UK Parliament


Parliament's Chambers

Legislatures are representative bodies that reflect the sentiments and opinions of the public, empowered to make laws. Unicameral legislatures are made up of one chamber only (e.g. Bulgaria, Sweden.); more common in unitary states. Bicameral legislatures are made up of two chambers (e.g. USA, Britain); more common in federal states.

Advantages of bicameralism:

  • Allows checks on the upper chamber; important if one party has a landslide majority.
  • Allows for more efficient checks on the executive.
  • Can broaden the basis of representation (e.g. in federal states, giving representation to the regions).
  • Can allow throrough scrutiny of legislation by providing more time for careful examination of bills.
  • Can act as a constitutional longstop (delaying passage of bills and allowing time for debate).

Disadvantages of bicameralism:

  • Can be unnecessarily costly; role could be easily covered by a streamlined lower house.
  • Slows down the task of government by delaying legislation.
  • Don't always represent the electorate (e.g. the House of Lords is unelected).
  • Could lead to constitutional stalemate / gridlock.
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Functions of Parliament

  • Making legislationin most systems, a majority of members in the legislature must vote to authorise the passage of any law, and in Britain it must pass through both chambers.
  • Representation - those elected represent public opinions and interests within the governing process; this plays an important role in Parliament (MP's).
  • Oversight of executive - there are regular procedures by which the legislatures can question and investigate whether the executive has acted properly in its implementation of public policy.
  • Financial provisions, participation and general debate - this is a fundamental part of democracy, and debate applies to legislation, the executive and many other branches of Parliamentary functions.
  • Legitimation - Parliament authorises rhe actions of rulers; legitimacy of the government rests upon confidence in the Commons.
  • Channel of recruitment - service in the assembly is the required career path for ministers and premiers; Parliament recruits and trains the next generation of political leaders.
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Role of the Opposition

The Official Opposition is the second largest party in the House of Commons and a recognised part of the UK constitution. Opposition parties are all of those parties that oppose the government of the day.

Roles of the Opposition:

  • Opposes the government - the Official Opposition stood at the last election on the basis of distinctive principles and policies, and will naturally oppose ministers who do things differently to the way they recommend. The opposition must provide sustained scrutiny, question ministerial proposals and test them through debate.
  • Supports the government when appropriate, acting as responsible, constructive opposition - careful scrutiny is given, but if ministers do things seen as being in national interest then the opposition will try to cooperate.
  • Acts as an alternative government - if the criticisms of the opposition party are not responsible and well thought-out, it will lack credibility and seem obstructive. It will need to review its policies as circumstances change and be prepared to form a government should the current one fail.

The importance of the Official Opposition is recognised by the payment of an annual salary to the Leader and the chief whip. They also get a share of the 'short money' to help carry out their work. Additionally, 20 Opposition days are granted each year, with 17 going to the Official Opposition and the other 3 going to the next largest party.

Current Official Opposition: Labour (Leader = Jeremy Corbyn).

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Problems facing the Opposition

  • They lack the information available to the government - ministers have civil servants and political advisers to brief them and know the state of the accounts. The opposition lacks help from civil servants and doesn't have access to detailed information - gets a large amount of info from pressure groups.
  • The government sets the political agenda and the opposition must respond to it - ministers can (and often do) take over the best opposition policies, and the PM determined the date of the next election.
  • Morale can be low, especially after massive election defeats - after landslide election defeats (1997, 2001) there seems little point in turning up to be defeated by a massive majority in every vote. Could also lead to divisions.

BUT the Opposition also has power in that it controls some of the timetabling (through the given Opposition days) and through debate can question the government and provide effective scrutiny. 

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Is Parliament Representative? (1)

  • MP's can claim to be effectively representative of the people because they are chosen by them in free elections.
  • Electoral reformers (e.g. LibDems) argue that Westminister is not truly representative because governments not chosen by the entire electorate (turnout in 2001 was only 59%) and therefore they lack legitimacy. 

