Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy. This means it has a monarch as its Head of the State. The monarch reigns with the support of Parliament. The UK Parliament is one of the oldest representative assemblies in the world, having its origin in the mid-13th century. By the 1250s King Henry III (1216-1272) was running into difficulties with his nobility. They were angry at the cost of his schemes, such as rebuilding of Westminster Abbey and a proposed campaign to make one of his youngest sons King of Sicily. The provisions of Oxford (1258), imposed on Henry by his barons, established a permanent baronial council which took control of certain key appointments. The leader of the baronial movement was Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leister. In 1259 the Provisions of Westminster reformed the common law. Henry eventually renounced both sets of provisions and challenged the barons. Civil war broke out in 1264, initially going well for Simon de Montfort. During the conflict he sought to boost his baronial support by summoning knights of the shires and burgesses to attend his parliament. This was the first time that commoners had been represented. De Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, but his innovation of summoning the commons to attend parliaments was repeated in later years and soon became standard. Thus it is from him that the modern idea of a representative parliament derives. From the 14th century parliamentary government in the United Kingdom has been based on a two-chamber system. The House of Lords (the upper house) and the House of Commons (the lower house) sit separately and are constituted on entirely different principles. In the 14th century, under King Edward III (1327-1377) it was accepted that there should be no taxation without parliamentary consent, still a fundamental principle of today. Two distinct Houses of Parliament were emerging for the first time, with the “Commons” sitting apart from the “Upper House” form 1342. The “Good Parliament” of 1376 saw the election of the first Speaker, Thomas Hungerford, to represent the Commons. It also saw the use of “impeachment”, whereby the House of Commons as a body could accuse officials who had abused their authority and put them on trial before the Lords. In the 15th century the Commons gained equal law-making powers with the Lords, under King Henry V. The 16th century saw the legal union of Wales – which had long been subject to the English crown – with England under King Henry VIII (1509-1547). Henry’s reign also saw the Church of England break away from the Roman Catholic Church. The “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 may have been hatched when it became clear that the new King, James I, intended to do nothing to ease the plight of the Catholics in the country. In the 17th century, tensions increased between parliament and monarch, such that in 1641 the King and Parliament could not agree on the control of troops for repression of the Irish Rebellion. Civil war broke out the following year, leading to the execution of King Charles I in January 1649. Following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the role of Parliament was enhanced by the events of 1668-1669 (the “Glorious Revolution” and the passage of the Bull of Rights which established the authority of Parliament over the King, the enshrined in law the principle of freedom of speech in parliamentary debates. 1707 brought the Union with Scotland and the first Parliament of Great Britain. Growing pressure for reform of parliament in the 18th and 19th centuries led to a series of Reform Acts which extended the electoral franchise to most men (over 21) in 1867 and finally to women over 21 in 1928. The legislative primacy of the House of Commons over the Lords was confirmed in the 20th century by the passing of the Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949.

The legislative process involves both Houses of Parliament and the Monarch.

The main functions of Parliament are to:

  • Make all UK law

  • Provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of government

  • Protect the public and safeguard the rights of individuals

  • Scrutinize government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure

  • Examine European proposals before the become law

  • Hear appeals in the House of Lords, the highest Court of Appeal in Britain

  • Debate the major issues of the day

Parliament has a maximum duration of five years. At any time up to the end of this period, a general election can be held for a new House of Commons.

The House of Lords.

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Houses of Parliament. Members of the House of Lords (known as “peers”) consist of Lords Spiritual (senior bishops) and Lords temporal (lay peers). Law Lords (senior judges) also sit as Lords Temporal. Members of the House of Lords are not elected. Originally they were drawn from the various groups of senior and influential nobility in Britain, who advised the monarch throughout the country’s early history.

Following the House of Lords Act 1999 there are only 92 peers who sit by virtue of hereditary peerage. The majority of members are now life peers and the Government has been consulting on proposals for further reform of the Lords.

