Definition of Parliament

The name given to representative bodies in many states, including the UK. Parliaments have a number of roles including, for example, legislating, calling government to account and representing the community.

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Parliamentary government

  • Parliament is the highest source of political authority. That is, political power may be exercised only if it has been authorised by Parliament.
  • The government must be drawn from parliament- either the Commons or the Lords.
  • There is, therefore, no strict seperation of powers between that of the legislature and that of the execuitve. Instead, we say that the powers of the government and legislature are fused.
  • Government must be accountable to Parliament
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Definition of Parliamentary government

A system of politics where government is drawn from Parliament and is acountable to Parliament. In other words, the government has no separate authority from that of Parliament.

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Presidential government

(US model)

  • The legislature and the executive, in the form of the presidency, have seperate sources of authority. They are seperated elected.
  • The preside is not part of the legislature
  • The president (and thereforeexecutive government as a whole) is accountable directly to the people, not to the legislature.
  • There is a clear separation of powers between the executive and the legislature.
  • This implies that there must be a codified constitutional arrangments that seperates those powers.
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Definition of Presidential government

In contrast to parliamentary government, a president normally has a separate source of authority from that of the legislature. This means that the executive (president) is accountable to the people directly, not to the legislature.

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Definition of Seperation of powers

A constitutional principle that the three branches of government- legislature, executive and judiciary- should have seperate membership and seperate powers and should be able to control each other's powers. It is largely absent in the UK.

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Parliamentary sovereignty

  • Parliament is the source of all political power. No individaul or body may eercise power unless it is granted by Parliament. In effect, Parliament does delegate most of its powers- to ministers, to devolved governments in scotland, Wales and sometimes Northern Irealnd, to local authorities and to the courts of law.
  • Parliament may resotre to itself any powers that have been delegated to others.
  • Parliament may make any laws it wishes and they shall be enforced by the courts and other authorites. 
  • Parliament is not bound by its predecessors, laws passed by parliament in the past are not binding on the current parliament. 
  • Parliament cannot bind its successors. This means that the current Parliament cannot pass any laws that will prevent future parliaments from amending or repealing them 
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Definition of the Westminster model

A term referring to the UK system of government. It implies that parliament lies at the centre of the political system. Its main feture is that government is drawn from parliament and not searately elected. This means government is accountable to parliament.

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The erosion of parliamentary sovereignty

European law is superior to British law, so if there is any conflict, EU law must prevail. 

Executive power has grown considerably in recent decades. This involves a transfer of political but not legal sovereignty.

It is increasignly the practice to hold referendums when important consitutional changes are being proposed.

There is also some room for controversy over the status of the Human Rights Act and the European Covention on Human Rights, which establishes the law. 

Finally there is devolution, especially to Scotland. As with referendums, Parliament can restore to itself all powers that is has delegated. 

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Definition of Bicameralism

A system where there are wo houses of the legislature or parliament which complement each other. Most political systems are bicameral, notably the UK, USA and France. 

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House of Commons

  • 650 MPs  elected in constituencies
  • MPs represent the interests of their constituents and constituencies. 
  • The majority (either a single party or coalition) in the Commons forms the government
  • Members of the government make up the government front bench
  • The senior members of other parties make up the opposition front benches
  • MPs not on the front bench are known as backbenchers
  • There are departmental and other select committees that question ministers, civil servants, officials and other representatives with a view to investigating and evaluating the work of government departments.
  • There are legislative committees that look at proposed legislation with a view to improving it through amendments.
  • Eaach party in Parliament had whips who inform members about business, maintain party discipline and act as channels of communication between party leadership and backbench MPs
  • The government front bench controls most of the parliamentary agenda
  • A neutral "speaker" presides over its proceedings. 
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House of Lords

  • The House of Lords is known as the "upper house' but is actually the junior partner of the Commons
  • Its membership consists of 92 hereditary peers who inherited their title, 26 archbishops of the Church of England and several hundred life peers who have the right to sit in the Lords for their whole lives.
  • The Lords gas legislative committees but not departmental select committees
  • As well as party members, the lords contain "crossbenchers" who are not affiliated to any party and so so are highly independent. 
  • No one party has a majority in the Lords
  • A neutral 'Lord Speaker' presides over its proceedings
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Joint functions of both Houses

  • Granting formal approval for legislation
  • Calling government to account
  • Scrutinising legislation and proposing amendments
  • Debating key political issues
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Actions of the select committees

Standards and Privileges Committee- The Commons only report- Investigates the conduct of MPs and public officials. 

