Exclusive Interview: How Does the UK Parliament Work?

Interview By KIMBERLY FELICIANO

Printed March 2007

Q: What is the difference between the 'House of Commons' and the 'House of Lords'? Is it analogous to the United States 'House of Representatives' and the 'Senate'?

[Answers by Victor Launert, Visitor Services Manager, Palace of Westminster] “Not quite. The House of Lords is older and derives from the ‘Curia Regis’, or King’s Council, of early mediaeval times – those noblemen who held most of the land, and hence wealth, of the nation, and to whom the Monarch looked for advice and support. The House of Commons developed as an offshoot of this, as other classes of people grew in importance and demanded their own voice, sitting separately from the Lords from 1341. The Commons is now the primary House, with all Members elected by the public, with the powers of the Lords limited by statute (e.g. it may not vote on the budget, and the Commons can force through legislation if the Lords have rejected it several times). Members of the House of Lords are today mainly peers appointed for life on the advice of the leaders of the main political parties; only a minority sit there by right of heredity or by virtue of holding other posts, e.g. the Archbishop of Canterbury. Further reform of the House of Lords is currently being debated by Parliament.”

Q: So, not much clout from the ranking side?

“Not in terms of legislation or budgetary items. We just try to point out to the public our platform, our issues, and to get the public support to make sure our colleagues on the other side of the aisle get the issue right.”

Q: Who drafts new legislation?

“The Ministerial Committee on the Legislative Programme recommends to the Cabinet what proposed legislation should be included in the year’s business. The relevant government department – say, the Home Office – then drafts instructions outlining the intention of the legislation to specialist lawyers – “parliamentary counsel” – who attend to the detail, ensuring that the final draft is as watertight as possible and minimizing the risk of subsequent legal challenge. It is then further scrutinized by specialist departments of both Houses to ensure that complies with House rules, before finally being released into the parliamentary process.”

Big Ben

“Big Ben” refers to the 13-ton bell that strikes each hour. [Right]: Photo taken by statue of Queen Boudicca in her horse-drawn carriage. She led a major uprising of the Eastern Britain tribes against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. (Photos by Kimberly Feliciano after touring the Palace)

Q: What is the process required for legislation to become law?

“For a bill to become law, normally it must have been approved by both Houses (sometimes after going back and forth between them with suggested amendments), although as noted above if it has been rejected by the Lords a few times the Commons has the power to push it through without their further consent. Either House may introduce bills; both will scrutinize them in detail in committee before final votes on the floors of the Houses. Whichever course a bill takes, it does not become law until it receives the Royal Assent, the Monarch being the other of the three elements which make up Parliament.”

Q: What is the title of someone in the 'House of Commons' (analogous to 'Congressman')?

“Member of Parliament, or MP for short.”

Q: How often are representatives in the 'House of Commons' elected?

“Elections must take place at least every five years, although they may take place more frequently if Parliament is dissolved early. This is usually done at the instigation of the ruling party, which may give them a tactical advantage in the election.”

Q: How does one become a member of the 'House of Lords'?

“Only a minority – less than one hundred from a total of around 730 – are now members by right of inheritance. The majority are life peers nominated by the main political parties and chosen for their knowledge and expertise in a wide range of fields, or for some outstanding contribution to the life of the nation. 24 seats are also reserved for the archbishops and senior bishops. Further reform of the House of Lords is currently being debated; options range from wholly elected to wholly nominated.”

Q: How long are the terms? What are their powers?

“Peers serve for life, with the exception of the bishops who lose their seats on retirement. As well as being able to introduce bills of their own, they review and revise legislation introduced by the Commons and propose amendments. The House of Lords is also the highest court of appeal in the land (except for criminal cases in Scotland) and among its members are the specialist Law Lords, appointed for that purpose. However, this function will cease in 2009 with the creation of a new, separate, Supreme Court. ”

Q: Who carries more weight in Britain? Does the media pay more attention to one House than the other?

“As the elected House, the Commons carries more weight and attracts more media attention; and, of course, as MPs must stand for election they will also wish to ensure that the public is aware of their manifesto. That said, if legislation is contentious and rejected or heavily amended by the Lords, that House can also find itself at the centre of attention.”

Q: How often does the Prime Minister address Parliament? Also, is it customary for the PM to take questions from the Parliament at that time, or does the PM just make a speech?

“The Prime Minister takes questions from MPs every sitting Wednesday between 1200 and 1230. Although the main questions are known to him in advance, MPs may also ask a supplementary question which is often designed to catch him out. This leads to some very interesting and sometimes heated exchanges! Prime Minister’s questions is famous for its liveliness. Other than this there is no specific occasion on which the Prime Minister regularly addresses Parliament. The Monarch, on the other hand, does address both Houses at each year’s State Opening of Parliament, reading what is known as the Queen’s Speech (although it is actually written by the government and outlines its proposed programme of legislation for the year).”

Q: How is the Prime Minister chosen? Are they elected?

“The Prime Minister is selected by the Monarch but is by tradition the leader of the majority party. As such they are elected by the members of that party. Theoretically at least a party leader might lose their seat at an election which their party goes on to win overall… at this point the Monarch would have to call on another MP to become her Prime Minister and form a government. In the event of a hung Parliament the Monarch would have to use her judgment to decide who would be in the best position to form an effective government, perhaps in coalition with other parties.”

Q: What are the duties of the Prime Minister?

“The Prime Minister forms a government for the Monarch and both advises and consults her on the business of the state. He also appoints the members of the government – ministerial positions such as Chancellor of the Exchequer or Home Secretary – from members of their party in either House.”

