On this page you will find discussion and analysis of the UK Parliament. The content here is specifically designed for A level politics and early undergraduate level students looking to deepen their understanding of the topic. At A level specifically, the component 2 topic on Parliament looks at the House of Commons and House of Lords and whether their workings need reform to more closely align with modern liberal democratic norms.
Click on any of the questions below to be taken to the answer.
What is the role of the United Kingdom’s Parliament?
Legislatures typically have three core roles: accountability, representation, and law-making. Accountability involves examining the government’s activity and making sure it explains its decisions. In the UK, which has what is known as parliamentary government, as well as being accountable to Parliament, governments are formed out of Parliament, and must have the support of a majority of the House of Commons, known as the ‘confidence’ of the House of Commons. Parliaments are also meant to represent the interests and concerns of the public and advocate on their behalf. Finally, parliaments debate, form, and pass laws. How well does the UK Parliament perform each of these main functions?
How does Parliament hold the government to account?
Select committees are one of the primary means through which Parliament scrutinises the government and holds it accountable. Most select committees mirror the work of government departments and focus on a particular policy area (although some work on a more cross-cutting basis).
Select committees conduct inquiries into particular policies and issues within their remit, gathering information, questioning government ministers, and producing reports. After a series of reforms in recent decades, select committees have become more independent and prominent. In this sense, many argue that Parliament is performing its accountability function better than before. However, others believe the government still has too much influence on select committees, as a majority of committee members are still from the governing party.
Parliamentarians can also hold the government to account by asking questions of ministers and making them explain their decisions. The Ministerial Code states that the most important announcements of government policy must be made in Parliament. This gives parliamentarians an opportunity to respond to these announcements. Furthermore, MPs are able to apply to ask Urgent Questions. If the Speaker of the House of Commons determines that the question is urgent and of public importance, the relevant minister has to come to the Commons to answer the question and take further questions on the matter from MPs. There are also more regular departmental question sessions in the Commons chamber, where MPs get to ask questions of government ministers, as well as the high-profile Prime Minister’s questions, held every Wednesday. The ultimate sanction that Parliament has against a government – used only very rarely – is to pass a ‘no-confidence’ motion, removing its support for the existence of a given government, leading to its resigning, or a General Election taking place.
How does Parliament represent citizens?
Each MP in the House of Commons represents a particular constituency. This arrangement is said to make the Commons particularly responsive to local interests and concerns, as each area has their own dedicated representative. MPs spend more time in their constituencies dealing with local issues than they did in the past, with each MP running an advice surgery where residents can come to speak with their elected representative.
The House of Commons also better reflects the country as a whole than it used to. The 2019 election saw more women and MPs from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups elected than ever before. However, there are still less female MPs than male MPs, and the proportion of BAME MPs is still lower than the UK population as a whole.
Whilst the House of Commons is arguably becoming more representative, both in its make-up and connection with constituencies, the House of Lords is often criticised on this front. Members of the House of Lords are not elected nor do they represent particular parts of the country. Moreover, although some improvements have been made in this regard, the Lords is less diverse than the House of Commons, and there are still a disproportionate number of white men compared to the country as a whole.
How does Parliament function as a law-making body?
The UK Parliament can in theory make any law it wants to, as long as a majority of MPs vote for it, and the Lords either similarly support it or – in exceptional circumstances – are bypassed. On the surface, this makes the UK Parliament seem a very powerful law-making body. However, most successful legislation is introduced by the government. MPs not in the government or from the governing party have only limited ways in which they can put forward their own laws and influence legislation. It is the job of the government Whips to ensure that MPs from the governing party support government legislation. MPs can put forward amendments to bills, but a government with a supportive majority in the House of Commons will usually be able to reject them.
Private members’ bills offer an opportunity for MPs and Lords who aren’t government ministers to try and make new legislation. However, unless they are supported by the government, very few of them in the end become law.
The bill committees that are appointed to scrutinise legislation in more detail are often criticised for being a mere formality. As the government has a majority on the committees, suggested changes to laws are rarely approved. Moreover, the members of these committees tend to lack expertise on the subject of the bill concerned.
Sometimes the government’s own MPs will rebel against a proposed law, often with the support of the opposition. This can be embarrassing for the government and apply pressure on it to change or abandon its proposal.
