The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Politics

Parliament is the supreme legislative authority in Britain. The three elements of Parliament — the Queen and the two Houses of Parliament (the House of Lords and the elected House of Commons) are outwardly separate, are constituted on different principles, and they meet together only on occasions of symbolic significance, such as a coronation, or the State opening of Parliament when the Commons are summoned by the Queen to the House of Lords.

The Parliament Act 1911 fixed the life of a Parliament (the House of Commons) at five years, although it may be dissolved and a general election held before the end of this term.

It can make, unmake or alter any law. If both Houses agreed, it could even prolong its own life beyond the normal period of five years without consulting the electorate. The maximum life has been prolonged by legislation in such rare circumstances as the two world wars. In practice, however, Parliament does not assert its supremacy in this way. Its members bear in mind the common law which has grown up over the centuries, and have tended to act in accordance with precedent and tradition.

The powers of the Crown in connection with Parliament are subject to limitation and change by legislative process and are always exercised through and on the advice of ministers responsible to Parliament.

The life of Parliament is divided into sessions. Each session usually lasts for one year and is usually terminated by prorogation, although it may be terminated by dissolution. Each session begins and ends most often in October or November.

Parliament is usually dissolved by proclamation either at the end of its five-year term or when a Government requests a dissolution before the terminal date.

The average number of sitting days for the House of Commons in a normal session is about 175, divided into the following periods: one from November till Christmas (about 40 sitting days), one from January to Easter (about 50 sitting days), and one from about the beginning of June until about late July or early August (40 to 50 sitting days).

During most sessions the House of Lords sits on about 140 days. The periods when Parliament is not sitting are popularly known as ‘recesses’, although the correct term is ‘adjournments’.

Since the beginning of Parliament, the balance of power between the two Houses has undergone a complete change. The continuous process of development and adaptation has been greatly accelerated during the past 70 years or so. In modern practice the centre of parliamentary power is in the House of Commons, but until the twentieth century the Lords’ power of veto over measures proposed by the Commons was, theoretically, unlimited. The Parliament Act 1911 curtailed the veto of the Lords to a period of two years for Bills passed by the Commons in three successive sessions, and abolished the veto altogether over Bills dealing exclusively with expenditure or taxation.

These limitations to the powers of the House of Lords were further strengthened by the Parliament Act 1949, which reduced the delaying powers of the Lords from two years to one year for Bills passed by the Commons in two successive sessions.

The arrangement of seating in both Houses of Parliament reflects the nature of the party system. Both debating chambers are rectangular in shape, are overlooked by galleries, and have at one end the seat of the Speaker, in front of which stands the Table of the House, and at the other end a technical barrier, known as the ‘Bar’ (two bronze rods normally kept retracted). The benches for members run the length of the chamber on both sides. Intersected by a gang-way, the benches face each other across a broad area known as the ‘floor of the House’. The benches to the right of the Speaker are used by the Government and its supporters; those to the left are occupied by the Opposition, and members of any other parties. In the House of Lords, there are also the bishops’ benches and a number of cross-benches for peers who do not wish to attach themselves to any party.

Leaders of the Government and the Opposition sit on the front benches of their respective sides to the Speaker’s side of the central dividing aisle with their supporters. The backbenchers, the ordinary members of Parliament, sit behind them, occupying the seats behind the front benches. In the House of Commons, where there is room for only 350 MPs on the benches backbenchers may also sit in the side galleries, which can accommodate a further 90 members. In both Houses the galleries also provide accommodation for visitors, the press and government and parliamentary officials.

Each House has its Leader. The Leader of the House of Commons is the member of the Government primarily responsible for organizing the business of the House, and for providing reasonable facilities for the House to debate matters about which it is concerned. One of the functions of the Leader is to announce the following week’s programme to the House. The Leader may also move procedural motions relating to the business of the House. In the absence of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House of Commons acts as the spokesman of the House on ceremonial and other occasions. The Leader of the House of Lords has similar functions in the Lords and is regarded as the main Government spokesman in the House.

Outside Parliament, party control is exercised by national and local organizations. Inside Parliament, and particularly in the House of Commons, it is exercised by officers known as ‘Whips’. There are Government and Opposition Whips in both Houses of Parliament, but the Whips in the House of Lords are less exclusively concerned with party matters. On the Government side in the House of Commons the Chief Whip is Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury. There are other Government Whips, including the Deputy Chief Whip and five Assistant Whips.

The Government Chief Whip, who is directly answerable to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House of Commons, is responsible for settling the details of the Government’s programme of business, for estimating the time likely to be required for each item, and for arranging the business of the individual sittings.

Duties which are common to the Whips of all parties include keeping members informed of forthcoming parliamentary business; ensuring the attendance of members and their party vote; providing lists of members to serve on select and standing committees. The Whips are also responsible for conveying upwards to the party leadership the opinions of their back-bench members. The Government Whips in the House of Lords often act as Government spokesmen in the House.

In the House of Lords, the office of Speaker (the Lord Chancellor) carries with it no authority to control debate. Members of the House of Lords do not address themselves to the Lord Chancellor during debates, but to their fellow members in the House. If, during a debate, two peer^s rise to their feet at the same time, the House itself determines who shall speak: the Lord Chancellor has no power to decide which peer shall take the floor. In the Commons, on the contrary, the Speaker has full authority to give effect, promptly and decisively, to the rules and orders of the House.

