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British House of Commons


This article is part of the series
Politics of the United Kingdom

The House of Commons is a component of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which also includes the Sovereign and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is a democratically elected body, consisting of 646 members, who are known as "Members of Parliament" or "MPs." Members are elected by the first past the post system of election for limited terms, holding office until Parliament is dissolved (a maximum of five years). Each member is elected by, and represents, an electoral district known as a constituency.

The House of Commons evolved at some point during the fourteenth century and has been in continuous existence since. The House of Commons (the "Lower House") was once far less powerful than the House of Lords (the "Upper House"), but is now by far the dominant branch of Parliament. The House of Commons' legislative powers exceed those of the House of Lords; under the Parliament Act 1911, the Upper House's power to reject most bills has been reduced to a mere delaying power. Moreover, the Government of the United Kingdom is answerable to the House of Commons; the Prime Minister stays in office only as long as he or she retains the support of the Lower House.

The full, formal style of the House of Commons is The Right Honourable The Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament Assembled. The term "Commons" derives from the Norman French word communes, meaning "localities." It is often misunderstood that "Commons" is a shortening of the word "commoners" (as opposed to "Lords" in the case of the other House) but this explanation is ahistorical. The House of Commons, like the House of Lords, meets in the Palace of Westminster.

Table of contents

History

Parliament developed from the council that advised the King during mediæval times. This royal council included ecclesiastics, noblemen, as well as representatives of the counties (known as "knights of the shire"). The chief duty of the council was to approve taxes proposed by the Crown. In many cases, however, the council demanded the redress of the people's grievances before proceeding to vote on taxation. Thus, it developed legislative powers.

In the "Model Parliament" of 1295, representatives of the boroughs (including towns and cities) were also admitted. Thus, it became settled practice that each county send two knights of the shire, and that each borough send two burgesses. At first, the representatives of the boroughs were almost entirely powerless; whilst county representation was fixed, the monarch could enfranchise or disfranchise boroughs at pleasure. Any show of independence by burgesses would have led to the exclusion of their towns from Parliament. The knights of the shire were in a better position, though still less powerful than their aristocratic counterparts in the still unicameral Parliament. The division of Parliament into two houses occurred during the reign of Edward III: the knights and burgesses formed the House of Commons, whilst the clergy and nobility formed the House of Lords.

Though they remained subordinate to both the Crown and the Lords, the Commons did act with increasing boldness. During the Good Parliament (1376), the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Peter de la Mare, complained of heavy taxes, demanded an accounting of the royal expenditures, and criticised the King's management of the military. The Commons even proceeded to impeach some of the King's ministers. The bold Speaker was imprisoned, but was soon released after the death of King Edward III. During the reign of the next monarch, Richard II, the Commons once again began to impeach errant ministers of the Crown. They insisted that they could not only control taxation, but also public expenditures. Despite such gains in authority, however, the Commons still remained much less powerful than the House of Lords and the Crown.

The influence of the Crown was further increased by the civil wars of the late fifteenth century, which destroyed the power of the great nobles. Both houses of Parliament held little power during the ensuing years, and the absolute supremacy of the Sovereign was restored. The domination of the Crown grew even further during the reigns of the monarchs of the Tudor dynasty in the sixteenth century. This trend, however, was somewhat reversed when the House of Stuart came to the English Throne in 1603. The first two Stuart monarchs, James I and Charles I, provoked conflicts with the Commons over issues such as taxation, religion, and royal powers. The bitter differences between Charles I and Parliament were great, and were settled only by the English Civil War. The King was beheaded, and the monarchy and Upper House abolished, in 1649. Although the Commons were in theory supreme, the nation was truly under the control of a military dictator, Oliver Cromwell. The monarchy and the House of Lords were, however, both restored in 1660, soon after Cromwell's death. The influence of the Crown had been lessened, and was further diminished when James II was deposed in the course of the Glorious Revolution (1688). The House of Lords, however, soon returned to its dominant position in Parliament, and would continue to occupy such a position until the nineteenth century.

The eighteenth century was notable in that it was marked by the development of the office of Prime Minister. The modern notion that the Government may remain in power only as long as it retains the support of Parliament soon became established. The modern notion that only the support of the House of Commons is necessary, however, was of much later development. Similarly, the custom that the Prime Minister is always a Member of the Lower House, rather than the Upper one, did not evolve immediately.