What reforms have been made to the House of Commons?
A key area of change has involved select committees. Reforms have been made to select committees in recent decades that have increased their independence and effectiveness. The departmental select committee system that we know today was established in 1979. However, until the 2000s, the party Whips were largely in control of the appointment of committee members, and committees lacked resources. This hampered their independence and the scope of what they could do. After the 2001 election, reforms were made to give select committees more resources, including additional pay for the chairs of select committees.
However, it wasn’t until 2010 that the Whips lost more of their control over select committee appointments. The Select Committee on Reform of the House, led by Tony Wright MP and often referred to as the Wright Committee, recommended that the chairs of select committees be elected by the whole House and committee members be chosen by a secret ballot of MPs in their party.
The Wright Committee also recommended the creation of a ‘House Business Committee’ that would oversee a system where non-government business was scheduled by backbenchers and the House would vote on its own agenda. The proposal that the House, rather than the government, control its own schedule was not taken forward. However, a Backbench Business Committee was created. It was given the power to schedule debates suggested by backbench MPs on 35 days in each parliamentary session. Other relatively recent reforms have included giving the House of Commons more of a role in major public appointments made by government, with public hearings for the preferred candidates for certain roles (though the final decision rests with ministers). We have also seen the introduction of an e-petitioning system, whereby members of the public can register their support online for a particular demand, for the House of Commons to consider.
Further reading: Nat le Roux, ‘The Wright reforms changed Parliament, but there remains scope for further reform’
Have these reforms to the Commons helped the way it functions?
The Backbench Business Committee has facilitated the debate of some notable issues that wouldn’t otherwise have been discussed (as has e-petitioning). However, some have been disappointed that it has not had more impact or been more ambitious.
The select committee reforms ushering in elections have widely been seen as a success. Having elected chairs and members has added to the legitimacy of select committees, which have since been more active, prominent and collaborative. The House of Commons has been able to increase the visibility of the public appointments system through its pre-appointment hearings; though it does not have the actual power to block an appointment of which it disapproves.
More depth: this BBC programme looks at how backbenchers are asserting themselves through select committee work.
What further reforms to the Commons have been called for?
As we have seen, one of the recommendations of the Wright Committee not taken forward was for the House of Commons to be able to vote on its own agenda. At present, the government determines what the House of Commons debates and votes on most days. Many continue to argue that the House of Commons itself should decide how its time is spent. Others have advocated that legislation be dealt with by specialist committees that are permanently in existence and better able propose and scrutinise laws.
What reforms have been made to the House of Lords?
Several reforms have also been made to the House of Lords since the late 1990s.
1999: the new Labour government promised in its 1997 manifesto to pass a law to stop people being able to inherit a seat in the House of Lords through their family – what were known as hereditary peers. In 1999, the House of Lords Act was passed. This did not entirely get rid of hereditary peers, but reduced their number by more than 600, with only 92 allowed to keep their seats.
2005: Constitutional Reform Act passed, providing for the removal of the most senior court in the UK from the House of Lords, creating a separate UK Supreme Court, which began operating from 2009.
2014: the House of Lords Reform Act was passed. It allowed for Lords to resign or retire and for members to lose their seats if they did not attend the House of Lords or if they were convicted of a serious offence. It started out as a private members’ bill.
2015: the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act was passed the following year, having also been introduced as a private members’ bill. The Act enabled the House of Lords to change its disciplinary procedures through its Standing Orders, including allowing for the expulsion of peers in a wider range of circumstances than those set out in the House of Lords Reform Act.
How are peers currently appointed?
Appointments to the House of Lords are made by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. There are a number of different circumstances in which political appointments to the House of Lords may be made. For example, when a Prime Minister resigns they often appoint people to the Lords in what is known as ‘resignation honours’. The other political parties also get to nominate individuals to become peers, so there is a range of different political groupings in the upper chamber.
The House of Lords Appointments Commission was created in 2000. It has two main roles. The first is to make nominations of individuals for crossbench members of the House of Lords (non-party political members). The second is to review nominations to the House of Lords made by the Prime Minister and the political parties, to make sure potential members have conducted themselves to a high standard in the past. However, it is only advisory to the Prime Minister, who can always ignore the advice given by the Appointments Commission.
