By Dora Robinson
Research Assistant, Constitutional Law Matters; PhD candidate, University of Cambridge
Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have a set of written rules that they have written themselves to manage their day-to-day activities. These are called ‘standing orders’ and the House of Commons has over 400 of them. They govern everything from when the House is ‘sitting’ and MPs must be there, to rules on how voting for Acts of Parliament works, to rules on how MPs must behave. For example, Standing Order 42 allows the Speaker to stop MPs from making really boring speeches:
The Speaker, or the chair, after having called the attention of the House, or of the committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or tedious repetition either of his own arguments or of the arguments used by other Members in debate, may direct him to discontinue his speech.
This aim of this standing order is to stop an MP speaking for a long time on purpose to try and stop a debate or vote from happening because Parliament has run out of time.
Parliament is a very strange and complicated place and so there are other types of rules – written and unwritten. These might be rulings by the Speaker, resolutions passed by the House of Commons or House of Lords, or just custom, that is, things that people have just kept doing for a really long time. The idea of the separation of frontbenchers and backbenchers is an example of this. If a backbench Opposition MP decided to sit on the government frontbench, there is nothing anyone could do about it.
There is a guide which collect all these rules, both hard and soft, in a collection called ‘Erskine May’, named after a Parliamentary librarian in the 1800s, who wrote the first version.
How did we end up with the Parliament that we have?
- Origins: The beginnings of the UK Parliament go as far back as the Anglo-Saxon kings’ councils of advisors called witans that were made up of ealdormen (early aristocracy) and met a couple of times a year from the fifth century onwards. This was the ancestor of the House of Lords. Through the next centuries, this assembly grew and an assembly of ‘commoners’ (rather than noblemen) also began to meet – the origins of the House of Commons. From the thirteenth century, (male) property owners elected their representatives to the House of Commons, and the two assemblies became collectively known as Parliament.
- Over time it became necessary for the King to get the permission of his noblemen to raise taxes (as set out in the Magna Carta) and later he also needed the Commons. This led to Parliament meeting more often and the Commons becoming a core part of Parliament.
- Henry VIII summoned a Parliament in 1529 to help him divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, after the Pope refused to give him permission. This Parliament is called the Reformation Parliament because it made law for England to break away from the Catholic Church. One of the laws was the Act of Supremacy 1534 which made Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England. After this time, Parliament could make law about anything – including things that had previously been under the Catholic Church’s control.
- Parliament’s power and support of the King varied over time, though in the seventeenth century, the King was still far more powerful than Parliament: he was able to summon and dismiss Parliament as he wished, and the only real power Parliament had was to make it harder for the King to raise money. In 1648 the tension between Parliament and King Charles III, over several issues including the power of Parliament, led to the English Civil War. The army of Parliament beat the King’s army, and Charles III was beheaded.
- After the Civil War, the balance of power between the monarch and Parliament shifted: the King needed the support of Parliament to rule. The power of Parliament increased further in 1688 when Parliamentarians who were unhappy with King James II (of England) invited William III and Mary II of Orange (the Dutch Republic) to rule instead, in an event called the Glorious Revolution. The official invitation was set out in the Bill of Rights 1689. Importantly, it set new limits on the powers of the monarch including a requirement that they had no right to raise any taxes without the consent of Parliament. The Bill also set out new Parliamentary rights such as freedom of speech, free elections and regular parliaments.
- With the Act of Settlement 1701 and the Treaty of the Union 1706, England and Scotland joined together to become the United Kingdom and the Parliament of England was replaced the Parliament of the United Kingdom – which is the same Parliament we have today. The UK was now a constitutional monarchy – which means that the monarch had to act according to important laws such as the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Act of Settlement.
- The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 made the House of Commons the senior assembly in Parliament and reduced the power of the House of Lords such that legislation could be passed without its approval.
- In the early twentieth century, women were gradually given the right to vote. The Equal Franchise Act 1929 finally gave women equal voting rights with men.
- In 1973, the UK joined the European Economic Community (the forerunner to the European Union) with the European Communities Act 1972. This made EU law override UK law, even Acts of Parliament.
- Parliament made the European Convention on Human Rights a part of domestic UK law with the Human Rights Act 1998. Judges must now interpret all Acts of Parliament to be in line with human rights, so far as it is possible to do so.
- The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 passed by David Cameron’s Conservative Party set the time between general elections at a fixed five years. Previously, it had been up to the Prime Minister when to call a general election. The current government is planning to reverse this.
- The UK voted to leave the European Union in 2015, and Parliament approved this with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. EU law is no longer supreme over UK legislation – although some citizenship rights of EU citizens living in the UK and the Northern Ireland protocol can still override UK legislation.