The House of Commons experienced an important period of reform during the nineteenth century. The Crown had made use of its prerogative of enfranchising and disenfranchising boroughs very irregularly, and several anomalies had developed in borough representation. Many towns that were once important but had become inconsiderable by the nineteenth century retained their ancient right of electing two Members each. The most notorious of these "rotten boroughs" was Old Sarum, which had only eleven voters; at the same time, large cities such as Manchester were entirely unrepresented. Also notable were the pocket boroughs—small constituencies controlled by wealthy landowners and aristocrats, whose "nominees" were invariably elected by the voters.

The Commons attempted to address these anomalies by passing a Reform Bill in 1831. At first, the House of Lords proved unwilling to pass the bill, but were forced to relent when the Prime Minister, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, advised King William IV to flood the House of Lords with several pro-Reform Members. Before the King could take such an action, the Lords passed the bill in 1832. The "Reform Act 1832" abolished the rotten boroughs, established uniform voting requirements for the boroughs, and granted representation to populous cities, but also retained many pocket boroughs. In the ensuing years, the Commons grew more assertive, the influence of the House of Lords having been damaged by the Reform Bill Crisis, and the power of the patrons of pocket boroughs having been diminished. The Lords became more reluctant to reject bills that the Commons passed with large majorities, and it became an accepted political principle that the support of the House of Commons alone was necessary for a Prime Minister to remain in office. Many further reforms were introduced during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Reform Act 1867 lowered property requirements for voting in the boroughs, reduced the representation of the less populous boroughs, and granted parliamentary seats to several growing industrial towns. The electorate was further expanded by the Representation of the People Act 1884, under which property qualifications in the counties were lowered. The Redistribution of Seats Act of the following year replaced almost all multi-member constituencies with single-member constituencies.

The old Chamber of the House of Commons built by Sir Charles Barry was destroyed by German bombs during the Second World War. The essential features of Barry's design were preserved when the Chamber was rebuilt.

The next important phase in the history of the House of Commons came during the early twentieth century. In 1908, the Liberal Government under Herbert Henry Asquith introduced a number of social welfare programmes, which, together with an expensive arms race with Germany, had forced the Government to seek more funding in the form of tax increases. In 1909, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced the "People's Budget", which proposed a new tax targeting wealthy landowners. The unpopular measure, however, failed in the heavily Conservative House of Lords. Having made the powers of the House of Lords a primary campaign issue, the Liberals were re-elected in January 1910. Asquith then proposed that the powers of the House of Lords be severely curtailed. Proceedings on the bill were briefly interrupted by the death of King Edward VII, but were soon recommenced under the new monarch, George V. After fresh elections in December 1910, the Asquith Government secured the passage of a bill to curtail the powers of the House of Lords. The Prime Minister proposed, and the King agreed, that the House of Lords could be flooded by the creation of five hundred new Liberal peers if it failed to pass the bill. (This was the same device used earlier to force the Upper House to consent to the passage of the Reform Act 1832.) The Parliament Act 1911 soon came into effect, destroying the legislative equality of the two Houses of Parliament. The House of Lords was only permitted to delay most legislation for a maximum of three parliamentary sessions or two calendar years—reduced to two sessions or one year by the Parliament Act 1949. Since the passage of these Acts, the House of Commons has remained the dominant branch of Parliament, both in theory and in practice.

Members and elections

Each Member of Parliament represents a single constituency. Prior to the reforms of the nineteenth century, the constituencies had little basis in population: the counties and the boroughs (whose boundaries were fixed) were, for the most part, equally represented in the Lower House by two Members each. Reforms enacted during the nineteenth century, starting with the Reform Act 1832, led to a more equitable distribution of seats. Moreover, the reforms of 1885 abolished most two-member constituencies; the few that remained were all abolished in 1948. University constituencies (the constituencies that allowed important universities such as Oxford and Cambridge to be represented in Parliament) were abolished in the same year. Thus, each constituency now elects only one Member of Parliament. There is still a technical distinction between county constituencies and borough constituencies, but the only effect of this difference involves the amount of money candidates are allowed to spend during campaigns.