The composition of the House of Lords in 2019 (Source: House of Lords Library).
Have these reforms to the Lords helped the way it functions?
These reforms have arguably helped improve the reputation of the House of Lords, removing the outdated practice of individuals inheriting a seat and making sure members who do not attend or commit offences can be got rid of. However, many reformers argue that these changes haven’t gone far enough, and that only if the House of Lords was directly elected by the public would it be legitimate.
Should the Lords be replaced with a directly elected second chamber?
Those who propose that the House of Lords should be directly elected say that it is undemocratic and illegitimate to give individuals who haven’t been elected by the public a say over the laws that will affect them. Lawmakers derive their legitimacy through being chosen by the public. This gives the public the opportunity to remove politicians at regular intervals if it is believed they are doing badly. Lords are given their positions for life – there is no opportunity for the public to get rid of them. Unlike the House of Commons, they lack what is referred to as a democratic mandate.
However, others – who do not believe the UK’s second chamber should be directly elected – say that the Lords derive their legitimacy from their particular expertise and knowledge. They would argue it is important to have a more experienced second chamber, with people drawn from professions beyond those that usually go into politics. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has the power of appointment, and the premier is democratically elected, meaning there is a democratic element to the process.
Finally, opponents of an elected upper chamber point out that with a democratic mandate the Lords may come to see itself as equally legitimate to the House of Commons, making it unclear which chamber has supremacy.
Further reading: Democratic Audit, ‘How undemocratic is the House of Lords?’
Why have we not had further reforms to the Lords?
One of the reasons why there hasn’t been further reform to the House of Lords is that it is useful to the Prime Minister of the day to retain the power to appoint people to the upper chamber. They can reward allies or win loyalty through giving people peerages. Any major reform of the House of Lords would have to be supported by the government of the day, and the Prime Minister is unlikely to want to get rid of a power that can be useful to them.
Proposed reforms to the House of Lords have also faltered in the past because of resistance from the Lords themselves and also from MPs in the House of Commons, who may see a more democratically legitimate House of Lords as a threat to the power of their Chamber.
In 2007, the Labour government published a White Paper which proposed that 50 per cent of Lords be directly elected, and 50 per cent be appointed (a ‘hybrid’ model). Both Houses were given a free vote on seven alternative options for the House of Lords. Whilst the Commons voted for an entirely directly-elected second chamber, the Lords voted for an entirely appointed second chamber. The plans were subsequently put on hold and not returned to.
In 2012, a House of Lords Reform Bill was introduced to the House of Commons by the coalition government. It would have provided for the House of Lords to be mostly elected by the public. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos (that is, the manifestos of the two parties that made up the coalition) had promised reform of the House of Lords. However, the Bill was abandoned after a rebellion by backbench Conservative MPs who opposed making the second chamber partly directly elected.
What is the Salisbury-Addison convention and why is it not always adhered to?
The Salisbury convention was named partly after the fifth Marquess of Salisbury, who was leader of the Conservative Opposition in the House of Lords at the time of the post-war Labour government, led by Clement Attlee. The Labour government had a majority of 156 in the House of Commons, and was elected with a far-reaching legislative agenda. But there was a Conservative majority in the House of Lords, which could delay the passage of legislation for up to two years (under the 1911 Parliament Act).
The Marquess of Salisbury reached an agreement with the Labour leader of the House of Lords, Viscount Addison, that the Conservatives would consider legislation that was in Labour’s manifesto to have a democratic mandate, and not frustrate its passage through the Lords. He reserved the right for the Conservatives to vote down proposals that were not in the manifesto. This established a convention that the Lords do not vote down bills on the second or third reading that were mentioned in the government’s election manifesto.
However, the convention is not always followed. This is because it does not have legal force and is only a traditionally observed practice. The convention is also ambiguous in certain ways, meaning there has often been debate about whether it applies or should be followed in specific cases.
Click here for a PowerPoint on Parliament that condenses the information above. The PowerPoint is primarily designed for teachers covering the topic.
Stein Ringen, ‘How Parliament would take control’
Nat le Roux, ‘Is it time to codify Parliamentary privilege?’
Richard Reid, ‘The House of Lords: Conventions and Brexit’
John Baker, House of Lords Reform: Appointment or election?