|The Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled|
|Speaker||Rt Hon. John Bercow MP, Non-affiliated (formerly Conservative)
since 22 June 2009
|Leader||Rt Hon. Harriet Harman MP, Labour
since 28 June 2007
|Shadow Leader||Sir George Young, Bt, Conservative
since 8 September 2009
|David Heath, Liberal Democrats
since 7 January 2009
|Political groups||Labour Party
Democratic Unionist Party
Scottish National Party
Social Democratic and Labour Party
Ulster Unionist Party
Respect – The Unity Coalition
|Last election||5 May 2005|
|House of Commons chamber
Palace of Westminster
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The House of Commons is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which also comprises the Sovereign and the House of Lords (the upper house). Both Commons and Lords meet in the Palace of Westminster. The Commons is a democratically elected body, consisting of 646 members, who are known as "Members of Parliament" (MPs). Members are elected through the first-past-the-post system by electoral districts known as constituencies. They hold their seats until Parliament is dissolved (a maximum of five years after the preceding election).
A House of Commons of England evolved at some point in England during the 14th century and, in practice, has been in continuous existence since, becoming the House of Commons of Great Britain after the political union with Scotland, and also, during the nineteenth century, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the political union with Ireland. The House of Commons was originally far less powerful than the House of Lords, but today its legislative powers exceed those of the Lords. Under the Parliament Act 1911, the Lords' power to reject most legislative bills was reduced to a delaying power. Moreover, the Government is primarily responsible to the House of Commons; the Prime Minister stays in office only as long as he or she retains its support. Almost all government ministers are drawn from the House of Commons and, with one brief exception, all Prime Ministers since 1902.
The full, formal style and title of the House of Commons is The Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.
Today's Parliament of the United Kingdom largely descends, in practice, from the Parliament of England, though the 1706 Treaty of Union, and the Acts of Union that ratified the Treaty, created a new Parliament of Great Britain to replace the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland. This new parliament was, in effect, the continuation of the Parliament of England with the addition of 45 MPs and 16 Peers to represent Scotland. Later still the Act of Union (1800), created after the abolition of the Irish Parliament, further enlarged Parliament with 100 Irish members to create the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The House of Commons experienced an important period of reform during the nineteenth century. Over the years, several anomalies had developed in borough representation. The constituency boundaries had not been changed since 1660, so many towns that were once important but had declined by the nineteenth century still retained their ancient right of electing two members. The most notorious of these "rotten boroughs" were Old Sarum, which had only six voters for two MPs, and Dunwich which had fallen into the sea. At the same time, large cities such as Manchester received no separate representation (although their eligible residents were able to vote in the corresponding county seat). Also notable were the pocket boroughs, small constituencies controlled by wealthy landowners and aristocrats, whose "nominees" were invariably elected.
The Commons attempted to address these anomalies by passing a Reform Bill in 1831. At first, the House of Lords proved unwilling to pass the bill, but were forced to relent when the Prime Minister, Lord Grey, advised King William IV to flood the House of Lords by creating pro-Reform peers. To avoid this the Lords relented and passed the bill in 1832. The Reform Act 1832, also known as the "Great Reform Act," abolished the rotten boroughs, established uniform voting requirements for the boroughs, and granted representation to populous cities, but still retained many pocket boroughs. In the ensuing years, the Commons grew more assertive, the influence of the House of Lords having been reduced by the Reform Bill Crisis, and the power of the patrons reduced. The Lords became more reluctant to reject bills that the Commons passed with large majorities, and it became an accepted political principle that the confidence of the House of Commons alone was necessary for a government to remain in office.
Many more reforms were introduced in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Reform Act 1867 lowered property requirements for voting in the boroughs, reduced the representation of the less populous boroughs, and granted parliamentary seats to several growing industrial towns. The electorate was further expanded by the Representation of the People Act 1884, under which property qualifications in the counties were lowered. The Redistribution of Seats Act of the following year replaced almost all multi-member constituencies with single-member constituencies.
