ireland in 1660 (he had already been crowned King of Scots at Scone on 1 January 1651). After the Glorious Revolution formally changed England's monarch in February 1689, William II of Scotland (William III of England) summoned a Convention of the Estates, which considered competing letters from both William and from James VII of Scotland (James II of England), set out its terms and conditions in the Claim of Right, and duly proclaimed William and Mary II to be the joint monarchs of Scotland, at Edinburgh on 11 April 1689.

Parliament of Ireland

The Irish House of Commons by Francis Wheatley (1780).
The Irish House of Commons by Francis Wheatley ( 1780).

The Irish Parliament was founded to represent the English community in the Lordship of Ireland, while the native or Gaelic Irish were ineligible to vote or stand for office, the first known meeting being in 1264. The English presence shrank to an enclave around Dublin known as the Pale.

In 1541 Henry VIII declared the Kingdom of Ireland and embarked on the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland. The Gaelic Irish lords were now entitled to attend the Irish Parliament as equals of the majority of English descent. Disputes followed the introduction of Protestantism as the state religion, when most of the population remained Roman Catholic, and in 1613– 15 constituencies were fixed so that Protestant settlers held the majority in the Irish Parliament. After the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Catholics were barred from voting or attending the Parliament in the Cromwellian Act of Settlement 1652.

Under James II & VII, the Catholics regained ground and during the Jacobite war in Ireland he agreed to the Irish Parliament's demands for autonomy and restitution of lands. After the victory of William III of England these gains were reversed, with the Penal Laws making things worse. Poyning's Law of 1494 had made the Irish Parliament subordinate to the Parliament of England, but the Constitution of 1782 removed these restrictions and about a decade later Catholics gained the right to vote, though they were still barred from membership.

Parliament of Great Britain

Following the Treaty of Union in 1707, Acts of Union were passed in both the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland, which created a new Kingdom of Great Britain. The Acts dissolved both parliaments, replacing them with a new Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain based in the former home of the English parliament. While Scots law and Scottish legislation remained separate, the legislation was now dealt with by the new parliament.

After the Hanoverian George I ascended the throne in 1714, power began to shift from the Sovereign, and by the end of his reign the position of the ministers — who had to rely on Parliament for support — was cemented. Towards the end of the 18th century the monarch still had considerable influence over Parliament, which was dominated by the English aristocracy and by patronage. At general elections the vote was restricted to landed gentry, in constituencies that were out of date, so that in many " rotten boroughs" seats could be bought while major cities remained unrepresented. Reformers and Radicals sought parliamentary reform, but as the Napoleonic Wars developed the government became repressive against dissent and progress toward reform was stalled.

Parliament of the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was created in 1801 by the merger of the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland.

The principle of ministerial responsibility to the lower House did not develop until the 19th century — the House of Lords was superior to the House of Commons both in theory and in practice. Members of the House of Commons were elected in an antiquated electoral system, under which constituencies of vastly different sizes existed. Thus, the borough of Old Sarum, with seven voters, could elect two members, as could the borough of Dunwich, which had completely disappeared into the sea due to land erosion. In many cases, members of the Upper House also controlled tiny constituencies, known as pocket or rotten boroughs, and could ensure the election of their relatives or supporters. Many seats in the House of Commons were "owned" by the Lords. After the reforms of the 19th century, beginning with the Reform Act of 1832, the electoral system in the lower House was much more regularised. No longer dependent on the upper House for their seats, members of the House of Commons began to grow more assertive.

Modern era

Parliament, with the London Eye visible in the background.
Parliament, with the London Eye visible in the background.

The supremacy of the House of Commons was clearly established during the early 20th century. In 1909, the Commons passed the so-called "People's Budget," which made numerous changes to the taxation system in a manner detrimental to wealthy landowners. The House of Lords, which consisted mostly of powerful landowners, rejected the Budget. On the basis of the Budget's popularity and the Lords' consequent unpopularity, the Liberal Party won the general election in 1910. Using the result as a mandate, the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, introduced the Parliament bill, which sought to restrict the powers of the House of Lords. (He did not reintroduce the land tax provision of the People's Budget.) When the Lords refused to pass the bill, Asquith approached the King and requested the creation of several hundred Liberal peers so as to erase the Conservative majority in the House of Lords. In the face of such a threat, the House of Lords reluctantly passed the bill. The Parliament Act 1911, as it became, allowed the Lords to delay a bill for a maximum of three sessions (reduced to two sessions in 1949), after which it could become law over their objections.

