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The UK Parliament

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The Parliament of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative body in the UK and British overseas territories. It alone has parliamentary sovereignty, conferring its ultimate power over all other political bodies in the UK and its territories. At its head is the Sovereign.

The British Parliament is often called Westminster because it is housed in a distinguished building in central London called the Palace of Westminster.

The functions of Parliament are:

1) to pass laws;

2) to provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of government;

3) to scrutinize government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure;

4) to debate the major issues of the day;

5) to represent the demands of the electorate.

The British Parliament like most in the world is bicameral, that is there are two houses or chambers – the House of Commons (HC) and the House of Lords (HL). The Sovereign is the third component of Parliament. In theory, supreme legislative power is vested in the King/Queen-in-Parliament; in practice in modern times, real power is vested in the HC; the Sovereign generally acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and the powers of the HL are limited.

The two Houses meet in separate chambers in the Palace of Westminster.

1.1. The House of Commons is the lower chamber.

· The House of Commons is chaired by the Speaker who is elected by Members of Parliament (MPs). The post is non-political and indeed, by convention, the political parties do not contest the Parliamentary constituency held by the Speaker. He helps to keep order in the House. The current Speaker is John Bercow, MP for Buckingham.

· The House of Commons currently has 650 seats (the number varies slightly from time to time to reflect population change). This is a large legislature by international standards. For instance, the House of Representatives in the USA has 435 seats.

· Each seat in the House of Commons represents a geographical constituency. Typically a constituency would have around 60,000-80,000 voters, depending mainly on whether it is an urban or rural constituency.

· The House of Commons is a democratically elected chamber with elections to it held at least every 5 years (a General Election, that is, a nationwide election for all 650 seats is held when the Prime Minister calls it, but the election cannot be more than five years after the last one and it is usually around four years after the last one).

The House of Commons Chamber was rebuilt to a design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott after it was damaged during the Second World War. The new Chamber was built in a style that was in keeping with the Chamber that had been destroyed. The layout of the Chamber consists of two sets of green benches that are opposite to each other. There is a table in the middle and the Speaker’s Chair at one end. This arrangement means that the Government and Opposition MPs sit facing each other. Government ministers sit on the front bench on the Government side. They are therefore known as Government frontbenchers. Members of the House who belong to the same party as the Government but who do not hold a Government post are known as Government back-benchers. The Official Opposition is divided in the same way.

The Public Gallery is open whenever the House of Commons is sitting. Members of Parliament can obtain a small number of tickets for their constituents to visit the Public Gallery. Non-ticket holders may form a queue behind the notice for the House of Commons at St Stephen’s Entrance but a wait of several hours may be necessary at times.

1.2. The House of Lordsis the upper chamber.

· The House of Lords is presided over by Lord Speaker. The office is analogous to the Speaker of the House of Commons: the Lord Speaker is "appointed" by the members of the House of Lords and is expected to be politically impartial. Until July 2006, the role of presiding officer in the House of Lords was undertaken by the Lord Chancellor. The House of Lords elected Baroness Hayman as its first Lord Speaker on 4 July 2006 and she still holds this position.

· There is no fixed number of members in the House of Lords, but currently there are 777 members (as of 31st October 2010). Historically most members of the House of Lords have been what are called hereditary peers. This means that years ago a king or queen nominated a member of the aristocracy to be a member of the House and, since then, the right to sit in the House has passed through the family from generation to generation*. Clearly this is totally undemocratic and the current Labour Government has now abolished the right of all but 92 of these hereditary peers to sit in the House. Almost all the other members of today’s House of Lords are what are called life peers. This means that they have been chosen by the Queen, on the advice of the Government, to sit in the House for as long as they live, but afterwards no member of their family has the right to sit in the House. There is no fixed number of life peers, but the current number is 660 (as of 31st October 2010). Many are former senior politicians. Others are very distinguished figures in fields such as education, health and social policy. A small number of other members – 26 (currently 25) – are Lords Spiritual – Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England.

The House of Lords Chamber is arranged in the following way: it has a throne (instead of the Speaker’s chair in the HC) with a canopy and woolsack (sources of Britain’s prosperity) where the Lord Speaker sits. The Chamber is divided into two sides separated by a green line – the right side (the governmental one) and the left side (the opposition’s one). It contains the cross benches as well. The benches are red leather. If the Lord Speaker decides to address the Chamber as an ordinary he leaves the woolsack.

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