The Parliament of the United Kingdom is the supreme legislature of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It consists of three elements;
Parliamentary democracy in Britain is rather distinct from its modern counterparts in that the British Constitution is not to be found in a single document.
The whole complex system has developed gradually over the centuries, various Acts of Parliament and treaties such as the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, the treaties with the Irish Free State in December 1921 and the European Communities since 1973 have shaped the Constitution of the United Kingdom and continues to do so even today with the advent of devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the election of a Mayor in London.
Similarly, statute laws have established constitutional principles, which have then been interpreted and developed by the courts.
The House of Commons is the centre of parliamentary power based at Westminster and has 659 members, elected from equal-size districts its members are know as Members of Parliament (MP’s), each MP represents a local constituency (electorate).
Parliament is the legislative branch of Government and at the head of Government is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister appoints ministers, about 20 of who make up the Cabinet, which is the policy-making arm of the Government. Because of the strict party discipline, important decisions are often made not in Parliament, but beforehand in the less formal meetings of the cabinet. Each member of the Cabinet and the Cabinet in its entirety is accountable to Parliament.
Main Areas covered by Westminster: Since devolution in the late 1990’s Westminster has transferred various powers to the regions of the United Kingdom, which are mainly concerned with local issues, such as education, tourism etc. The policy issues that are still decided by Westminster for the whole of the United Kingdom are Defence, Foreign Affairs, Employment Law, Constitutional issues, most economic policy, Social Security and Medical ethics.
The House of Lords, with about 1200 members, is made up of the bishops of the Church of England and the hereditary and life peers, all of whom are appointed by the Crown.
Its power was once equal to that of the Commons but this was limited to delaying Money Bills for 30 days by the Parliament Act 1911 and other bills for two years; in 1948 reduced to one year by the Parliament Act 1949. It may do this for example, if it feels there is no popular mandate for a particular Bill, a recent example being the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill (now the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000).
The idea of the House of Lords with its less formal procedures than Commons is to provide additional study and reflection and thus improve the quality of legislation.
The Peerage Act of 1963 made it possible for hereditary peers to resign their peerages and obtain the status and rights of commoners. Past members, such as Tony Benn, of the House of Commons took advantage of this Act.
On 20 January 1999 a Government White Paper “Modernising Parliament: Reforming the House of Lords” was published and a Royal Commission was establishment.
The Royal Commission, chaired by Lord Wakeham, was established to consider the role and functions of the House of Lords and the method or combination of methods of its composition.
The House of Lords Bill, introduced in the Commons on 19th January 1999, had its first reading in the Lords in March 1999. Lord Weatherill, Convenor of the Cross Bench peers, tabled an amendment to exempt 92 hereditary peers which was accepted at the Bill’s committee stage in May 1999.
The amendment provided for 75 hereditary peers to be elected from their own party or cross-bench groups (42 Conservatives, 28 Cross Benchers, 3 Liberal Democrats and 2 Labour). 15 hereditary peers were also to be elected to act as Deputy Speakers or Committee Chairmen. Two hereditary royal appointments, the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain, were also retained. The elections took place in October and November 1999.
The House of Lords Bill received Royal Assent on 11th November 1999.
The Royal Commission’s report “A House for the Future” was published on 20th January 2000.
The Royal Commissions key recommendations include:
Since the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999, a number of attempts has been made to break the logjam in reforming the House of Lords. A number of Government white papers on reform has been produced, and members of the opposition parties have also produced proposals. However, despite free votes in the House of Commons in 2003 and 2007, there remains an uncertainty about what is likely to be the future composition of the second chamber.
Below are the stages of a Bill as it makes its passage through Parliament;