Walter Bagehot declared that ‘parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people.’1 The term parliament is in fact taken from the French meaning ‘speaking’ and was first used in 1275 under Edward I. The British parliament has infact evolved over centuries and is very different to the first parliament, even toady is still evolving with Blair’s proposed reform2s for the House of Lords. By the 15th century there was a clear two chambers and the House of Commons contained Knights of the realm.
The Civil war expanded the power of parliament which was codified into authority when William III came to the throne accepting conditions set out by Parliament. The power of the Commons rose continuously from 1832-67 with the Reform Acts and by 1868 there was an emergence of the cabinet. The 2oth century has seen the enfranchisement of women and all over the age of 18. It has also seen power mover from the Lords, to the Commons and then to the Executive. The principles of parliamentary democracy were rooted in the 17th century.
‘Assemblies and parliaments occupy a key position in the machinery of government.. they are respected, and act as a national debating chamber and public forum in which governmental policies and major issues of the day can be openly discussed’.3
Parliament has broadly six functions. These include legitimisation. Parliament gives legitimacy to the political process due to the democratic elections which send Members of Parliament to the house. A government is formed form the largest party from these democratically elected members. The MP’s, by supporting government proposals realise the manifestos of the parties. In addition legitimacy is given to the new laws of the land. These laws have the support of elected representatives of the country’s people and therefore are legitimate.
The second role is of scrutiny and influence, which includes the role of delivering a responsible and accountable government. Parliament will scrutinise the government’s expenditure as well as all policy proposals and executive actions. This ensures all policies and actions of the government are legitimate in the eyes of most people of whom MP’s represent. A fine example of this is Prime ministers ‘Question Time’ in the UK which allows the Prime minister to be cross-examined once a week. This scrutiny is the prime responsibility of the opposition party but backbenchers are also expected to participate in this process as well. A further key factor is the ability to produce knowledge for the electorate as well as the MP’s. through scrutiny the assembly can extract information from the executive.
‘Knowledge is power; without full and accurate information, meaningful scrutiny is impossible’.4
Parliamentary debates allow the citizen to be informed about key issues.
A supplementary function is that of representation, this occurs because all MP’s represent a constituency which all together make up the geographical map of the United Kingdom. MP’s are expected to represent their constituents irrespectively of political affiliation. However it has been argued that this Burkian model ahs been undermined and that representation is a diminishing role of parliament.
‘The Burkian notion of representatives as independent actors conflicts sharply with the strict party discipline now found in most assemblies’. 5
A fourth role of Parliament is the recruitment of government ministers. Many MP’s see their time in the Commons as a backbencher, as preparation for the time when they may be a minister. The prime Minster can have ministers not in the Commons such as from the Lords but if not then the candidate is expected to win a seat in a by-election. Parliament
‘Provides a pool of talent form which leading decision makers emerge’.6
However, it is argued that parliament can corrupt MP’s by socialising them into ‘norms and values’ When MP’s become ministers very few of them have the skills to run managerial posts within departments.
Legislation and law making is often seen as the key role of parliament, laws are seen to be binding and authoritative if given approval by an assembly such as parliament. A Bill is scrutinised on 2 occasions in the House of Commons and again in the House of Lords. Bills can change during this process and MP’s can influence legislation, for example in favour of their constituents. Parliament suggests that the people make the laws themselves as the MP’s are representatives of the electorate
The final role of parliament is deliberation and debate, which allows key issues to be discussed and considered in ways which, have already been examined in this essay.
Parliaments role is ever-changing, and has evolved over many years, today the executive sets the legislation programme and with a majority in the House of Commons is able to pass a good majority of these. Power has indeed passed from the Lords to the executive via the Commons. Despite this Parliament is still considered to play a vital role in the British constitution and many people respect it in the functions it performs.
How do the roles and responsibilities of the House of Commons and the House of Lords differ?
Responsibility can be understood in two ways. Firstly it can mean acting in a sensible, reasonable or morally correct way. The government may argue that it is responsible, when it defies public opinion and embarks on a policy that it sees as in the interests of the general public, an example of this may be seen in Blair’s determination with the war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. A second definition can mean,
accountability or answerability, implying the existence of a higher body by which it can be controlled.
The term therefore implies that the government is willing to accept blame and bear an appropriate penalty.
The House of Commons, along with Lords, performs several function previously mentioned. However the House of Commons also performs other duties, including the ability to ask for the justifying of decisions and ensuring the government face criticism. For example Peter Mandelson has twice been asked to resign following parliamentary scrutiny over a loan from the paymaster general and after the Hindousia affair. The House of Commons also delivers Private Members bills which allow moral issues to be addressed in the house due to Parties refusal to address such controversial and emotive topics. A final additional function is an ancient tradition where an MP has the opportunity to raise a grievance of an individual or constituency group. The House of Lords does not have elected members from geographical areas and therefore the Commons differs in this Redress of Grievances.
The House of Lords, performs, like the Commons the role of giving legitimacy to laws, however its legitimacy doesn’t come form elections but from historical constitutional roles. Similarly it scrutinises government policy but unlike the Commons cam give more time to this, as its members are less dependent on the government and scrutiny is more detailed as many Lords have expertise in several fields including British and European law. The Lords also includes peers which belong to a department of state, as in the House of Commons but few members are in the executive.
Although the House of Lords can introduce Private members Bills they are prone to failure and so the Commons has more power where introducing bills are concerned. Despite this the Lords is still a dominant force in delaying Bills for up to a year and can amend bills coming through the house, this along with restrictions on time within government can make the executive drop proposed legislation.
Most distinctively the House of Lords has expertise which allow for a much greater scrutiny of Legislation than in the House of Commons, where few ministers have the expertise to run their own departments. Finally, and most notable is that the House of Lords is the highest court in the land and the supreme court of Appeal. This is considered the greatest difference between the Commons and the Lords.
The Commons undoubtedly has more power than the Lords, and this gap is likely to only get bigger. However the Commons has diminished gradually as its power is transferred to the executive. In a democratic country it is felt that both chambers are needed, the Lords giving an unprecedented amount of knowledge and expertise to the political system which can not be found in the Commons.