House of Commons

  • 208 Women - 32% of MP's vs just over 50% of population.
  • 52 BAME's - 8% of MP's vs 14% of population.
  • Average age of MP's = 50 years old (youngest MP elected was 20, 2015).
  • 45 MP's elected in 2017 identified as lesbian/gay/bisexual - highest no. in the world.
  • 29% of MP's in 2017 attended fee-paying schools - only 7% of the population.
  • 15 Muslim MP's - 8% of population.
  • The House of Commons is not necessarily representative as it is overwhelmingly white, male, middle-age, and middle-class compared to the rest of the population, and is unrepresentative of ethnic and religious minorities.
  • 2002: the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) was altered to allow positive measures (e.g. all-women shortlists) to increase representation.
  • Party membership : 316 Conservatives, 257 Labour, 35 SNP, 12 LibDem, 10 DUP, 7 Sinn Fein, 6 Independent, 4 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green, 1 Speaker, 1 Vacant.
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Is Parliament Representative? (2)

The House of Lords

  • 202 women out of 780 Lords.
  • Average age: 69 years old (youngest = 40, oldest = 99).
  • 6% of Lords are from an ethnic/minority background.
  • The greater majority of Lords are privately educated (Oxbridge).
  • Life peers: 664. Hereditary peers: 90. Bishops: 26.
  • Life Peerages Act 1958 - gave PM the right to appoint Lords to the House for life.
  • House Of Lords Act 1999 - ended the right for all but 92 hereditary peers to sit in the House; used to be over 750 hereditary peers before this act. 

Should there be better representation?

  • MP's have high levels of education so can deal with complex issues of public policy regardless of gender, race, etc.
  • BUT women and ethnic minorities should be better represented because it is dangerous in a democracy if groups with less wealth and power are under-represented.
  • Also, as long as certain groups are under-represented there are likely to be fewer debates on issues affecting them, so change is made difficult.
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The House of Commons (1)

The main functions of the House of Commons are producing legislation, controlling the raising/spending of public money, scrutinising the executive and representing the people. Currently there are 650 MP's in the HofC, and each represents one constituency into which they are voted.

Roles of Members of Parliament

  • The Party - MP's are usually elected due to the party they represent. Parties therefore demand loyalty in return, so whips are used to enforce discipline by offering/witholding promotions in government, leaving MP's vulnerable to de-selection in their constituencies (this is threatening particularly to back-benchers).
  • The Constituency - MP's are elected by their constituents, and hold regular surgeries, promote constituency interests in Parliament (e.g. at PMQ's), attend political meetings, etc.
  • Watchdog - MP's hold the government to account through debates, committees, and PMQ's.
  • The Nation - they serve the national interest as well as their constituents; still part of the legislature.
  • Legislation - for a bill to become an Act it must pass through the HofC. MP's have the power to kill gvmt legislation.
  • Conscience and special interest - MP's can introduce Private Members Bills and cannot be expected to act in defence of something they fundamentally disagree with (though can be made to toe the party line in most cases).
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The House of Commons (2)

To what extent are MP's representative of their constituents?

  • MP's will raise constituency interests at PMQ's, in debates and through Private Members Bills.
  • BUT, members of Parliament will still toe the party line and won't represent their constituents in certain issues, instead following the party - whips, patronage and internal discipline ensure that back-bench MP's will follow the front-benchers.
  • The effectiveness of MP's representing their constituency is constrained by lack of time and the inability of individual MP's to persuade the government majority to support them.

Public opinion: 2016 Audit of Political Engagement showed that 35% of people were satisifed with the way their MP was doing his/her job, only 29% were satisfied with MP's in general.

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The House of Commons (3)

How does the government dominate the House of Commons?

  • They almost always provide the majority of the membership - they have the highest number of seats in the House, so hold the majority of the power (Conservatives + DUP = 326 seats).
  • They shape the agenda of the House - they do this after consultation with the Opposition over the management of Commons business. The agenda takes the form of government legislation, ministerial statements, motions by the government or opposition, emergency debates, Private Members motions and oral questions.
  • They shape the outcome and timing of legislation - most amendments to bills represent 'second thoughts' by ministers following representations made by pressure groups and MP's on their own side. Rarely do they make changes due to criticism from the Opposition. They also monopolise the time of the House.
  • They almost always win when divisions occur - divisions between smaller parties is advantageous for the government when it comes to taking votes.
  • They control the flow of information to Parliament - ministers choose what material is made known to MP's, sometimes witholding things that may be damaging. They also may choose to release information to the press before Parliament. Also, ministers are present when issues are discussd in the Cabinet or in Cabinet Committees; Opposition and counterparts are not present. 
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Committees in the Commons (1)

In the House of Commons there are 2 types of committees: standing and select.

