AS Government & Politics Unit:2, Topic:2 (Parliament)


Composition of the House of Commons

  • 2010 general election - 650 MPs, 4 seats more than in 2005 - change that resulted from work of the Boundary Commissions 
  • Speaker of the House = John Bercow 
  • Conservative Lib-Dem coalition = 360 MPs overall 
  • Four independent MPs 
  • One Green Party MP - Caroline Lucas
  • One Respect Party MP - George Gallaway (Bradford West) 
  • Age: average age 2010 - 50. Youngest (25) - Pamela Nash (Labour) 
  • Gender: 1987 6% women, 2010 22% women 
  • Ethnicity and religion: Disproportionately white and Christian chamber. 2010 - only 27 ethnic minorities returned to the Commons (4% of MPs) 
  • Class: 4% of MPs in 2010 from a working class background 
  • Education: 7% of the UK have attended private schools, yet 50% of Conservative MPs have attended them 
1 of 16

Commons - Reflecting the population?

Resemblance theory - representation holds that those in the legislature should be typical of the communities that they serve - therefore can reflect more fully their communities' collective values and beliefs. 


  • Understand better the issues facing some communities 
  • Ethnic minorities can have more faith in the legislature then 


  • Some constituents will always be represented by people unlike them 
  • A good MP will represent everybody anyway - irresepective of any identifying features 
2 of 16

Composition of the House of Lords

  • 1999 - House of Lords Act reduced amount of hereditary peers to 92 
  • 760 peers
  • 180 crossbenchers
  • 26 'Lords Spiritual' 
  • Speaker of the Lords = Baroness D'Souza 
  • Lords security of tenure mean that party ties are relatively weak 
  • 2011 - 826 peers, 181 were women 
3 of 16

Appointment of life peers

  • Power granted in Life Peerages Act 1958
  • rapid increase of life peers after 1997 under Blair - rumours that peerages were being sold in return for political donations or loans - however the latter was ultimately unproven
  • Introduction of 'People's peers' - supposed to address the problem of cronyism
  • BUT - Blair's elevation of special adviser Andrew Adonis in Lords 2005 - straight into the government as education minister too reignited the debate
  • As a means of bringing people into the cabinet (e.g. Gus McDonald, Andrew Adonis) 
  • As a device for getting rid of potentially troublesome Commons backbenchers (e.g. elevation to the Lords of former leaders such as Thatcher) 
  • As a reward for political service (e.g. Balir's private pollster Philip Gould in 2004) 
4 of 16

Main functions of Parliament

  • Main roles:
  • REPRESENTATION - MPs should represent the concerns of their constituents within Parl.
  • LEGISLATION - Primary function is to legislate - it must pass through both chambers and unless the parl. act is invoked it will become law 
  • SCRUTINY - Parl. committees and other procedures, e.g. PMQs
  • Other roles: 
  • LEGITIMISATION - the legitimacy rests upon the confidence of the Commons - (e.g. Callaghan's Labour gov't end 1979 vote of no confidence) 
  • POLITICAL RECRUITMENT - parl. provides a recruiting pool - most ministers will have served an apprenticeship in the Commons before taking high office - however some may be brought into the Lords as a means of brining them into Parl. - Andrew Adonis 2005 
5 of 16

Legislative process

Public bills - affect entire population (e.g. Abortion Act 1967)

Private bills - affect particular areas of policy or a specified organisation


1. First reading - in the Commons (formal introduction) 

2. Second reading - (minister outlines principles of bill - then debate)

3. Standing committee - (committee scruitinises and if necessary amends the bill - back to Commons 

4. Third reading - no major amendments - bill passed or rejected 

5. House of Lords - same as Commons practically - amendments back to Commons - then back to Lords - for approval or rejection. Possible use of Parl. Act here)

6. Royal assent 

6 of 16

Short cutting this process

Whip - the standing committee to ensure speedy passage

Formally guillotine committee action 

Limit time for Commons debate 

Make concessions to backbenchers and/or the Lords 

Threaten the use of and/ or use the Parliament Act (1949 - ability to block legislation limited to one parliamentary session) 


Prevention of Terrorism Bill 2005 - seen Labour rebellions on 11/12 separate votes. Some opposed the gov't on all divisions - eg. Clare Short (later resigned after the Iraq War) 

Lords - forced what was called the 'sunset clause' - under this amendment Parl. will have the opportunity to review or repeal the measure at a later date 

7 of 16

Powers of the Houses

Do not have co-equal legislative power

Only Commons has full legislative power - Lords can only 'revise' bills 

Parliament Acts (1911/1949) 

'11 - Replaced Lords' right to veto legislation with the power to delay bills for two years. -also prevented from being able to veto money bills 

'49 - Reduced it to one parliamentary session

Most recent usage of this - 2004 (Hunting Act) 

Salisbury Doctrine 1945

Lords - being unelected - should not oppose gov't bills at second readingwhere gov't had established a clear electoral mandate 

8 of 16

Strength of the Lords

  • Security of tenure and relatively weak party ties make it a serious obstacle to the gov't
  • Lords proved more effective in holding Cons. gov'ts to account between 1979--1997. Provided a similar barrier to New Labour's legislative programme 1997 -2010 
  • Where large Commons maj. have become a norm, some regard Lords as the real opposition within Parl. 
9 of 16

Parliamentary reform since 1997


House of Lords Act 1999 - down to 92 hereditary peers from 759


Labour 2001 White Papeper proposed a second chamber consisting of 600 members, 20% directly elected 

Opposition demanded an 80% elected chamber. Eight models were presented from a fully elected to its abolition (Tony Benn). Feb 2003 - all were rejected 

2005 election manifesto Labour promised a 'predominantly elected' second chamber to replace Lords. This found form in the 2007 White Paper on Lords Reform: 1. Commons retains its primacy over legislation, upper chamber - 50:50 elected and appointed, single fixed term, elections in staggered three sessions, an independent Statutory Appointments Commission, and no single party could enjoy an overall majority. 

