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Guide

What does Parliament do?

The main roles of Parliament are to examine and challenge the work of the government, to debate and pass laws and to allow the government to raise taxes.

How does Parliament work?

Parliament comprises three elements: the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Sovereign (our current monarch).

The House of Commons:

  • Made up of publicly elected Members of Parliament (MPs). Each MP represents a different area of the UK called a constituency.
  • The political party with the most MPs forms the government.
  • The political party with the largest number of MPs not in government forms the official Opposition.
  • Big political issues and proposals for new laws are debated amongst MPs in the Commons. It is also the place where the government is challenged and questioned by the Opposition.
  • Debates in the Commons are chaired by the Speaker who is elected by MPs.

The House of Lords:

  • Made up of publicly elected Members of Parliament (MPs). Each MP represents a different area of the UK called a constituency.
  • The political party with the most MPs forms the government.
  • The political party with the largest number of MPs not in government forms the official Opposition.
  • Big political issues and proposals for new laws are debated amongst MPs in the Commons. It is also the place where the government is challenged and questioned by the Opposition.
  • Debates in the Commons are chaired by the Speaker who is elected by MPs.

What is government and what does it do?:

The government decides how the country should be run. It puts forward proposals for new laws which can affect how money and power is distributed. The Queen reads these proposals out when she opens Parliament each year.

These proposals (known as legislation) are introduced as Bills. Parliament then scrutinises, debates, amends and votes on these Bills. As the government has a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, however, it makes it easier to get the Bills approved by Parliament.

The Prime Minister (chosen by the Queen, but almost always the leader of the majority political party) chooses MPs and Lords from his or her party to be government ministers. Most ministers run government departments (such as the Department of Health or the Home Office) with the help of civil servants. The most senior ministers form the Cabinet, a body which decides the government’s policy and tactical direction.

The Shadow Cabinet consists of Opposition MPs selected by their leader to examine the work and policies of each government department. The Shadow Cabinet also decides the tactical direction of the Opposition, and can influence where the Opposition stands on various issues.

Those MPs who are not ministers or shadow ministers are classed as ‘backbenchers’.

How does Parliament scrutinise the government?

Members of the Commons and Lords can ask government ministers questions about their work. Known as parliamentary questions (PQs), they can be asked either orally in the Houses of Parliament or in writing.

The government can be scrutinised during parliamentary debates. Debates can be on any subject, and votes can be taken to decide whether most MPs support or reject the proposals that have been discussed.

Committees of smaller groups of MPs and/or Lords can look in detail at government legislation or specific policy issues. Committees can produce reports to publish their findings, offer advice to the government or alter legislation.

About Bills

Bills are proposed laws which are put to Parliament to amend and approve. There are three different kinds of Bills:

  • Public Bills
    • Change the general law. Government ministers propose the majority of Public Bills, although those introduced by other MPs or Lords are known as Private Members’ Bills.
    • They can be opposed by members of the public by writing to their MP, writing to the relevant government department, lobbying Parliament directly or submitting evidence to the relevant Public Bill Committee.
  • Private Bills
    • Proposed legislation that affects the powers of particular bodies or the rights of individuals. The Bill has to be publicised so that interested parties are aware of it.
    • Any groups affected by the Bill’s proposals can object by submitting petitions which are considered by the relevant parliamentary committee.
  • Hybrid Bills
    • Proposes changes to the law that would affect the general public but would also have a significant impact for specific individuals or groups. Hybrid Bills are fairly rare.

What are whips?

Each of the major political parties has a number of whips. A whip is an MP appointed by their party to organise the party’s contribution in Parliament. The main job of the whip, however, is to ensure that their MPs vote in the way the party wants.

Each week the whips’ office sends out a circular to the MPs of their party to tell them how they would like them to vote in the upcoming divisions (a division is when the House of Commons divides into those for or against a proposal). The divisions are ranked in order of importance. If a division is underlined three times it is crucial that the MP votes according to the party line. This is known as a ‘three line whip’, and if the MP goes against it they can get into hot water with their party.

Rebellions within the party – when a large number of MPs decide to ignore the whips’ orders – often attract a lot of media attention, particularly when an important issue is being decided.

To find out more about how Parliament works, visit the Parliamentary Website here