Standing Committees / Public Bill Committees (PC's)

  • Usually have the role of considering legislation or documents.
  • All bills, other than money bills, are sent to a PC following their 2nd reading, unless they are committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
  • Made up of 15-50 members, with the numbers from each party reflecting the composition of the House. 
  • They are appointed every session and are non-specialist, with bills being allocated to the next one available.
  • They are traditionally less investigatory, but have had the power to take evidence from outside officials and experts since 2006 (but this is not their primary function). 
  • They can last several months when considering legislation, suggesting both minor changes and serious amendments before reporting out to the House.
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Committees in the Commons (2)

Select Committees

  • Select Committees scrutinise the work of government departments.
  • Their role is to examine the strategy of government departments, examine policy and make proposals, examine departmental spending and delivery, examine the implemention of legislation, consider departmental appointments and hold pre-appointment hearings and produce reports for debate in the Commons.
  • SC's exist for the duration of Parliament and are specialist, with members tending to serve a long time and acquire expert knowledge.
  • They are fairly small bodies of up to 16 members (usually about 11) and are more powerful that standing committees, equipped with powers to hold hearings and collect evidence.
  • Public Accounts Committee - non-departmental, has the role of ensuring value for money in government.
  • Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee - examines constitutional issues and the civil service.
  • Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee Enquiry (2016) - concluded after investigation into Sports Direct that Mike Ashley must be held accountable for 'extremely disturbing' work practices.
  • Foreign Affairs Committee Enquiry (2016) - investigation into UK intervention in Libya concluded that the UK's actions in 2011 were ill-concieved, and Cameron was responsible for failing to develop a strategy.
  • Study by the Constitution Unit 2011 - found that governments accepted 40% of select committee recommendations.
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The House of Lords (1)

Significant changes to the House of Lords

The upper House used to share equal status with the Commons but has survived transtition to a more democratic age.

  • The Parliament Act 1911 - removed the power of permanent veto of legislation so Lords could not infinitely delay legislation; any bill which passed through the Commons in 3 successive sessions would become law.
  • The Parliament Act 1949 - further limited the delaying powers of the Lords, making it 2 sessions instead of 3.
  • Life Peerages Act 1958 - permitted men and women to be created as peers for the duration of their lives in order to diversify membership. This caused changes to the composition and powers of the House and there are currently 664 life peers. 1st female life peer: Baroness Wootton of Abinger.
  • House of Lords Act 1999 - removed the right for all but 92 hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

The Lords Spiritual comprises the Archbishops of York & Canterbury as well as the next 24 most senior bishops; they retain their membership for as long as they hold office in the Church.

The Law Lords are members by virtue of their high judicial positions; they retain their seats until death so there are always more Law Lords than is necessary, to enable the House to fulfil its judicial functions. 

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The House of Lords (2)

Work performed by the House of Lords

  • The consideration and revision of bills from the House of Commons --- HofL examines legislation in detail and may pass/amend/reject bills. Ministers may accept or reject amendments to government legislation, with rejection leading to a process of negotiation between the two chambers.
  • The initiation of non-controversial legislation --- many bills are non-controversial as they cause no party disagreement; back-benchers may introduce Private Members Bills, and though few are passed they raise attention to many issues.
  • The power of delay --- the Lords can hold up legislation under the Parliament Act 1949 with extra time being used for greater reflection and consideration.
  • The holding of general debates --- peers can conduct useful discussions on matters such as the environment; such debates usually take up over 25% of the time of the Lords and are less noisy and partisan than those held in the Commons.
  • Scrutinising European Legislation --- the government cannot agree to any EU proposal untilo the committee has completed its consideration and cleared it from scrutiny.
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Does the Lords need reform? (1)

Arguments for reforming the House of Lords

  • The task for reform is unfinished --- the HofL can damage a ruling government and can frustrate the wishes of the lower chamber; e.g. the Lords obstructed the banning of fox-hunting 3 times between 1997-2004.
  • The present situation is not significantly better than it was before --- the method of appointing Lords doesnt allow the legitimacy to show independence; e.g. the PM makes nominations; when Blair was PM, those he appointed were called 'Tonie's Cronies' as several of them were Labour to promote party legislation.
  • The current House should reflect Britain as it is today --- a fair election should yield an assembly which represents the people, and within which women and ethnic minorities have a chance of election ; only 24% female, 6% BAME.

Arguments against reforming the House of Lords

  • The chamber provides valuable opportunity for careful scrutiny of government work --- removal of hereditary peers means that most members are now life peers, chosen because they have expertise to contribute.
  • The diversity of membership in terms of skills means there is always smeone who can speak with authority on even the most obscure subject.
  • The chamber has done successful work of revision and also has shown a spirit of independence in the last couple of decades or so.
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Does the Lords need reform? (2)

Option 1: NO CHANGE

  • The House is already effective; no need to change it, and the consequences of doing so are unknown.
  • The HofL has less party influence, but more experience and expertise - balances HofC.
  • The HofL is not representative; no longer tolerable to have an undemocratic institution involved in legislation.


