By Dora Robinson
Research Assistant, Constitutional Law Matters; PhD candidate, University of Cambridge
Definition: A parliament is an elected democratic assembly which meets to make laws and hold governments to account. The Westminster Parliament, shortened to Parliament, is the parliament of the United Kingdom.
Where is Parliament?
Parliament is in Westminster, in central London, overlooking the river Thames in a building called Westminster Palace or the Houses of Parliament.
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What are the different parts of Parliament?
Parliament is made up of three parts: (1) the Crown in Parliament, (2) the House of Commons and (3) the House of Lords.
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The Crown in Parliament/Monarchy
The ‘Crown’ may refer to the monarch or to the government more widely. The Queen has a limited role in Parliament. The government ministers who govern on her behalf are all members of the House of Commons and House of Lords and play a greater role in Parliament.
The Role of the Queen
The Queen’s role in Parliament is mostly ceremonial since it is government ministers who rule on her behalf. Two of the most important things the Queen does is to make the annual ‘Queen’s Speech’ and ‘assent’ to bills, i.e. proposed Acts of Parliament, becoming law.
The Queen’s Speech is part of a ceremony called the ‘State Opening of Parliament’ where all the parts of Parliament meet to open a new session. The Queen reads out a speech written by the government that sets out its plans for the Parliamentary year.
A bill must receive ‘Royal Assent’ to become an Act of Parliament, that is the Queen must agree to any proposed legislation for it to become law. It is a ‘constitutional convention’ that the monarch always consents (unless her ministers advise otherwise). This is because if the Queen withheld consent, it would undermine the democratic nature of Parliament.
The beginning sentences of all Acts of Parliament acknowledge this role of the Queen:
‘Be it enacted by the Queen’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:’
The Government in Parliament
The Government in Parliament refers to the government ministers who are also members of the House of Commons or House of Lords. Although the government is not formally one of the three parts of Parliament involved in making laws, it plays an important, perhaps the most important, role in making Acts of Parliament. Whilst Acts of Parliament are passed by Parliament, they are usually written by and put in front of Parliament by the government. There are two government ministers called the ‘Leader of the House of Commons’ and ‘Leader of the House of Lords’ who are responsible for organising the government’s activities in Parliament. They are helped by government ‘whips’ who are Parliamentarians who make sure that members of the governing party vote in support of the government’s legislation.
See Who holds the balance of power in Westminster?
The House of Commons
The House of Commons is the dominant of the two houses, and its members, called Members of Parliament (or MPs), are elected in general elections every 5 years. (This may change soon – see the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill.) It is elected using a system called First Past the Post. Each MP represents a different area of the country, called a constituency. At the time of a general election, UK citizens, and some other people, who live in the constituency choose between different candidates standing for different political parties and vote to elect their local MP. The political party that gets more than 50% of the 650 seats in the House of Commons
, gets to form a government.
There are two types of MPs. The first, ‘frontbenchers’, are the MPs who are also government ministers or official opposition spokespeople. As their name suggests, they sit in the front row of each side of the chamber. The second type of MPs, ‘backbenchers’, are all the other MPs who sit behind the first row; backbenchers are not Ministers or official oppositive spokespeople. Separately, there is also an MP called the Speaker, who is elected by other MPs to be the impartial chair of the chamber.
The House of Lords
The members of the House of Lords aren’t elected. There are about 800 members: 92 are ‘hereditary peers’ who have inherited their positions and the rest are ‘life peers’ who are appointed. They are either chosen by the Prime Minister, a special body called the House of Lords Appointment Commission or become a member automatically through their job – like some Church of England bishops and some retired senior judges.
See Why should Bishops and Lords make the laws?
What does Parliament do?
Parliament does many things. Arguably, the most important are: (1) making law, (2) holding the government to account, (3) approving government spending and (4) debating important issues.
(1) Making law
Parliament makes a type of law called Acts of Parliament, which are the highest form of law in the land. There is a principle called Parliamentary sovereignty, which says that Parliament can make, undo or change any law it wants. Although it is said that Parliament ‘makes’ the law, it is more accurate to say that Parliament considers — and usually approves, often with amendments — laws that are proposed and written by the government. Because the government controls the House of Commons, through both its control of Parliamentary time and the fact that it has over 50% of the MPs, Parliament usually passes the Acts that the government wants.
See Can Parliament Make, Change or End any Law it likes?
(2) Government scrutiny
Parliament is supposed to hold government to account, by scrutinising its proposed legislation (called Bills), policies and actions. There are several different ways in which different people in Parliament do this, although some of them are more effective than others.
- Parliament can closely examine (‘scrutinise’) both Bills proposed by the government during the law-making process and Acts of Parliament once they have been made.
- Parliamentarians can question the government about all sorts of issues through Prime Minister’s Questions, written questions and special debates called ‘plenary debates’.
- The second largest party in the House of Commons forms the official opposition. They will form a ‘shadow cabinet’ with shadow spokespeople who closely monitor their matching government ministers.
- Sometimes Parliamentarians from different parties may work together to challenge the government on an issue. This is mostly done through special ‘select committees’ which each scrutinise a specific area of government policy.
- There are informal networks through which government backbenchers are able to apply pressure (see this video by Professor Meg Russell for more information).
(3) Approving government spending
Government cannot spend any money without the permission of Parliament. Each year Parliament passes special laws called Supply and Appropriation Acts to approve the government’s estimates for how much each department will spend that year. For the government to spend money on anything else, the House of Commons must pass a special ‘money resolution’. There is also a body called the National Audit Office, which scrutinises government spending on behalf of Parliament. Whilst this might not seem very exciting, it is one very real and tangible way in which Parliament holds power over government. It is very unusual in practice though for Parliament to refuse the government’s requests to spend money.
(4) Debating important issues
Parliamentarians discuss important issues that fall outside law-making and government scrutiny. This might be anything from an issue of national importance like Brexit, an issue of importance to one of the MP’s constituents, or an issue that members of the public have submitted through a petition. There are many types of debates in which Parliament can look at important issues including plenary debates, emergency debates, opposition day debates, adjournment debates and Backbench Business Committee debates.
Because it’s so important that Parliamentarians can talk freely, they can say anything inside the House of Commons and House of Lords, without risk of legal action. This is called Parliamentary privilege. One example is when the courts ruled that a newspaper couldn’t name a billionaire businessman accused of sexual and racial harassment, Lord Peter Hain used his Parliamentary privilege to identify Sir Philip Green as the man in question, without fear of legal consequences.