Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative institution in the United Kingdom and British overseas territories (it alone has parliamentary sovereignty). At its head is the Sovereign; it also includes an Upper House, called the House of Lords, and a Lower House, called the House of Commons. The House of Lords includes two different types of members—the Lords Spiritual (the senior clergy of the Church of England) and the Lords Temporal (members of the Peerage); it is an almost wholly appointed body. The House of Commons, on the other hand, is a democratically elected chamber. The House of Lords and the House of Commons meet in seperate chambers in the Palace of Westminster, in the United Kingdom’s capital London, which is commonly known as the “Houses of Parliament.”
Parliament evolved from the ancient council which advised the Sovereign. In theory, power is vested not in Parliament, but in the “Queen-in-Parliament” (or “King-in-Parliament”). The Queen-in-Parliament is often said to be a completely sovereign authority, though such a position is debatable. In modern times, real power is vested in the democratically elected House of Commons; the Sovereign acts only as a figurehead, and the powers of the House of Lords are greatly limited.
The British Parliament is often called the “Mother of Parliaments,” as the legislative bodies of many nations—most notably, those of the members of the Commonwealth—are modeled on it. However, it is a misquotation of John Bright, who had actually remarked on 18 January 1865 that “England is the Mother of Parliaments”, in the context of supporting demands for expanded voting rights in a country which had pioneered Parliamentary government.
One may trace the origin of Parliament to the times of the Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxon Kings were advised by a council known as the Witenagemot, whose foremost members were the King’s sons and brothers. The Earldormen, or executive heads of the shires, also had seats in the Witenagemot, as did the senior clergymen of the state. The King still possessed ultimate authority, but laws were made only after seeking the advice (and, in later times, the consent) of the Witenagemot.
The entire Anglo-Saxon body politic was reformed when William of Normandy conquered England in 1066. William brought to England the feudal system he was accustomed to in his native France. Thus, he granted land to his most important military supporters, who in turn granted land to their supporters, thus creating a feudal hierarchy. Those who held lands directly from the King were known as tenants-in-chief, and the territories they held were called manors. William I was an absolute ruler, but, as a matter of course, he sought the advice of a council of tenants-in-chief and ecclesiastics, before making laws.
The tenants-in-chief often struggled with their spiritual counterparts and with the King for power. In 1215, they secured from John the Magna Carta, which established that the King may not levy or collect any taxes (except the feudal taxes to which they were hitherto accustomed), save with the consent of his council. It was also established that the most important tenants-in-chief (the earls and the barons), as well as the ecclesiastics (archbishops, bishops and abbots) be summoned to the council by personal writs from the Sovereign, and that all others be summoned to the council by general writs from the sheriffs of their counties. John later repealed the Magna Carta, but Henry III reinstated it.
The royal council slowly developed into a Parliament. In 1265, Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, who was in rebellion against King Edward I, summoned a parliament of his supporters without any or prior royal authorisation. The archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and barons were summoned, as were two knights from each shire and two burgesses from each borough. Knights had been summoned to previous councils, but the representation of the boroughs was unprecedented. De Montfort’s scheme was formally adopted by Edward I in the so-called “Model Parliament” of 1295. At first, each estate debated independently; by the reign of Edward III, however, Parliament had been separated into two Houses: one, including the nobility and higher clergy, the other, including the knights and burgesses. The authority of Parliament grew under Edward III; it was established that no law could be made, nor any tax levied, without the consent of both Houses as well as of the Sovereign.
The growing influence of Parliament was restrained by numerous civil wars. By the end of the Wars of the Roses, royal supremacy had been restored. The Crown was at the height of its power during the reign of Henry VIII. The number of the Lords Spiritual diminished under Henry, who commanded the Dissolution of the Monasteries, thereby depriving the abbots and priors of their seats in the Upper House. For the first time, the Lords Temporal were more numerous than the Lords Spiritual.
