British House of Commons

In the politics of the United Kingdom, the House of Commons is the dominant component of the bicameral Parliament, the other half being the House of Lords. It consists of 659 Members of Parliament (MPs) since 1997, each elected by citizens of an electoral constituency to represent that constituency in the House. The House of Commons meets in the Palace of Westminster.

Table of contents
1 Elections
2 Procedure
3 Legislative Functions
4 History
5 See also
6 External links

Elections

Constituencies

The country is divided into constituencies by the four permanent independent Boundary Commissions, for England and Wales, for Scotland, and for Northern Ireland. On average each MP represents 69,281 people in England, but fewer in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, although there is considerable variation in the population and size of constituencies. The constituency boundaries are reviewed roughly once a decade although there can be inter-review changes as needed. The last general review increased the number of MPs from 651 (1992) to 659 (1997), England has 529, Scotland has 72, Wales has 40, and Northern Ireland 18. After the next, fifth, review the Boundary Commissions will be absorbed into the Electoral Commission, established in 2000. Following the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the over-representation of Scotland previously justified by the lack of a separate Scottish Parliament is under review. Provisional plans have appeared for the reduction in Scotland's representation in the UK House of Commons from 72 MPs to 59 MPs.

General Elections

Whenever the Parliament is dissolved by the monarch, an election is due. Each constituency returns one member based on the First-past-the-post election system. A citizen of the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, or Commonwealth nation over the age of twenty-one may be elected. However, the following are barred from becoming members:

  • Members of the House of Lords
  • Lunatics
  • Those holding some offices of trust and profit under the Crown (including judges and civil servants, but not including Ministerial positions)
  • Members of a legislature of a non-Commonwealth nation
  • Those convicted of treason and not pardoned
  • Those found guilty of electoral malpractice during the past ten years
  • Those serving a prison sentence of one year or more
  • Undischarged bankrupts

There also exists a common law precedent that those who are both deaf and mute are disqualified, but this has not been tested in recent years and is unlikely to be upheld by the courts.

The party winning a majority in the House forms a Government, with its leader becoming Prime Minister. (The Prime Minister and other members of the cabinet are theoretically appointed by the monarch. By constitutional convention, the monarch always appoints the leader of the majority party.) The Prime Minister and a majority of Ministers are members of the House of Commons, though some are members of the House of Lords.

The Parliament's term may last no more than five years. However, the Parliament is almost always dissolved earlier. The monarch chooses the time for dissolution upon the advice of the Prime Minister, which is considered binding. Also, if the House of Commons passes a Motion of No Confidence, then the Government must resign or the Parliament must be dissolved. The defeat of a major item of legislation, such as the annual Finance Bill, also leads to either resignation or dissolution.

By-Elections

Between General Elections, vacancies often occur. These are filled through By-elections within the constituency whose seat is vacant.

Vacancies occur for several reasons. Strangely, resignation is not one of them; members of Parliament are not permitted to resign. If, however, a member of Parliament wishes to leave office, he or she can take advantage of the fact that certain Crown officers are not allowed to serve in the House of Commons. A member wishing to "resign" merely applies to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for appointment to the office of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds or to the office of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. By tradition, the Chancellor does not refuse such applications. The offices do not involve any real duties; they are used for the sole purpose of allowing resignations. One holder retains an office until another member wishes to resign and is appointed to that office.

Also, if a member is appointed to a "real" Crown office, such as a judicial office, his or her seat immediately becomes vacant.

If a member is detained for a mental disorder, the Speaker may send two specialists to observe that member. Six months after the original visit, a second visit is made by the same specialists. If the specialists declare on both occasions that the member is suffering from a mental illness, the seat is declared vacant.

If a member is declared bankrupt by a court, then six months must elapse without a change in the court's order for the bankrupt member's seat to be declared vacant.

Otherwise, a seat may be declared vacant for death or for elevation to the peerage and appointment to the House of Lords.

Regardless of how a vacancy occurs, the by-election cannot be held unless the Clerk of the Crown issues writs of election, which cannot be done unless the Speaker issues a Warrant authorising the same. The Speaker, in turn, may not issue a Warrant unless the House approves a motion asking him to do so. The motion is traditionally moved by the Chief Whip of the party that formerly held the seat. However, the party may delay the motion as long as it wishes. If no motion is approved by the time of a General Election, then no by-election will be held, and the General Election will fill the seat.

There are two exceptions to the requirement that the House must approve a motion before the Speaker makes his Warrant. If a vacancy occurs due to the death of a member, or the appointment of that member to the House of Lords while the House of Commons is in a recess, two MPs certify that the seat is indeed vacant, the Speaker may issue his Warrant without any motion being approved.