The boundaries of the constituencies are determined by four permanent and independent Boundary Commissions, one each for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The number of constituencies assigned to the four parts of the United Kingdom is based roughly on population, but subject to certain statutory regulations. England, Wales, and Scotland must have a total of approximately 613 constituencies, and Northern Ireland must include between sixteen and eighteen constituencies. By law Wales must have at least 35 Members of Parliament. The Commissions conduct general reviews of electoral boundaries once every eight to twelve years, as well as a number of interim reviews. In drawing boundaries, they are required to take into account local government boundaries, but may deviate from this requirement in order to prevent great disparities in the populations of the various constituencies. The proposals of the Boundary Commissions are subject to parliamentary approval, but may not be amended by Parliament. After the next general review of constituencies, the Boundary Commissions will be absorbed into the Electoral Commission, which was established in 2000.Currently the United Kingdom is divided into 646 constituencies, with 529 in England, 40 in Wales, 59 in Scotland, and 18 in Northern Ireland.

General elections occur whenever Parliament is dissolved by the Sovereign. The timing of the dissolution is normally chosen by the Prime Minister (see relationship with the Government below); however, a parliamentary term may not last for more than five years, unless a Bill extending the life of Parliament passes both Houses and receives Royal Assent. The House of Lords, exceptionally, retains its power of veto over such a Bill. Each candidate must submit nomination papers signed by ten registered voters from the constituency, and pay a deposit of £500, which is refunded only if the candidate wins at least five per cent of the vote. The deposit seeks to discourage frivolous candidates. Each constituency returns one Member; the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, under which the candidate with a plurality of votes wins, is used. Minors, members of the House of Lords, prisoners, and insane persons are not qualified to become Members. In order to vote, one must be a resident of the United Kingdom as well as a citizen of the United Kingdom, of a British overseas territory, of the Republic of Ireland, or of a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Also, British citizens living abroad are allowed to vote for fifteen years after moving from the United Kingdom. No voter may vote in more than one constituency.

Once elected, the Member of Parliament normally continues to serve until the next dissolution of Parliament or until death. If a Member, however, ceases to be qualified (see qualifications below), his or her seat falls vacant. It is possible for the House of Commons to expel a Member, but this power is only exercised when the Member has engaged in serious misconduct or criminal activity. In each case, a vacancy may be filled by a by-election in the appropriate constituency. The same electoral system is used as in general elections.

The term "Member of Parliament" is normally used only to refer to Members of the House of Commons, even though the House of Lords is also a part of Parliament. Members of the House of Commons may use the post-nominal letters "MP." The annual salary of each Member is £57,485; Members may receive additional salaries in right of other offices they hold (for instance, the Speakership). Most Members also claim between £100,000 and £150,000 for various office expenses (staff costs, postage, travelling, etc) and also for the costs of maintaining a home in London in the case of non-London Members.

Qualifications

There are numerous qualifications that apply to Members of Parliament. Most importantly, one must be aged at least twenty-one years, and must be a citizen of the United Kingdom, of a British overseas territory, of the Republic of Ireland, or of a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, in order to be eligible. These restrictions were introduced by the British Nationality Act 1981, but were previously far more stringent: under the Act of Settlement 1701, only natural-born subjects were qualified. Members of the House of Lords may not serve in the House of Commons.

A person may not sit in the House of Commons if he or she is the subject of a Bankruptcy Restrictions Order (applicable in England and Wales only), or if he or she is adjudged bankrupt (in Northern Ireland), or if his or her estate is sequestered (in Scotland). Also, lunatics are ineligible to sit in the House of Commons. Under the Mental Health Act 1959, two specialists must report to the Speaker that a Member is suffering from mental illness before a seat can be declared vacant. There also exists a common law precedent from the eighteenth century that the "deaf and dumb" are ineligible to sit in the Lower House. This precedent, however, has not been tested in recent years, and is highly unlikely to be upheld by the courts.

Anyone found guilty of high treason may not sit in Parliament until he or she has either completed the term of imprisonment, or received a full pardon from the Crown. Moreover, anyone serving a prison sentence of one year or more is ineligible. Finally, the Representation of the People Act 1983 disqualifies those found guilty of certain election-related offences for ten years. Several other disqualifications are established by the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975. Holders of high judicial offices, civil servants, members of the regular armed forces, members of foreign legislatures (excluding members of the legislatures of the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth countries), and holders of several Crown offices listed in the Act are all disqualified. The provisions of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 largely consolidate the clauses of several previous enactments; in particular, several Crown officers had already been disqualified since the passage of the Act of Settlement 1707. Ministers, even though they are paid officers of the Crown, are not disqualified.