The Irish Free State became independent in 1922 and in 1927 the UK was renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Further reforms to the House of Lords have been made during the 20th century. In 1958, the Life Peerages Act authorised the regular creation of life peerage dignities. By the 1960s, the regular creation of hereditary peerage dignities had ceased; thereafter, almost all new peers were life peers only. More recently, the House of Lords Act 1999 removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the Upper House (although it made an exception for 92 of them on a temporary basis). The House of Lords is now a chamber that is subordinate to the House of Commons.

The Scottish Parliament was established as the devolved national unicameral legislature of Scotland by the Scotland Act 1998, and it held its first meeting on 12 May 1999


At the head of Parliament is the British Sovereign. The Sovereign's role, however, is merely ceremonial; in practice, he or she always acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and other ministers, who are in turn accountable to the two Houses of Parliament.

The Upper House is mostly made up of appointed members ("Lords of Parliament"). The whole House is formally styled The Right Honourable The Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament Assembled, the Lords Spiritual being clergymen of the Church of England and the Lords Temporal being Peers of the Realm. The Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal are considered separate " estates," but they sit, debate and vote together.

The Lords Spiritual formerly included all of the senior clergymen of the Church of England — archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors. Upon the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII the abbots and priors lost their positions in Parliament. All diocesan bishops continued to sit in Parliament, but the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847, and later acts, provide that only the 26 most senior are Lords Spiritual. These always include the incumbents of the "five great sees", namely the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London, the Bishop of Durham and the Bishop of Winchester. The remaining 21 Lords Spiritual are the most senior diocesan bishops, ranked in order of consecration.

The Lords Temporal are all members of the Peerage. Formerly, they were hereditary peers. The right of some hereditary peers to sit in Parliament was not automatic: after Scotland and England united into Great Britain in 1707, it was provided that all peers whose dignities had been created by English Kings could sit in Parliament, but those whose dignities had been created by Scottish Kings were to elect a limited number of " representative peers." A similar arrangement was made in respect of Ireland when that nation merged with Great Britain in 1801, but when southern Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922 the election of Irish representative peers ceased. By the Peerage Act 1963, the election of Scottish representative peers also ended, and all Scottish peers were granted the right to sit in Parliament. Under the House of Lords Act 1999, only life peerage dignities (that is to say, peerage dignities which cannot be inherited) automatically entitle their holders to seats in the House of Lords. Of the hereditary peers, only 92 — the Earl Marshal, the Lord Great Chamberlain and the 90 elected by other peers — retain their seats in the House.

The Commons, the last of the "estates" of the Kingdom, are represented in the House of Commons, which is formally styled The Honourable The Commons in Parliament Assembled (commons coming not from the term commoner, but from commune, the old French term for a district). The House currently consists of 646 members. Until the 2005 general election, it consisted of 659 members, but the number of Scottish Members was reduced by the Scotland Act 1998. Each "Member of Parliament" or "MP" is chosen by a single constituency according to the First-Past-the-Post electoral system. Universal adult suffrage exists for those 18 and over; citizens of the United Kingdom, and those of the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth nations resident in the United Kingdom are qualified to vote. The term of members of the House of Commons depends on the term of Parliament; a general election, during which all the seats are contested, occurs after each dissolution (see below).

The three components of Parliament are supposed to be kept separate from each other; no individual may form a part of more than one component of Parliament. Lords of Parliament are legally barred from voting in elections for members of the House of Commons; the Sovereign by convention does not vote, although there is no statutory impediment.


Both houses of the British Parliament are presided over by a speaker, the Speaker of the House for the Commons and the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords.