The Speaker of the House of Commons presides over the House of Commons. In debate all speeches are addressed to him, and he calls upon members to speak. If he rises to give a ruling upon a doubtful point, or for any other reason, he must be heard in silence, and while he is on his feet no other MP may remain standing. It is the function of the Speaker to guard against abuse of procedure or any infringement of minority rights; and to allow or disallow a closure motion (to end discussion so that the matter may be put to the vote). He also has certain powers to check irrelevance and repetition, and save time in various other respects. In cases of grave and continuous disorder, he has power to adjourn the-House or suspend the sitting on his own initiative. Voting in the House of Commons is carried out under the direction of the Speaker, whose duty is to pronounce the final result. In the event of a tied vote (when an equal number of votes is cast) the Speaker must give his decisive vote.

A vote is taken by means of a division (that is to say the separation into two lobbies of the members who wish to vote for or against a question). Members voting ‘Aye’ go out of the chamber into the lobby on the right of the Speaker, while those voting ‘No’ pass into the lobby on his left. Members’ votes are recorded by four clerks (whose records are printed the following day in the official ‘Division Lists’, and also recorded in ‘Hansard’) and four tellers (two MPs from each side of the House) of whom one for the ‘ayes’ and another for the ‘noes’ are placed in each lobby to check each other in the telling.

The voting procedure in the House of Lords is similar to that in the Commons except that the Speaker or chairman has an original, but no casting vote.

The House of Commons is an assembly elected by universal adult suffrage and consists of 650 Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of the House of Commons hold their seats during the life of a Parliament (normally 5 years). They are elected either at a general election, which takes place after a Parliament has been dissolved and a new one summoned by the Sovereign, or at a by-election, which is held when a vacancy occurs in the House as a result of the death or resignation of an MP or as a result of elevation of a member to the House of Lords.

The two Houses of Parliament, the Lords and the Commons, share the same building, the Palace of Westminster. The present buildings of the Palace were erected between 1840 and 1852, to replace older buildings which had been destroyed by fire in 1834. Parts of the Palace, including the Commons Chamber itself, which were badly damaged in an air-raid in 1941, have been rebuilt since 1945. The Commons occupy the north part of the Palace. The part of the Palace of Westminster used by members and officials of the House of Commons includes some hundreds of rooms (the library, restaurants, committee rooms, etc.).

The House of Commons meets in Westminster from Mondays to Fridays throughout the year, except when Parliament is in recess. The hours of sitting for normal business are: Mondays to Thursdays from 2.30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. and Fridays 9.30 a.m. to 3.00 p.m.

On ordinary occasions, MPs, who also have much committee, party and constituency business to attend to, are not expected to be in constant attendance in the debating chamber. When any special business is about to be taken — for instance, if a vote on some legislative or other matter is pending — steps are taken to secure their presence. At other times, there may be more or fewer members present, depending on the speakers and the subject for debate. Some MPs leave the House altogether for a few hours, but the majority remain within its precincts so as to be able to reach the voting lobbies within a few minutes.

The chief officer of the House of Commons is the Speaker. This office has been held continuously since 1377, and its powers have been exercised with complete impartiality since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

Other parliamentary officers of the House of Commons are the Chairman of the Ways and Means and one or two Deputy Chairmen all of whom may act as deputy Speaker. These officers are elected by the House on the nomination of the Government and, like the Speaker, they neither speak nor vote in the House other than in their official capacity.

The House of Commons has six administrative and executive departments: the Department of the Clerk of the House, the Department of the Serjeant-at-Arms, the Department of the Library, the Department of the Official Report, the Administration Department and the Refreshment Department.

The Clerk’s Department advises the Speaker and MPs (including ministers) on the practice and procedure of the House.

The Department of the Serjeant-at-Arms deals with order and security in the precincts of the House, ceremonial and communications, and with accommodation matters.

The Department of the Library provides MPs with every kind of oral or written information that they may need in connection with their parliamentary duties, including books and documents. The library maintains sophisticated indexing systems and press cuttings services. The Public Information Office of the House of Commons is administered by the Department of the Library.

The Department of the Official Report is responsible for reporting all the sittings of the House and its standing committees, and producing the Official Report. The reports are commonly known as Hansard (after the name of the family of printers and publishers who published parliamentary papers in the 19th century).

The Administration Department provides certain common services and coordination for all departments in the administrative fields of finance, establishment and general staffing matters.

The Refreshment Department makes available eating and drinking facilities to members and staff of the House, whenever the House is sitting, no matter how late that might be.

The six administrative departments of the House are under the supervision of the House of Commons Commission, composed of MPs, and chaired ex officio by the Speaker.

The House of Lords consists of the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal. The Lords Spiritual (26) are the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, and the 21 senior bishops of the Church of England. The Lords Temporal consist of all hereditory peers and peeresses (792), who have not disclaimed their peerages, all life peers and peeresses (348) created by the Crown under the Life Peerages Act 1958, and Lords of Appeal (law lords) (21) created life peers to assist the House in its judicial duties. In 1987 there were 1,187 members of the House of Lords.

Temporal peerages, both hereditary and life, are conferred on the advice of the Prime Minister and are usually granted either in recognition of service in politics or other walks of life or because the Government of the day wishes to have the recipient in the House of Lords.

S Mr Speaker               T Table of the House                    SA Serjeant at Arms           P Press Galleries

D Despatch Boxes         M Members’ Galleries                  H Hansard Reporters             Ma Mace

G Visitors’Galleries      0 Government Officials’Box (advisors to Ministers)               L Lines        

B Bar of the House       C Clerks of the House                  X Cross Benches

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