Parliamentary Soverignty

'Parliament makes government legitimate by passing laws created by the executive and supporting laws passed'

  • Parliament is the source of all political power

Nobody (devolved powers, councils) can exercise power unless granted the power by Government.

  • Parliament can make or unmake any laws it wants

There are no limitations, except the EU, on laws made. Any law made must be upheld in the courts.

  • Existing laws can be dismissed by a new government
  • Current Parliament can't pass any laws which restrict the future government
  • Therefore, the UK can't have an entrenched constitution because it would restrict parliamentary soverignty
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Political Soverignty

Political sovereignty is where power lies in reality 

  • 'Sovereignty of the majority' is the idea that the majority power has political sovereignty because they can pass all their laws.
  • The majority party received a mandate from the public to deliver their manifesto promises.
  • It is assumed parliament will not stop the government when attempting to pass a law which was featured on their manifesto.
  • During an election, political sovereignty returns to the electorate.
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Erosion of Parliamentary Sovereignty

1. Legislative powers have been passed on to the EU

EU law is the only higher authority than Parliament and can strike down any laws which don't comply with EU laws. EU makes laws on reserved matters for example; trade, environment and employee rights and certain areas are free for the UK to make its own laws

2. Sovereignty has shifted to the executive

3. Referendums are held on big issues

(EU, AV system, Manchester congestion charge). Shifts power to the people as parliament wouldn't ignore the result of a referendum.

4. European Convention on Human Rights

Though the ECHR isn't legally binding the government wouldn't ignore it when making laws.

5. Devolution removes power from parliament

The government reserves the right to take away the power however

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Three main parts; House of Commons, House of Lords and the Queen

'Asymmetrical Bicameralism' - a system where the legislature is made up of two houses which compliment each other, but the two houses have different political power.

The house of commons has more political power than the house of lords because the HoC is elected, and therefore has a mandate.

'Westminister Model' - UK system of government where Parliament lies at the centre of political power, and the government is drawn from parliament.

In the US, the president is at the centre of political power.

'Royal Assent' - the signature of the queen on legislature to legitimise the law. The queen has never objected to a law and it would be undemocratic of her to do so, as she is unelected.

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Functions of Parliament

  • Legitimising government

The approval MPs give to a law effectively gives popular support to a law as they are elected to represent the public. HoC has the leading role in legitimising laws because they're elected, unlike HoL.

'Promulgation' - promote or make widely known, put into effect by official proclamation. 

  • Scrutiny

Parliament needs to scrutinise bills. This involves close inspection through committees of proposed legislation. Parliament represents various interests in society and scrutiny ensures minorities are protected. Scrutiny also makes sure laws are understandable and clear.

  • Opposition

The opposition will challenge the government and force them to explain and justify policies, attempting to find a weakness in the government position. It means the government must effectively prepare their case.

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Functions of Parliament (cont.)

  • Accountability

Parliament can hold the government to account by demanding justification and explanation of policy. During elections, the government is accountable to the public. In 2005 support for Labour fell from 41% to 36%; people delivered a negative view of Labour's performance. Parliament holds the gov to account by; forcing ministers to justify policy, criticising policy (opposition), the opposition can present alternatives to policy, exposing errors made by the government ministers.

  • Representation

Each MP has on average 70,000 constituents to represent. They must also represent their party and its manifesto, the National interest (75% of MPs represent a pressure group), pressure groups and their own personal opinion. MPs are expected to toe the party line and ensure the party gets its legislation through. Whips can try and control MPs with 'sticks and carrots', but it is their decision if they chose to rebel or not. Some may rebel because the decision negatively impacts their constituency such as the Heathrow expansion or it may go against their personal beliefs, for example, going to war in Iraq.

'Burkean Representation' - MPs should represent the National Interest; they aren't puppets to their party or constituents.

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Representation in Parliament

Political Representation

  • FPTP is unproportionate and not representative
  • Most MPs are voted in by less than 50% of the constituency, meaning parties are under/over represented
  • Millions of votes are wasted, especially voting for 3rd parties, creating tactical voting

Social Representation


  • 29% of MPs are female
  • Lib Dems don't have any female MPs
  • 6% of MPs are non-white
  • 25% privately educated
  • Average age is 51
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Does Representation Matter?


Certain groups are underrepresented in parliament which may lead to alienation/disengagement from excluded groups. Certain groups are underrepresented in parliament which may lead to alienation/disengagement from excluded groups. More representation leads to role models for younger people to look up to. All parties want equal opportunity but that isn’t reflected in their legislative composition.


MPs represent a large and diverse community and can’t be a mirror image of the community. They don’t need to be a certain minority to put a case forward for them. Women are a large and diverse group of people, with different opinions, women and ethnic minorities don’t all have the same opinion. Basing who gets a job based on their race/gender is positive discrimination.