  • Unicameral systems do work; HofL isn't needed as it only delays legislation (HofC scrutinises it).
  • HofC have already voted against unicameralism in 2005; majority of 253 in favour of keeping the 2nd chamber.
  • UK population is too large for unicameralism to work.
  • Scrutiny needs to be carried out by a 2nd chamber with less party influence - need the HofL.


  • Would bring in high-quality members and could bring more independents into the political process.
  • Would be undemocratic due to patronage of party leaders; would then lack legitimacy and public support.
  • Too much power in the hands of those appointing - could lead to corruption.
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Does the Lords need reform? (3)


  • Fully elected chamber would be more democratic and accountable; wider representation.
  • It would also better check the Commons and prevent executive tyranny.
  • The HofL would then mirror the HofC and therefore serve no purpose.
  • Poor scrutiny of legislation due to party bias, and lack of specialist knowlegde also.
  • An elected HofL with more authority may impede decisive government as they would be indecisive due to party ties; overall just too much party influence.


  • Combines the advantages of 2 systems; expertise isn't lost but the process is made more democratic.
  • Would likely allow a better mix of genders and ethnicities.
  • It is a compromise; the system would only be partially democratic, and would still reserve the power of patronage.
  • It would therefore still lack legitimacy and accountability.
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Legislation (1) - types of bills


  • Generally affect a particular area of polocy or an organisation as opposed to the population as a whole.
  • Personal Bills - type of prvate bill - normally deal with regulations affecting 1-2 people, and sometimes grant individuals dispensation from existing law.
  • Example: University of London Bill (in HofL) - to make new provisions for the making of statues for the Uni of London.


  • These affect the entire population. Vast majority are government-sponsored but some are by back-benchers:
  • Government Bills - often seek to fulfil manifesto committments and are much more likely to be successful because the government controls the Parliamentary timetable.
  • Example: Children and Social Work Act 2017 (pending RA).
  • Private Members Bills - a private members ballot allocates slots for such bills and MP's who have entered the ballot and have been successful can then advance their legislation. These bills offer a way of legislating on controversial issues (e.g. Abortion Act, 1967) without dividing parties.
  • Example: 2015 - bill passed to make it illegal to smoke in cars with children under 18. 

There are currently around 177 bills before the House of Commons alone (2017-19).

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Legislation (2) - passage of bills

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Legislation (3) - scrutiny

  • Scrutiny of legislation is conducted mainly through Public Bill (standing) Committees, which operate in a less formal and adversarial way that the business conducted in the main chamber.
  • More general scrutiny is carried out via questions, letters, debates, and Early Day motions.
  • 4 emergency debates were held in the 2015-16 Parliament (including on the refugee risis and the UK steel industry).
  • Many topic for debate can shape the Parliamentary agenda; e.g. referendum on the EU and the release of documents on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster were both debated in 2011. 
  • The granted Opposition days also allow criticism for any aspect of government policy that the parties choose to highlight.


  • Occur every Wednesday afternoon for 30 mins.
  • Allows direct questioning of the executive.
  • If a question goes unanswered it is written down and replied to later; around 35,000 written questions per session.
  • Some questions are asked to find out information, others are vehicles for making a party point. 
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Scrutiny of the Government

  • Committee Action - departmental select committees scrutinise the work of government departments, and operate in a less formal and adversarial way than in the main chamber.
  • Prime Ministers Questionsallows serious questioning of the premier from opposition parties, but back-benchers can also participate and raise constituency issues.
  • Vote of No Confidence - a government must have the confidence of the Commons in order to remain in office; a government losing a vote of no confidence will seek dissolution of Parliament, leading to a general election (1979).
  • Debates & motions - in Early Day motions the Commons debates on specific issues called by MP's. They can hold the government to account on behalf of their constituency, and the Opposition can also set days for debate.
  • Lords Action - can scrutinise government proposals and offer amendments. Most acts passed are the product of compromise between the 2 chambers, with the Parliament acts used rarely.
  • Back-benchers - have the power to reject government proposals (outnumber the frong by 6:1) and can put forward their own legislative proposals, ask questions at the PMQ's and put down motions. 
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