European Union Committee- The Lords only report- Examines and makes recommendations concerning proposed European Unions legislation.

Home Affairs- Detention of terrorist subjects 2006- The committee rejected the government case for up to 90 days detention without trial for terrorist suspects, recommending instead 28 days maximum. The recommendation was accepted by the whole of House of Commons.

Culture, Media and Sport- Call-in TV quiz shows 2007- The committee critisised TV companies running call-in quiz shows where it was not clear what the chances of winning were and how much callers were paying. As a results investigations led to cancellation of many such shows.

Home affairs- Domestic violence and forced marriage 2008- Called for better policing and law enforcement in relation to domestic violence and forced marriages. Resulted in new police guidelines.

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Three functions of Parliament

  • Policy-making legislatures
  • Policy-influencing legislatures
  • Weak legislatures
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Legitimation of Parliament

As Parliament is acting on behalf of th epeople it is clear that the House of Commons plays the leading role in this regard becasue it is elected. The unelected House of Lords cannot calim the same authority. 

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Scrutiny of Parliament

Parliament doesn't make law but it has the function of scrutinising proposed legislation. Scrutiny invloves close inspection and amendments may be proposed.

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Opposition of Parliament

Only applies to parties that don't make up government (opposition parties). Governments virtually always enjoy a majority in the House of Commons. The government doesn't command a majority in the Lords. 

Means that government is forced to explain and justify its policies. 

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Accountability of Parliament

Forcing the government, its minsters in particular, to justify their policies, explaining why they were developed and what their effect are likely to be.

It may mean criticism of those policies. Obviously it is the main role of the opposition parties to criticise, but MPs representing the government party itself may also have their say.

For opposition parties accountablility can also imply the presentation of alternatives to the government's proposals. This represents a more positive form of criticism.

Role of Parliament to expose serious errors. The doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is particularly relevent here.

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Definition of Accountability

A characteristic of the relations between government and parliament. It means that the legislature can call government to account by criticising, requiring justification for policy and seeking explanations of policy. In extreme circumstances it many mean removing a government from power. 

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Functions of Parliament

Private members' legislation

  • The House of Lords is not elected.
  • The Commons is seen to be dominated by the executive and therefore not independent.
  • The electoral system means the Commons is not politically representative of the electorate
  • Little time is devoted to private members' legislation
  • Government is easily able to 'kill' any bills it opposes
  • It is difficult for MPs and peers to gather enough support to force bills through


  • Both Houses lack enough time to consider bills throughly
  • Standing committees are whipped so fall under government control

Financial control

  • Parliament is traditionally not expected tochallenge government seriously in this area.
  • House of Lords has no jurisdiction at all  
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Functions of Parliament (2)

Calling government to account

  • Collective government responsibility makes it difficult to examine government decisions
  • The opposition lacks the administrative back-up of the government.
  • Skilful ministers and civil servants can evade questioning by MPs and peers
  • MPs and peers may lack expertise and knowledge
  • The power of patronage prevents governing MPs and peers being hostile or too inquisitive
  • There remains a good deal of government secrecy, especially in the fiels of defence, security and foreign policy


  • The electoral system makes the Commons highly unrepresentative
  • The House of Lords is not elected
  • Both Houses are socially unrepresentative, especially in terms of women or socail and ethnic background.
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Functions of Parliament (3)

Redress of grievances 

  • MPs lack time to deal with many constituents' grievances

Reserve powers

  • MPs of the governing party are especially reluctant to use reserve powers for fear of precipitating a general election in which they might lose their seats and/or their party might lose power

Scrutiny of proposed legislation

  • Legislative committees are wh ipped and rarely defy government. 