For the Commons, the approval of the Sovereign is theoretically required before the election of the Speaker becomes valid, but it is, by modern convention, always granted. The Speaker's place may be taken by three deputies, known as the Chairman, First Deputy Chairman and Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. (They take their name from the Committee of Ways and Means, of which they were once presiding officers, but which no longer exists.)

Prior to July 2006, the House of Lords was presided over by a Lord Chancellor (a Cabinet member), whose influence as Speaker was very limited (whilst the powers belonging to the Speaker of the House of Commons are vast). However, as part of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the position of Speaker of the House of Lords (as it is termed in the Act) was separated from the office of Lord Chancellor, though the Lords remain largely self-governing. Decisions on points of order and on the disciplining of unruly members are made by the whole body in the Upper House, but by the Speaker alone in the Lower House. Speeches in the House of Lords are addressed to the House as a whole (using the words "My Lords"), but those in the House of Commons are addressed to the Speaker alone (using "Mr Speaker" or "Madam Speaker").

Both Houses may decide questions with voice voting; members shout out "Aye" and "No" in the Commons — or "Content" and "Not-Content" in the Lords —, and the presiding officer declares the result. The pronouncement of either Speaker may be challenged, and a recorded vote (known as a division) demanded. (The Speaker of the House of Commons may choose to overrule a frivolous request for a division, but the Lord Speaker does not have that power.) In each House, a division requires members to file into one of the two lobbies alongside the Chamber; their names are recorded by clerks, and their votes are counted as they exit the lobbies to re-enter the Chamber. The Speaker of the House of Commons is expected to be non-partisan, and does not cast a vote except in the case of a tie; the Lord Speaker, however, votes along with the other Lords.

(For further details on procedure, see the separate articles on the House of Lords and the House of Commons.)


Following a general election, a new Parliamentary session begins. Parliament is formally summoned 40 days in advance by the Sovereign, who is the source of parliamentary authority. On the day indicated by the Sovereign's proclamation, the two Houses assemble in their respective chambers. The Commons are then summoned to the House of Lords, where Lords Commissioners (representatives of the Sovereign) instruct them to elect a Speaker. The Commons perform the election; on the next day, they return to the House of Lords, where the Lords Commissioners confirm the election and grant the new Speaker the royal approval in the Sovereign's name.

The business of Parliament for the next few days of its session involves the taking of the oaths of allegiance. Once a majority of the members has taken the oath in each House, the State Opening of Parliament may occur. The Lords take their seats in the House of Lords Chamber, the Commons appear at the Bar (immediately outside the Chamber), and the Sovereign takes his or her seat on the throne. The Sovereign then reads the Speech from the Throne — the content of which is determined by the Ministers of the Crown — outlining the Government's legislative agenda for the upcoming year. Thereafter, each House proceeds to the transaction of legislative business.

By custom, before considering the Government's legislative agenda, a bill is introduced pro forma in each House — the Select Vestries Bill in the House of Lords and the Outlawries Bill in the House of Commons. These bills do not become laws; they are ceremonial indications of the power of each House to debate independently of the Crown. After the pro forma bill is introduced, each House debates the content of the Speech from the Throne for several days. Once each House formally sends its reply to the Speech, legislative business may commence, appointing committees, electing officers, passing resolutions and considering legislation.

A session of Parliament is brought to an end by a prorogation. There is a ceremony similar to the State Opening, but much less well-known. Normally, the Sovereign does not personally attend the prorogation ceremony in the House of Lords; he or she is represented by Lords Commissioners. The next session of Parliament begins under the procedures described above, but it is not necessary to conduct another election of a Speaker or take the oaths of allegiance afresh at the beginning of such subsequent sessions. Instead, the State Opening of Parliament proceeds directly. To avoid the delay of opening a new session in the event of an emergency during the long summer recess, Parliament is no longer prorogued beforehand, but only after the Houses have reconvened in the autumn; the State Opening follows a few days later.

Each Parliament comes to an end, after a number of sessions, either by the command of the Sovereign or by effluxion of time, the former being more common in modern times. The dissolution of Parliament is effected by the Sovereign, always on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister may seek dissolution because the time is politically advantageous to his or her party. If the Prime Minister loses the support of the House of Commons, he must either resign or seek dissolution of Parliament to renew his or her mandate.