In 1908, the Liberal Government under Asquith introduced a number of social welfare programmes, which, together with an expensive arms race, forced the Government to seek higher taxes. In 1909, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced the "People's Budget", which proposed a new tax targeting wealthy landowners. The unpopular measure, however, failed in the heavily Conservative House of Lords—and the government resigned. The resulting general election returned a hung parliament, but Asquith remained Prime Minister with the support of the smaller parties. Asquith then proposed that the powers of the Lords be severely curtailed. After a further election in December 1910, the Asquith Government secured the passage of a bill to curtail the powers of the House of Lords after threatening to flood the House with 500 new Liberal peers to ensure the passage of the bill. Thus, the Parliament Act 1911 came into effect, destroying the legislative equality of the two Houses of Parliament. The House of Lords was permitted only to delay most legislation, for a maximum of three parliamentary sessions or two calendar years (reduced to two sessions or one year by the Parliament Act 1949). Since the passage of these Acts, the House of Commons has become the dominant branch of Parliament, both in theory and in practice.
In 1918, women over 30 were given the right to vote, quickly followed by the passage of a law enabling women to be eligible for election as Members of Parliament at the younger age of 21. The only woman to be elected that year was an Irish Sinn Féin candidate, Constance Markiewicz, who therefore became the first woman MP. However, due to Sinn Féin's policy of abstention from Westminster, she never took her seat. She went on to become the first woman in Europe to hold a cabinet position, as Minister for Labour in Dáil Éireann.
Since the 17th century, MPs had been unpaid. Most of the men elected to the Commons had private incomes, while a few relied on financial support from a wealthy patron. Early Labour MPs were often provided with a salary by a trade union, but this was declared illegal by a House of Lords judgment of 1910. Consequently a clause was included in the Parliament Act 1911 finally introducing salaries for MPs. Government ministers had always been paid.
Since 1950 each Member of Parliament represents a single constituency. There remains a technical distinction between county constituencies and borough constituencies, but the only effect of this difference is the amount of money candidates are allowed to spend during campaigns. The boundaries of the constituencies are determined by four permanent and independent Boundary Commissions, one each for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The Commissions conduct general reviews of electoral boundaries once every 8 to 12 years, as well as a number of interim reviews. In drawing boundaries, they are required to take into account local government boundaries, but may deviate from this requirement in order to prevent great disparities in the populations of the various constituencies. The proposals of the Boundary Commissions are subject to parliamentary approval, but may not be amended. After the next general review of constituencies, the Boundary Commissions will be absorbed into the Electoral Commission, which was established in 2000. Currently the United Kingdom is divided into 646 constituencies, with 529 in England, 40 in Wales, 59 in Scotland, and 18 in Northern Ireland.
General elections occur whenever Parliament is dissolved by the Sovereign. The timing of the dissolution is normally chosen by the Prime Minister (see relationship with the Government below); however, a parliamentary term may not last for more than five years, unless a Bill extending the life of Parliament passes both Houses and receives Royal Assent. The House of Lords, exceptionally, retains its power of veto over such a Bill.
Conventionally, all elections in the United Kingdom are held on a Thursday.
A candidate for a constituency must submit nomination papers signed by ten registered voters from that constituency, and pay a deposit of £500, which is refunded only if the candidate wins at least five per cent of the vote. The deposit seeks to discourage frivolous candidates. Each constituency returns one Member, using the first-past-the-post electoral system, under which the candidate with a plurality of votes wins. Minors, Members of the House of Lords, prisoners, and insane persons are not qualified to become Members of the House of Commons. In order to vote, one must be a resident of the United Kingdom as well as a citizen of the United Kingdom, of a British overseas territory, of the Republic of Ireland, or of a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. British citizens living abroad are allowed to vote for 15 years after moving from the United Kingdom. No person may vote in more than one constituency.
Once elected, Members of Parliament normally continue to serve until the next dissolution of Parliament. If a Member, however, dies or ceases to be qualified (see qualifications below), his or her seat falls vacant. It is also possible for the House of Commons to expel a Member, but this power is exercised only in cases of serious misconduct or criminal activity. In each case, a vacancy may be filled by a by-election in the appropriate constituency, with the same electoral system as in general elections.
The term "Member of Parliament" is normally used only to refer to Members of the House of Commons, even though the House of Lords is also a part of Parliament. Members of the House of Commons may use the post-nominal letters "MP". The annual salary of each Member is currently £63,291. Members may also receive additional salaries in right of other offices they hold (for instance, the Speakership). Most Members also claim between £100,000 and £150,000 for various office expenses (staff costs, postage, travelling, etc.) and, in the case of non-London Members, for the costs of maintaining a home in the capital.
