What is Parliament?Watch
What is Parliament?
In the UK, Parliament is the supreme legislative body. Other bodies contribute to law-making (such as when judges make rulings in the Supreme Court), but Parliament has 'parliamentary sovereignty' - it can make any law it wants and no other body can make laws that overrule those that Parliament make.
Parliament is split up into the House of Commons and the House of Lords. While the terms 'parliament' and 'government' are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not actually the same thing! The Government runs the country and is led by the Prime Minister and their ministers (the most senior of which are called the Cabinet). The Government sits within Parliament, the rest of which is made up by the House of Lords and the remaining MPs who are not part of the majority. The Government is responsible for proposing policy, but the whole of Parliament is responsible for putting this into legislation - hence the Government is called the Executive branch and Parliament is the Legislative branch. Parliament is also responsible for keeping the Government to account.
Don't worry if this is confusing, I'll break it all down into smaller sections!
The House of Commons
The House of Commons is the Lower Chamber of Parliament. It is an elected body, consisting of 650 Members of Parliament (MPs). Normally, there are elections every 5 years to decide who the MPs will be - however, the Prime Minister or the monarch could call an election earlier than that if they think it is necessary.
Members of Parliament each represent a constituency - a small area of the country. The people who live in this area vote on who they would like to be their MP, and the party who has the majority of MPs after a General Election will be invited to form the Government by the monarch. Sometimes, no political parties reach the required number of MPs to have a majority (326 out of 650) and then parties can try to form agreements to make a coalition or informal agreement. For example in the 2017 General Election, the Conservatives had the largest amount of seats (317) but needed the additional 10 seats of the DUP in order to have a majority. The requirement for a majority means that when voting on making laws, the Government will be able to pass their laws so long as all of its MPs vote together. The largest party that is not the Government forms the Opposition (led by the Leader of the Opposition) and creates a Shadow Cabinet to examine the work of the Government.
As has been mentioned already, the purpose of The House of Commons is then to propose, debate and draft legislation. They take part in policy committees and also hold the Government to account through Prime Minister's Questions.
The House of Lords
The House of Lords is the Upper Chamber of Parliament. They are not elected, but appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister (which practically means that they are appointed by the Government, and that the monarch just completes the formalities). Members of the house are called peers, and previously membership was hereditary so would be passed on from generation to generation of peers. However, the number of hereditary peers has been reduced and new 'life peers' are unable to pass their membership on to their children.
The role of the House of Lords is to scrutinise bills put forwards to it by the House of Commons (they can also propose their own bills too - more on this process and what a 'bill' is later). They are also part of committees who look into potential policy and policy reform, as well as holding the Government to account through asking them questions to which they must publicly respond.
The House of Lords has been criticised due to the fact it has retained its hereditary members and the fact that some of its peers are appointed for their role as senior Bishops in the Church of England. However, the Lords has also been praised for its record on persuading the Government to make policy on things such as banning smoking in cars that carry children; ensuring that children with special educational needs are afforded the same legal protection in academies as in other mainstream schools; and in areas relating to the protection of immigrants.
The Law Making Process
Laws cannot be made overnight - there is often a long process of research, drafting and debate before a law can be made.
A bill is a proposal for a new law (or the amendment of a pre-existing law) that is presented for debate. There are different types of bills:
- Public bills - the most common kind, put forwards by the Government
- Private Members' bills - these bills are like public bills, only put forwards by members of Parliament and Lords who are not part of the Government
- Private bills - put forwards by organisations like local authorities or private companies, these only affect a smaller number of people rather than the population as a whole
- Hybrid bills - a mix of public and private bills, these may affect the whole population but in a much more dramatic way on a particular group or location
Once a bill has been proposed in the House of Commons, the process it must go through is as follows:
- First Reading - the short title is read out and an order made for it to be printed
- Second Reading - MPs debate and discuss the general principles of the bill. If everyone agrees on the bill, it can pass through the second reading without any debate
- Committee Stage - each clause and any amendments of the bill can be debated
- Report Stage - the (potentially amended) bill comes back for further debate. Further amendments and clauses can be suggested and voted on
- Third Reading - no more amendments can be made here, and the House debates before voting on the bill as it stands. If the bill is approved, then it passes to the House of Lords (the remaining stages are all in the Lords)
- First Reading (Lords)
- Second Reading (Lords)
- Committee Stage (Lords) - contrasting to the Commons, here there is no time limit on discussions and any topic can be discussed
- Third Reading (Lords) - this is mainly used to tidy up the bill and make sure that there are no loopholes. If amendments have been made, the bill goes back to the House of Commons again - both houses must agree on the exact wording and the bill will 'ping pong' between the two until this happens
- Royal Assent - once both houses agree to the bill, it is given royal assent by the monarch and because an Act of Parliament. There is a mechanism for the House of Lords to push a bill through to royal assent without the consent of the Lords after a certain amount of time
If a bill is proposed in the House of Lords, this process flips round and once the Lords decide on a bill, it goes to the Commons for consideration.
The Position of the Acts of Parliament in the UK
While Parliament is the supreme law-making body in the UK, not all laws are made through Acts of Parliament. Acts of Parliament are called primary legislation, but secondary legislation also exists. These are laws made by ministers or other bodies under powers conferred to them by an Act of Parliament - hence they are 'secondary' to the laws made by Parliament. The courts also make laws, however this is generally just through interpreting and applying the Acts of Parliament (as they would be impossibly long if they covered every possible scenario that the courts might face). Many laws are made through the common law (judge made) rather than through statute (Acts of Parliament) - for example, the law against murdering people is not an Act of Parliament! Parliament may choose to clarify the law through statute if it thinks the court has gotten it wrong, or if it wishes to tidy up how the law functions.