Q: Does the Prime Minister have veto power? Do they have to sign new legislation for it to become law, like our President?

“No. The Prime Minister’s vote carries no greater weight in the Chamber than that of any other MP and they have no right of veto. That right rests with the Monarch but has not been exercised since 1707, and then only on a technicality. The Monarch also gives assent to – signs – new legislation.”


Protest across from the Palace: “Rogue Nation Britain”, “Face of the Enemy in Kabul - from Depleted Uranium [exposure]”, “Millions Died for Freedom of Speech”, “Stop the Torture, Protect the Human”, and “Father forgive them for they know not what they do. 2005 AD: Children forgive us for now we do.”
(Photo by Kimberly Feliciano
after her tour of Palace)

Q: How long is the term of the Prime Minister?

“Either as long as their party retains power or as long as that party wishes them to continue as their party leader; or until they decide to resign the post for whatever reason, as was the case with Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Upon the dissolution of …”

Q: How do votes of 'No Confidence' work in the UK?

“A government’s ability to govern depends on the continued support of Parliament. If sufficient Members are dissatisfied they may attempt to force its resignation by tabling a vote of no confidence. It’s a risky strategy – such a move by the opposition often unifies the governing party against the threat. It is also very unlikely to succeed if the government has a large majority. The last successful vote of no confidence was in 1979 – succeeding by just one vote. The government resigned the following month and the general election took place the month after that.”

Q: As a constitutional monarchy, what is the role of the King and Queen in government?

“The United Kingdom parliament is made up of three elements: Monarch, Lords, and Commons. The Monarch is the Head of State; she summons Parliament, appoints the Prime Minster and invites them to form a government. After the Norman conquest of 1066, the rule of the Monarch was absolute and for many years parliaments only met when they desired it, but over the years this has changed (sometimes by slowly accepted custom, sometimes by major upheaval such as the Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution of the 17th Century) to the point at which Parliament sits by statute and the Monarch rules entirely on the advice of her ministers – in effect, signs into law whatever has been approved by the two Houses. With her vast experience and in a position of political neutrality, she is able to offer counsel and support to her Prime Ministers, which she has effectively done for over 50 years. The Monarch retains some powers, such as the right to declare war or conclude treaties with other nations independently of Parliament; in practice these are exercised on her behalf by her Government under Crown Prerogative. The spouse of a Monarch has no powers in government.”

Q: What are the major political parties in the UK, and how would you describe their differences?

“The Prime Minister is selected by the Monarch but is by tradition the leader of the majority party. As such they are elected by the members of that party. Theoretically at least a party leader might lose their seat at an election which their party goes on to win overall… at this point the Monarch would have to call on another MP to become her Prime Minister and form a government. In the event of a hung Parliament the Monarch would have to use her judgment to decide who would be in the best position to form an effective government, perhaps in coalition with other parties.” “In very simplistic terms: the three main parties are Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats. These three parties occupy the left, right and centre of the political spectrum – although over precisely which ranges is often very much a matter of subjective opinion! There are also other parties and groupings, notably the Scottish Nationalist Party (pro Scottish independence), Plaid Cymru (pro Welsh independence), and Irish unionist and nationalist parties (respectively for and against Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom).”

Q: In the United States, it is extremely difficult to be elected to political office unless you can raise significant amounts of money for the campaigns. Is it the same in the UK?

“No, and indeed campaign expenditure is limited by statute; no matter how wealthy an individual or party may be, they may not spend more on election campaigns than the maximum permitted, which in 2005 was £30,000 per constituency contested, or £19.39 million if a party fielded candidates in each of the 646 constituencies.”

SUPPLEMENTARY COMMENT:

“As the Visitor Services Manager of the Houses of Parliament, I am determinedly apolitical; but I do love Parliament and its history. Perhaps I can add a few personal words?

One of the fascinations that people have with the United Kingdom parliamentary setup is the apparent contradiction between the modern and the old; in a world of relatively new democracies, how can some apparently archaic practices persist? All I can say is that it seems to work, by evolving and taking into account human irrationalities as much as practicalities and desires. History tells us that every revolution is followed by counter revolution, and that no single system is an answer to everything, so maybe slow evolution is the kindest way. But that is my personal view only.

I must admit that I love working in a building that was a royal palace in the time of King Canute, nearly one thousand years ago; and one that has housed royalty for as long and regular parliaments for half a millenium. Parliament was once something that the king summoned at whim; now it is something which British citizens have to represent them as of right. Yet the monarch is also still there, an apolitical figurehead and focus for the nation. There is debate as to whether that is still appropriate; of course there is. But the most important thing is that debate can exist.

For those whose interest has been aroused, may I recommend the parliamentary website at www.parliament.uk; there is much to fascinate there. For the standard work on the UK method of government, nothing could be better recommended than How Parliament Works (6th Edition), by two very senior Parliamentary staff, Robert Rogers (for the Commons) and Rhodri Walters (for the Lords), ISBN 1-4058-3255-X. For those interested in the standard tour guide script for the Palace of Westminster please email me at launertv@parliament.uk for an electronic copy. And for those wishing to visit, the proceedings of both Houses are open to all to view on a turn-up-and-go basis – but be aware that queues can sometimes be lengthy! Additionally, every August and September the Palace is open for guided tours by specially qualified guides who will be able to describe a little more of the history and work of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.”

- Victor Launert
Visitor Services Manager, Palace of Westminster