There are numerous qualifications that apply to Members of Parliament. Most importantly, one must be aged at least 18 (the limit was 21 until S.17 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 came into force), and must be a citizen of the United Kingdom, of a British overseas territory, of the Republic of Ireland, or of a member state of the Commonwealth of Nations. These restrictions were introduced by the British Nationality Act 1981, but were previously far more stringent: under the Act of Settlement 1701, only natural-born subjects were qualified. Members of the House of Lords may not serve in the House of Commons, or even vote in parliamentary elections; however, they are permitted to sit in the chamber during debates.
A person may not sit in the Commons if he or she is the subject of a Bankruptcy Restrictions Order (applicable in England and Wales only), or if he or she is adjudged bankrupt (in Northern Ireland), or if his or her estate is sequestered (in Scotland). Also, lunatics are ineligible to sit in the House of Commons. Under the Mental Health Act 1983, two specialists must report to the Speaker that a Member is suffering from mental illness before a seat can be declared vacant. There also exists a common law precedent from the 18th century that the "deaf and dumb" are ineligible to sit in the Lower House; this precedent, however, has not been tested in recent years. Jack Ashley continued to serve as an MP for 25 years after becoming profoundly deaf.
Anyone found guilty of high treason may not sit in Parliament until he or she has either completed the term of imprisonment, or received a full pardon from the Crown. Moreover, anyone serving a prison sentence of one year or more is ineligible. Finally, the Representation of the People Act 1983 disqualifies for ten years those found guilty of certain election-related offences. Several other disqualifications are codified in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975: holders of high judicial offices, civil servants, members of the regular armed forces, members of foreign legislatures (excluding the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth countries), and holders of several Crown offices. Ministers, even though they are paid officers of the Crown, are not disqualified.
The rule that precludes certain Crown officers from serving in the House of Commons is used to circumvent a resolution adopted by the House of Commons in 1623, under which Members are not permitted to resign their seats. In practice, however, they always can. Should a Member wish to resign from the Commons, he or she may request appointment to one of two ceremonial Crown offices: that of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, or that of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. These offices are sinecures (that is, they involve no actual duties); they exist solely in order to permit the "resignation" of Members of the House of Commons. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is responsible for making the appointment, and, by convention, never refuses to do so when asked by a Member who desires to leave the House of Commons.
The House of Commons elects a presiding officer, known as the Speaker, at the beginning of each new parliamentary term. If the incumbent Speaker seeks a new term, then the House may re-elect him or her merely by passing a motion; otherwise, a secret ballot is held. A Speaker-elect cannot take office until he or she has been approved by the Sovereign; the granting of the royal approbation, however, is a formality. The Speaker is assisted by three Deputy Speakers, the most senior of which holds the title of Chairman of Ways and Means. The two other Deputy Speakers are known as the First and Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. These titles derive from the Committee of Ways and Means, a body over which the Chairman once used to preside; even though the Committee was abolished in 1967, the traditional titles of the Deputy Speakers are still retained. The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers are always Members of the House of Commons.
Whilst presiding, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker wears a ceremonial black robe. The presiding officer may also wear a wig, but this tradition was abandoned by the former Speaker, Michael Martin, and by his predecessor, Betty Boothroyd. The Speaker or deputy presides from a chair at the front of the House. This chair was designed by Augustus Pugin who initially built a prototype of the chair at King Edward's School, Birmingham, the chair is called Sapientia, and is where the Chief master sits. The Speaker is also chairman of the House of Commons Commission, which oversees the running of the House, and he or she controls debates by calling on members to speak. If a member believes that a rule (or Standing Order) has been breached, he or she may raise a "point of order", on which the Speaker makes a ruling that is not subject to any appeal. The Speaker may discipline members who fail to observe the rules of the House. Thus, the Speaker is far more powerful than his Lords counterpart, the Lord Speaker, who has no disciplinary powers. Customarily, the Speaker and the deputies are non-partisan; they do not vote, or participate in the affairs of any political party. By convention, a Speaker seeking re-election to parliament is not opposed in his or her constituency by any of the major parties. The lack of partisanship continues even after the Speaker leaves the House of Commons.