Originally there was no fixed limit on the length of a Parliament, but the Triennial Act 1694 set the maximum duration at three years. As the frequent elections were deemed inconvenient, the Septennial Act 1716 extended the maximum to seven years, but the Parliament Act 1911 reduced it to five. During the Second World War, the term was temporarily extended to ten years by Acts of Parliament. Since the end of the war the maximum has remained five years. Modern Parliaments, however, rarely continue for the maximum duration; normally, they are dissolved earlier. For instance, the 52nd, which assembled in 1997, was dissolved after four years.

Formerly, the demise of the Sovereign automatically brought a Parliament to an end, the Crown being seen as the caput, principium, et finis (beginning, basis and end) of the body, but this is no longer the case. The first change was during the reign of William and Mary, when it was seen to be inconvenient to have no Parliament at a time when succession to the Crown could be disputed, and an act was passed that provided that a Parliament was to continue for six months after the death of a Sovereign, unless dissolved earlier. The Representation of the People Act 1867 brought this arrangement to an end.

After each Parliament concludes, the Crown issues writs to hold a general election and elect new members of the House of Commons. Membership of the House of Lords does not change due to dissolution. Each Parliament that assembles following a general election is deemed to be distinct from the one which just concluded, and is separately numbered, the present Parliament being the Fifty-Fourth Parliament of the United Kingdom since the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. (Previous Parliaments were "of Great Britain" or "of England", "of Scotland" or "of Ireland".)

Legislative functions

Parliament meets in the Palace of Westminster.
Parliament meets in the Palace of Westminster.

Laws can be made by Acts of the United Kingdom Parliament. While Acts can apply to the whole of the UK including Scotland, due to the continuing separation of Scots law many Acts do not apply to Scotland and are either matched by equivalent Acts that apply to Scotland alone or, since 1999, by legislation set by the Scottish Parliament relating to devolved matters.

This has led to what is known as the West Lothian question: the situation where Westminster MPs for Scottish constituencies may vote on legislation that will have no direct effect on Scotland. For example, the Higher Education Act 2004 passed only with the votes of Scottish MPs, but the act had no bearing on Scotland.

Laws, in draft form known as bills, may be introduced by any member of either House, but usually a bill is introduced by a Minister of the Crown. A bill introduced by a Minister is known as a "Government Bill"; one introduced by another member is called a " Private Member's Bill". A different way of categorising bills involves the subject. Most bills, involving the general public, are called " Public Bills". A bill that seeks to grant special rights to an individual or small group of individuals is called a " Private Bill." A Private Bill which has broader public implications is called a " Hybrid Bill".

Private Members' Bills make up only about one in eight of bills, and are far less likely to be passed than government bills. There are three methods for an MP to introduce a Private Member's Bill. The Private Members' Ballots put names into a ballot, and those who win are given time to propose a bill. The Ten Minute Rule is another method, where MPs are granted ten minutes to outline the case for a new piece of legislation. Standing Order 58 is the third method, which allows a bill to be introduced without debate if a day's notice is given to the Speaker. Filibustering is a danger, as an opponent to a bill can waste much of the limited time allotted to it. Private Members' Bills have no chance of success if the current government opposes them, but they are used in moral issues: the bills to decriminalise homosexuality and abortion were Private Members' Bills, for example. Governments can sometimes attempt to use Private Members' Bills to pass things it would rather not be associated with. "Handout bills" are when a government hands proposed bills to MPs who win Private Members' Ballots.

Each Bill goes through several stages in each House. The first stage, called the first reading, is a formality. At the second reading, the general principles of the bill are debated, and the House may vote to reject the bill, by not passing the motion "That the Bill be now read a second time". Defeats of Government Bills are extremely rare, the last being in 2005.

