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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Parliament: House of Commons and Lords

The main functions of Parliament are to pass laws, to finance through taxation the work of government, to scrutinise government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure, and to debate the major issues of the day.

Parliament

Parliament at Westminster in London can legislate for the UK as a whole and has powers to legislate for any parts of it separately. However, it will not normally legislate on devolved matters in Scotland and Northern Ireland without the agreement of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively. The Westminster Parliament still has UK-wide responsibility in a number of areas including defence, foreign affairs, economic and monetary policy, social security, employment, and equal opportunities.

In the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which are Crown dependencies and not part of the UK, legislation on domestic matters normally takes the form of laws enacted by Island legislatures. However, UK laws are sometimes extended to the Islands with their agreement, for example in matters such as immigration and broadcasting.

As there are no legal restraints imposed by a written constitution, Parliament may legislate as it pleases as long as the UK meets its obligations as a member of the European Union. It can make or change law, overturn established conventions or turn them into law. It can even legislate to prolong its own life beyond the normal period without consulting the electorate.

In practice, however, Parliament does not conduct itself in this way. Its members work within the common law and normally act according to convention. The House of Commons is directly responsible to the electorate and during the 20th century the House of Lords increasingly recognised the supremacy of the elected chamber.

The three parts of Parliament - the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Sovereign - only meet together on occasions of symbolic significance such as the State Opening of Parliament when the Commons is summoned by the Sovereign to the House of Lords. The agreement of all three is normally needed to pass laws, but that of the Sovereign is given as a matter of course.

House of Commons

The House of Commons consists of 646 elected MPs. Of the 646 seats, 529 represent constituencies in England, 40 in Wales, 59 in Scotland, and 18 in Northern Ireland.

After a Parliament has been dissolved and a General Election has been held, the Sovereign summons a new Parliament. When an MP dies, resigns or is made a member of the House of Lords a by-election takes place.

The chief officer of the House of Commons is the Speaker, elected by MPs to preside over the House. Other officers include the Chairman of Ways and Means and two deputy chairmen, who may all act as Deputy Speakers. They are elected by the House as nominees of the government, but may come from the Opposition as well as the government party. The House of Commons Commission, a statutory body chaired by the Speaker, is responsible for the administration of the House.

Permanent officers (who are not MPs) include the Clerk of the House of Commons, who is the principal adviser to the Speaker on the House's privileges and procedures. The Clerk's other responsibilities relate to the conduct of the business of the House and its committees. The Clerk is also accounting officer for the House. The Serjeant at Arms, who waits upon the Speaker, carries out certain orders of the House. He is also the official housekeeper of the Commons' part of the Palace of Westminster and is responsible for security.

House of Lords

The House of Lords is the second chamber or upper house of the UK Parliament. It works with the House of Commons to make laws, scrutinise the actions of the government, and provide a forum of independent expertise. It consists of the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal. The Lords Spiritual include the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London, the Bishop of Durham, and the Bishop of Winchester. Membership of the House of Lords also extends to the longest-serving other bishops of the Church of England. The Lords Temporal are hereditary or life peers. They may support a political party; non-partisan Lords are called cross-benchers. Legislation since 1999 has limited the number of hereditary peers and the largest number of peers in the Lords are life peers (whose peerages are not inheritable).

The House of Lords Chamber spends about 60 per cent of its time on legislation; the other 40 per cent is spent on scrutiny - questioning government and debating issues and policy. Committee work takes place outside the Chamber.

Each sitting day the Members of the Lords start by questioning government ministers in the Chamber to find out what they are doing, or propose to do, on any subject. After these ‘Oral Questions’, Lords may then examine and improve draft legislation. This may have begun in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Members may also debate important topics to highlight what the House thinks on an issue, signalling their views to the country and the government.

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