Composition (24 October 2003)

                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
                                                                      
             

 Labour Party408
 Conservative Party163
 Liberal Democrats54
 Scottish National Party5
 Democratic Unionist Party5
 Plaid Cymru4
 Sinn Féin4
 Ulster Unionist Party3
 Independent Unionist3
 Social Democratic and Labour Party3
 Independent Conservative1
 Independent Labour1
 Independent1
 Speaker and Deputies4

Procedure

Sittings

The House of Commons meets at the Palace of Westminster in London. The Commons Chamber is decorated in green and is rather simple, compared to the grand Lords Chamber. The Chamber consists of two sets of benches, one set on either side of the center aisle (which for historical reasons is always two and half swords lengths wide), which is known as the "gangway." The Speaker's chair is at the front end of the House; the members of the Government sit on the benches on the Speaker's right, while the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left. Oddly, all members cannot fit in the Chamber, which can seat only 437 of the 659 members.

Formerly, the Commons met only in the Commons Chamber. However, due to recent reforms, the House also sits (for now, on an experimental basis) in a chamber called Westminster Hall. When sitting at Westminster Hall, only uncontroversial and non-partisan matters are usually discussed.

The House of Commons sits on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and on most Fridays. Saturday sessions are only called during national emergencies; the last such occurrence was during the Falklands War.

The House holds a number of recesses each year. The longest recess is the Summer Recess, which lasts from mid-July to mid-October. The other recesses, including the Easter, Whit, and Christmas Recesses, usually last for one to two weeks.

Speaker

The House of Commons elects a Speaker, who controls the day-to-day running of the House and is empowered to call on members to speak during debates. He may also discipline members who fail to observe the rules of the House, which are known as the Standing Orders.

There are three deputies to the Speaker: the Chairman of Ways and Means, the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, and the Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. The Speaker's deputies take their title from the Committee of Ways and Means. Even though the Committee has been abolished, the Speaker's deputies retain their titles.

The Speaker is traditionally non-partisan. Upon election, he or she resigns from the political party, and by convention the major parties traditionally do not oppose the re-election of the Speaker in his/her constituency. The lack of partisanship continues even after the Speaker leaves office. If a former Speaker is appointed to the House of Lords, he or she sits as a crossbencher.

Debate and Discipline

Members may only speak if called upon by the Speaker. To get the Speaker's attention, a member must partially rise. There is no recourse if the Speaker fails to call upon a particular member. Nonetheless, it is traditional that the Speaker alternate between calling Government and Opposition members.

Debate must be addressed to the Speaker. If a member wishes to refer to a person other than the Speaker, he or she must do so in the third person. Traditionally, members refer to each other not by name, but by their constituencies. The form used is the Honourable Member for... or, in the case of Privy Counsellors, the Right Honourable Member for... Also, members may refer to office-holders by their titles (for example, the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition.)

The Speaker is required to keep discipline in the House. If a member deviates from obeying the Standing Orders, the Speaker may warn that member. If the member disregards the warning, the Speaker may order the member to leave the Palace of Westminster for the remainder of the day. Should the member continue to disobey the Speaker, the Speaker may invoke a power known as "naming" by stating, "I name Mr. X" (substituting, of course, the actual name of the member for X.) Then, the Leader of the House or another senior member may move "that Mr. X be suspended from the service of the House." If the motion is agreed to, then the member is suspended for five days if the offence was his or her first during the session. For a second offence during the same session, a twenty day suspension applies. For a third offence, the House determines the suspension period. If a suspended member fails to leave the House, he or she may be suspended for the enitre session.

The ultimate punishment that the House may impose is expulsion. Expulsion, however, does not prevent an individual from running for election again. Thus some members have been expelled more than once. There were only three suspensions during the twentieth century.

Voting

As the formal checks on the power of the House of Commons are very limited, a party with a majority in the House has very few formal limits on its ability to change government policies. In addition, Members of Parliament almost always vote with their party. The reasons for this are complex, but derive partly from natural party loyalty, and partly from job security: MPs who vote against their party are unlikely to reach ministerial rank, and may be deselected as official party candidates in the next election (though in some circumstances, an MP may be threatened with deselection if he or she does vote with the party). In addition, unlike presidential systems, a government cannot function without a majority support of the House of Commons, hence the parties have much more interest in ensuring that people do not vote against the party either by pressuring MPs to change their vote, or more often by modifying legislation to avoid an adverse vote.

