House of Commons (United Kingdom)

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The statistics in this article are quoted from the report of the House of Commons Commission for the financial year 2010/11[1]

The House of Commons is one of the United Kingdom's two Houses of Parliament. It shares with the House of Lords the functions of scrutinising the actions of government and examining and approving proposed legislation, but it alone can authorise government expenditure. It has legislative priority in the sense that it cannot be overruled by the House of Lords. The conduct of its business is governed by rules and conventions that usually serve to facilitate the conduct of government, and is carried out by elected Members of Parliament with the support of an administrative staff. Members of Parliament serve in a range of rôles, including "ministers" who are the political managers of government departments, and "shadow ministers" who are their opposition counterparts; the "Leader of the House" and the "whips", who together manage the business of the House; and "backbenchers" to whom none of those duties have been assigned. The chief officer of the House of Commons is "the Speaker", who chairs its debates, enforces its rules and acts as its spokesman. The Speaker also chairs the "House of Commons Commission", which employs its administrative staff and directs its administrative departments.

History

(additional links are available on the timelines subpage of the Parliament article)
The development of the House of Commons as a representative body started in the early 14th century with the regular appointment of representatives of the counties (knights of the shire) and of the towns (burgesses). After 1341 they sat together in one chamber, became known as the House of Commons, and deliberated separately from the King and his nobles. [1]. The franchise was very varied before 1832, when the first reform act was passed. After this, it was extended in stages until universal adult suffrage was established by the Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928.

The business of the House

The functions of the House of Commons include the scrutiny of the actions of government, the initiation and passage of legislation, and the approval of finance bills. Except for the approval of finance bills, it shares those responsibilities with the House of Lords, but it takes legislative precedence over the House of Lords. Most of its work is done in committees that consider policy issues, scrutinise the work and expenditure of the government, and examine proposals for legislation. "Select committees" conduct investigations into the conduct of government departments, or produce reports on specialist subjects. "Legislative committees" debate the detailed content of proposed legislation and decide upon its approval. Meetings of the full house are held in the Commons chamber for the purpose of set-piece debates upon specific aspects of government policy, or for the passage of legislation. Legislative procedures normally ensure that the government's legislative proposals pass into law in accordance with a predetermined timetable. The business of the House is executed by its elected Members with the support of its administrative staff.

Members and staff

Members

Members of Parliament are elected to represent the inhabitants of regions termed "constituencies". There are currently 650. A Member must be (i) aged 18 or over,(ii) a citizen of the United Kingdom, Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, and (iii) not a disqualified person such as a government employee, or a member of the House of Lords. [2], and anyone with those qualifications can stand for election who has been nominated by ten registered electors in the constituency they wish to stand for. Most Members belong to one of the political parties and had been adopted as candidates by their parties' constituency committees. The members of the party that is in power make up the pool of talent from which the "ministers" who conduct the political management of government departments are drawn; and "the cabinet", which is the government's top policy-making body, is drawn from among the ministerial heads of the largest departments.

The Leader of the House of Commons is also a government minister and member of the Cabinet. He is responsible for the organisation of government business in the Commons, and he chairs a number of Cabinet Committees, including the Ministerial Committee on Constitutional Affairs and the Legislative Programming Committee. The Party Whips are responsible for the control of the day-to-day business by persuasive control over the actions of Members of Parliament[3]. The chief officer of the House of Commons is the Speaker who is a Member who has been elected to the post by his or her fellow-members. Once elected, the Speaker is expected to discard party connections and act with complete impartiality. Other officers of the House include the Chairman of Ways and Means and two deputy chairmen, who may all act as Deputy Speakers. The Speaker or one of the Deputy Speakers, chairs debates, decides who is to be allowed to speak, maintains order and disciplines users of "unparliamentary language".

The annual salary for a Member of Parliament is ₤65,738, in addition to which they receive allowances to cover the costs of having somewhere to live in London and in their constituency, and of travelling between Parliament and their constituency[4]. For 56 percent of new MPs surveyed in 2010, this was a cut in salary, and for 31 percent of them the cut was £30,000 or more. 82 per cent of them wanted to make politics a long-term career, and 55 per cent aimed to become ministers[5].