Parliaments continued to behave submissively under the Tudor monarchs who followed Henry, but began to display an unusual sense of independence under Elizabeth I. As England evolved into a world power, members of both Houses actively discussed succession to the Crown (the Queen never married) and condemned various royal policies. Their new-found boldness proved intolerable to Elizabeth’s Scottish successor, James I (who was simultaneously King in Scotland as James VI). The great struggle between the Crown and Parliament occurred under James I’s successor, Charles I. Alarmed by the arbitrary exercise of royal power, the House of Commons submitted to Charles the Petition of Right, demanding the restoration of their liberties, in 1628. Though he accepted the petition, he later dissolved Parliament and ruled without them for eleven years. It was only after the financial disaster of the Scottish Bishops’ Wars (1639–1640) that he was forced to recall Parliament in order that they may authorise new taxes. The new Parliament was quite rebellious; their struggle for power with the Crown culminated in the English Civil War. In 1649, Charles was executed and replaced by the military dictator Oliver Cromwell. The House of Lords was abolished, and the House of Commons remained subordinate to Cromwell. After Cromwell’s death, however, the monarchy was restored in 1660. The House of Lords also returned.
Following the Restoration, monarchs undertook to regularly summon Parliament. Nevertheless, there was no explicit guarantee of Parliamentary liberties until James II, an unpopular Catholic ruler, was forced to flee the country in 1688. Parliament “deemed” that he had abdicated, but it offered the Crown to his Protestant daughter Mary, instead of his Catholic son. Mary II ruled jointly with her husband, William III. They agreed to the Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown (the Bill of Rights), which acknowledged several powers Parliaments had claimed under previous Stuart monarchs. No taxes were to be levied, nor any standing armies to be kept during peacetime, without the consent of Parliament. Freedom of speech in Parliamentary debates was also secured.
The influence of Parliament was undoubtedly augmented by the Bill of Rights, but the supremacy of the Crown stil remained clear. It was only after the Hanoverian George I ascended the Throne in 1714 that power began to shift from the Sovereign. George was a German ruler, spoke poor English and preferred to concentrate on his dominions in Europe. He thus entrusted power to a group of his ministers, the foremost of which was Sir Robert Walpole. George III sought to restore royal supremacy, but by the end of his reign, the position of the ministers—who would in turn have to rely on Parliament for support—was cemented.
The principle of ministerial responsibility to the Lower House did not develop until the nineteenth century. The House of Lords was superior to the House of Commons both in theory and in practice. Members of the House of Commons were elected in an antiquated electoral system, under which constituencies of vastly different sizes existed. Thus, the borough of Old Sarum, with seven voters, could elect two members, as could the borough of Dunwich, which had completely disappeared into the sea due to land erosion. In many cases, members of the Upper House controlled tiny constituencies, known as pocket boroughs or rotten boroughs, and could ensure the election of their relatives or supporters. Many seats in the House of Commons were “owned” by the Lords. After the reforms of the nineteenth century (beginning in 1832), the electoral system in the Lower House was much more regularised. No longer dependent on the Upper House for their seats, members of the House of Commons began to grow more assertive.
The supremacy of the House of Commons was clearly established during the early twentieth century. In 1909, the Commons passed the so-called “People’s Budget,” which made numerous changes to the taxation stystem in a manner detrimental to wealthy landowners. The House of Lords, which mostly consisted of powerful landowning aristocrats, rejected the Budget. On the basis of the Budget’s popularity and the Lords’ consequent unpopularity, the Liberal Party won a general election in 1910. Using the result as a mandate, the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, introduced the Parliament Bill, which sought to restrict the powers of the House of Lords. (He did not reintroduce the land tax provision of the People’s Budget.) When the Lords refused to pass the bill, Asquith approached the King and requested the creation of several hundred Liberal peers so as to erase the Conservative majority in the House of Lords. In the face of such a threat, the House of Lords reluctantly passed the bill. The Parliament Act 1911, as it became known, allowed the Lords to delay a bill for a maximum of three sessions (reduced to two sessions in 1949), after which it could become law over their objections.
Further reforms to the House of Lords have been made during the twentieth century. In 1958, the Life Peerages Act authorised the regular creation of life peerage dignities. By the 1960s, the regular creation of hereditary peerage dignities had ceased; thereafter, almost all new peers were life peers only. More recently, the House of Lords Act 1999 has removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the Upper House (although it made an exception for ninety-two of them on a temporary basis). The House of Lords is now a chamber that is, in practice, subordinate to the House of Commons.
