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Question 10. British Parliament today: structure, functions of the Houses, life of the Parliament.

Parliament in Britain is ancient institution dating from the beginning of the 13th century, though officially it was established in 1265 by Simon de Monfort. It is the 3rd oldest parliament in the world in action. It is the supreme legislative authority.

Britain has no written constitution and Parliament is able to legislate as it pleases: it can make, abolish or change any law; it can destroy established conventions; it can turn a convention into law. Parliament is clearly the real soverign in the state. Politicians are generally sensitive to traditions, conventions and public opinion. Besides a set of formal and informal checkes and balances - party discipline, the Official Opposition - public reaction - ensures that Parliament legislates with responsibility to the electorate.

British Parliament is the legislative body in the country. Its functions are:

  • to pass laws;

  • to vote on financial bills;

  • to discuss the government's administrative policies ( foreign affairs; the state of agriculture; educational problems, etc );

  • to debate important political issues of the day

By custom Parliament is also informed before the ratification of all important international treaties and agreements. Although the making of treaties is, however, a royal prerogative, exercised on the advice of the government and is not subject to parliamentary approval.

Meetings of Parliament

  • maximum duration is 5 years;

  • the life is divided into sections ( October - late July );

  • each session is ended by prorogation. Parliament then "stands prorogued".

  • At weekends, at Christmas, Easter and late Spring Bank holiday and long summer "recess" (July - October) Parliament is adjourned.

Structure of Parliament

Parliament is made up of two chambers, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

The Houses work in different places, in the opposite parts of the Westminster Palace. Their debating Chambers are shaped in the same way. The arrangement of seats in both Houses is of great significance, reflects and maintains the two-party system of Britain.

Rights of the Houses

  • freedom of speech in debates;

  • freedom of arrest;

  • the right to access to the crown.

The Commons have the right to exclude ( disqualify ) the MP ( Member of Parliament ) and declare his seat vacant.

The proceeding in both Houses arepublic and visitors are admitted into the "strangers gallery".

Since 1803 the proceeding of Parliament have been published the following on "Hansard".

The proceeding of both Houses is now televised ( the Lords - since 1984; the Commons - since 1989 ).

The House of Lords

It consists of some 1200 members:

  1. The Lords Spiritual

They are 26 in number:

  • the two Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury, York

  • the Bishops of Durham, Winchester together with 21 other senior Bishops of the Chirch of England.

  1. The Lords Temporal

  • hereditory peers ( about 92 );

  • life peers and peeresses ( according to Peerage Act 1958 certain people were and are awarded the title of life peer, this title will not pass to their children ).

Altogehter the total number of persons qualified to sit in the House of Lords is in excess of 670.

Monarch belongs to the House of Lords. There is a throne in the Lord's Chamber which is a joint present of Canada and Australia and from where the Queen makes her State opening Speech.

The Lord Chancellor presides in the House of Lords and sits on a special place called Woolsack (it is packed with wool from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland; a symbol of prosperity and commodity). Lord Chancellor is appointed by the Government.

Almost a century ago the Lords had the power of absolute veto over any legislation passed by the House of Commons. This right was abolished by the Parliament Act of 1911. But it left the Lords with a power to delay a bill for 2 years and since 1949 the period reduced to 1 year. After 1 year the bill is passed ever without the Lords' agreement.

The House of Lords is mainly composed of Tory majority, including company directors, landlords, bankers, steel and oil magnate, newspaper proprietors.

Functions of the House of Lords :

  • to defend the interests of the people of property;

  • to criticize the Labour Government;

  • to delay, amend or bury the bills.

Of all parliament in the world the lowest quorum needed to adopt a decision is the British House of Lords. Three Lords present will make a quorum, will be capable of taking any decision.

Lords are free to vote according to their own convictions and not according to the party policy.

Average daily attendance is only about 300. Most are life peers, who are interested in the affairs of the state.

Peers recieve no salary for their parliamenrary work, but can claim for expenses incurred in attending the House and certain travelling expenses if they choose.

In 1998 - reform of the House of Lords to deprive hereditory peers (by then - 750) of their

700-year-old right to sit and vote in the upper chamber.A compromise, however, allowed 92 of them to remain as temporary members. The legislation went into effect in late 1999.

The House of Commons

The House of Commons has 650 Members of the Parliament ( MPs) who each represent a particular part of the country, a constituency. General Elections are held every five years, though the Prime Ministermay call one earlier, and if an MP dies or retires a by-election is held in his or her constituency. MPs win their seats in Parliament by a majority vote ( or first-past-the-post system), that is, the candidate who wins the most votes becomes the MP of the constituency.

After a general election, the leader of the party which has the most seats in the House of Commons becomes Prime Minister and chooses ministers to be responsible for individual departments. They include:

  • the Chancellor of the Exchequer ( who is responsible for the Treasury (finance ministry)).

  • the Foreign Secretary ( responsible for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office).

  • the Home Secretary ( responsible for domestic affairs ).

They, and a number of other important ministers, form the Cabinet, which advises the Prime Minister. In the House of Commons they sit on the front bench, and other MPs from their party sit behind them ( back-benchers). The main opposition party sits in a similar arrangement facing them in the House, with their Leader and his or her Shadow Cabinet on the front benches. MPs from smaller parties also sit on the opposite benches. In the centre is the Speaker, who keeps order during debates. He cannot debate or vote with other members unless the voting is equal, in which case he votes with Government.

If the numder of present in the House drops below 40, the House is "counted out", and the debate suspended. During many of the debates , MPs come and go because they are often wanted on business in other parts of the building, but during important debates they remain in the House, and the sittings may go on untill late at night.

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