There are two cases in which MPs will vote against party lines. One is when a party announces a free vote over an issue of conscience in which invidividual members are allowed to vote according to their personal beliefs; in this case, there is no official party line to vote for or against. This is the case ethical issues like the death penalty, abortion etc. MPs representing the majority party occasionally may also vote against their party in large numbers where there is widespread discontent among backbenchers over the government's policies. Since the late 19th century, major backbench rebellions have only occurred once every few years, most recently in 2003 when Labour MPs voted against Tony Blair's support of the United States over the Iraq war. Smaller rebellions, in which only a handful of back benchers vote against their party, are more common when the Government has a very large majority. The Labour Government suffered 16 back bench rebellions in the 1997-2001 Parliament.

Because the outcome of votes are largely predetermined, parliamentary debates are intended less to change the outcome of pending legislation, than for the party in power and those out of power to appeal to the public for the next election.

Even though the outcome may be predetermined, the House must vote on every motion. All motions are originally subject to a voice vote. The Speaker then gives his opinion as to which side won the voice vote. If his assessment is challenged by any member, then a division occurs, signified by the ringing of the Division Bell. On either side of the House Chamber is a division lobby. Those who wish to vote "Aye" (yes) enter one lobby, while those who wish to vote "No" enter the other. As members then exit the lobby and reenter the Chamber, their votes and names are recorded by tellers and clerks. The tellers then announce the numbers of Ayes and Noes to the Speaker, who then announces the result to the House.

Question Time

One important characteristic of the House of Commons is Question Time, in which members of both the party in power and the opposition parties have a weekly opportunity to ask questions of Cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister. Questions are subject to several rules; for example, questions must relate to the official government activities of a Minister, rather than his activities as a leader of a party or as an MP. Questions may receive either an oral or a written answer.

Oral questions are part of one category of questions. Under the rules of the House, Question Time, when oral questions may be asked, is the first hour of business on weekdays other than Friday. Question Time occurs in the main chamber rather than in Westminster Hall. The clerks of the House must be notified of questions a certain number of days prior to the day on which it will be asked. The clerks then use computers to randomly select a limited number of questions that will be permitted, for Question Time is not an unlimited period. When the Speaker calls on a member during Question Time, the member need only state his question's number, for the minister will already have been notified of it. Then, the member who asked the original question may ask one supplementary question. Next, other members may pose their own supplementary questions. There is no formal limit to the number of supplementaries; the Speaker merely stops recognising members who wish to speak when he feels that enough supplementaries have been asked.

Government departments are assigned certain days for questions by rotation. More than one department may be questioned on a given day. Usually, each department is questioned for about an hour per month. The Prime Minister, however, is subject to about twice as much questioning, for he answers questions for a half-hour each Wednesday.

Another category of questions is urgent questions. Instead of notifying clerks days earlier, as with oral questions, a member need only notify the Speaker that he intends to ask an urgent question. Only if the Speaker agrees that the question is one of public importance, and is indeed urgent, may the question be asked.

Written questions, the last category of questions, are by far more numerous than any other type of question. If the MP requires an answer by a specific date, notice of at least two days must be given to ask the written question. Alternatively, the MP may decide not to name a date for an answer, in which case the Minister usually replies within a week. Responses are not only to the member who asked the question; they are instead published for the use of all members.

Committees

Unlike in, say, the United States Congress, committees in the House of Commons are not very powerful, and most of the review of legislation occurs in the Cabinet. There exist several types of committees: Standing Committees, Select Committees (including Departmental Select Commmittees and Domestic Committees), Joint Committees, and others.

Most bills are considered by Standing Committees. Though "standing" may imply permanence, the membership of Standing Committees is constantly changing. There is no limit to the number of Standing Committees in existence at any one time, though there are normally no more than ten. These committees are referred to by a letter of the alphabet from A to H, or as the First or Second Scottish Committee, which deal only with bills relating to Scotland. However, the Scottish Committees are essentially obsolete due to the introduction of a separate Scottish Parliament. When a bill is due to be referred to a certain Standing Committee, the Committee of Selection meets and chooses sixteen to fifty MP's to serve as Committee members; the number of members from a particular party is approximately proportionate to that party's membership in the whole house.

Departmental Select Committees scrutinize government activities. Though a bill may be referred to a Select Committee, this method is rarely used. There are eighteen Departmental Select Commmittees:

  • Constitutional Affairs
  • Culture, Media, and Sport
  • Defence
  • Education and Skills
  • Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs
  • Foreign Affairs
  • Health
  • Home Affairs
  • International Development
  • Northern Ireland Affairs
  • Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
  • Science and Technology
  • Scottish Affairs
  • Trade and Industry
  • Transport
  • Treasury
  • Welsh Affairs
  • Work and Pensions

Each committee (except for the Science and Technology Committee) correlates to distinct a government department. However, some committees scrutinize more than one department. For example, the Home Affairs Committee oversees both the Home Office and the Law Officers' Department.