At the head of Parliament is the British Sovereign. The Sovereign’s role, however, is merely ceremonial; in practice, he or she always acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and other ministers, who are in turn accountable to the two Houses of Parliament.
The Upper House, the House of Lords, is mostly made up of appointed members (“Lords of Parliament”). The whole House is formally styled The Right Honourable The Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament Assembled, the Lords Spiritual being clergymen of the Church of England and the Lords Temporal being Peers of the Realm. The Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal are considered separate “estates,” but they sit, debate and vote together.
The Lords Spiritual formerly included all of the senior clergymen of the Church of England—archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors. Upon the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, however, the abbots and priors lost their positions in Parliament. All diocesan bishops continued to sit in Parliament, but the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847 and later acts provide that only the twenty-six most senior are Lords Spiritual. These twenty-six always include the incumbents of the “five great sees,” namely, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London, the Bishop of Durham and the Bishop of Winchester. The remaining twenty-one Lords Spiritual are the most senior diocesan bishops, ranked in order of consecration.
The Lords Temporal are all members of the Peerage. Formerly, they included hereditary peers, of the ranks of Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron. The right of some hereditary peers to sit in Parliament was not automatic: after Scotland and England united into Great Britain in 1707, it was provided that all peers whose dignities had been created by English Kings could sit in Parliament, but those whose dignities had been created by Scottish Kings were to elect a limited number of “representative peers.” A similar arrangement was made in respect of Ireland when that nation merged with Great Britain in 1801. But when Southern Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922, the election of Irish representative peers ceased. By the Peerage Act 1963, the election of Scottish representative peers also ended, but all Scottish peers were granted the right to sit in Parliament. Under the House of Lords Act 1999, only life peerage dignities (that is to say, peerage dignities which cannot be inherited) automatically entitle their holders to seats in the House of Lords. Of the hereditary peers, only ninety-two—the individuals exercising the offices of Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain, in addition to ninety hereditary peers elected by other peers—retain their seats in the House.
The Commons, the last of the “estates” of the Kingdom, are represented in the House of Commons, which is formally styled The Honourable The Commons in Parliament Assembled. The House consists of 659 members (“Members of Parliament” or “MPs”), each of whom is chosen by a single constituency according to the First-Past-the-Post electoral system. Universal adult suffrage prevails; citizens of the United Kingdom, as well as citizens of the Republic of Ireland and of Commonwealth nations resident in the United Kingdom, are qualified to vote. The term of members of the House of Commons depends on the term of Parliament; a general election, during which all the seats are contested, occurs after each dissolution (see below).
The three branches of Parliament are supposed to be kept separate from each other; no individual may form a part of more than one component of Parliament. Lords of Parliament are legally barred from voting in elections for members of the House of Commons; furthermore, the Sovereign by convention does not vote, although there is no statutory impediment.
Each of the two Houses of Parliament is presided over by a Speaker. In the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor, a member of the Cabinet, is the ex officio Speaker. Where there is a vacancy in the office, a Speaker may be appointed by the Crown. Deputy Speakers, who take the place of an absent Lord Chancellor, are also chosen by the Crown.
The House of Commons has the right to elect its own Speaker Theoretically, the approval of the Sovereign is required before the election becomes valid, but it is, by modern conventions, always granted. The Speaker’s place may be taken by three deputies, known as the Chairman, First Deputy Chairman and Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. (They take their name from the Committee of Ways and Means, of which they were once presiding officers, but which no longer exists.)
In general, the Lord Chancellor’s influence as Speaker is very limited, whilst the powers belonging to the Speaker of the House of Commons are vast. Decisions on points of order and on the disciplining of unruly members are made by the whole body in the Upper House, but by the Speaker alone in the Lower House. Speeches in the House of Lords are addressed to the House as a whole (using the words “My Lords”), but those in the House of Commons are addressed to the Speaker alone (using the words “Mr Speaker” or “Madam Speaker”).
Both Houses may decide questions with voice voting; members shout out “Aye” and “No” (in the House of Commons), or “Content” and “Not-Content” (in the House of Lords), and the presiding officer declares the result. The pronouncement of the Lord Chancellor or Speaker may be challenged, and a recorded vote (known as a division) demanded. (The Speaker of the House of Commons may choose to overrule a frivolous request for a division, but the Lord Chancellor does not possess an equivalent power.) In each House, a division requires members to file into one of the two lobbies alongside the Chamber; their names are recorded by clerks, and their votes are counted as they exit the lobbies to re-enter the Chamber. The Speaker of the House of Commons, who is expected to remain non-partisan, does not cast a vote except in the case of a tie; the Lord Chancellor, however, votes along with the other Lords.