Delaying (House of Lords)

  • The Parliament Act limits this power to one year

Amending (House of Lords)

  • Proposed Lords' amendments must be approved by the HoC where government dominates
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Membership of the House of Lords

House of Lords March 2012

Life peers - 671

Hereditary peers - 90

Bishops - 23

Archbishops - 2 

Party strengths in the House of Lords May 2010

Conservative - 217

Labour - 238

Crossbenchers - 186

Bishops/ archbishops - 25

Lib Dems - 90

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Significance of House of Lords

  • The government is prevented from enjoying an absolute majority in the Lords.
  • Even peers who have a party allegiance tend to be more independent than MPs because politics is not their principal occupation, so the whips have little leverage over them.
  • Because most peers have had a previous occupation they have a wider variety of experience than MPs and sorepresent a wide range of interests in society.
  • The Church of England is strongly represnted, as is the legal profession and the judiciary.
  • Despite its greater independence, the House of Lords is subject to the political patronage of party leaders.
  • It is likely that the membership structure of the House of Lords will be significantly refromed in the years after 2010
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Increased significance of the House of Lords

  • Large government majorities in the Commons became normal. Governments enjoyed majorities of over 100 following the elections of 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001. Opposition in the Commons was weak. memebrs of the House of Lords therefore felt it their duty to bolster parliamentary opposition to make up for Commons' weakness.  
  • The House of Lords began to develop a new 'professionalism' Increased proportion of its membership began taking the role more seriously. 
  • The reform of the Lords in 2000, removing all but 92 of the hereditary peers, gave the Lords greater authority.
  • The colation cahnged the behaviour of the Lords. Lacked a true democratic mandate, the unelected House of Lords could argue that the coaltion government had also not been elected. 
  • There is now a stronger 'rights culture' in the UK, especially since the incorporation of the European Convention on Human rights. 
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Lords defying the will of Government and the HoC

House of lords Reform, late 1998-99- The lords objected to complete abolition of the voting rights of hereditary peers - the government was forced to compromise, allowing 92 hereditary peers to retain their rights.

The legal consent for homosexual males 1998-99- The Lords voted twice, in 1998 and 1999, against lowerubg the age of consent to sex for homosexual males from 18 to 16.- In Noverember 2000 the government forced the meausre through by using the 1949 Parliament Act. The legislation had been passed in two consecutive sessions of the Commons. 

Anti-Terrorism legislation 2001- The Lords defeated the government on ten occasions, proposing key amendments. - The government compromised, removing incitement to relgious hatred as an offence form the legislation.

Hunting with dogs 2001- The Lords blocked the proposal to ban hunting with dogs (mainly fox hunting). Time ran out for the bill beacuse of the 2011 general election. - The ban was postponed, but didn't pass both houses until 2004

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Comparison between the Commons and the Lords

The Lords have crossbenchers, these are absent from the Commons.

A small number of party supporters in the Lords have political ambitions. (many are retired from their professions)

Restrictions on the Lords

  • It can delay the passages of Bills for only one year under the terms of the Parliament Act 1949.
  • It has no power over the financial arrangements of the government, Parliament Act of 1911
  • Its members agree voluntarily that they will not block any legislation that clearly appeared in the government's previous election manifesto. (Salisbury Convention)
  • Any amendments proposed by the Lords must be approved by the Commons. 
  • They delay any legislation where peers feel it is desirable for the government tothink again and perhaps consult more widely.
  • To make helpful and friendly suggestiona for amendments to the bill. 
  • To debate some of the great issues of the dayin order to ensure that the government and the House of Commons hear representatives from a wide variety of groups in society and from experts in the Lords, who have great experiance of the issue concerned. 
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The relationship between government and parliament

Governments are rarely removed from office prematurely. Most governments last the full legal maximum of five years in office or decide to call an election before that on a voluntary basis.

Government are generally able to carry out virtually all of their manifesto commitments with relatively little obstruction

Problems with executive domination:

Government can become dictorial in nature. Legislation may not be properly scrutinised and may survive with undesirable features.