Commons - 113 maj. in favour of entirely elected second chamber. Lords rejected all of the proposed models except the one that would allow it to remain entirely appointed 

10 of 16

Completing Lords reform

  • There is no real consensus about the best way forward 
  • There is a general sense that it already performed its functions well. 

- Therefore difficult to complete reform 

11 of 16

Parliamentary Sovereignty

  • A.V. Dicey "twin pillars" - parl. sov. and rule of law. 
  • Parl. Sov. is rooted in common law and based on: 
  • 1. Parl can make/unmake any UK law
  • 2. Only Parl. can make UK law
  • 3. No Parl. can bind its successors 
  • Yet, is this still a reality? 

Treaty of Rome (EU precedence), Devoltuion, increasing use of referendums - undermining UK sovereignty 

Yet in theory Parl. still has power to reverse these changes - so therefore retains legal sovereignty - but it is extremely unlikely to use it in practice 

12 of 16


  • Committees in the Commons < Committees in the House of Reps in US
  • Standing committees - ad hoc - specific leg. 15-25 members. Gov't can apply a guillotine to how long a bill can spend here 
  • Select committees - not to do with passing leg. but hold gov't to account. Departmental select committees - established in the 70s, hold specific gov't depart's. Norton (2000) Newton (2001) report - widening+strenghtening depart' select committees. Wright Committee - ahead of 2010 called to strengthen such committees. Good eg. - Public Accounts Committee (money) 
  • PMQs - Wed, 30min since 1997. seen as the theatre not politics, backbenchers and opposition given some opportunity for concern here - gov't held accountable + frontbenchers can make a name for themselves here - e.g. Lib Dem Vince Cable 2007 - G. Brown - "Stalin to Mr Bean'. 
  • Vote of confidence - formal vote in Commons - PM losing this vote should request the dissolution of Parl. James Callaghan 1979 (Labour), Fixed-Term Parl. Act 2011 - only a vote of no confidence can bring an early dissolution of Parl. 
  • Frontbenchers - wanting to make a name for themselves 
  • Backbenchers - given opportunity in PMQs and the Backbench Committee (Wright Committee)
  • HMRO 
13 of 16

Scrutiny (continued)


  • Receives money known as 'short money' to help cover the cost of holding the gov't of the day to account. 2011/12 - Labour received just over £6 million in short money 
  • Opposition days - can decide topic of debate 


  • Backbenchers in theory should focus entirely on representing their constituents 
  • In reality MPs have to deal with conflicting demands 
14 of 16

Roles of an MP

  • Representative - 'only' role of a backbencher - regular meetings with constituents and gauge local opinion 
  • Loyal party drone - MPs are elected by virtue of the party label - not really personal appeal. Therefore MPs should 'toe-the-line' once in Parl. Party Whips serve to enforce discipline - leaving MPs vulnerable to deselection in their constituencies 
  • Watchdog - MPs had role of holding gov't to account through debates, committees, PMQs and minister's questions. Some MPs prioritise this role e.g. Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner
  • Legislator - MPs have power to kill gov't legislation - however reality shows this rarely happens 

Bill put forward by an MP who does not hold a gov't position - "Private Member's Bill" - e.g. Abortion Act 1967 

Career politicians - MPs nowadays can linger around 15/20 years. Job has changed in recent times, more an attractive option. Salaries and allowances have improved - working hours more sociable and MPs have comfortable offices. Average salary 2011/12 (£65,738). People wanting to keep this going will result in greater party loyalty. Also increase of politicians entering the chamber with no prior career outside politics. Elevation of former special advisers to Commons reflects this trend - e.g. Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and David Miliband 

15 of 16

Party whips

Gov't whips role is to ensure gov't maintains a maj. in votes taken in Parl. 

"Carrot and stick" approach to work - lure of promotion to gov't office for those who are loyal, and the threat of a life on the bck benches. John Major's meteoric rise to the post of PM was often said due to his loyalties 

Whips' ultimate sanction is to remove  the whip from an MP. Effectively throws the MP out of the parl. party and leaves him or her vulnerable to deselection. Snaction is used only rarely as it has the capacity to damage parl. party . In 1994 under John Major 8 Cons MPs (later dubbed the 'whipless wonders') had the whip withdrawn for disloyalty over votes relating to the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty. 

Some MPs choose to resign the whip or even to cross the floor of the House to join another party by taking the party's whip. They can do this without seeking re-election in theory - individuals elected not the party

'Whip' also used to refer to the weely document that each party produces detailing the way they expect their MPs to vote. Items underlines three times (a 'three-line-whip') are the ones where the party demands MPs to vote in a particular way as regards the division in question

16 of 16


No comments have yet been made

Similar Government & Politics resources:

See all Government & Politics resources »See all Parliament resources »