Following a general election, a new Parliamentary session begins. Parliament is formally summoned forty days in advance by the Sovereign, who is considered the source of parliamentary authority. On the day indicated by the Sovereign’s proclamation, the two Houses assemble in their respective chambers. The Commons are then summoned to the House of Lords, where Lords Commissioners (representatives of the Sovereign) instruct them to elect a Speaker. The Commons perform the election; on the next day, they return to the House of Lords, where the Lords Commissioners confirm the election and grant the new Speaker the royal approval in the Sovereign’s name.
The business of Parliament for the next few days of its session involves the taking of the oaths of allegiance. Once a majority of the members have taken the oath in each House, the State Opening of Parliament may occur. The Lords take their seats in the House of Lords Chamber, the Commons appear at the Bar (immediately outside the Chamber), and the Sovereign takes his or her seat on a throne. The Sovereign then reads the Speech from the Throne—the content of which is determined by the Ministers of the Crown—outlining the Government’s legislative agenda for the upcoming year. Thereafter, each House proceeds to the transaction of legislative business.
By custom, before considering the Government’s legislative agenda, a bill is introduced pro forma in each House—the Select Vestries Bill in the House of Lords and the Outlawries Bill in the House of Commons. These bills do not actually become laws; they are merely ceremonial indications of the power of each House to debate independently of the Crown. After the pro forma bill is introduced, each House debates the content of the Speech from the Throne for several days. Once each House formally sends its reply to the Speech, the proper legislative business of the House may commence. At once, each House becomes fully active in appointing committees, electing officers, passing resolutions and considering legislation.
A session of Parliament is brought to an end by a prorogation. There is a ceremony similar to the State Opening, but it is much less well-known. Normally, the Sovereign does not personally attend the prorogation ceremony in the House of Lords; rather, he or she is represented by Lords Commissioners. The next session of Parliament begins under the procedures described above, but it is not necessary to conduct another election of a Speaker or take the oaths of allegiance afresh at the beginning of such subsequent sessions. Instead, the State Opening of Parliament is proceeded to directly.
Each Parliament, after a number of sessions, comes to an end, either by the command of the Sovereign or by effluxion of time, the former being more common in modern times. The dissolution of Parliament is effected by the Sovereign, but always on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister may seek a dissolution because the time is politically advantageous to his or her party. Furthermore, if the Prime Minister loses the support of the House of Commons, he must either resign or seek a dissolution of Parliament to renew his or her mandate.
Originally, there was no fixed limit on the length of a Parliament, but the Triennial Act 1694 set the maximum duration at three years. As the frequent elections were deemed inconvenient, the Septennial Act 1716 extended the maximum duration to seven years, but the Parliament Act 1911 reduced it to five years. During the Second World War, the term was temporarily extended to ten years by Acts of Parliament. Since the end of the war in 1945, however, the maximum term has remained five years. Modern Parliaments, however, rarely continue for the maximum duration; normally, they are dissolved earlier. For instance, the Fifty-Second Parliament assembled in 1997, but was dissolved after only four years.
Formerly, the demise of the Sovereign automatically brought a Parliament to an end, for the Crown was seen as the caput, principium, et finis (beginning, basis and end) of the body. It was, however, deemed inconvenient to have no Parliament at a time when succession to the Crown could be disputed. Thus, a statute passed during the reign of William III and Mary II provided that a Parliament was to continue for six months after the death of a Sovereign, unless dissolved earlier. The Representation of the People Act 1867 brought this arrangement to an end; now, a demise in the Crown does not affect the duration of a Parliament.
After each Parliament concludes, a general election is held, and new members of the House of Commons elected. The membership of the House of Lords, however, does not change due to a dissolution. Each Parliament which assembles following a general election is deemed to be distinct from the one which just concluded. Thus, each Parliament is separately numbered, the present Parliament being the Fifty-Third Parliament of the United Kingdom (that is to say, the fifty-third Parliament summoned since the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801). Previous Parliaments were “of Great Britain” or “of England.”