The membership of the House is not statistically representative of the adult population of the United Kingdom. Only 22 percent of members are women, and only 4 percent are in the black, Asian and minority-ethnic category, compared with 8 percent in the population as a whole. On the other hand, the Jewish community is overrepresented (the Jewish Chronicle listed 24 from the 2010 election). Over one third attended independent schools, which educate only 7% of the country's school population, 90 percent have been university-educated compared with 31 percent of the working population, and over a quarter went to Oxford or Cambridge. Businessmen and lawyers are over-represented among Conservative members and public sector professionals are over-represented among Labour members. The average age is 50, and 70 percent are over 40, compared with 60 percent of the adult population. [6][7].

Officers and staff

Permanent officers (who are not Members of Parliament) include the Clerk of the House of Commons, who is the principal adviser to the Speaker on the House's privileges and procedures, and the Serjeant at Arms, who is the housekeeper of the Commons' part of the Palace of Westminster. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is an independent officer of the House who monitors the application of the Code of Conduct[8]. The work of the House is supported by around 2,900 Members Staff and 1,800 House Staff. Their employer is the House of Commons Commission, whose Chairman is the Speaker of the House. The House Staff provide a range of services that includes the daily production of an edited verbatim report of proceedings of both the House of Parliament, averaging about 160 pages a day, and known as Hansard. A further 880 people are employed by the National Audit Office [9] that scrutinises public spending on behalf of Parliament and is headed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is an Officer of the House.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority[10] was created following the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009[11]. It administers and reimburses MPs’ expenses, pays MPs' and their staff members salaries, regulates MPs’ expenses, and has been made responsible for the determination of their future pay and pensions.

The conduct of business

When the House is in full session, government and opposition members sit on rows of benches facing each other across the floor of the house in the Commons Chamber, and the Speaker or Deputy Speaker is seated in the Speaker's chair, at one end of the floor. Debates follow a traditional pattern. After the opening speeches from both sides, Members wishing to speak rise from their seats, one of them is called upon by the Speaker, and the others return to their seats. A Members wishing to interrupt the Member who is speaking, rises to his feet, but may not interrupt unless the Member who is speaking indicates his willingness to give way by sitting down. Everyone else must remain seated, and everyone must sit down when the Speaker rises from his chair. Amendments are voted on in turn, followed by a vote on the opening motion. When a vote is held the Speaker asks Members to call out whether they agree or not. The Speaker will then judge whether there is a clear result. If this cannot be determined, the Speaker calls a division by announcing "clear the lobbies" and the "ayes" and the "noes" leave the chamber into either of the opposite "division lobbies", which are corridors to its right and to its left, to be counted by government and opposition Whips [12]. The conduct of business is otherwise regulated by published Standing Orders [13], which normally permit a debate to be curtailed by a timetable motion known as "the guillotine". In addition to legislative motions, there are "Early Day Motions", which are used for reasons such as publicising the views of individual MPs, drawing attention to specific events or campaigns, and demonstrating the extent of parliamentary support for a particular cause or point of view. They are seldom debated[14]. Adjournment debates are held in the Commons chamber at the end of each sitting, and in the Westminster Hall on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Some are general open-ended debates, some are on individual Members' constituency issues, and some are designed to elicit policy responses from departmental Ministers. Ten-minute Rule Bills are another way in which backbench Members can raise issues. They are not used to introduce legislation, but rather as a means of making a point, or testing Parliament's opinion, on a particular subject.

The proceedings of House of Commons committees are less formal than debates in the House: Members speak seated and refer to each other by name, rather than "the honourable member for ...". Statements made in the course of parliamentary business are exempted from legal action by "parliamentary privilege" [15], but Members are expected to conform at all times to the House of Commons Code of Conduct[16].

Sittings of the House of Commons take place on an average of about 145 days a year and about 8 hours a day.

