You know that Parliament is important because when you visit London, you have to visit and get a selfie outside. You probably know that our elected MPs make the laws inside. Did you know that we have a British constitution? Parliament is one of the most important legal institutions in the UK with a wide variety of roles.
Watch our tutor Zair explain Parliament’s role in this edition of 60 Second Study:
What is the composition of Parliament?
Parliament is formed of three main bodies. It is bicameral, which means that it has two houses in its seat in Westminster – the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The third body is its head – the Sovereign. The agreement of all three of these bodies is required for Parliament to pass a law.
The House of Commons consists of 650 elected MPs, who are accountable to their constituents who vote them into power at each election. In contrast, the House of Lords consists of unelected members, including hereditary peers that inherit their position, bishops of the Church of England and life peers appointed by the monarch and chosen by the government.
People often think that the government comes entirely from the House of Commons, but ministers can actually be drawn from both Houses.
What is constitutional law?
Parliament has a key role within constitutional law. This is the law that sets out how we govern our country and the rules that affect how different parts of government interact with each other and the people.
Most people don’t know that we do actually have a constitution. Most people don’t because it isn’t in one place, like most constitutions in the world. Ours is called an uncodified constitution. It consists of a web of documents, stretching back to the Magna Carta in 1215 as well as our traditions and unwritten rules. Interestingly, we are one of only five countries in the world with uncodified constitutions – keeping company with Canada, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand and Israel.
Parliament is a central institution within our constitution.
What are the functions of Parliament?
The main function of Parliament is to pass laws on a variety of topics. Currently, Parliament debates, scrutinises and approves laws proposed by the government for England. They can also pass laws in some areas in other parts of the country such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, because these parts of the country have devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, some issues are governed locally.
For example, Scotland has the power to decide its laws on education, Wales can change its housing policies and Northern Ireland has control over health and social services. There is a long list of areas that these devolved parts of the UK have control over.
However, a key concept that underpins the role of Parliament in constitutional law is parliamentary sovereignty. This is the idea that it is the supreme law-making body in the UK. There is nothing higher than Parliament.
It can pool its sovereignty with other areas, such as the European Union and devolved administrations. Fundamentally, though, it can withdraw the sovereignty it hands out and has ultimate control.
However, Parliament does more than just pass laws. It has a key role of holding the government to account. For example, the Public Accounts Committee is a feared body that scrutinises the financial dealings of the government and summons ministers to answer for their spending. Parliament has the weighty job of approving government spending and taxation plans.
The government does have some power independent of Parliament though. The royal prerogative used to be the way that the monarch would exercise their power, though these days they do so only to fulfil the will of the Prime Minister. Key areas such as national security, war and defence are controlled under this constitutional law.
Finally, Parliament is a site of debate and this is a worthy function in its own right. It is a place where the nation looks to in times of crisis and major issues. For example, when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were unfolding, parliamentary debate was a focus of attention, despite this falling under the prerogative of the government.
Parliament does not act alone. It is influenced by a whole range of factors, including public opinion, the government, pressure groups, the Royal Commission and the Law Commission. Nonetheless, it is one of the most significant institutions in our constitutional framework and affects all of us everyday.