Following the second reading, the bill is sent to a committee. In the House of Lords, the Committee of the Whole House or the Grand Committee are used. Each consists of all members of the House; the latter operates under special procedures, and is used only for uncontroversial bills. In the House of Commons, the bill is usually committed to a Standing Committee, consisting of between 16 and 50 members, but the Committee of the Whole House is used for important legislation. Several other types of committees, including Select Committees, may be used, but rarely. A committee considers the bill clause by clause, and reports its proposed amendments to the entire House, where further detailed consideration occurs. However, the kangaroo (Standing Order 31) allows the Speaker to select which amendments are debated. This device is commonly used under Standing Order 89 by the committee chairman on behalf of the government, to restrict debate in committee.

Once the House has considered the bill, the third reading follows. In the House of Commons, no further amendments may be made, and the passage of the motion "That the Bill be now read a third time" is passage of the whole bill. In the House of Lords further amendments to the bill may be moved. After the passage of the third reading motion, the House of Lords must vote on the motion "That the Bill do now pass." Following its passage in one House, the bill is sent to the other House. If passed in identical form by both Houses, it may be presented for the Sovereign's Assent. If one House passes amendments that the other will not agree to, and the two Houses cannot resolve their disagreements, the bill fails.

However, since the passage of the Parliament Act 1911 the power of the House of Lords to reject bills passed by the House of Commons has been restricted, and further restrictions were placed by the Parliament Act 1949. If the House of Commons passes a public bill in two successive sessions, and the House of Lords rejects it both times, the Commons may direct that the bill be presented to the Sovereign for his or her Assent, disregarding the rejection of the Bill in the House of Lords. In each case, the bill must be passed by the House of Commons at least one calendar month before the end of the session. The provision does not apply to bills originated in the House of Lords, to bills seeking to extend the duration of a Parliament beyond five years, or to Private Bills. A special procedure applies in relation to bills classified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as "Money Bills". A Money Bill concerns solely national taxation or public funds; the Speaker's certificate is deemed conclusive under all circumstances. If the House of Lords fails to pass a Money Bill within one month of its passage in the House of Commons, the Lower House may direct that the Bill be submitted for the Sovereign's Assent immediately.

Even before the passage of the Parliament Acts, the Commons possessed pre-eminence in cases of financial matters. By ancient custom, the House of Lords may not introduce a bill relating to taxation or Supply, nor amend a bill so as to insert a provision relating to taxation or Supply, nor amend a Supply Bill in any way. The House of Commons is free to waive this privilege, and sometimes does so to allow the House of Lords to pass amendments with financial implications. The House of Lords remains free to reject bills relating to Supply and taxation, but may be overruled easily if the bills are Money Bills. (A bill relating to revenue and Supply may not be a Money Bill if, for example, it includes subjects other than national taxation and public funds).

The last stage of a bill involves the granting of the Royal Assent. Theoretically, the Sovereign may either grant the Royal Assent (that is, make the bill a law) or withhold it (that is, veto the bill). Under modern conventions the Sovereign always grants the Royal Assent, in the Norman French words "La reyne le veult" (the Queen wishes it). The last refusal to grant the Assent was in 1708, when Queen Anne withheld her Assent from a bill "for the settling of Militia in Scotland", in the words "La reyne s'avisera" (the Queen will think it over).

Thus, every bill obtains the assent of all three components of Parliament before it becomes law (except where the House of Lords is over-ridden under the Parliament Acts). The words "BE IT ENACTED by the Queen's [King's] most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-", or, where the House of Lords' authority has been overridden by use of the Parliament Acts, the words "BE IT ENACTED by The Queen's [King's] most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Commons in this present Parliament assembled, in accordance with the provisions of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-" appear near the beginning of each Act of Parliament. These words are known as the enacting formula.

Judicial functions

In addition to its legislative functions, Parliament also performs several judicial functions. The Queen-in-Parliament constitutes the highest court in the realm for most purposes, but the Privy Council has jurisdiction in some cases (for instance, appeals from ecclesiastical courts). The jurisdiction of Parliament arises from the ancient custom of petitioning the Houses to redress grievances and to do justice. The House of Commons ceased considering petitions to reverse the judgements of lower courts in 1399, effectively leaving the House of Lords as the court of last resort. In modern times, the judicial functions of the House of Lords are performed not by the whole House, but by a group of "Lords of Appeal in Ordinary" (judges granted life peerage dignities under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 by the Sovereign) and by "Lords of Appeal" (other peers with experience in the judiciary). The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and Lords of Appeal (or "Law Lords") are Lords of Parliament, but normally do not vote or speak on political matters.

