The British Parliament

The Crowned Portcullis
The crowned portcullis gained widespread use as the emblem of the Houses of Parliament in the 19th century.

This is a follow up to my Parliament vs Monarchy article, and it attempts to explain the British parliamentary system. The British legislative authority (known as the Crown-in-Parliament) has three separate elements: the Monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons.

The House of Lords (also known as the Upper House) is made of two different types of members: the Lords Spiritual (senior bishops of the Church of England) and the Lords Temporal (members of the Peerage). Members of the House of Lords are not elected democratically, but are
appointed by the Sovereign on advice of the Prime Minister, by inheritance, or by virtue of their ecclesiastical role within the established church. This is similar to the early Great Councils called by English monarchs which consisted of archbishops, bishops, abbots, barons and earls.

The House of Commons (or Lower House) is a democratically elected chamber with elections to it held at least every five years. The term 'commons' does not come from the term commoner, but from commune, the old French term for a district.

The two Houses meet in separate chambers in the Palace of Westminster in London (commonly known as the Houses of Parliament). By constitutional convention, all government ministers, including the Prime Minister, are members of the House of Commons or, less often, the House of Lords. No individual may be a member of both Houses, and members of the House of Lords are legally barred from voting in elections for members of the House of Commons.

Royal Assent of the Monarch is required for all Bills to become law. The Crown also has executive powers which do not depend on Parliament, through prerogative powers, which include among others the ability to dissolve Parliament, make treaties, declare war, award honours, and appoint officers and civil servants. In practice these are always exercised by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister and the other ministers of HM Government.

House of Lords
House of Lords

Until the 19th century the House of Lords was superior to the House of Commons both in theory and practice. Members of the House of Commons were elected in an antiquated electoral system, under which constituencies of vastly different sizes existed. Many seats in the House of Commons were "owned" by the Lords. Beginning with the Reform Act 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.

House of Commons
House of Commons

The supremacy of the House of Commons was established in the early 20th century. In 1909, the Commons passed the so-called "People's Budget", which made numerous changes to the taxation system in a manner detrimental to wealthy landowners. The House of Lords, which consisted mostly of powerful landowners, rejected the Budget. On the basis of the Budget's popularity and the Lords' consequent unpopularity, the Liberal Party narrowly won two general elections 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 countered with a promise extracted from the King in secret before the second general election of 1910 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 narrowly passed the bill.

The Parliament Act 1911, prevented the Lords from blocking a money bill (a bill dealing with taxation), and allowed them to delay any other bill for a maximum of three sessions (reduced to two sessions in 1949), after which it could become law over their objections. However, regardless of the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, The House of Lords has always retained the unrestricted power to be able to block and veto any bill outright which attempts to extend the life of parliament if the Lords do not believe it to be appropriate, democratic or fitting. In this case, the Parliament Acts cannot be used to override the decision of the House of Lords.

The House of Lords can also hold the government to account through questions to government ministers and the operation of a small number of select committees that scrutinise particular issues and the workings of the government. The highest court in England & Wales and Northern Ireland used to be a committee of the House of Lords, but it became an independent supreme court in 2009.

In theory, supreme legislative power is vested in the Crown-in-Parliament; in practice in modern times, real power is vested in the House of Commons, as the Sovereign generally acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and the powers of the House of Lords have been limited.

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