There were 689 peers in total in May 2003.

In general, the functions of the House of Lords are similar to those of the House of Commons in legislating, debating and questioning the executive. There are two important exceptions: members of the Lords do not represent constituencies, and are not involved in matters of taxation and finance. The role of the Lords is generally recognized to be complementary to that of the Commons and it acts as a revising chamber for many of the more important and controversial bills.

All bills go through both Houses before becoming Acts, and start in either House. Normally, the consent of the Lords is required before Acts of Parliament can be passed, and the Lords can amend all legislation, with the exception of bills to raise taxation, long seen as the responsibility of the Commons. Amendments have to be agreed by both Houses. The House of Lords is as active as the Commons in amending bills, and spends two-thirds of its time revising legislation.

Following the Lord’s rejection of the Liberal Government’s budget of 1909, the Parliament Act of 1911 ended their power to reject legislation. A power of delay was substituted, which was further curtailed by the Parliament Act of 1949. The House of Commons can present a bill (except one to prolong the life of Parliament) for Royal Assent after one year and in a new session even if the Lords have not given their agreement. There is also a convention (known as the “Salisbury” convention) that the Government’s manifesto commitments, in the form of Government Bills, are not voted down by the House of Lords at second reading.

The House of Lords is also the final court of appeal for civil cases in the United Kingdom and for the criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Only the Lords of Appeal (law Lords) – of whom there are 12 employed full-time – take part in judicial proceedings.

Organization of the House of Lords. The Speakership of the House of Lords has traditionally been performed by the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor’s powers as Speaker have been very limited compared with the Speaker of the House of Commons, since the Lords themselves control the proceedings under the guidance of the Leader of the House. Lord’s business is expected to be conducted in an orderly and polite fashion without the need for an active Speaker. The Lord Chancellor sits on a special seat called the Woolsack except when the House is in Committee, but does not call upon members to speak and has no power to call the House to order.

This has been due in part to the Lord Chancellor’s constitutionally unique position: before the reforms announced on the 12th of June 2003, the Lord Chancellor had been simultaneously a Cabinet minister with department responsibilities, the Speaker of the House of Lords and the head of the judiciary in England and Wales. The government is now intent on a separation of these powers and on the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor.

Other office holders in the House of Lords include government ministers and whips, the Leader and Chief Whip of the main opposition party, and two Chairmen of Committees. The Leader of the House occupies a special position in the House of Lords: as well as leading the party in government he has a responsibility to the House as a whole. It is to him, and not the Lord Chancellor, that members have turned for advice and leadership on points of order and procedure.

These office holders and officers, together with the Law Lords, receive salaries. All other members of the House of Lords are unpaid, but they are entitled to reimbursement of their expenses, within maximum limits for each day on which they attend the House. The Clerk of the Parliament, a role like that of a chief execute, is head of administration. The Gentlemen Usher of the Black Rod has ceremonial and royal duties and is in charge of security, access and domestic matters.

Members of the House of Lords are not elected and, with the exception of bishops who leave the House on retirement, they retain their seats for life.

The House of Commons.

The House of Commons is the centre of parliamentary power. It is directly responsible to the electorate, and from the 20th century the House of Lords has recognized the supremacy of the elected chamber. The House of Commons is traditionally regarded as the lower house, but it is the main parliamentary arena for political battle. A Government can only remain in office for as long as it has the support of a majority in the House of Commons. As with the House of Lords, the House of Commons debates new primary legislation as part of the process of making an Act of Parliament, but the Commons has primacy over the non-elected House of Lords. 'Money bills', concerned solely with taxation and public expenditure, are always introduced in the Commons and must be passed by the Lords promptly and without amendment. When the two houses disagree on a non-money bill, the Parliament Act can be invoked to ensure that the will of the elected chamber prevails. The House also scrutinizes the work of the Government - it does that by various means, including questioning ministers in the Chamber and through the Select Committee system.