The rule that precludes certain Crown officers from serving in the House of Commons is used to circumvent a resolution adopted by the House of Commons in 1623, under which Members are not permitted to resign their seats. Should a Member seek to leave, he or she may request appointment to one of two ceremonial Crown offices: that of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, or that of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. These offices are sinecures (that is, they involve no actual duties); they exist solely in order to permit the "resignation" of Members of the House of Commons. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is responsible for making the appointment, and, by convention, never refuses to do so when asked by a Member who desires to leave the House of Commons. See resignation from the British House of Commons.

Officers

The Speaker presides over debates in the House of Commons, as depicted in the above print commemorating the destruction of the Commons Chamber by fire in 1834.

The House of Commons elects a presiding officer, known as the Speaker, at the beginning of each new parliamentary term, and also whenever a vacancy arises. If the incumbent Speaker seeks a new term, the House may re-elect him or her merely by passing a motion; otherwise, a secret ballot is held. A Speaker-elect cannot take office until he or she has been approved by the Sovereign; the granting of the royal approbation, however, is a mere formality. The Speaker is assisted by three Deputy Speakers, the most senior of which holds the title of Chairman of Ways and Means. The two other Deputy Speakers are known as the First and Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. These titles derive from the Committee of Ways and Means, a body over which the Chairman once used to preside; even though the Committee was abolished in 1967, the traditional titles of the Deputy Speakers are still retained. The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers are always Members of the House of Commons.

Whilst presiding, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker wears a ceremonial black and gold robe. The presiding officer may also wear a wig, but this tradition has been abandoned by the present Speaker, Michael Martin, and by his predecessor, Betty Boothroyd. The Speaker or Deputy Speaker presides from a chair at the front of the House. The Speaker oversees the day-to-day running of the House, and controls debates by calling on Members to speak. If a Member believes that a rule (or Standing Order) has been breached, he or she may raise a "point of order," on which the Speaker makes a ruling that is not subject to any appeal. The Speaker may discipline Members who fail to observe the rules of the House. Thus, the Speaker is far more powerful than his Lords counterpart, the Lord Chancellor, who has no disciplinary powers at all. Customarily, the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers are non-partisan; they normally do not vote, or participate in the affairs of any political party. By convention, a Speaker seeking re-election is not opposed in his or her constituency by any of the major parties. The lack of partisanship continues even after the Speaker leaves the House of Commons.

Another officer of the body is the Leader of the House of Commons, a Member of Parliament selected by the Prime Minister. The Leader is responsible for steering Government bills through the House of Commons, and is a member of the Cabinet. On behalf of the Government, the Leader manages the schedule of the House of Commons, and makes announcements relating to the timing of recesses, bills, and important events.

The Clerk of the House is the chief clerk and officer of the House of Commons (but is not a member of the House itself). The Clerk advises the Speaker on the rules and procedure of the House, signs orders and official communications, and signs and endorses bills. The Clerk's deputy is known as the Clerk Assistant. Another officer of the House is the Serjeant-at-Arms, whose duties include the maintenance of law, order, and security on the House's premises. The Serjeant-at-Arms carries the ceremonial Mace, a symbol of the authority of the Crown and of the House of Commons, into the House each day in front of the Speaker. The Mace is laid upon the Table of the House of Commons during sittings.

Procedure

Benches in the House of Commons Chamber are coloured green. In contrast, the House of Lords is decorated in red.

Like the House of Lords, the House of Commons meets in the Palace of Westminster in London. The Commons Chamber is small and modestly decorated in green, in contrast with the large, lavishly furnished red Lords Chamber. There are benches on two sides of the Chamber, divided by a centre aisle. This arrangement reflects the design of St Stephen's Chapel, which served as the home of the House of Commons until destroyed by fire in 1834. The Speaker's chair is at one end of the Chamber; in front of it is the Table of the House, on which the Mace rests. The Clerks sit at one end of the Table, close to the Speaker so that they may advise him or her on procedure when necessary. Members of the Government sit on the benches on the Speaker's right, whilst members of the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left. In front of each set of benches, a red line is drawn on the carpet. The red lines in front of the two sets of benches are two-sword lengths apart; a Member is traditionally not allowed to cross the line during debates, for he or she is then supposed to be able to attack an individual on the opposite side. Government ministers and important Opposition leaders sit on the front rows, and are known as "frontbenchers." Other Members of Parliament, in contrast, are known as "backbenchers." Oddly, all Members of Parliament cannot fit in the Chamber, which can only seat 437 of the 646 Members. Members who arrive late must stand near the entrance of the House if they wish to listen to debates. Sittings in the Chamber are held each day from Monday to Thursday, and also on some Fridays. During times of national emergency, the House may also sit on Saturdays.