The legislative process

Nearly all legislation is initiated by government departments as "Public Bills". "Private Bills" are Bills that are intended to change the law only as it applies to specific individuals or organisations rather than the general public; and "Hybrid Bills" contain elements of both. The initiation of "Private Member's Bills" by members of the House is comparatively rare and is seldom successful. The full-scale legislative process for a public Bill normally involves several stages of preparation before it is presented to the House of Commons, and it must then pass through a customary five parliamentary stages in the House of Commons, including scrutiny by a Legislative Committee and two debates of the full House. The fully-amended Bill is then sent for consideration by the House of Lords from whence - and for a limited period - it may be returned for further consideration. The annual Finance Bill encompasses all the changes to be made to tax law for the year. Its formal description is "a Bill to grant certain duties, to alter other duties, and to amend the law relating to the National Debt and the Public Revenue, and to make further provision in connection with finance. The passage of legislation is usually facilitated by cooperation between government and opposition Whips, the effect of which is to limit the time allowed for the discussion of its clauses (a process that is known as "the usual channels"). "Statutory Instruments" are ministerial orders that become law without going through the full-scale legislative process. They can be either affirmative instruments that require the approval of both Houses of Parliament, or negative instruments that come into force unless annulled by either House of Parliament. They are classed as secondary legislation because they are legislation that has been authorised by previous legislation. Around 40 Bills and 4,000 Statutory Instruments become law each year[17].

Select committees

Scrutiny committees

The duty of scrutinising the activities of government is performed by a number of Select Committees The results of their inquiries are made public, and many of them require a response from the government. There is a Select Committee that examines the work of each government and there are Select Committees with more general remits such as the Public Accounts Committee and the Environmental Audit Committees. The Chairs of most select committees are elected by their fellow Members of Parliament, and their party compositions reflect that of the House. They are each supported by a permanent enquiry team, in addition to which they may engage specialist advisers for particular enquiries. They have extensive powers to require written and oral evidence [18]. The facts that, in particular, they have access to all departmental files, and that they have the power to question any civil servant, may be expected to influence the conduct of government departments. Departmental Select Committees usually publish between 200 and 300 reports each year.

Business committees

Among committees concerned with the domestic administration of the House are the Backbench Business Committee[19] that manages the use of the 35 days or its equivalent that is allocated in each session to debates on subjects chosen by backbenchers, and the Standards and Privileges Committee[20] that considers reports from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and inquires into matters relating to privilege that have been referred to it by the House.

Parliamentary questions

Parliamentary Questions provide another means by which Members of Parliament can hold the Government to account. Departmental Ministers can be obliged to provide information, explain policy decisions or defend the actions of their departments. Members can "table" questions to Ministers for answer either orally, or in writing. Oral questions are answered by departmental Ministers in the Commons chamber for an hour on every sitting day from Monday to Thursday, in accordance with a departmental rota called the "Order of Oral Questions". Questions have to be tabled three days in advance, and are randomly selected for putting to Ministers. Members can put follow-up "Supplementary Questions" (for which no notice is required) to a Minister, after he or she has answered each tabled question. The Prime Minister answers questions for half an hour at midday every Wednesday. The session normally starts with a routine question about the Prime Minister's engagements, and that is usually followed by a supplementary question on a topical subject. The Leader of the Opposition then follows, with up to six questions on a subject of his own choosing. Questions for written answer are put directly to Ministers, and are normally answered within a nine working days. Upwards of 400 oral questions and 40,000 written questions are answered every year. [21]

Petitions

Petitioning is making a request to the House of Commons to take action on a specific issue, which is presented to the House by a Member on behalf of the petitioners[22]. An e-petition that gets at least 100,000 signatures, is eligible for debate in the House of Commons[23]

Lobbyists

Petitioning was traditionally done in the Central Lobby, which lies between the Members lobbies of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and is where members of the public may seek to meet a Member of Parliament or a Member of the House of Lords. The term "lobbying"[24], nowadays refers to any way of seeking to influence the actions of politicians, and the term "lobbyist" is applied to those whose job it is to lobby on behalf of organisations such as corporations, trade associations, charities and pressure groups. The term "in-house" lobbyist refers to employees of the organisation which is seeking influence, as distinct from individuals or companies who lobby for a fee on behalf of others. The lobbying industry has been described as a £2 billion industry with a huge presence in Parliament[25], and one of its practitioners has been recorded, on undercover video, boasting of being able to influence the actions of the Prime Minister[26] - an accusation that the Prime Minister has denied. The Government is committed to the introduction of a Statutory Register of Lobbyists [27].