Laws, in draft form known as bills, may be introduced by any member of either House. Usually, however, a bill is introduced by a Minister of the Crown. A bill introduced by a Minister is known as a “Government Bill”; one introduced by another member is called a “Private Member’s Bill.” A different way of categorising bills involves the subject. Most bills, involving the general public, are called “Public Bills.” A bill that seeks to grant special rights to an individual or small group of individuals is called a “Private Bill.” A Private Bill which has broader public implications is called a “Hybrid Bill.”
Each Bill goes through several stages in each House. The first stage, called the first reading, is a mere formality. At the next stage, the second reading, the general principles of the bill are debated. At the second reading, the House may vote to reject the bill (by refusing to pass the motion “That the Bill be now read a second time”), but defeats of Government Bills are extremely rare.
Following the second reading, the bill is sent to a committee. In the House of Lords, the Committee of the Whole House or the Grand Committee is used. Each consists of all members of the House; the latter operates under special procedures, and is used only for uncontroversial bills. In the House of Commons, the bill is usually committed to a Standing Committee, consisting of between sixteen and fifty members, but the Committee of the Whole House is used for important legislation. Several other types of committees, including Select Committes, may be used, but are in practice only rarely employed. A committee considers the bill clause-by-clause, and reports its proposed amendments to the entire House, where further detailed consideration occurs.
Once the House considers the bill, the third reading follows. In the House of Commons, no further amendments may be made, and the passage of the motion “That the Bill be now read a third time” amounts to passage of the whole bill. In the House of Lords, however, further amendments to the bill may be moved. After the passage of the third reading motion mentioned above, the House of Lords must vote on another motion “That the Bill do now pass.” Following its passage in one House, the bill is sent to the other House. If passed in identical form by both Houses, it may be presented for the Sovereign’s Assent. If, however, one House passes amendments that the other will not agree to, and the two Houses cannot resolve their disagreements, the bill fails.
Since the passage of the Parliament Act 1911, however, the power of the House of Lords to interfere with bills passed by the House of Commons has been restricted. Further restrictions were placed by the Parliament Act 1949. Thus, if the House of Commons passes a public bill in two successive sessions, and the House of Lords rejects them both times, then the Commons may direct that the bill be presented to the Sovereign for his or her Assent, disregarding the rejection of the Bill in the House of Lords. In each case, the bill must be passed by the House of Commons at least one calendar month before the end of the session. The provision does not apply to bills originated in the House of Lords, to bills seeking to extend the duration of a Parliament beyond five years or to Private Bills. A special procedure applies in relation to bills classified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as “Money Bills.” A Money Bill solely concerns national taxation or public funds; the Speaker’s certificate is deemed conclusive under all circumstances. If the House of Lords fails to pass a Money Bill within one month of its passage in the House of Commons, the Lower House may direct that the Bill be submitted for the Sovereign’s Assent immediately.
Even before the passage of the Parliament Acts, the Commons possessed pre-eminence in cases of financial matters. By ancient custom, the House of Lords may neither introduce a bill relating to taxation or Supply, nor amend a bill so as to insert a provision relating to taxation or Supply, nor amend a Supply Bill in any way. The House of Commons, however, is free to waive this privilege, and sometimes does so to allow the House of Lords to pass amendments with financial implications. The House of Lords, however, remains free to reject bills relating to Supply and taxation, but may be easily overruled if the bills are Money Bills. (A bill relating to revenue and Supply may not be a Money Bill if, for example, it includes subjects other than national taxation and public funds).
The last stage of a bill involves the granting of the Royal Assent. Theoretically, the Sovereign may grant the Royal Assent (that is, make the bill a law) or withhold the Royal Assent (that is, veto the bill). Under modern notions of a constitutional monarchy, however, the Sovereign always grants the Royal Assent. The last refusal to grant the Assent came in 1708, when Anne withheld her Assent from a bill “for the settling of Militia in Scotland.”
