House of Commons
The House of Commons is the source of real political power in the United Kingdom. Its members are democratically elected by universal suffrage of citizens over the age of 18. Certain groups that are denied the right to vote, however, include members of the House of Lords, some detained mental health patients, sentenced prisoners, and those convicted of corrupt or illegal election practices in the previous five years. In addition, certain persons are excluded from standing for election to the House of Commons. They include peers; clergy from the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland, or the Roman Catholic Church; people sentenced to more than a year in prison; and those with unpaid bankruptcy bills.
Members of the House of Commons are elected from geographical constituencies determined by population, and each MP represents approximately 60,000 people. Four permanent boundary commissions exist, one each for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Their purpose is to keep the constituencies equal and the boundaries fair. The commissions review the constituencies every 8 to 12 years and recommend changes based on population shifts. The last review was done in 1995. Following the 1997 election, there were 659 constituencies in the United Kingdom: 529 in England, 72 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 in Northern Ireland.
British citizens living abroad may vote in British elections for up to 20 years after they have left Britain. Those temporarily living overseas as members of the military or other state service may vote in their home constituencies. In 1992, 76.9 percent of the electorate voted in the general election; in the 1996 general election 71.5 percent of the electorate voted.
A session of Parliament lasts for five years unless the prime minister dissolves Parliament, which can happen for a number of reasons. Although the monarch officially dissolves Parliament, this happens only after the prime minister calls for it. The prime minister can dissolve Parliament over a major issue that he or she believes should be submitted to the voters. The prime minister also might dissolve Parliament if the tide of public opinion seems to be flowing strongly on the side of the party in office. Holding a general election when public opinion is highly supportive of the party in power enables that party to possibly gain more seats in the House of Commons, and so extend their stay in power with a stronger majority.
Parliament can also be dissolved if the government is defeated on an important piece of legislation. When a Parliamentary majority votes against the legislation it is treated as a vote of no confidence for the prime minister and his government. A specific vote by that name may be taken to indicate that the majority of MPs are against the legislation. This tradition is so deep that actual votes of no confidence are rarely taken. The government of Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan was dissolved in 1979 when a vote of no confidence was taken after union workers went on strike in reaction to the government's attempt to limit wage increases. There had been no such vote of no confidence in Britain since 1924. When the prime minister dissolves Parliament, a general election is held for all the seats in the House of Commons.
The members of the majority party sit on one side of the house, directly facing the minority party members. Each side has a so-called front bench where its most important political leaders sit. The prime minister and his or her Cabinet colleagues sit in the majority party front bench. The opposition party front bench is occupied by what is called the Shadow Cabinet, which consists of the opposition party leader and those who would receive Cabinet posts if the opposition leader became prime minister. Debates in the House of Commons can be quite lively. C-SPAN television in America often broadcasts the surprisingly raucous sessions when the prime minister answers questions from the house.
Most legislation is initiated by the Cabinet in the form of public bills, or legislation pertaining to the general law, which govern the population as a whole. Individual members of Parliament may introduce private bills to address specific or local concerns, such as the railways or local authorities. Ministers of departments initiate most of the public bills relating to their department; these kinds of public bills are called government bills. When a bill is passed into law, it then receives the royal assent. Much of the Cabinet's work on legislation is accomplished in specialized committees, which debate and publish reports that help shape legislation.
Bills may be introduced into either the House of Commons or the House of Lords, except for financial bills, which may be introduced only in the House of Commons. Each bill is given three separate readings in each house. In the first reading, the bill is presented without debate. After the bill is read a second time, the house debates the bill's general principles. The bill then goes to a committee for thorough study, discussion, and amendment. At the third reading, the bill is presented to the house in its final form and a vote is taken.
If the bill is passed on the third reading, it is sent to the other house, where it goes through the same procedure. If passed by the second house, the bill is sent to the monarch for the ceremonial formality of royal assent before becoming law. If amended by either house, the amendments must be resolved by both houses before the bill is sent to the monarch. The House of Lords can delay legislation for about a year (30 days for financial bills). A bill originating in the House of Lords can be tabled and not considered in the Commons, but a bill originating in the Commons will become law, even without the approval of the House of Lords, if it passes Commons again in the following year's session.