By Tim Oliver
Parliament is the central component of the UK’s constitution, and for that reason, this series of blog posts will begin here. We will consider the structure of Parliament, the operation of its principle parts, and its place within the politics of the United Kingdom. There are a host of other issues – the history of the body, the precise relationship between Parliament and other bodies, and so on – that we simply won’t have the space to consider here, but future posts may cover in some detail. For now, let us begin with the structure of Parliament.
Structure and Operation
The UK Parliament is a bicameral legislature. It is bicameral because it is divided into two bodies, or chambers – the House of Commons, and the House of Lords. A legislature is a body with the power to legislate – having the power to make laws. To understand Parliament, you need to begin with an understanding of these two chambers and their power with regards to the making of laws. Originally, the two chambers were considered equal, with the Commons considered the “lower” house, and the Lords the “upper”. However, the Commons has, over time, assumed greater and greater powers with regards to the making of laws, so it is here that we will begin.
The House of Commons consists of 650 Members of Parliament (MPs), each one elected by a particular constituency. One of the members of the Commons is elected as Speaker – once they have been elected, they become an independent member, and serve to preside over the chamber, with the assistance of three deputies and a staff of professional clerks. The guidelines for their role are laid out in Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, written in the 19th century by one of the clerks, and updated at several intervals since. The other members of the House of Commons are overwhelmingly elected as members of political parties, and sit with their party colleagues in groups – the government to the right of the Speaker’s chair, the opposition parties to the left.
The Commons has a variety of functions, related both to the making of laws and also to the function of the executive branch, which has the power to make sure laws are implemented (that is, to execute them). Legislation is fundamental to Parliament’s existence – all laws require Parliamentary consent, and all taxes must be agreed to by Parliament. It is the holding of a majority of seats in the Commons that grants governments the ability to govern, therefore, because they can ensure the passage of legislation through the more powerful chamber. The Commons scrutinises, amends and can even (though it rarely does) reject legislation – functions it carries out on the part of the people that the MPs represent.
The executive functions of the Commons are principally in its role as the source of ministers for the government. Whilst not all ministers are drawn from the Commons, it has become the convention that the Prime Minister, and the most senior ministers, are – and the overwhelming majority of junior ministers, as well. It can also hold these ministers to account – through the asking of questions, as well as through debates over legislation, and other mechanisms. Ultimately, the survival of a government depends on it retaining a support of a majority of MPs; if the House of Commons votes it has no confidence in a government, then it must resign.
The House of Lords has 805 members, called peers, making it one of the largest legislative chambers in the world. Unlike the Commons, where all MPs are elected through the same system, there are a variety of ways to become a member of the House of Lords. The majority of members are life peers – that is, they are granted the title “Lord” for the duration of their lifetime, and it expires upon their death. 90 peers are, however, hereditary peers – they have inherited their titles from their ancestors. However, this no longer guarantees them a seat in the house – when one hereditary peer dies, the other members of the party group of that peer hold a by-election among themselves, which is contested by other members of the hereditary peerage. Then there are 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, all from the Church of England – the two archbishops, three most senior bishops, and 21 others based on length of service.
Because it is unelected, and the less powerful of the chambers, the Lords generally seeks to complement, rather than challenge, the Commons. In its legislative functions, the Lords has several formal and informal means through which it defers to the Commons – for example, it does not reject legislation promised in a manifesto (this is called the Salisbury Convention) and does not pass amendments that the Commons will not support. What it concentrates on instead is scrutiny of legislation, and its formal rules help it do this. In the Commons, for example, the Speaker selects which amendments are considered – in the Lords, every amendment put down to legislation will be considered. These powers are strengthened by the composition of the Lords – the government does not have a majority there, and so is more vulnerable to losing a vote. The functions of the Lords in regards to the executive are, as indicated above, rather more limited – with fewer ministers drawn from the Lords, those that are based there are usually spokespeople to represent the government’s position, rather than senior ministers in charge of departments.
There is a third component of Parliament – the Crown-in-Parliament – which is the role of the monarch in relation to the legislative function. The monarch is required to assent to every law passed by Parliament; an assent which is always granted.
Role of Parliament
As was noted above, Parliament is absolutely central to the politics of the United Kingdom. It is not just that it is where laws are made, ministers held to account, and debates held on the direction of the country. Constitutionally, the UK Parliament is held in a prestigious position, first articulated in the 19th Century by the scholar A. V. Dicey. Dicey argued there were two pillars of the British constitution – the rule of law, and Parliamentary sovereignty. This, he said, was the right of Parliament “to make or unmake any law whatever, and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.” Therefore, no court could rule a law passed by Parliament as being unconstitutional – and no Parliament could bind the next one, which could issue a law to overturn any previous law. It is this principle that is at the centre of Parliament’s constitutional role, and which gives it a particularly powerful role in the UK. Whilst there have been practical constraints on this in recent years – such as the UK’s membership of the European Union, and the establishment of devolved legislative bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the fundamental principle has not been overturned.