In the late 19th century, Acts allowed for the appointment of Scottish Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and ended appeal in Scottish criminal matters to the House of Lords, so that the High Court of Justiciary became the highest criminal court in Scotland. Nowadays the House of Lords legislative committee usually has a minimum of two Scottish Judges to ensure that some experience of Scots law is brought to bear on Scottish appeals in civil cases, from the Court of Session.

Certain other judicial functions have historically been performed by the House of Lords. Until 1948, it was the body in which peers had to be tried for felonies or high treason; now, they are tried by normal juries. When the House of Commons impeaches an individual, the trial takes place in the House of Lords. Impeachments are now rare; the last one occurred in 1806. As of 2006, a number of MPs are attempting to revive the custom, who have signed a motion for the impeachment of the Prime Minister, but this is unlikely to succeed.

Relationship with the Government

The British Government is answerable to the House of Commons. However, neither the Prime Minister nor members of the Government are elected by the House of Commons. Instead, the Queen requests the person most likely to command the support of a majority in the House, normally the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, to form a government. So that they may be accountable to the Lower House, the Prime Minister and most members of the Cabinet are members of the House of Commons. The last Prime Minister to be a member of the House of Lords was Alec Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home, who became Prime Minister in 1963. To adhere to the convention under which he was responsible to the Lower House, he disclaimed his peerage and procured election to the House of Commons within days of becoming Prime Minister.

Governments have a tendency to dominate the legislative functions of Parliament, by using their in-built majority in the House of Commons, and sometimes using their patronage power to appoint supportive peers in the Lords. In practice, governments can pass any legislation (within reason) in the Commons they wish, unless there is major dissent by MPs in the governing party. But even in these situations, it is highly unlikely a bill will be defeated, though dissenting MPs may be able to extract concessions from the government. In 1976, Lord Hailsham created a now widely used name for this behaviour, in an academic paper called " elective dictatorship".

Parliament controls the executive by passing or rejecting its Bills and by forcing Ministers of the Crown to answer for their actions, either at "Question Time" or during meetings of the parliamentary committees. In both cases, Ministers are asked questions by members of their Houses, and are obliged to answer.

Although the House of Lords may scrutinise the executive through Question Time and through its committees, it cannot bring down the Government. A ministry must always retain the confidence and support of the House of Commons. The Lower House may indicate its lack of support by rejecting a Motion of Confidence or by passing a Motion of No Confidence. Confidence Motions are generally originated by the Government in order to reinforce its support in the House, whilst No Confidence Motions are introduced by the Opposition. The motions sometimes take the form "That this House has [no] confidence in Her Majesty's Government" but several other varieties, many referring to specific policies supported or opposed by Parliament, are used. For instance, a Confidence Motion of 1992 used the form, "That this House expresses the support for the economic policy of Her Majesty's Government." Such a motion may theoretically be introduced in the House of Lords, but, as the Government need not enjoy the confidence of that House, would not be of the same effect as a similar motion in the House of Commons; the only modern instance of such an occurrence involves the No Confidence Motion that was introduced in 1993 and subsequently defeated.

Many votes are considered votes of confidence, although not including the language mentioned above. Important bills that form part of the Government's agenda (as stated in the Speech from the Throne) are generally considered matters of confidence. The defeat of such a bill by the House of Commons indicates that a Government no longer has the confidence of that House. The same effect is achieved if the House of Commons " withdraws Supply", that is, rejects the budget.

Where a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is obliged either to resign, or seek the dissolution of Parliament and a new general election. Where a Prime Minister has ceased to retain a majority in that vote and requests a dissolution, the Sovereign can in theory reject his request, forcing his resignation and allowing the Leader of the Opposition to be asked to form a new government. This power is used extremely rarely. The conditions that should be met to allow such a refusal are known as the Lascelles Principles. These conditions and principles are merely informal conventions; it is possible, though highly improbable, for the Sovereign to refuse dissolution for no reason at all.