The Clerk of the House is both the House's chief adviser on matters of procedure and Chief Executive of the House of Commons. He or she is a permanent official, not a Member of the House itself. The Clerk advises the Speaker on the rules and procedure of the House, signs orders and official communications, and signs and endorses bills. He or she chairs the Board of Management, which consists of the heads of the six departments of the House. The Clerk's deputy is known as the Clerk Assistant. Another officer of the House is the Serjeant-at-Arms, whose duties include the maintenance of law, order, and security on the House's premises. The Serjeant-at-Arms carries the ceremonial Mace, a symbol of the authority of the Crown and of the House of Commons, into the House each day in front of the Speaker, and the Mace is laid upon the Table of the House during sittings. The Librarian is head of the House of Commons Library, the House's research and information arm.
Like the Lords, the Commons meets in the Palace of Westminster in London. The Commons chamber is small and modestly decorated in green, in contrast with the large, lavishly furnished red Lords chamber. There are benches on two sides of the chamber, divided by a centre aisle. This arrangement reflects the design of St Stephen's Chapel, which served as the home of the House of Commons until destroyed by fire in 1834. The Speaker's chair is at one end of the Chamber; in front of it is the Table of the House, on which the Mace rests. The Clerks sit at one end of the Table, close to the Speaker so that they may advise him or her on procedure when necessary. Members of the Government sit on the benches on the Speaker's right, whilst members of the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left. In front of each set of benches, a red line is drawn on the carpet—and members are traditionally not allowed to cross the line during debates. The red lines in front of the two sets of benches are said to be set two sword-lengths apart; a Member is thus supposed to be unable to attack an individual on the opposite side. Government ministers and the leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Cabinet sit on the front rows, and are known as "frontbenchers". Other Members of Parliament, in contrast, are known as "backbenchers". Oddly, all Members of Parliament cannot fit in the Chamber, which can seat only 427 of the 646 Members. Members who arrive late must stand near the entrance of the House if they wish to listen to debates. Sittings in the Chamber are held each day from Monday to Thursday, and also on some Fridays. During times of national emergency, the House may also sit at weekends.
Sittings of the House are open to the public, but the House may at any time vote to sit in private. (This has been done only twice since 1950.) Traditionally, a Member who desired that the House sit privately could shout "I spy strangers" and a vote would automatically follow. In the past, when relations between the Commons and the Crown were less than cordial, this procedure was used whenever the House wanted to keep its debate private. More often, however, this device was used to delay and disrupt proceedings; as a result, it was abolished in 1998. Now, Members seeking that the House sit in private must make a formal motion to that effect. Public debates are broadcast on the radio, and on television by BBC Parliament, and are recorded in Hansard.
Sessions of the House of Commons have sometimes been disrupted by angry protesters throwing objects into the Chamber from the galleries—items thrown include leaflets, manure, flour (see Fathers 4 Justice House of Commons protest), and a canister of chlorobenzylidene malonitrile (tear gas). Even members have been known to disturb proceedings of the House; for instance, in 1976, Conservative MP Michael Heseltine seized and brandished the Mace of the House during a heated debate. However, perhaps the most famous disruption of the House of Commons was caused by King Charles I, who entered the Commons Chamber in 1642 with an armed force in order to arrest five members for high treason. This action was deemed a breach of the privilege of the House, and has given rise to the tradition that the monarch may not set foot in the House of Commons.
Each year, the parliamentary session begins with the State Opening of Parliament, a ceremony in the Lords Chamber during which the Sovereign, in the presence of Members of both Houses, delivers an address outlining the Government's legislative agenda. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (a Lords official) is responsible for summoning the Commons to the Lords Chamber. When he arrives to deliver his summons, the doors of the Commons Chamber are traditionally slammed shut in his face, symbolising the right of the Lower House to debate without interference. The Gentleman Usher then knocks on the door three times with his Black Rod, and only then is granted admittance. He then informs the MPs that the Monarch awaits them, and they proceed to the House of Lords for the Queen's Speech.
During debates, Members may speak only if called upon by the Speaker (or a Deputy Speaker, if the Speaker is not presiding). Traditionally, the presiding officer alternates between calling Members from the Government and Opposition. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and other leaders from both sides are normally given priority. Formerly, all Privy Counsellors were also granted priority; however, the modernisation of Commons procedure in 1998 led to the abolition of this tradition.