Every bill, thus, obtains the assent of all three components of Parliament before it becomes law (except as provided by the Parliament Acts where the House of Lords is overriden). All laws are in theory “enacted” by the Sovereign, with the consent of the Lords and Commons. The words “BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s [King’s] most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-” form a part of each Act of Parliament (where the House of Lords’ authority has been overriden through the usage of the Parliament Acts, the words “BE IT ENACTED by The Queen’s [King’s] most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Commons in this present Parliament assembled, in accordance with the provisions of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-” are used instead). These words at the beginning of every Act is known as the enacting formula.
In addition to its legislative functions, Parliament also performs several judicial functions. The Queen-in-Parliament constitutes the highest court in the realm for most purposes, but the Privy Council has jurisdiction in some cases (for instance, appeals from ecclesiastical courts). The jurisdiction of Parliament arises from the ancient custom of petitioning the Houses to redress grievances and to do justice. The House of Commons ceased considering petitions to reverse the judgements of lower courts in 1399, effectively leaving the House of Lords as the realm’s court of last resort. In modern times, the judicial functions of the House of Lords are performed not by the whole House, but by a group of “Lords of Appeal in Ordinary” (judges granted life peerage dignities under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 by the Sovereign) and by “Lords of Appeal” (other peers with experience in the judiciary). The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and Lords of Appeal (or “Law Lords”) are Lords of Parliament, but normally do not vote or speak on political matters.
Certain other judicial functions have historically been performed by the House of Lords. Until 1948, it was the body in which peers of the Realm had to be tried for felonies or high treason; now, peers are tried by normal juries. Furthermore, when the House of Commons impeaches an individual, the trial takes place in the House of Lords. Impeachments, however, are now obsolete; the last impeachment occurred in 1806.
Relationship with the Government
The British Government is answerable to the House of Commons. However, neither the Prime Minister nor members of the Government are elected by the House of Commons. Instead, the Queen requests the person most likely to command the support of a majority in the House, normally the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, to form a government. So that they may be accountable to the Lower House, the Prime Minister and most members of the Cabinet are members of the House of Commons instead of the House of Lords. The last Prime Minister to be a Lord of Parliament was Alec Douglas-Home, 14th Earl of Home, who became Prime Minister in 1963. Nevertheless, to adhere to the convention under which he was responsible to the Lower House, Lord Home disclaimed his peerage dignity and procured election to the House of Commons.
Parliament controls the executive by passing or rejecting its Bills and by forcing Ministers of the Crown to answer for their actions, either at “Question Time” or during meetings of the parliamentary committees. In both cases, the Ministers are asked questions by members of their Houses, and are obliged to answer.
Although the House of Lords may scrutinise the executive through Question Time and through its committees, it cannot bring about the end of a Government. A ministry must, however, always retain the confidence and support of the House of Commons. The Lower House may indicate its lack of support by rejecting a Motion of Confidence or by passing a Motion of No Confidence. Confidence Motions are generally originated by the Government in order to reinforce its support in the House, whilst No Confidence Motions are introduced by the Opposition. The motions sometimes take the form “That this House has [no] confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” but several other varieties, many referring to specific policies supported or opposed by Parliament, are often used. For instance, a Confidence Motion of 1992 used the form, “That this House expresses the support for the economic policy of Her Majesty’s Government.” Such a motion may theoretically be introduced in the House of Lords, but, as the Government need not enjoy the confidence of that House, would not be of the same effect as a similar motion in the House of Commons; the only modern instance of such an occurrence involves the No Confidence Motion that was introduced in 1993, and subsequently defeated.
Many votes are considered votes of confidence, although not specifically involving the language mentioned above. Important bills that form part of the Government’s agenda (as stated in the Speech from the Throne) are generally considered matters of confidence. The defeat of such a bill by the House of Commons indicates that a Government no longer has the confidence of that House. Furthermore, the same effect is achieved if the House of Commons “withdraws Supply,” that is, rejects the Budget.
Where a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is obliged to either resign, or seek the dissolution of Parliament and a new general election. Where a Prime Minister has ceased to retain a majority in that vote and requests a dissolution, the Sovereign can in theory reject his request, forcing his resignation and allowing the Leader of the Opposition to be asked to form a new government. This power however is supposed to be used extremely rarely. The conditions that should be met to allow such a refusal are known as the Lascelles Principles. Note, however, that these conditions and principles are merely informal conventions; it is possible, though highly improbable, for the Sovereign to refuse a dissolution for no reason at all.