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  • Prime Ministers Questions

30 min slot a week in HoC where the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition answer questions given to them by MPs. It is an opportunity for the MPs to hold the government to account and question both main parties. 15 out of 300 questions are picked from a ballot and MPs who don't get their question picked have to 'catch the speakers eye'. The questions don't get answered properly because the leaders want to look good and will avoid tough questions. MPs will shout when something they don't agree with gets said making it hard for the leaders to speak and other MPs to ask questions. Whips also encourage the MPs to ask a question that will make the party look good. Overall, a poor way to scrutinise government.

  • Questions to Ministers

A lot more effective than PMQs. MPs get a chance to question ministers and make them properly explain legislation and action within their department. They are forced to answer questions unlike PMQs.

  • 20 Opposition Days

The opposition is granted 20 days where they get to criticise and debate government policies. Allows the Opposition the effectively hold the government accountable.

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Scrutiny: Committees

  • Public Bill (Standing) Committees

They scrutinise bills going through parliament and propose amendments. They are a key part of the legislative process. Appointed every session (yearly). Non-specialist and bills are appointed to committees who are free. Examine details of a bill during the committee stage. Large and have up to 50 members. Have the power to take evidence but rarely hold investigations.

  • Departmental Select Committees

They shadow a certain department and scrutinise it. They look at departmental processes, finances and investigate any mistakes made within the department.Last for the full 5-year duration of parliament. Specialist as they only look at a certain department and members gain expert knowledge. Scrutinise their departments' actions. Small, have around 11-16 members. Have the power to take evidence and hold hearings (Culture, Media, and Sport held the Levison Inquiry into phone hacking).

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Problems With Committees

  • Public Bill Committees

The majority party has majority membership in committee, the composition is based on the ratio of membership in the house.

Members of the governing party are expected to approve legislation which is government approved, whips have influence over the committee. The same happens with legislation the government doesn't want passing, whips make sure the legislation isn't passed.

  • Select Committees

They have the power to take evidence and hold investigations, but they aren't a court of law so all they can do is produce a report on their findings. However, the thought of giving evidence scares ministers and civil servants and acts as a deterrent from wrongdoings. Their investigations can trigger the judiciary to investigate something, ex. the Levison inquiry.

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Reforms Under the Coalition Government

After the expenses scandal in 2009, the 'Reform of the House of Commons Committee' also known as the 'Wright Committee'  proposed some changes:

1. Election of select committee chairs through a secret ballot using AV

This prevented the party whips from choosing the chairs as a reward, now preventing the chairs from going along with the party. It means more effective scrutiny as all party influences are gone. Chairs need bipartisan support in voting.

2. Creation of the Backbench Business Committee

Created to give backbenchers more time in HoC. They get 20 days (equal to the opposition) to discuss what they want. Allows MPs time to address constituency specific problems they may not otherwise be given time to address. They also consider any e-petitions which get over 100,000 signatures.

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Party Whips

Whips promote order and unity within a party. They do this by exerting control over MPs through the use of 'sticks and carrots'. Whips also operate in HoL but are less influential as HoL is less partisan. Votes/divisions in the commons are one, two or three line whipped votes. A three line whip is the most important, and MPs are expected to be there and vote in line with the party. Free votes can also be called where MPs don't have to listen to whips and can use their own morals, such as Labour's free vote on Syrian air strikes. 

Whips are important in the Commons. If the governing party has a small majority, any splits within the party can mean the governing party loses a vote. (Callaghan and Major both had small majorities). The government relies on MPs to carry out manifesto promises. The Opposition and media will exploit any split within a party (Tories and EU membership). Divisions in the party create confusion for the electorate over what the party believes in (Labour's divide over Corbyn leadership).

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Whips have a high level of control and the majority of MPs are 'career politicians' who will follow whips to get promotions. However, there are MPs who rebel a lot, called Mavericks. Peter Hollobone has rebelled 129 times. Mavericks tend to be well respected but rarely rise about MP role, but they remain MP as they are popular in their constituency. 

MPs cam create factions in their party or join with opposition parties to rebel against proposed legislation. In governments with huge majorities such as Blair's majority in 1997, rebellions can show disapproval of a bill but won't stop it. However, in the Coalition government, the majority is weak and rebellions can stop legislation. 

  • In 2003, 137 MPs rebelled against the invasion of Iraq
  • In 2012, 53 MPs rebelled against the EU budget
  • In 2016, 134 MPs rebelled against gay marriage 
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3 main functions of the opposition

1. Oppose the Government

2. Support the Government when it is best for the national interest

3. Provide an alternative government. They need to be a credible alternative throughout the 5-year term to be electable at the next election.

Problems for the opposition

They have less information available to them than the government does as they don't get help from the civil service. 

The government sets the agenda and the opposition responds. (Ex. Date of the election)

Morale can be low after an election defeat. Also, prospects of re-election can be dim when the governing party has a huge majority.