Speeches are addressed to the presiding officer, using the words "Mr Speaker," "Madam Speaker," "Mr Deputy Speaker," or "Madam Deputy Speaker." Only the presiding officer may be directly addressed in debate; other Members must be referred to in the third person. Traditionally, Members do not refer to each other by name, but by constituency, using forms such as "the Honourable Member for [constituency]," or, in the case of Privy Counsellors, "the Right Honourable Member for [constituency]." Members of the same party refer to each other as "my (Right) Honourable friend". This may not always be the case during the actual oral delivery, when it might be difficult for a Member to remember another Member's exact constituency, but it is invariably followed in the transcript entered in the Hansard. The Speaker enforces the rules of the House, and may warn and punish Members who deviate from them. Disregarding the Speaker's instructions is considered a severe breach of the rules of the House, and may result in the suspension of the offender from the House. In the case of grave disorder, the Speaker may adjourn the House without taking a vote.
The Standing Orders of the House of Commons do not establish any formal time limits for debates. The Speaker may, however, order a Member who persists in making a tediously repetitive or irrelevant speech to stop speaking. The time set aside for debate on a particular motion is, however, often limited by informal agreements between the parties. Debate may also be restricted by the passage of "Allocation of Time Motions", which are more commonly known as "Guillotine Motions". Alternatively, the House may put an immediate end to debate by passing a motion to invoke Closure. The Speaker is allowed to deny the motion if he or she believes that it infringes upon the rights of the minority. Today, Bills are scheduled according to a Timetable Motion, which the whole House agrees in advance, obviating use of the guillotine.
When the debate concludes, or when the Closure is invoked, the motion in question is put to a vote. The House first votes by voice vote; the Speaker or Deputy Speaker puts the question, and Members respond either "Aye" (in favour of the motion) or "No" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but if his or her assessment is challenged by any Member or the voice vote is unclear, a recorded vote known as a division follows. (The presiding officer, if he or she believes that the result of the voice vote is clear, may reject the challenge.) When a division occurs, members enter one of two lobbies (the "Aye" lobby or the "No" lobby) on either side of the Chamber, where their names are recorded by clerks. A member who wishes to pointedly abstain from a vote may do so by entering both lobbies, casting one vote for and one against. At each lobby are two tellers (themselves Members of the House) who count the votes of the members.
Once the division concludes, the tellers provide the results to the presiding officer, who then announces them to the House. If there is an equality of votes, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker has a casting vote. Traditionally, this casting vote is exercised to allow further debate, if this is possible, or otherwise to avoid a decision being taken without a majority (e.g. voting No to a motion or the third reading of a bill). Ties rarely occur—the last one was in July 1993. The quorum of the House of Commons is 40 members for any vote. If fewer than 40 members have participated, the division is invalid.
Formerly, if a Member sought to raise a point of order during a division, suggesting that some of the rules governing parliamentary procedure are violated, he was required to wear a hat, thereby signaling that he was not engaging in debate. Collapsible top hats were kept in the Chamber just for this purpose. This custom was discontinued in 1998.
The outcome of most votes is largely known beforehand, since political parties normally instruct members on how to vote. A party normally entrusts some Members of Parliament, known as whips, with the task of ensuring that all party members vote as desired. Members of Parliament do not tend to vote against such instructions, since those who do so jeopardise promotion, or may be deselected as party candidates for future elections. Ministers, junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries who vote against the whips' instructions usually resign. Thus, the independence of Members of Parliament tends to be low, although "backbench rebellions" by members discontent with their party's policies do occur. A member is also traditionally allowed some leeway if the interests of her/his constituency are adversely affected. In some circumstances, however, parties announce "free votes", allowing members to vote as they please. Votes relating to issues of conscience such as abortion and capital punishment are typically free votes.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom uses committees for a variety of purposes, e.g. for the review of bills. Committees consider bills in detail, and may make amendments. Bills of great constitutional importance, as well as some important financial measures, are usually sent to the "Committee of the Whole House", a body that includes all members of the Commons. Instead of the Speaker, the Chairman or a Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means presides. The Committee meets in the House of Commons Chamber.
Most bills were until 2006 considered by Standing Committees, which consisted of between 16 and 50 members. The membership of each Standing Committee roughly reflected the strength of the parties in the House. The membership of Standing Committees changed constantly; new Members were assigned each time the committee considered a new bill. There was no formal limit on the number of Standing Committees, but usually only ten existed. Rarely, a bill was committed to a Special Standing Committee, which investigated and held hearings on the issues raised. In November 2006, Standing Committees were replaced by Public Bill Committees.