Due to recent reforms, the House of Commons sometimes meets in another chamber in the Palace of Westminster, known as Westminster Hall. Debates in Westminster Hall are generally uncontroversial or non-partisan; business which leads to actual votes must still be conducted in the main Chamber. Westminster Hall sittings take place each Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. A morning session and an evening sitting occurs on each of these days.

Sittings of the House are open to the public, but the House may at any time vote to sit in private. Traditionally, a Member who desired that the House sit privately could shout "I spy strangers," and a vote would automatically follow. More often, however, this device was used to delay and disrupt debates; it was abolished in 1998. Now, Members seeking that the House sit in private must make a formal motion to that effect. Public debates are broadcast on the radio, and on television by BBC Parliament, and are recorded in Hansard.

Sessions of the House of Commons have often been disrupted by angry protesters who hurl objects into the Chamber from the Strangers Gallery and other galleries. Items which have been thrown into the House include leaflets, manure, flour (see Fathers 4 Justice House of Commons protest), and a canister of chlorobenzylidene malonitrile. Even members have been known to disturb proceedings of the House; for instance, in 1976, Conservative MP Michael Heseltine seized and brandished the Mace of the House during a heated debate. Perhaps the most famous disruption of the House of Commons was caused by King Charles I, who entered the Commons Chamber in 1642 with an armed force in order to arrest five Members of Parliament who belonged to an anti-royalist faction. This action, however, was deemed a grave breach of the privilege of Parliament. By a custom which has been strictly maintained since 1642, no monarch has sought to set foot in the Commons Chamber. Another tradition that arose from Charles I's actions involves the State Opening of Parliament, an annual ceremony in the Lords Chamber during which the Sovereign, in the presence of Members of both Houses, delivers an address on the Government's legislative agenda. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (a Lords official) is responsible for summoning the Commons to the Lords Chamber; when he arrives to deliver his summons, the doors of the Commons Chamber are shut, symbolising the right of the Lower House to debate without interference. The Gentleman Usher knocks on the door thrice with his Black Rod, and only then is he granted admittance.

During debates, Members may only speak if called upon by the Speaker (or the Deputy Speaker, if the Speaker is not presiding). Traditionally, the presiding officer alternates between calling Members from the Government and Opposition. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and other leaders from both sides are normally given priority when more than one Member rises to speak at the same time. Formerly, all Privy Counsellors were granted priority; however, the modernisation of Commons procedure led to the abolition of this tradition in 1998.

Speeches are addressed to the presiding officer, using the words "Mr Speaker," "Madam Speaker," "Mr Deputy Speaker," or "Madam Deputy Speaker." Only the presiding officer may be directly addressed in speeches; other Members must be referred to in the third person. Traditionally, Members do not refer to each other by name, but by constituency, using forms such as "the Honourable Member for [constituency]," or, in the case of Privy Counsellors, "the Right Honourable Member for [constituency]." The Speaker enforces the rules of the House, and may warn and punish Members who deviate from them. Disregarding the Speaker's instructions is considered a severe breach of the rules of the House, and may result in the suspension of the offender from the House. In the case of grave disorder, the Speaker may adjourn the House without taking a vote.

The Standing Orders of the House of Commons do not establish any formal time limits for debates. The Speaker may, however, order a Member who persists in making a tediously repetitive or irrelevant speech to stop speaking. The time set aside for debate on a particular motion is, however, often limited by informal agreements between the parties. Debate may, however, be restricted by the passage of "Allocation of Time Motions," which are more commonly known as "Guillotine Motions." Alternatively, the House may put an immediate end to debate by passing a motion to invoke the Closure. The Speaker is allowed to deny the motion if he or she believes that it infringes upon the rights of the minority.