In practice, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the Government is very weak. Since the first-past-the-post electoral system is employed in elections, the governing party tends to enjoy a large majority in the Commons; there is often limited need to compromise with other parties. Modern British political parties are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. In many cases, MPs may be expelled from their parties for voting against the instructions of party leaders. During the 20th century, the Government has lost confidence issues only thrice — twice in 1924, and once in 1979.


Northern Ireland Parliament Buildings (Stormont) — NI has devolved government
Northern Ireland Parliament Buildings (Stormont) — NI has devolved government

Several different views have been taken of Parliament's sovereignty. According to the jurist Sir William Blackstone, "It has sovereign and uncontrollable authority in making, confirming, enlarging, restraining, abrogating, repealing, reviving, and expounding of laws, concerning matters of all possible denominations, ecclesiastical, or temporal, civil, military, maritime, or criminal … it can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible."

A different view has been taken by the Scottish judge Lord Cooper of Culross. When he decided the 1953 case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate as Lord President of the Court of Session, he stated, "The principle of unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle and has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law." He continued, "Considering that the Union legislation extinguished the Parliaments of Scotland and England and replaced them by a new Parliament, I have difficulty in seeing why the new Parliament of Great Britain must inherit all the peculiar characteristics of the English Parliament but none of the Scottish." Nevertheless, he did not give a conclusive opinion on the subject. Thus, the question of Parliamentary sovereignty appears to remain unresolved. Parliament has not passed any Act defining its own sovereignty.

Parliament's power has often been eroded by its own Acts. Acts passed in 1921 and 1925 granted the Church of Scotland complete independence in ecclesiastical matters. More recently, its power has been restricted by membership of the European Union, which has the power to make laws enforceable in each member state. In the Factortame case, the European Court of Justice ruled that UK courts could have powers to overturn UK legislation contravening EU law. Parliament has also created national devolved assemblies with legislative authority in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Parliament still has the power over areas for which responsibility lies with the devolved institutions, but would usually ask permission of those institutions to act on its behalf. Similarly, it has granted the power to make regulations to Ministers of the Crown, and the power to enact religious legislation to the General Synod of the Church of England. (Measures of the General Synod and, in some cases proposed statutory instruments made by ministers, must be approved by both Houses before they become law.) In every case aforementioned, authority has been conceded by Act of Parliament and may be taken back in the same manner. It is entirely within the authority of Parliament, for example, to abolish the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland or to leave the EU. However, especially in the case of withdrawing from EU membership, the costs of such a move would prevent it from occurring.

One well-recognised exception to Parliament's power involves binding future Parliaments. No Act of Parliament may be made secure from amendment or repeal by a future Parliament. For example, although the Act of Union 1800 states that the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland are to be united "forever", Parliament permitted southern Ireland to leave the UK in 1922.


Each House of Parliament possesses and guards various ancient privileges. The House of Lords relies on inherent right. In the case of the House of Commons, the Speaker goes to the Lords' Chamber at the beginning of each new Parliament and requests representatives of the Sovereign to confirm the Lower House's "undoubted" privileges and rights. The ceremony observed by the House of Commons dates to the reign of Henry VIII. Each House is the guardian of its privileges, and may punish breaches thereof. The extent of parliamentary privilege is based on law and custom. Sir William Blackstone states that these privileges are "very large and indefinite," and cannot be defined except by the Houses of Parliament themselves.

The foremost privilege claimed by both Houses is that of freedom of speech in debate; nothing said in either House may be questioned in any court or other institution outside Parliament. Another privilege is that of freedom from arrest except for high treason, felony or breach of the peace; it applies during a session of Parliament, and 40 days before or after such a session. Members of both Houses are also privileged from service on juries.

Both Houses possess the power to punish breaches of their privilege. Contempt of Parliament — for example, disobedience of a subpoena issued by a committee — may also be punished. The House of Lords may imprison an individual for any fixed period of time, but an individual imprisoned by the House of Commons is set free upon prorogation. The punishments imposed by either House may not be challenged in any court.

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