House of Commons (thing)
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|The House of Commons has elected members (MPs) who are chosen using
the First Past The Post system.
Each party in the U.K. will put up a candidate for election in each of the constituencies. People in that constituency will vote for a candidate to represent their interests in The House of Commons. Whoever wins the election in the constituency gains a seat in the Commons which will allow him/her to debate and vote on issues. The party who gains the most seats in the Commons is invited by the monarch to form a government. The leader of the invited party becomes the Prime Minister and suggests to the monarch who should be appointed as ministers in the new government (this is really just a formality really).
N.B. The monarch still holds the power to
refuse to invite the winning party.
The MPs each represent a constituency which can have between 65,000 to 70,000 constituents in it. These constituencies are drawn up by an independent commission which alters the boundaries when populations alter. This system is unlike in the USA where the constituencies are drawn up a lot more accurately.
The MPs are supposed to represent their constituents in the House of Commons and look after their interests. This is made easier by the fact that the MP lives in that constituency and therefore will often be looking after his/her own interests as well. However, the MP will often be a member of a party and have some allegiance to them as well. This leads to MPs having to carefully balance their party loyalty and their responsibility to their constituents. The majority of the time this balance is acquired though this is easily disputed.
MPs are arranged in two sets of pews that oppose each other. On the left hand side (if you are facing where the Speaker of the House sits) is the present government and all its MPs. On the right is the opposition party and the other MPs are on this side but not opposite the government (this is usually where the Liberal Democrats are relegated to). The MPs at the front of the pews are called the Front Bench and there up to 200 of these. They tend to be the minsters of the government and their opposition counterparts (called Shadow Ministers). The rest of the MPs are called Backbenchers and form the bulk of the Commons.
This arrangement of the House of Commons (and the House of Lords) came about because before the modern buildings were built in Victorian times Parliament used to meet in a church and sat in the stalls used by the choir. The Commons can be traced back to the council of barons that came together in the 13th century under Simon de Montfort to watch over the King (they are the same bunch that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215). The Magna Carta is also thought to be the first written piece of constitutional legislation in Britain.
The House of Commons is a very formal place in some ways and in other ways it seems very unformal. For example, it is often the case that MPs just come and go as they please during debates and speeches etc. and often start having chats with other members. There are also very formal traditions that are still followed. In the House of Commons, no MP ever states the name of a fellow member. They are always referred to as 'the Honourable Gentleman' or by their title such as 'the Right Honourable Minster for Trade and Industry'. This is tied into the fact that no one is talked to directly. Like any other debate, all statements are directed through the chairman of the debate, which in this case is the Speaker of the House. The only time that a MP is named directly is if s/he is too rowdy or disobey a convention of some sort and therefore he will be named by an MP and s/he will be removed. This doesn't often happen since the Speaker keeps everything controlled by shouting 'Order' which usually brings the Commons under control (the House of Lords is more dignified than the Commons and has no Speaker instead the Lords are expected to exercise control over themselves).
The main function of the House of Commons is to debate and form legislation from a proposal. This proposal can come from either the government or introduced (as a private member's bill) by a Member of Parliament. To create the bill there is much consultation with groups and individuals to draw up a Green Paper or a White Paper (see also Pressure Groups). A Green Paper lays out a general policy and invites suggestions. A White Paper is more of a skeletal form of legislation. This will probably be the basis of future legislation. These papers are made by the government ministries that have an interest in the area (for example, the privatisation of the railways would have been handled by the Department of Transport, the Treasury et al.). Civil Servants physically write these papers and collect information related to the subject. This legislation, after going through several readings, will then be sent to the House of Lords where it will go for three readings there as well.
At each reading something different occurs (the term reading comes from antiquity when the proposed bill was literally read out to the Commons which is now often impossible due to the fact that most modern bills span many pages):
This is the stage where the real power of the Commons shines through. At this stage the bill is debated by the house. All M.P.s who are interested in the topic show up to add their two pence worth to the debate. This leads to legislation being honed and shaped into something worthwhile. This process allows the opposition to voice their objections or assent to a bill as well as let individual MPs make known their views (supposedly on behalf of their constituents). It is often argued that this stage is just a formality nowadays due to the way that the government has a majority in the Commons and therefore the opposition can do little to overturn the bill. However, Ministers (who are often behind the bills) take note of suggestions put forward in the debate to make sure that the final bill will be worthwhile legislation and not attacked in the media or by the public.
At this stage of the process the bill is passed on to a committee (called a Standing Committee) which is composed of interested M.P.s and M.P.s that have expertise in that area (so if for example that committee was looking at a bill on a medical issue M.P.s who are experienced in medecine would be on the committee).
This committee would report on the bill at a report stage and recommend amendments. This is the stage where last minute changes are made to the bill before it gets sent to the Lords (it might be amended by the Lords and/or sent back to the Commons). There is often a vote (a division) on the amendments suggested by the committee.
If the legislation makes it through the scrutiny of the House of Lords then it is presented to the monarch for Royal Assent. This is the process by which the monarch looks at the legislation and makes it law. The monarch makes the legislation law. It is unlikely that the monarch would refuse to make it law since Parliament has ratified it but it has happened (the last time a monarch refused an Act of Parliament was Queen Anne in 1707).
The House of Commons is also where many other debates take place. These are
where the other functions of the Commons often come into play.