When the debate concludes, or when the Closure is invoked, the motion in question is put to a vote. The House first votes by voice vote; the Speaker or Deputy Speaker puts the question, and Members respond either "Aye" (in favour of the motion) or "No" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but if his or her assessment is challenged by any Member, a recorded vote known as a division follows. (The presiding officer, if he or she believes that the result of the voice vote is so clear that a division is not necessary, may reject the challenge.) If a division does occur, Members enter one of two lobbies (the "Aye" lobby or the "No" lobby) on either side of the Chamber, where their names are recorded by clerks. At each lobby are two Tellers (themselves Members of the House) who count the votes of the Members. Once the division concludes, the Tellers provide the results to the presiding officer, who then announces them to the House. If there is an equality of votes, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker has a casting vote. The quorum of the House of Commons is forty members for any vote; if fewer than forty members have participated, the division is invalid. Formerly, if a Member sought to raise a point of order during a division, he was required to wear a hat, thereby signalling that he was not engaging in debate. Collapsible top hats were kept in the Chamber just for this purpose. This custom was discontinued in 1998.

The outcome of most votes is largely known beforehand, since political parties normally instruct members on how to vote. A party normally entrusts some Members of Parliament, known as whips, with the task of ensuring that all party Members vote as desired. Members of Parliament do not tend to vote against such instructions, since those who do so are unlikely to reach higher political ranks in their parties. Errant Members may be deselected as official party candidates during future elections, and, in serious cases, may be expelled from their parties outright. Thus, the independence of Members of Parliament tends to be extremely low, and "backbench rebellions" by Members discontent with their party's policies are rare. In some circumstances, however, parties announce "free votes", allowing Members to vote as they please. Votes relating to issues of conscience such as abortion and capital punishment are typically free votes.

Committees

The Parliament of the United Kingdom uses committees for a variety of purposes; one common use is for the review of bills. Committees consider bills in detail, and may make amendments. Bills of great constitutional importance, as well as some important financial measures, are usually sent to the Committee of the Whole House, a body that, as its name suggests, includes all members of the House of Commons. Instead of the Speaker, the Chairman or a Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means presides. The Committee meets in the House of Commons Chamber.

Most bills are considered by Standing Committees, which consist of between sixteen and fifty members each. The membership of each Standing Committee roughly reflects the standing of the parties in the whole House. Though "standing" may imply permanence, the membership of Standing Committees changes constantly; new Members are assigned each time the Committee considers a new bill. There is no formal limit on the number of Standing Committees, but there are usually only ten. Rarely, a bill may be committed to a Special Standing Committee, which operates much like a Standing Committee, but also investigates and holds hearings on the issues raised by the bill.

The House of Commons also has several Departmental Select Committees. The membership of these bodies, like that of the Standing Committees, reflects the strength of the parties in the House of Commons. Each committee elects its own Chairman. The primary function of a Departmental Select Committee is to scrutinise and investigate the activities of a particular Government Department; to fulfil these aims, it is permitted to hold hearings and collect evidence. Bills may be referred to Departmental Select Committees, but such a procedure is very seldom used.

A separate type of Select Committee is the Domestic Committee. Domestic Committees oversee the administration of the House and the services provided to Members. Other committees of the House of Commons include Joint Committees (which also include members of the House of Lords), the Committee on Standards and Privileges (which considers questions of parliamentary privilege, as well as matters relating to the conduct of the Members), and the Committee of Selection (which determines the membership of other committees).

Legislative Functions

Although legislation may be introduced in either House, bills normally originate in the House of Commons. For the stages through which the legislation passes in the House of Commons, see Act of Parliament.

The supremacy of the Commons in legislative matters is assured by the Parliament Acts, under which certain types of bills may be presented for the Royal Assent without the consent of the House of Lords. The Lords may not delay a money bill (a bill that, in the view of the Speaker of the House of Commons, solely concerns national taxation or public funds) for more than one month. Moreover, the Lords may not delay most other public bills for more than two parliamentary sessions, or one calendar year. These provisions, however, only apply to public bills that originate in the House of Commons. Moreover, a bill that seeks to extend a parliamentary term beyond five years requires the consent of the House of Lords.

The House of Commons in session.

By a custom that prevailed even before the Parliament Acts, the superiority of the House of Commons is ensured insofar as financial matters are concerned. Only the House of Commons may originate bills concerning taxation or Supply; furthermore, Supply bills passed by the House of Commons are immune to amendments in the House of Lords. In addition, the House of Lords is barred from amending a bill so as to insert a taxation or Supply-related provision, but the House of Commons often waives its privileges and allows the Lords to make amendments with financial implications. Under a separate convention, known as the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not seek to oppose legislation promised in the Government's election manifesto.