The Committee of Selection chooses the members of the committees, which then choose their own chairmen. Committees consist of eleven members each, except for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which consists of thirteen members, and the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Committee, which includes seventeen members. As with standing committees, the number of committee members from a particular party is approximately proportionate to that party's membership in the whole house.

Select Committees known as Domestic Committees oversee the services provided to members of the House. There are four Domestic Committees (each consists of nine members):

  • Accommodation and Works Committee
  • Administration Committee
  • Catering Committee
  • Information Committee

The House of Commons and the House of Lords have established a number of Joint Committees. Some Joint Committees are established to consider specific bills or topics of legislation; these usually meet for a limited period of time. However, two committees, the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, are more general and permanent in nature.

Other committees include Advisory Committees and temporarily appointed Special Standing Committees.

Legislative Functions

Conventions

There is a convention known as the Salisbury convention according to which the House of Lords will not oppose any government legislation promised by its election manifesto. And in the case of legislation not covered by this convention, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 apply. They limit the power of the House of Lords to delaying a bill for up to one year, after which it may receive Royal Assent, if the Commons passes it again, without the Lords' consent. In the case of money bills (the main purpose of which relates to taxation or expenditure), the agreement of the Lords is not required at all, though in practice it is usually given.

Restrictions

There are however increasing restrictions on the power of the House of Commons. Under the terms of the European Communities Act 1972 (UK), European Community law overrides any incompatible UK legislation. Although the House of Commons could in theory amend or repeal the European Communities Act, in practice it would be inconceivable for it to do so. Parliamentary legislation that violates UK law can be challenged through both the UK national courts, and the European Court of Justice.

Another restriction is the European Convention on Human Rights. Since the 1940s the European Court of Human Rights has had the power to rule UK legislation to be in violation of the rights guaranteed by the Convention. However, although in all but one case (involving detention of terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland) Parliament stood by the decision of the Court, there was no legal requirement to do so under domestic UK law. The entry into force of the Human Rights Act 1998 dramatically changed this, by incorporating the Convention into British law. British courts now have the power to enforce the Convention rights, including the obligation to interpret parliamentary legislation whenever possible so that it is compatible with those rights. However, in the event of a court being unable to harmonise the legislation with the Convention rights, the court does not have the power to strike it down; all it can do is issue a declaration of incompatibility, stating the legislation to be incompatible. But once this declaration has been issued, there exist under the Act expedited parliamentary procedures to pass legislation to remove the incompatibility.

Royal Approval

The monarch must assent to any legislation for it to enter into law, although it has been convention since the time of William and Mary that the monarch will assent to all legislation passed by Parliament. Queen Anne was the last monarch to refuse Royal Assent to a bill; she refused her approval to a bill relating to the militia in 1707.

Devolution

In addition to European Union membership and the European Convention on Human Rights, devolution has also reduced the apparent power of the House of Commons compared to the past. Many areas of legislation formerly dealt with at Westminster are now dealt with by devolved institutions; this applies especially to Scotland, where the process of devolution has gone the farthest. Although Westminster could in theory legislate in these devolved areas, there is a constitutional convention that Westminster shall not do so in normal circumstances. However it is debatable whether any real power has been lost since the House of Commons can suspend or wind up any of the devolved assemblies at any time, and has indeed already done so at least once in the case of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Since the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament in the 1970s, relatively weak local councils were the only other level of government in the UK. This changed with the formation of the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly, under the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

History

The two distinct houses of parliament emerged in the 14th century. One was composed of shire and borough representatives, this became known as the House of Commons. The other was composed of religious leaders (Lords Spiritual) and magnates (Lords Temporal), this became known as the House of Lords.

The Parliament Act 1911

After the election of 1906 the Liberal Party had a large majority in the House of Commons. Due to the naval race with Germany and new social programmes, the Liberal "peoples budget" of 1909 proposed tax increases and new taxes targeting wealthy landowners. These measures were unpopular in the conservative (and legislatively equal) House of Lords, where the budget was refused passage.

The Liberals brought a complaint to the King, Edward VII who said he would intervene if they proved to have a mandate. The House of Commons called an election in 1910 and the Liberals were successfully reelected, though not by as large a margin as the previous election. Threatened with the appointment of 500 new peers if they refused, the Lords passed the Parliament Act. Under it, the House of Lords could only delay a proposal for up to two years, after which the Commons would automatically prevail. On August 10 1911, this came into effect, removing the equal status of the House of Lords and its effective power of veto.

The Parliament Act 1949

The act reduced the delaying power of the 1911 Act in respect of Public Bills other than Money Bills to two sessions and one year respectively, the exception being bills to extend the life of Parliament to beyond five years, in which case the Lords would have full power to defeat the bill.

See also

External links


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