Parliament of the United Kingdom

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(CC) Photo: UK Parliament
The monarch visits Parliament annually in a ceremony to begin parliamentary proceedings. During this State Opening of Parliament, the Queen's Speech sets out her government's intentions for the coming year.

The Parliament of the United Kingdom examines and challenges the work of the government; debates and passes laws, and enables the government to raise taxes. As a bicameral legislature, the business of Parliament takes place in two Houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Their work is similar, except that the House of Commons alone is responsible for making decisions on financial Bills. The members of the House of Commons are elected representatives of geographically determined parliamentary constituencies, whereas the those of the House of Lords are mostly appointed, having been chosen for their experience and expertise. The functions of the Crown (monarchy) in Parliament are essentially ceremonial [1]


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The United Kingdom Parliament is the product of eight hundred years of evolution [2] that converted what was once a meeting of monarch's advisers into what is now a sovereign legislature. The transfer of sovereignty from the monarch began in the 13th century with the agreement that is recorded in the Magna Carta, and was largely completed in the 17th century by the outcome of the Glorious Revolution, as codified in the Bill of Rights. Its development 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. [3] 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 relative influence of the House of Lords was simultaneously reduced, and its power to overrule the House of Commons was removed in 1911[4].

The Houses of Parliament

House of Commons

The House of Commons shares with the House of Lords the functions of scrutinising government activity and approving legislative proposals, but it has legislative priority in the sense that it cannot be overruled by the House of Lords. Its work 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. Its chief officer is "the Speaker", who chairs its debates, enforces its rules, acts as its spokesman, and takes charge of its administrative staff.

House of Lords

As Parliament's second chamber, the House of Lords[5] plays an important part in the scrutiny of legislation. All House of Commons legislation must be sent to it for consideration before becoming law. Its appointed members are often able to apply expertise or experience to such legislation, but their power to deal with it is limited by a combination of law and convention. They cannot amend budgetary proposals, they cannot hold up other legislation for much more than a year; and there is a convention under which they do not oppose proposals that fulfill promises made in the majority party's election manifesto [6].

The Crown

The phrase "Crown in Parliament" is a pedantic statement of the full constitutional makeup of the United Kingdom's legislature, but the Sovereign's legislative rôle arises only from the constitutional requirement that the Bills passed by Parliament become law only after they have received royal assent. The personal discretionary powers of the Sovereign which are part of the royal prerogative include the rights to advise, encourage and warn Ministers in private; to appoint the Prime Minister and other Ministers; as well as to assent to legislation. The Sovereign may, in a grave constitutional crisis, act without or against ministerial advice. In ordinary circumstances, however the Sovereign, accepts and gives way to Ministerial advice. The executive powers of the royal prerogative are nowadays exercised by Ministers, and can be exercised without the prior consent of Parliament. They include diplomatic action and the declaration of war.

Legislative procedures

Legislative proposals, termed Bills, are dealt with in a succession of parliamentary stages, termed readings; including examinations in legislative committees, and full-scale debates in the parliamentary chambers. The legislative process concludes with the entirely formal stage of Royal Assent, and the end product is termed an Act of Parliament. The underlying procedures and conventions are such that the final outcome of the processes of scrutinising, debating and amending government proposals is usually their passage into law.


The activities of every government department come under the scrutiny of a House of Commons Select Committee, and the Public Accounts Committee has general oversight over public expenditure. Select Committees have right of access to departmental files, and the power to call civil servants as witnesses, and are supported by teams of investigators.

The Palace of Westminster

The debating chambers and committee rooms are housed in the Palace of Westminster on the North bank of the river Thames, adjacent to Westminster bridge and near to Westminster Abbey. (plan) [7]. Its centrepiece is the Central Lobby (images), a large octagonal hall from which corridors lead north to the House of Commons Lobby and Chamber and south to the Peers' Lobby and House of Lords Chamber. Beyond the House of Lords are the ceremonial rooms used during the State Opening of Parliament - the Queen's Robing Room and the Royal Gallery. To the north of the House of Commons are the Speakers' and Serjeant-at-Arms's rooms, and offices for ministers and officials. Beyond these is the Clock Tower which houses Big Ben. The oldest building in the palace is the 11th century Westminster Hall (virtual tour), which is used for major ceremonial occasions and for Commons adjournment debates.

Parliamentary ceremonial

The State Opening of Parliament

The State Opening is the main ceremonial event of the parliamentary calendar. It takes place on the first day of each of a parliament's five twelve-month "sessions". After a formal procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, the Queen arrives at the Sovereign's Entrance and proceeds to the Robing Room, where she puts on the Imperial State Crown and parliamentary robe. A procession then leads through the Royal Gallery to the Chamber of the House of Lords, where the Queen takes the Throne. The official known as 'Black Rod' is sent to summon the Commons. In a symbol of the Commons' independence, the door to their chamber is slammed in his face and not opened until he has knocked on the door with his staff of office. The Members of the House of Commons follow Black Rod and the Commons Speaker to the Lords Chamber and stand behind the Bar of the House of Lords (at the opposite end of the Chamber from the Throne) to hear the Queen's Speech. The purpose of State Opening is for the monarch to deliver the Queen's Speech, which is the Government's statement of its legislation programme for the coming session. The speech is delivered from the Throne in the House of Lords, in the presence of Members of both Houses. The motion that the House sends a 'Humble Address' to the Queen thanking her for the Speech is then introduced in both Houses. The Government's programme, as presented in the Queen's Speech, is then debated by both Houses for four or five days.

The Speaker's procession

Before every sitting of the House of Commons, the Speaker leaves his official residence in the Palace of Westminster, preceded by a Doorkeeper and the Serjeant at Arms who carries the Mace. The Trainbearer, Chaplain and Speaker’s Secretary follow behind. This formal procession walks along the Library Corridor, through the Lower Waiting Hall and Central and Members’ Lobbies to the Commons chamber.

Public perceptions

(data from the Hansard Society's Audit of Political Engagement, 2011 Report[1])

Satisfaction with the way Parliament works was expressed by 27 percent of the respondents to the Hansard Society survey, compared with 35 percent who said they were dissatisfied. The level of satisfaction tended to be lower among the younger age groups, falling to 15 percent for the 18-24 age group. The proposition that Parliament holds the government to account elicited agreement from 38 percent of respondents and disagreement from 26 percent. The proposition that Parliament "is working for you and me" met with agreement from 30 percent of them, and disagreement from 49 percent. A feeling of being knowledgeable about Parliament was expressed by 53 percent of men and 35 percent of women.