Hence, as the power of the House of Lords has been severely curtailed by statute and by practice, the House of Commons is clearly the more powerful branch of Parliament.

Relationship with the Government

Though it does not elect the Prime Minister, the House of Commons indirectly controls the premiership. By convention, the Prime Minister is answerable to, and must maintain the support of, the House of Commons. Thus, whenever the office of Prime Minister falls vacant, the Sovereign appoints the person most likely to command the support of the House—normally, the leader of the largest party in the Lower House. (The leader of the second-largest party becomes the Leader of the Opposition.) Moreover, the Prime Minister is, by unwritten convention, a member of the House of Commons, rather than the House of Lords.

The Prime Minister may only stay in office as long as he or she retains the confidence of the House of Commons. The Lower House may indicate its lack of support for the Government by rejecting a Motion of Confidence, or by passing a Motion of No Confidence. Confidence and No Confidence Motions are sometimes phrased explicitly, for instance: "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government." Many other motions are considered confidence issues, even though not explicitly phrased as such. In particular, important bills that form a part of the Government's agenda are generally considered matters of confidence, as is the annual Budget. When a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is obliged to either resign, or request the monarch to dissolve Parliament, thereby precipitating a general election.

Except when compelled to do so by an adverse vote on a confidence issue, the Prime Minister is allowed to choose the timing of dissolutions, and consequently the timing of general elections. The timing reflects political considerations, and is generally most opportune for the Prime Minister's party. However, no parliamentary term can last for more than five years; a dissolution is automatic upon the expiry of this period. Parliament is almost never permitted to sit for the maximum possible term, with dissolutions customarily being requested earlier.

Whatever the reason—the expiry of Parliament's five year term, the choice of the Prime Minister, or a Government defeat in the House of Commons—a dissolution is followed by general elections. If the Prime Minister's party retains its majority in the House of Commons, then the Prime Minister may remain in power. On the other hand, if his or her party has lost its majority, the Prime Minister is compelled to resign, allowing the Sovereign to appoint a new Prime Minister. One may note that a Prime Minister may resign even if he or she is not defeated at the polls (for example, for personal health reasons); in such a case, the premiership goes to the new leader of the outgoing Prime Minister's party.

The House of Commons scrutinises the Government through "Question Time," a period during which Members have the opportunity to ask questions of the Prime Minister and of other Cabinet Ministers. Prime Minister's Question Time occurs once each week, normally for a half-hour each Wednesday. Questions must relate to the responding Minister's official Government activities, not to his or her activities as a party leader or as a private Member of Parliament. Customarily, members of the Government party and members of the Opposition alternate when asking questions. In addition to questions asked orally during Question Time, Members of Parliament may also make inquiries in writing.

In practice, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the Government is very weak. Since the First-Past-the-Post electoral system is employed in elections, the governing party tends to enjoy a large majority in the Commons; there is often limited need to compromise with other parties. Modern British political parties are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. Thus, during the twentieth century, the Government has lost confidence issues only thrice—twice in 1924, and once in 1979.

The House of Commons technically retains the power to impeach Ministers of the Crown (or any other subject, even if not a public officer) for their crimes. Impeachments are tried by the House of Lords, where a simple majority is necessary to convict. The power of impeachment, however, has fallen into disuse; the House of Commons exercises its checks on the Government through other means such as No Confidence Motions. The last impeachment was that of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville in 1806.

Current composition

Current as of 11 May 2005.

Affiliation Members
  Labour Party 354
  Conservative Party 195
  Liberal Democrats 62
  Democratic Unionist Party 9
  Scottish National Party 6
  Sinn Féin 5
  Plaid Cymru 3
  Social Democratic and Labour Party 3
  Ulster Unionist Party 1
  RESPECT The Unity Coalition 1
  Independent
2
  Speaker and Deputies
4
  Vacant
1
 Total
646
 Government Majority
67

† Sinn Féin does not take its seats in Parliament because of their refusal to take the oath, which involves acknowledging the Queen.

See also

References

  • Farnborough, T. E. May, 1st Baron. (1896). Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 11th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • "Parliament" (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. London: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pollard, Albert F. (1926). The Evolution of Parliament, 2nd ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Porritt, Edward, and Annie G. Porritt. (1903). The Unreformed House of Commons: Parliamentary Representation before 1832. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Raphael, D. D., Donald Limon, and W. R. McKay. (2004). Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, 23rd ed. London: Butterworths Tolley.

External links








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