The House of Commons also has several Departmental Select Committees. The membership of these bodies, like that of the Standing Committees, reflects the strength of the parties. Each committee elects its own Chairman. The primary function of a Departmental Select Committee is to scrutinise and investigate the activities of a particular government department. To fulfil these aims, it is permitted to hold hearings and collect evidence. Bills may be referred to Departmental Select Committees, but such a procedure is seldom used.
A separate type of Select Committee is the Domestic Committee. Domestic Committees oversee the administration of the House and the services provided to Members. Other committees of the House of Commons include Joint Committees (which also include members of the House of Lords), the Committee on Standards and Privileges (which considers questions of parliamentary privilege, as well as matters relating to the conduct of the members), and the Committee of Selection (which determines the membership of other committees).
Bills may be introduced in either house, though controversial bills normally originate in the House of Commons. The supremacy of the Commons in legislative matters is assured by the Parliament Acts, under which certain types of bills may be presented for the Royal Assent without the consent of the House of Lords. The Lords may not delay a money bill (a bill that, in the view of the Speaker of the House of Commons, solely concerns national taxation or public funds) for more than one month. Moreover, the Lords may not delay most other public bills for more than two parliamentary sessions, or one calendar year. These provisions, however, only apply to public bills that originate in the House of Commons. Moreover, a bill that seeks to extend a parliamentary term beyond five years requires the consent of the House of Lords.
By a custom that prevailed even before the Parliament Acts, only the House of Commons may originate bills concerning taxation or Supply. Furthermore, supply bills passed by the House of Commons are immune to amendments in the House of Lords. In addition, the House of Lords is barred from amending a bill so as to insert a taxation or supply-related provision, but the House of Commons often waives its privileges and allows the Lords to make amendments with financial implications. Under a separate convention, known as the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not seek to oppose legislation promised in the Government's election manifesto. Hence, as the power of the House of Lords has been severely curtailed by statute and by practice, the House of Commons is clearly the more powerful branch of Parliament.
Although it does not elect the Prime Minister, the position of the parties in the House of Commons is of overriding importance. By convention the Prime Minister is answerable to, and must maintain the support of, the House of Commons. Thus, whenever the office of Prime Minister falls vacant, the Sovereign appoints the person most likely to command the support of the House—normally the leader of the largest party in the Commons. (The leader of the second-largest party becomes the Leader of the Opposition.) In modern times, by convention, the Prime Minister is always a member of the House of Commons, rather than the House of Lords.
The Lower House may indicate its lack of support for the Government by rejecting a Motion of Confidence, or by passing a Motion of No Confidence. Confidence and no confidence motions are sometimes phrased explicitly, for instance: "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government." Many other motions were considered confidence issues, even though not explicitly phrased as such. In particular, important bills that form a part of the Government's agenda were formerly considered matters of confidence, as is the annual Budget. When a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is obliged to either resign, making way for another MP who can command confidence, or request the monarch to dissolve Parliament, thereby precipitating a general election.
Except when compelled to do so by an adverse vote on a confidence issue, the Prime Minister is allowed to choose the timing of dissolutions with the permission of the Monarch, and consequently the timing of general elections. The timing reflects political considerations, and is generally most opportune for the Prime Minister's party. However, no parliamentary term can last for more than five years; a dissolution is automatic upon the expiry of this period unless an act of Parliament is passed extending the maximum term as happened during both World Wars. Parliament almost never sits for the maximum possible term, with dissolutions customarily being requested earlier.
A Prime Minister may resign even if he or she is not defeated at the polls (for example, for personal health reasons); in such a case, the premiership goes to whoever can command a majority in the House of Commons, in practise this is usually the new leader of the outgoing Prime Minister's party. Until 1965, the Conservative Party had no mechanism for electing a new leader and when Anthony Eden resigned as PM in 1957 without recommending a successor, the party was unable to nominate one. It fell to the Queen to appoint Harold Macmillan as the new Prime Minister, after taking the advice of ministers.
By convention, all ministers must be members of the House of Commons or House of Lords. A handful have been appointed who are outside Parliament but in most cases they subsequently entered Parliament either by means of a by-election or receiving a peerage. Since 1902, all Prime Ministers have been members of the Commons (the sole exception, the Earl of Home, disclaimed his peerage days after becoming Prime Minister, and was immediately elected to the House of Commons as Sir Alec Douglas-Home).
In modern times, a vast majority of ministers belong to the Commons rather than the Lords. Few major cabinet positions (except Lord Privy Seal, Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Lords) have been filled by a lord in recent times. Notable exceptions are Lord Carrington who served as Foreign Secretary from 1979 to 1982, and Lord Young who was appointed Employment Secretary in 1985. Lord Mandelson was appointed Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in October 2008, he was also briefly neither a member of the Lords nor Commons in this capacity. The elected status of members of the Commons, as opposed to the unelected nature of members of the Lords, is seen to lend more legitimacy to ministers. The Prime Minister chooses the Ministers, and may decide to remove them at any time; the formal appointment or dismissal, however, is made by the Sovereign.
The House of Commons scrutinises the Government through "Question Time", during which members have the opportunity to ask questions of the Prime Minister and of other cabinet ministers. Prime Minister's question time occurs once each week, normally for a half-hour each Wednesday. Questions must relate to the responding Minister's official Government activities, not to his or her activities as a party leader or as a private Member of Parliament. Customarily, members of the Government party and members of the Opposition alternate when asking questions. In addition to questions asked orally during Question Time, Members of Parliament may also make inquiries in writing.
In practice, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the Government is fairly weak. Since the first-past-the-post electoral system is employed, the governing party often enjoys a large majority in the Commons, and there is often little 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. Also, many ruling party MPs are paid members of the government. Thus, during the 20th century, the Government has lost confidence issues only three times — twice in 1924, and once in 1979. However, the threat of rebellions by their own party's backbench MPs often forces Governments to make concessions (recently over top-up fees and foundation hospitals). Occasionally the Government is defeated by backbench rebellions (Terrorism Act 2006). However, the scrutiny provided by the Select Committees is more serious.
The House of Commons technically retains the power to impeach Ministers of the Crown (or any other subject, even if not a public officer) for their crimes. Impeachments are tried by the House of Lords, where a simple majority is necessary to convict. The power of impeachment, however, has fallen into disuse: the House of Commons exercises its checks on the Government through other means, such as No Confidence Motions; the last impeachment was that of Viscount Melville in 1806.
In May and June 2009 revelations of MP's expenses claims caused a major scandal and loss of confidence by the public in the integrity of MPs, as well as causing the forced resignation of the Speaker.
This table indicates those parties with over 500 votes nationwide
|Seats %||Votes %||Votes||+/–|
|Labour Party||345 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 20|
|Conservative Party||193 3 5 8 12 13 14 15|
|Liberal Democrats||63 2|
|Democratic Unionist Party||8 16|
|Scottish National Party||7 6|
|Sinn Féin||5 17|
|Social Democratic and Labour Party||3|
|Ulster Unionist Party||1|
|RESPECT The Unity Coalition||1|
||6 4 11 15 18|
||2 12 14|
|Speaker and Deputies
||3 10 16 20|
| Government Working Majority
Government majority larger than notional majority due to those who don't vote: Sinn Fein, vacant members and speakers.
In 1986, the British television production company Granada Television created a near-full size replica of the post-1950 House of Commons debating chamber at its studios in Manchester for use in its adaptation of the Jeffrey Archer novel First Among Equals. The set was highly convincing, and was retained after the production—since then, it has been used in nearly every British film and television production that has featured scenes set in the chamber. From 1988 until 1999 it was also one of the prominent attractions on the Granada Studios Tour, where visitors could watch actors performing mock political debates on the set.
In 2002, the set was purchased by the scriptwriter Paul Abbott so that it could be used in his BBC drama serial State of Play. Abbott, a former Granada Television staff writer, bought it personally as the set would otherwise have been destroyed and he feared it would take too long to get the necessary money from the BBC. He currently keeps it in storage in Oxford.
The post-1941 Commons Chamber was used in the film Ali G Indahouse, the political satire Restart by Komedy Kollective, about a British prime minister seeking re-election, and was mentioned in the Robin Williams stand-up special Robin Williams Live on Broadway in which he describes it as "like Congress, but with a two drink minimum".
|Officers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords|
|House of Commons||House of Lords|
|Serjeant-at-Arms||Jill Pay||Black Rod||Freddie Viggers|
|Clerk of the House||Malcolm Jack||Clerk of the Parliaments||Michael Pownall|
|Speaker||John Bercow||Lord Speaker||Baroness Hayman|
|Leader of the House of Commons||Harriet Harman||Leader of the House of Lords||Baroness Royall|