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Backbench MPs

  • Useful party members

Can specialise in certain areas of policy on select committees and have media appearances. If they are loyal to the party and follow whipped voted they are more likely to advance.

  • Good constituency members

They can get a good reputation in their constituency by devoting their time to their constituency and taking up cases in the HoC.

  • Independence within the system

MPs who aren't easily controlled by whips make a name for themselves, as there aren't many independents. They get a good reputation within their constituencies and are also vocal critics of the governments. MP George Galloway was a critic of the Labour party before leaving and creating the Respect Party. 

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Private Members Bills

  • They are a chance for MPs to create legislation. Successful PMBs have cross-party support. There is pressure on MPs to toe the party line when pushing PMBs. 
  • PMBs are selected through a ballot of all applicants (usually around 500). 20 are accepted to be proposed to the HoC or HoL.
  • They are selected in reverse order. Whoever is selected last has the most realistic chance of getting their PMB passed because they get the first slot and there is no chance of running out of time before getting to propose their legislation. 
  • There is still a chance to get PMBs through without getting selected in the ballot. MPs need to queue outside the PMB clerk's office.
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Powers of the HoL


1911 and 1949 Parliament Act allow the Lords to delay legislation for up to one year. After that, the legislation can be passed through and Lords can't block it. Blocking legislation is effective and shows the government when a law is not popular or needs amending. Ex. Child Tax Credits legislation was blocked by HoL and then scrapped by HoC. Lords also blocked Brexit until the rights of EU migrants were protected. The Salisbury Convention prevents the Lords from delaying and legislation which featured and in the most recent party manifesto.


The HoL has more time to debate proposed legislation. This is because the HoL is filled with experts, who add authority to debates. The HoC is much more tightly controlled. HoL is less partisan so can freely express thoughts without whip control.

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  • No party has a majority in the House
  • 90 hereditary peers are in the HoL, with the idea that further reform will remove them
  • Life Peers are appointed on political grounds. All major parties can nominate new peers in proportion to their membership in the House
  • Most of these nominations are retired politicians 
  • The 'Independent Appointments Commission' appoints crossbenchers to remove any party majority in the HoL (there are over 100 crossbenchers)
  • Bishops andArchbishops are all peers because CoE is the established religion of the UK. No other religion is formally represented in the HoL. They are politically neutral but can be important when discussing ethical or religious issues.
  • 25% of peers are female, 6% are non-white and average is 51
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Increasing Importance of the Lords

  • Prior to New Labour's reforms, the Lords was unimportant as it was filled with mostly hereditary peers who didn't attend and made the HoL look undemocratic. It had an in-built conservative bias.
  • Large majorities became common in the 80s and 90s, so the HoL held the government to account in place of a weak opposition.
  • The Lords is professional due to the membership being people who are at the top of their fields
  • The HoL reforms gave it more credibility as the majority of the hereditary peers were removed
  • During the coalition government, it acted as a second opposition because it claimed the government lacked a mandate
  • HoL can use the HRA and ECHR to help protect individual rights
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Limitations of the HoL

  • Parliament Act 1911 means the Lords have no power of financial arrangements of the government.
  • Parliament Act 1949 says Lords can only delay for up to 1 year.
  • Salisbury convention prevents the Lords from blocking any legislation which appeared in the most recent party manifesto. It prevents unelected officials from blocking legislation which has a mandate from the electorate, which would be undemocratic.
  • Any amendments made by the HoL must be approved in the HoC.
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Should the HoL be Elected


An elected 2nd chamber would increase representation. (Right now, it is elitist.) Elected chamber would improve legislation. The Parliament Acts and the Salisbury Convention would be disregarded. Elections would enhance the scrutiny of the executive, the executive would have to be drawn from both houses. It may lead to proper separation of powers between the executive and the legislative.


The HoL would lose the professionals as they wouldn't waste time campaigning and it would reduce the quality of debates. Flaws of the HoC would be replicated, the lack of social and political representation would exist in both houses. HoL is effective in holding the government to account and if it was elected it wouldn't be able to constrain executive power as efficiently. Peers protect rights of vulnerable (Child tax credits). Lords may not protect rights of vulnerable if elected because the HoC doesn't. In America where they have 2 elected houses, they have political gridlock.

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Exam Question Examples

5 Marker

  • Explain the term life peers used in the extract
  • Explain the term the Speaker as used in the extract
  • Explain the term parliamentary majority as used in the extract

10 Marker

  • Identify and explain two arguments for keeping the HoL in its present form
  • Identify and explain two reasons in favour of adversarial politics as practiced in the HoC
  • Identify and explain two ways in which MPs 'articulate the interests of different groups in society to government

25 Marker

  • 'The HoL can often be more effective than the HoC in the scrutiny of the executive'. Discuss.
  • 'The principal role of backbench MPs is to support their parties, not to exercise personal judgments or air their consciences'. Discuss.
  • 'Various demands on MPs can make it difficult for them to put the interests of their constituents first'. Discuss.
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