The British Parliament: House of Lords & House of Commons

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  • 0:02 The British Parliament
  • 1:02 The House of Commons:…
  • 2:03 The House of Commons: Duties
  • 3:51 The House of Lords: Membership
  • 4:32 The House of Lords: Duties
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will take a close look at the British Parliament, paying special attention to the membership and roles of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The British Parliament

We're in luck! Sir Arthur Neville, member of the House of Lords, has agreed to lead us on a tour of the British Parliament. 'So you want to learn about our British Parliament, do you?' Sir Arthur asks with a sniff. 'Well, come along then. What's that? You don't even know what a parliament is? How shocking!'

Parliament is the British legislative body. It is made up of three elements: the monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The monarch's role, however, is mostly symbolic. While the queen or king is the official Head of State, and all laws are passed in his or her name, the monarch has no active role in the Parliament aside from presiding at its opening ceremonies each year.

The British Parliament, however, performs four primary duties:

  1. It passes laws.
  2. It authorizes taxes and government budgets.
  3. It scrutinizes and investigates government administration.
  4. It debates current issues.

'Does that help a bit?' Sir Arthur asks. 'Good. Then let's begin the tour.'

The House of Commons: Membership

Sir Arthur leads us into the chamber of the House of Commons. 'We'll begin our tour here,' he says. 'This isn't my House, of course, so you'll still have that to look forward to.'

The House of Commons, Parliament's lower house, is made up of about 650 elected Members of Parliament (MPs), one for each region of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The MPs are elected by the popular vote of citizens age 18 and over. The Prime Minister is actually a member of the House of Commons, too.

The House of Commons was established in the second half of the 13th century when representatives from towns and counties began showing up at Parliament with their grievances. They ended up forming their own House. 'The House of Commons used to be quite subordinate to the House of Lords,' Sir Arthur explains with a touch of annoyance, 'but today it is actually more powerful. The House of Commons can actually override vetoes from the House of Lords! The horror of it!'

The House of Commons: Duties

Sir Arthur shudders dramatically, and then he remembers himself. 'Well, anyway,' he continues, 'you should know something about the three primary duties of the House of Commons.'

1. The House of Commons spends about half its time making laws.

Bills are introduced by the administration or by individual MPs. Then, each bill receives three readings. The first reading is formal and introduces the bill to the MPs. After the bill is read a second time, the MPs debate it before sending it off to committee for more specialized debate and possible amendments. When the bill returns to the House, it is read a third time, and then the MPs vote. If the bill passes, it moves on to the House of Lords.

2. The House of Commons also controls the government's finances.

Every year, the House receives a proposed budget from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The MPs examine and debate the budget and create a Finance Bill that follows the usual path into law. The House of Commons must also approve all spending for government departments, which provide the MPs with estimates.

3. The House of Commons keeps a close eye on government administration.

Its Select Committees or Committees of Inquiry check up on various government departments to make sure they are doing their jobs properly and efficiently. Further, every week, the MPs welcome government ministers to the House for Question Time, during which the ministers answer questions about the current functions and performance of their departments.

'The House of Commons meets in its chamber at Westminster,' Sir Arthur concludes, 'which, strangely, has only 427 seats. Only rarely are all MPs present on any given day of their sessions, which begin in November and can last for about a year.'

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