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The British Government: How Parliament Works
The British Government: A Brief Overview
Information courtesy of The British Information Services

The Houses of Parliament
Parliament, Britain's legislature, is made up of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Queen in her constitutional role. They meet together only on occasions of symbolic importance such as the state opening of parliament, when the Commons are summoned by the Queen to the House of Lords. The agreement of all three elements is normally required for legislation, but that of the Queen is given as a matter of course to Bills sent to her.

Parliament can legislate for Britain as a whole, or for any part of the country. It can also legislate for the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which are Crown dependencies and not part of Britain. They have local legislatures which make laws on the island affairs.

As there are no legal restraints imposed by a written constitution, Parliament may legislate as it pleases, subject to Britain's obligations as a member of the European Union. It can make or change any law; and can overturn established conventions or turn them into law. It can even prolong its own life beyond the normal period without consulting the electorate. In practice, however, Parliament does not assert its supremacy in this way. Its members bear in mind the common law and normally act in accordance with precedent. The validity of an Act of Parliament, once passed, cannot be disputed in the law courts. The House of Commons is directly responsible to the electorate, and in this century the House of Lords has recognized the supremacy of the elected chamber. The system of party government helps to ensure that Parliament legislates with its responsibility to the electorate in mind.

The Functions of Parliament
The main functions of Parliament are:

  1. to pass laws;
  2. to provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of the government;
  3. to scrutinize government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure; and
  4. to debate the major issues of the day.
In carrying out these functions Parliament helps to bring the relevant facts and issues before the electorate. By custom, Parliament is also informed before all important international treaties and agreements are ratified. The making of treaties is, however, a royal prerogative exercised on the advice of the Government and is not subject to parliamentary approval.

The Meeting of Parliament
A Parliament has a maximum duration of five years, but in practice general elections are usually held before the end of this term. The maximum life has been prolonged by legislation in rare circumstances such as the two world wars. Parliament is dissolved and writs for a general election are ordered by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The life of a Parliament is divided into sessons. Each usually lasts for one year - normally beginning and ending in October or November. Ther are 'adjournaments' at night, at weekends, at Christmas, Easter and the late Spring Bank Holiday, and during a long summer break usually starting in late July. The average number of 'sitting' days in a session is about 160 in the House of Commons and about 145 in the House of Lords. At the start of each session the Queen's speech to Parliament outlines the Government's policies and proposed legislative program. Each session is ended by prorogation. Parliament then 'stands prorogued' for about a week until the new session opens.

Public Bills which have not been passed by the end of the session are lost.

The House of Lords
The House of Lords consists of:

  1. all hereditary peers and peeresses of England, Scotland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom;
  2. life peers created to assist the House in its judicial duties (Lords of Appeal or 'law lords');
  3. all other life peers; and
  4. the Archbiships of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, and the 21 senior bishops of the Church of England.
Hereditary peerages carry a right to sit in the House provided holders establish their claim and are aged 21 years or over. However, anyone succeeding to a peerage many, within 12 months of succession, disclaim that peerage for his or her lifetime. Disclaimants lose their right to sit in the House but gain the right to vote and stand as candidates at parliamentary elections. Peerages, both hereditary and life, are created by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister. They are usually granted in recognition of service in politics or other walks of life or because one of the political parties wishes to have the recipient in the House of Lords. The House also provides a place in Parliament for people who offer useful advice, but do not wish to be involved in party politics. In addition, senior judges are given life peerages as Lords of Appeal.

In mid-1994 there were 1,198 members of the House of Lords, including the two archbishops and 24 bishops. There were 758 hereditary peers who had succeeded to their titles, 15 hereditary peers who had had their titles conferred on them, including the Prince of Wales, and 399 life peers, of whom 21 were 'law lords'. Peers who attend the House - the average daily attendance is some 380 - receive no salary for their parliamentary work, but can claim for expenses incurred in attending the House (for which there are maximum daily rates), and certain travelling expenses.

The House is presided over by the Lord Chancellor, who is ex-officio Speaker of the House.

The House of Commons
The House of Commons consists of 651 Members of Parliament (MPs) directly elected by voters in each of Britain's 651 parliamentary constituencies. At present there are 62 women, three Asian and three black MPs. Of the 651 seats, 524 are for England, 38 for Wales, 72 for Scotland and 17 for Northern Ireland.

