Parliament


Parliament, Britain's legislature, is made up of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Queen in her constitutional role. They meet together only on occasions of symbolic importance such as the state opening of parliament, when the Commons are summoned by the Queen to the House of Lords. The agreement of all three elements is normally required for legislation, but that of the Queen is given as a matter of course to Bills sent to her.


Parliament can legislate for Britain as a whole, or for any part of the country. It can also legislate for the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which are Crown dependencies and not part of Britain. They have local legislatures which make laws on the island affairs.


As there are no legal restraints imposed by a written constitution, Parliament may legislate as it pleases, subject to Britain's obligations as a member of the European Union. It can make or change any law; and can overturn established conventions or turn them into law. It can even prolong its own life beyond the normal period without consulting the electorate. In practice, however, Parliament does not assert its supremacy in this way. Its members bear in mind the common law and normally act in accordance with precedent. The validity of an Act of Parliament, once passed, cannot be disputed in the law courts. The House of Commons is directly responsible to the electorate, and in this century the House of Lords has recognized the supremacy of the elected chamber. The system of party government helps to ensure that Parliament legislates with its responsibility to the electorate in mind.


The Functions of Parliament
The main functions of Parliament are:


1. to pass laws;


2. to provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of the government;


3. to scrutinize government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure; and


4. to debate the major issues of the day.


In carrying out these functions Parliament helps to bring the relevant facts and issues before the electorate. By custom, Parliament is also informed before all important international treaties and agreements are ratified. The making of treaties is, however, a royal prerogative exercised on the advice of the Government and is not subject to parliamentary approval.


The Meeting of Parliament
A Parliament has a maximum duration of five years, but in practice general elections are usually held before the end of this term. The maximum life has been prolonged by legislation in rare circumstances such as the two world wars. Parliament is dissolved and writs for a general election are ordered by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister.


The life of a Parliament is divided into sessons. Each usually lasts for one year - normally beginning and ending in October or November. Ther are 'adjournaments' at night, at weekends, at Christmas, Easter and the late Spring Bank Holiday, and during a long summer break usually starting in late July. The average number of 'sitting' days in a session is about 160 in the House of Commons and about 145 in the House of Lords. At the start of each session the Queen's speech to Parliament outlines the Government's policies and proposed legislative program. Each session is ended by prorogation. Parliament then 'stands prorogued' for about a week until the new session opens.


Public Bills which have not been passed by the end of the session are lost.


The House of Lords
The House of Lords consists of:


1. all hereditary peers and peeresses of England, Scotland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom;


2. life peers created to assist the House in its judicial duties (Lords of Appeal or 'law lords');


3. all other life peers; and


4. the Archbiships of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, and the 21 senior bishops of the Church of England.


Hereditary peerages carry a right to sit in the House provided holders establish their claim and are aged 21 years or over. However, anyone succeeding to a peerage many, within 12 months of succession, disclaim that peerage for his or her lifetime. Disclaimants lose their right to sit in the House but gain the right to vote and stand as candidates at parliamentary elections. Peerages, both hereditary