In practice, the House of Commons’ scrutiny of the Government is very weak. Since the First-Past-the-Post electoral system is employed in elections, the governing party tends to enjoy a large majority in the Commons; there is often limited need to compromise with other parties. Modern British political parties are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. In many cases, MPs may be expelled from their parties for voting against the instructions of party leaders. During the twentieth century, the Government has lost confidence issues only thrice—twice in 1924, and once in 1979.
Several different views have been taken of Parliament’s sovereignty. According to the jurist Sir William Blackstone, “It has sovereign and uncontrollable authority in making, confirming, enlarging, restraining, abrogating, repealing, reviving, and expounding of laws, concerning matters of all possible denominations, ecclesiastical, or temporal, civil, military, maritime, or criminal … It can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible.”
A different view, however, has been taken by the Scottish judge Lord Cooper of Culross. When he decided the case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate as Lord President of the Court of Session, he stated, “the principle of unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle and has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law.” He continued, “Considering that the Union legislation extinguished the Parliaments of Scotland and England and replaced them by a new Parliament, I have difficulty in seeing why the new Parliament of Great Britain must inherit all the peculiar characteristics of the English Parliament but none of the Scottish.” Nevertheless, he did not give a conclusive opinion on the subject. Thus, the question of Parliamentary sovereignty appears to remain unresolved. Parliament has not passed any Act defining its own sovereignty.
Parliament’s power has often been eroded by its own Acts. Acts passed in 1921 and 1925 grant the Church of Scotland complete independence in ecclesiastical matters. More recently, its power has been restricted by the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, which has the power to make laws enforceable in each member state. In the Factortame case, the European Court of Justice ruled that UK courts could have powers to overturn legislation contravening EU law. This new power is a breach of parliamentary sovereignty, which is part of the UK constitution. Parliament has also created national devolved assemblies with legislative authority in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Similarly, it has granted the power to make regulations to Ministers of the Crown, and the power to enact religious legislation to the General Synod of the Church of England. (Measures of the General Synod and, in some cases, proposed statutory instruments made by ministers must be approved by both Houses before they become law.) In every case aforementioned, however, authority has been conceded by Act of Parliament, and may be taken back in the same manner. It is entirely within the authority of Parliament to, for example, abolish the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland or to leave the EU. However, especially in the case of withdrawing from EU membership, the political costs (the UK’s economy and reputation in Europe would most likely be hugely damaged) of such a move would surely prevent it from occurring. Although legally Parliament’s sovereignty has not been curtailed, in a politically sense it sovereignty has been reduced by Parliament’s own Acts, especially the European Communities Act 1972 (UK), which made the UK a member of the EU.
One well-recognised exception to Parliament’s power involves binding future Parliaments. No Act of Parliament may be made secure from amendment or repeal by a future Parliament. For example, although the Act of Union 1800 states that the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland are to be united “forever,” Parliament permitted Southern Ireland to separate into a distinct nation, the Irish Free State, in 1922.
Each House of Parliament possesses and guards various ancient privileges. The House of Lords rely on inherent right. In the case of the House of Commons, the Speaker goes to the Lords’ Chamber at the beginning of each new Parliament and requests representatives of the Sovereign to confirm the Lower House’s “undoubted” privileges and rights. The ceremony observed by the House of Commons dates to the reign of Henry VIII. Each House is the guardian of its privileges, and may punish breaches thereof. The extent of parliamentary privilege is based on law and custom. Sir William Blackstone states that these privileges are “very large and indefinite,” and cannot be defined except by the Houses of Parliament themselves.
The foremost privilege claimed by both Houses is that of freedom of speech in debate; nothing said in either House may be questioned in any court or other institution outside Parliament. Another privilege is that of freedom from arrest except for high treason, felony or breach of the peace; it applies from during a session of Parliament, as well as forty days before or after such a session. Members of both Houses are also privileged from service on juries.
Both Houses possess the power to punish breaches of their privilege. Contempt of Parliament — for example, disobedience of a subpoena issued by a committee — may also be punished. The House of Lords may imprison an individual for any fixed period of time, but an individual imprisoned by the House of Commons is set free upon prorogation. The punishments imposed by either House may not be challenged in any court.