General elections are held after a Parliament has been dissolved and a new one summoned by the Queen. When an MP dies or resigns, or is given a peerage, a by-election take place. Members are paid an annual salary of 33,189 - as of January 1995 - and an office costs allowance of up to 41,308. There are also a number of other allowances, including travel allowances, a supplement for London members and, for members with constituencies a long way from London, subsistence allowances and allowances for second homes. While we're on the subject of salaries, might as well list a few more. The salaries of misisters in the House of Commons range from 45,815 a year for junior ministers to 64,749 for Cabinet ministers. In the House of Lords salaries range from 38,894 for junior ministers to 52,260 for Cabinet ministers. The Prime Minister receives 78,292 and the Lord Chancellor 120,179. (The Leader of the Opposition receives 61,349 a year; two Opposition whips in the Commons and the Opposition Leader and Chief Whip in the Lords also receive salaries.)

Officers of the House of Commons
The chief officer of the House of Commons is the Speaker, elected by MPs to preside over the House. Other officers include the three Deputy Speakers who are elected by the House on the nomination of the Government but are drawn from the Opposition as well as the government party. They, like the Speaker, neither speak nor vote other than in their official capacity.

Permanent officers - who are not MPs - include the Clerk of the House of Commons, who is the principal adviser to the Speaker on the Commons' privileges and procedures, and the Serjeant-at-Arms, who waits on the Speaker, and is responsible for security. Other officers serve the House in the Library, and the Departments of the Official Report, Finance and Administration and Refreshment.

Parliamentary Procedure
Parliamentary procedure is based on custom and precedent. The system of debate is similar in both Houses. Every subject starts off as a proposal or 'motion' by a member. After debate, the Speaker or Chairman 'puts the question' whether to agree with the motion or not. The question may be decided without voting, or by a simple majority vote. The main difference of procedure between the two Houses is that the Speaker or Chairman in the Lords has no powers of order; instead such matters are decided by the general feeling of the House.

In the Commons the Speaker has full authority to enforce the rules of the House and must guard against the abuse of procedure and potect minority rights. The Speaker has discretion on whether to allow a motion to end discussion so that a matter may be put to the vote and has powers to put a stop to irrelevance and repetition in debate, and to save time in other ways. In cases of serious disorder the Speaker can adjourn or suspend the sitting. The Speaker can order members who have broken the rules of behavior of the House to leave the Chamber or can initiate their suspension for a period of days.

The Speaker supervises voting in the Commons and announces the final results. In a tied vote the Speaker gives a casting vote, without expressing an opinion on the merits of the question. The voting procedure in the House of Lords is broadly similar, although the Lord Chancellor does not have a casting vote.

MPs' Financial Interest
The Commons has a public register of MPs' financial interests. Members with financial interest in a debate in the House mut declare it when speaking. If the interest is direct, immediate and personal, the MP cannot vote on the issue. In other proceedings of the House or in dealings with other members, ministers or civil servants, MPs must also disclose any relevant financial interest. There is no register of financial interests in the Lords, but Lords speaking in a debate in which they have a direct interest are expected to declare it.

Public Access to Parliamentary Proceedings
Proceedings of both Houses are normally public and visitors can watch the proceedings from the galleries of both chambers. The minutes and speeches are published daily in Hansard House of Commons and Hansard House of Lords the official report of debates. Each daily report also includes the answers to parliamentary questions put down for a written reply. The House of Commons also publishes a Weekly Information Bulletin which gives details about parliamentary affairs. Both Houses have information offices which prepare a variety of publications and answer enquiries from the public.

The records of the Lords from 1497 and the Commons from 1547, together with the parliamentary and political papers of a number of former members of both Houses, are available to the public through the House of Lords Record Office.

The proceedings of both Houses of Parliament may be broadcast on television and radio, either live or, more usually, in recorded or edited form. BBC Radio 4 is obligated to broadcast an impartial day-by-day account of proceedings when Parliament is in session. A weekly programme covers the proceedings of the select committees on departmental affairs. Many other television and national and local radio programs cover parliamentary affairs. Complete coverage is available on cable television. Also, most national and regional newspapers have parliamentary correspondents. Several national daily newspapers present a daily summary of the previous day's proceedings.

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