Parliament Key Terms

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Accountability

The principle that government officials are responsible to and serve at the pleasure of constituents or elected officials (and that they may be removed from office by those electors or officials). Closely linked to the concept of scrutiny.

Backbencher

A backbencher is a member of parliament who is not a minister or a shadow minister. