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House of Commons of the United Kingdom

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  • 1. House of Commons of the United KingdomThe House of Commons is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which also comprisesthe Sovereignand the House of Lords (the upper house). Both Commons and Lords meet in the Palace ofWestminster. The Commons is a democratically elected body, consisting of 650 members (since 2010General Election), who are known as Members of Parliament (MPs). Members are elected through the first-past-the-post system by electoral districts known asconstituencies. They hold their seats until Parliament isdissolved (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 politicalunion with Scotland, and also, during the nineteenth century, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain andIreland after the political union with Ireland, finally reaching its current title after independence was given tothe Irish Free State in 1922.The House of Commons was originally far less powerful than the House of Lords, but today its legislativepowers greatly exceed those of the Lords. Under the Parliament Act 1911, the Lords power to reject mostlegislative bills was reduced to a delaying power. Moreover, the Government is primarily responsible to theHouse of Commons; the prime minister stays in office only as long as he or she retains its support. Almostall government ministers are drawn from the House of Commons and, with one brief exception,[1]all primeministers since 1902The full, formal style and title of the House of Commons is The Honourable the Commons of theUnited KiRelationship with the governmentAlthough it does not formally elect the prime minister, the position of the parties in the House of Commons isof overriding importance. By convention, the prime minister is answerable to, and must maintain the supportof, the House of Commons. Thus, whenever the office of prime minister falls vacant, the Sovereign appointsthe person who has the support of the House, or who is 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 becomesthe Leader of the Opposition.) Since 1963, by convention, the prime minister is always a member of theHouse of Commons, rather than the House of Lords.ngdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.The Lower House may indicate its lack of support for the Government by rejecting a Motion of Confidence, orby passing aMotion of No Confidence. Confidence and no confidence motions are sometimes phrasedexplicitly, for instance: "That this House has no confidence in Her Majestys Government." Many othermotions were considered confidence issues, even though not explicitly phrased as such. In particular,important bills that form a part of the Governments 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 primeminister is obliged to either resign, making way for another MP who can command confidence, or request themonarch 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 tochoose the timing of dissolutions with the permission of the Monarch, and consequently the timing of generalelections. The timing reflects political considerations, and is generally most opportune for the prime ministersparty. However, no parliamentary term can last for more than five years; a dissolution is automatic upon theexpiry of this period unless an act of Parliament is passed extending the maximum term as happened duringboth World Wars. Parliament almost never sits for the maximum possible term, with dissolutions customarilybeing requested earlier.
  • 2. A prime minister may resign even if he or she is not defeated at the polls (for example, for personal healthreasons); in such a case, the premiership goes to whoever can command a majority in the House ofCommons, in practice this is usually the new leader of the outgoing prime ministers party. Until 1965, theConservative Party had no mechanism for electing a new leader and when Anthony Eden resigned as PM in1957 without recommending a successor, the party was unable to nominate one. It fell to the Queen toappoint 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 havebeen appointed who are outside Parliament but in most cases they subsequently entered Parliament eitherby means of a by-election or receiving a peerage. Since 1902, all prime ministers have been members of theCommons (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. Fewmajor cabinet positions (exceptLord Privy Seal, Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Lords) havebeen filled by a lord in recent times. Notable exceptions are Lord Carrington who served as ForeignSecretary from 1979 to 1982, and Lord Young who was appointed Employment Secretary in 1985. LordMandelson was appointed Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in October2008; he was also briefly neither a member of the Lords nor Commons in this capacity. The elected status ofmembers of the Commons, as opposed to the unelected nature of members of the Lords, is seen to lendmore legitimacy to ministers. The prime minister chooses the Ministers, and may decide to remove them atany time; the formal appointment or dismissal, however, is made by the Sovereign.By convention, all ministers must be members of the House of Commons or House of Lords. A handful havebeen appointed who are outside Parliament but in most cases they subsequently entered Parliament eitherby means of a by-election or receiving a peerage. Since 1902, all prime ministers have been members of theCommons (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. Fewmajor cabinet positions (exceptLord Privy Seal, Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Lords) havebeen filled by a lord in recent times. Notable exceptions are Lord Carrington who served as ForeignSecretary from 1979 to 1982, and Lord Young who was appointed Employment Secretary in 1985. LordMandelson was appointed Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in October2008; he was also briefly neither a member of the Lords nor Commons in this capacity. The elected status ofmembers of the Commons, as opposed to the unelected nature of members of the Lords, is seen to lendmore legitimacy to ministers. The prime minister chooses the Ministers, and may decide to remove them atany 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 havethe opportunity to ask questions of the prime minister and of other cabinet ministers. Prime ministersquestion time occurs once each week, normally for a half-hour each Wednesday. Questions must relate tothe responding ministers official government activities, not to his or her activities as a party leader or as aprivate Member of Parliament. Customarily, members of the Government party and members of theOpposition 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-postelectoral system is employed, the governing party often enjoys a large majority in the Commons, and there isoften little need to compromise with other parties. Modern British political parties are so tightly organised thatthey leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. Also, many ruling party MPs are paid members of
  • 3. the government. Thus, during the 20th century, the Government has lost confidence issues only threetimes — twice in 1924, and once in 1979. However, the threat of rebellions by their own partys backbenchMPs 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, thescrutiny provided by the Select Committees is more serious.The House of Commons technically retains the power to impeach Ministers of the Crown (or any othersubject, even if not a public officer) for their crimes. Impeachments are tried by the House of Lords, where asimple majority is necessary to convict. The power of impeachment, however, has fallen into disuse: theHouse of Commons exercises its checks on the Government through other means, such as No ConfidenceMotions; the last impeachment was that of Viscount Melville in 1806.Legislative functionsFurther information: Act of ParliamentBills may be introduced in either house, though controversial bills normally originate in the House ofCommons. The supremacy of the Commons in legislative matters is assured by the Parliament Acts, underwhich certain types of bills may be presented for the Royal Assent without the consent of the House ofLords. The Lords may not delay a money bill (a bill that, in the view of the Speaker of the House ofCommons, solely concerns national taxation or public funds) for more than one month. Moreover, the Lordsmay not delay most other public bills for more than two parliamentary sessions, or one calendar year. Theseprovisions, however, only apply to public bills that originate in the House of Commons. Moreover, a bill thatseeks 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 billsconcerning taxation or Supply. Furthermore, supply bills passed by the House of Commons are immune toamendments in the House of Lords. In addition, the House of Lords is barred from amending a bill so as toinsert a taxation or supply-related provision, but the House of Commons often waives its privileges andallows the Lords to make amendments with financial implications. Under a separate convention, known astheSalisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not seek to oppose legislation promised in theGovernments election manifesto. Hence, as the power of the House of Lords has been severely curtailed bystatute and by practice, the House of Commons is clearly the more powerful branch of Parliament.[HistoryTodays Parliament of the United Kingdom largely descends, in practice, from the Parliament of England,although the 1706 Treaty of Union, and the Acts of Union that ratified the Treaty, created a new Parliamentof Great Britain to replace the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland. This new parliamentwas, in effect, the continuation of the Parliament of England with the addition of 45 MPs and sixteen Peers torepresent Scotland. Later still the Act of Union (1800) brought about the abolition of the Parliament ofIrelandand enlarged the Commons at Westminster with 100 Irish members, creating the Parliament of theUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.QualificationsThere are numerous qualifications that apply to Members of Parliament. Most importantly, one must be agedat least 18 (the limit was 21 until S.17 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 came into force), and must bea citizen of the United Kingdom, of a British overseas territory, of the Republic of Ireland, or of a memberstate of the Commonwealth of Nations. These restrictions were introduced by the British Nationality Act1981, but were previously far more stringent: under the Act of Settlement 1701, only natural-born subjectswere qualified. Members of the House of Lords may not serve in the House of Commons, or even vote inparliamentary elections; however, they are permitted to sit in the chamber during debates.
  • 4. A person may not sit in the Commons if he or she is the subject of a Bankruptcy RestrictionsOrder (applicable in England and Wales only), or if he or she is adjudged bankrupt (in Northern Ireland), or ifhis or her estate is sequestered (in Scotland). Also, MPs detained under the Mental Health Act for sixmonths or more must vacate their seat. Under the Mental Health Act 1983, two specialists must report to theSpeaker that a Member is suffering from mental illness before a seat can be declared vacant. There alsoexists a common lawprecedent from the 18th century that the "deaf and dumb" are ineligible to sit in theLower House[citation needed]; this precedent, however, has not been tested in recent years. JackAshley 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 ofimprisonment, or received a full pardon from the Crown. Moreover, anyone serving a prison sentence of oneyear or more is ineligible. Finally, the Representation of the People Act 1983 disqualifies for ten years thosefound guilty of certain election-related offences. Several other disqualifications are codified in the House ofCommons Disqualification Act 1975: holders of high judicial offices, civil servants, members of theregular armed forces, members of foreign legislatures (excluding the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealthcountries), 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 circumventa resolution adopted by the House of Commons in 1623, under which Members are not permitted to resigntheir seats. In practice, however, they always can. Should a Member wish to resign from the Commons, heor she may request appointment to one of two ceremonial Crown offices: that of Crown Steward and Bailiff ofthe Chiltern Hundreds, or that of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. These officesaresinecures (that is, they involve no actual duties); they exist solely in order to permit the "resignation" ofMembers of the House of Commons. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is responsible for making theappointment, and, by convention, never refuses to do so when asked by a Member who desires to leave theHouse of Commons.