The Lobby

Adjacent to the House of Commons chamber is an ante-room, known as the "Members' Lobby"[28], to which only Members of Parliament and "lobby correspondents" have access. The lobby correspondents, also known as "The Lobby", are a small group of senior newspaper and television journalists who are given briefing on "lobby terms", which means that they may not reveal the identity of the person who gives it. Lobby correspondents are also invited to 10 Downing Street for regular briefings at which the Prime Minister's press secretary gives "off the record" briefing on the day's main political events.

Proposals for reform

There have been calls to improve the technical quality of legislation, and to change the balance between the time devoted to legislation and the time allowed for scrutiny - in favour of the latter. A backbench debate on those issues and others was held in the Westminster Hall on 3 February 2011 (Hansard report). Among proposals[29] put forward in advance of the debate by the Hansard Society were :

  • the establishment of a Legislative Standards Committee to assess whether the technical quality of a bill meets an agreed minimum set of standards and criteria;
  • the review of all Acts of Parliament between three and five years after enactment;
  • the establishment of a House Business Committee to provide for the involvement of all interested parties Commons in the shaping and timing of the legislative programme;
  • the extension of time allowed for consideration whether to annul a Statutory Instrument from 40 to 60 sitting days;
  • the affirmative resolution procedure for regulations to be changed to allow for amendment and not just wholesale adoption or rejection;
  • the reservation of time for Select Committee work during which time the Commons chamber and Public Bill Committees would not sit.

References

  1. The Rise of the Commons, www.parliament.uk
  2. Who Can Stand as an MP?, www.parliament.uk
  3. Jennifer Walpole and Richard Kelly: The Whips Office, House of Commons Library, October 2008
  4. Lucinda Maer and Richard Kelly: Members’ pay and allowances – arrangements in other parliaments, House of Commons Library, 2009
  5. New MPs struggle with work/life balance - But most see politics as a long-term career, Hansard Society, June 3, 2011
  6. [http://www.totalpolitics.com/articles/4488/the-new-house-of-commons.thtml Byron Criddle: The new House of Commons, Total Politics, 21 May 2010}
  7. Characteristics of the new House of Commons www.parliament.uk, 2010
  8. Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, www.parliament.uk
  9. National Audit Office website
  10. Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority website
  11. Q&A: MP expenses row explained, BBC News, 18 June 2009
  12. Divisions, www.parliament.uk
  13. "House of Commons Standing Orders - Public Business
  14. What are Early day motions?", www.parliament.uk
  15. Oonagh Gay and Alexander Horne: Parliamentary privilege and qualified privilege", House of Commons Library, May 2011
  16. House of Commons Code of Conduct
  17. Richard Cracknell: Acts & Statutory Instruments: Volume of UK legislation 1950 to 2007, House of Commons Library, 2008
  18. Jacqy Sharpe, Clerk of Committees: Guide for select committee members, House of Commons March 2011
  19. How the Backbench Business Committee works, www.parliament.gov.uk
  20. Standards and Privileges Committee , www.parliament.gov.uk
  21. Brief Guide: Parliamentary Questions, House of Commons Information Office
  22. Petitioning , www.parliament.uk
  23. What are e-petitions?, www.directgov.uk
  24. Lobbying, www.parliament.uk
  25. David Cameron as Leader of the Opposition, quoted in Hansard 02/11/11 Cl 265WH
  26. Melanie Newman and Oliver Wright:Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM, The Independent, 6 December 2011
  27. Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists, Government Consultation Paper, January 2012
  28. The Members' Lobby and Churchill arch, www.parliament.gov.uk
  29. Parliamentary reform, Hansard Society briefing 3rd February 2011