The Structure and Functions of British Parliament


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The British Parliament works in a large building called the Palace of Westminster (popularly known as the Houses of Parliament). This contains offices, committee rooms, restaurants, bars, libraries and even some places of residence.



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The Structure and Functions of British Parliament

The activities of Parliament in Britain are more or less the same as those of the Parliament in any western democracy. It makes new laws, gives authority for the government to raise and spend money, keeps a close eye on government activities and discusses those activities.

The British Parliament works in a large building called the Palace of Westminster (popularly known as 'the Houses of Parliament'). This contains offices, committee rooms, restaurants, bars, libraries and even some places of residence. It also contains two large rooms. One of these is where the House of Lords meets, the other is where the House of Commons meets. The British Parliament is divided into two 'houses', and its members belong to one or other of them, although only members of the Commons are normally known as MPs (Members of Parliament). The Commons is by far the more important of the two houses.

The main functions of Parliament are: 

  •  to pass laws;
  •  to provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of government;
  •  to scrutinise government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure;
  •  to debate the major issues of the day.

Parliament is made up of three parts:

  •  The Queen
  •  The House of Lords
  •  The House of Commons 

The Queen

The Queen has an important formal and ceremonial relationship with Parliament.

The phrase 'Crown in Parliament' is used to describe the British legislature, which consists of the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The role of the Sovereign in the enactment of legislation is today purely formal, although the Queen has the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn through regular audiences with her ministers. As a constitutional monarch, the Sovereign is required to assent to all Bills passed by Parliament, on the advice of Government ministers. The Royal Assent (consenting to a measure becoming law) has not been refused since 1707.

The Queen also plays an important role in the ceremonial opening and dissolving of Parliament. In the annual State Opening of Parliament ceremony, The Queen opens Parliament in person, and addresses both Houses in The Queen's Speech. Neither House can proceed to public business until The Queen's Speech has been read. This speech is drafted by the Government and not by The Queen. It outlines the Government's policy for the coming session of Parliament and indicates forthcoming legislation.

In addition to opening Parliament, only The Queen can summon Parliament, and prorogue (discontinue without dissolving it) or dissolve it.

When a Prime Minister wishes to dissolve Parliament and call a general election, he or she is obliged to seek the permission of the Sovereign to do so. For this purpose, the Prime Minister usually travels to Buckingham Palace before announcing a general election.

Since the Parliament Act of 1911, the life of the United Kingdom Parliament extends to five years, unless dissolved sooner by the Sovereign at the request of the Prime Minister. 

The Queen's role in Parliament is:

  •  assenting to Bills passed by Parliament, on the advice of Ministers;
  •  giving audiences to Ministers, at which Her Majesty may be consulted, encourage and warn;
  •  opening each new session of Parliament;
  •  proroguing or dissolving Parliament before a general election.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords is made up of people who have inherited family titles and those who have been given titles because of their outstanding work in one field or another. There are 675 members of the Lords.

The role of the House of Lords has historically been to give the green light to things which the House of Commons want to make law. The House of Lords also has a second function in which it sits as the highest appeal court in the land – although the European Court of Appeal has changed its status slightly.

The legislative role of the House of Lords is a scrutiny one. The role of the House of Lords in this capacity is to read and debate bills which have already passed through the House of Commons. If the Commons have approved them there is a good chance that the bill will eventually become law.

But the House of Lords can scrutinise these bills and highlight any areas which they have any concerns with. They can also stop a bill from passing into law although the House of Commons can overrule this after a certain period of time has elapsed.

The second major role of the House of Lords is in law. A group of Lords are known as law Lords. They sit as the supreme court of appeal – the highest court of law in the country. Theoretically, anyone who believes they have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice can take their appeal to the Law lords although because the seriousness of cases only a handful of cases which pass through the UK’s courts each year end up with the Law Lords.

The third function of the House of Lords is to sit on select committees, which encompass a wide range of functions and subjects. The Lords then debate the rights and wrongs of whatever the subject is and make a pronouncement on it. The Lord in charge of a select committee or an investigation into Government affairs will often have a report named after them which becomes part of the vernacular of the time.

The Lords are not directly elected as MPs are. They are chosen in a variety of ways – it used to be that their posts were hereditary and were passed down from father to son and so on. This has largely been outlawed to make the system fairer. Peerages, as they can be referred to, can be awarded by outgoing Prime Ministers and in the Queens’ honours.

There are also a certain few people who are usually awarded peerages at the end of their tenure in other roles such as the speaker of the House of Commons. Whatever way they are elected as Lords, one thing is for sure, the state of the House of Lords is bound to change in the near future.

The House of Commons

The House of Commons is the most important place for discussing policies and making laws.

The House of Commons has 659 members who have been elected by local residents to represent an area of the country in Parliament. The members are called MPs (Members of Parliament). Each MP represents one of 659 constituencies (areas) in the UK and is a member of a political party, such as New Labour or the Conservative party.

The role of the House of Commons is, above all, to represent the people of the UK. The members of Parliament who make up the House of Commons are directly elected by the people of the country. Therefore the people of the country must have complete confidence that their representatives are going to carry out their duties, as they would wish.

In terms of what the House of Commons actually does on a day-to-day basis, it is largely bill making. The House of Commons will debate the bills which pass through there and either pass them or send them back. Most of the bills which reach the House of Commons never reach a second reading but if they do they stand a much better chance of becoming law.

Members of Parliament are also elected representatives for one constituency or area in the country. They have a role to perform to this area as well as their role on the House of Commons. The MP has to represent the people who live there and therefore will usually hold surgeries. These surgeries allow people to come to their MP with any problems or issues which they may have.

The MP can then help to sort out and resolve the problem for the person, if they are able to do so, or point them in the right direction of others who may be able to help. Also, in their constituencies, the MP has a duty to help the community by helping local charities and so on.

Bills are those documents which are debated in the House of Commons which, if passed, become law and an act of Parliament. MPs may suggest bills in one of several ways, but many of these bills never get off the ground. MPs should have to vote on bills – most vote on the majority, there are very few MPs who go to every single debate and vote on every single issues.

The MPs can also raise issues which their constituents have raised in the House of Commons only to debate them with other MPs. This may result in some action being taken – such as if a large number of jobs are to be lost. This may result in the Commons choosing to take action, such as setting up a group to help people who have lost their jobs.

Another way in which the MPs hold debates is during questions. Prime Minister’s questions is a weekly forum where people can put questions to the PM and await his or her response. There are also other times for all other ministers to be questioned – holding them accountable and getting answers from them is vital in democracy.

Of course, there are many other ways in which the House of Commons works but these are the main ones. It is a fascinating, if somewhat privileged setting. The way it works can be, at times, somewhat convoluted, but the overriding thing should be that the members of Parliament should always be working with what they believe to be the nation’s best interests at heart.


  1.  O’Driscoll, James (2003) Britain. The Country and its People: an Introduction for Learners of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 90-97.
  2.  Project Britain. Your Guide to British Life, Culture and Customs: The British Parliament - http://projectbritain.com/government/index.htm 
  3.  Responsible Citizen: The Role of the House of Commons - http://www.responsiblecitizen.co.uk/house-of-commons.html 
  4.  Responsible Citizen: The Role of the House of Lords - http://www.responsiblecitizen.co.uk/house-of-lords.html 
  5.  The official website of the British Monarchy: Queen in Parliament - http://www.royal.gov.uk/MonarchUK/QueenandGovernment/QueeninParliament.aspx 


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