There may be times when the government has lost the confidence of the public. The public cannot remove a government, but Parliament can. As long as the government whips can maintain control, the government will survive, even with a small majority in the House of Commons.

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Why government dominates Parliament

The electroal system used to guarentee that one party would win an absolute majority in the Commons.

Governments parliamentary majority tends to be very large. The electoral sysem is the cause. It tends to exaggerate even a modest lead in the popular vote. Labour's 3% lead over hte Conservatives in 2005 election was translated into a majority of more than 60 seats.

Party loyalty in the UK is traditionally strong. Political parties are normally ideologically unified so the number of dissidents is usually low. Governments can therefore rely on their parliamentary majority with some confidence. 

Prime Ministerial patronage is extremely important. All posts in the government are controlled by the prime ministerhe can demand loyaltyfrom a high proportion of his party MPs.

The ultimate sanction a whip can use against a dissident MP is to suspend or remove them permanently from the party.

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Why government dominates Parliament (2)

Prime Ministers used to be able to threaten dissident MPs with the dissolution of Parliament, pitching them into an unwanted election.

The House of Lords can be a thorn in the government's side. But its lack of authority and powers means that the government can often sidestep its attempts to be obstructive.

The relationship between government and Parliament is constantly changing.

When Government has a modest majority in the Commons, it is more vulnerable. A coalition of opposition parties and a realtively small number of dissidents in the governing party can defeat government. 

When there is no majority for th egovernment, its control is reduced. This may also be true of coalition government. 

When government has a large majority in the Commons the House of Lords becomes more active in an attempt to replace the weaker opposition.

Under Labour after 2001 a persistent group of MPs in the governing party were consistently obstructive.

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Assessments of Lords reform

A fully elected chamber

  • It is more democratic
  • Eliminates any corrupt practices in relation to appointments to the Lords
  • It might act as a democratic balance against the power of the governmnet, especially if elected by proportional representation, so that no party will win an overall majority.
  • If elected proportionally, it will allow smaller parties to be better represented.
  • If an elected second chamber simply mirrored the Commons it would create a deadlock between the two houses or no balancing effect at all.
  • Too many elections might lead to voter fatigue and therefore apathy.
  • A more powerful second chamber might lead to less decisive government.
  • It might simply be another part of the legislature dominated by the parties, with too many 'party hacks'
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Assessments of Lords reform (2)

A fully appointed second chamber

  • It is an opportunity to bring people into the political process who would not wish to stand for election.
  • The membership can be controlled to ensure that all major groups and associations in society coul be represented.
  • It can bring more independents into the political process.
  • It could be too much power into the hands of those responsible for appointing members and could lead to corruption.
  • It is undemocratic and holds back progress towards a modern system.
  • It might lack legitimacy and public support because the people have no part in its composition.

A partly elected, partly appointed chamber

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Assessments of Lords reform (3)

Opponents argue that a reformed, elected second chamber would have too much legitimacy and therfore would challenge the power of government and the Commons, to the detriment of effective government. 

Supporters of reform argue that it is essential to have an elected legislature in a modern  democracy, while an elected second chamber would be accountable and therefore more effective in checking excessive governmental days in the parliamentary year.

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House of Commons reform

These had been made or were being developed by 2012:

  • The chairs of departmental select committees now receive an additional salary, raising their status and influence.
  • Instead of being chosen by party whips, and therefore being subject to patronage, the chairs and members of select committees are now elected by backbench MPs. Makes them more independent minded and less subjected to party discipline.
  • A Backbench Business Comittee has been formed, its members being elected by other MPs. This committee can table debates, independently of government, on over 20 days in the parliamentary year. Debates are often triggered by e-petitions which receive over 100,000 signatures. The debates are designed to raise various matters on the political agenda.
  • The size of the commons is to be reduced by about 50 members.
  • The size of constituencies is to be made equal. It is hoped this will make the Commons more "legitimate".
  • Constituents are to be given the power of 'recall'. This means an unsatisfactory MP could be removed if local citizens can gather a petition to call a by-election and if the MP in question loses suc a by-election.  
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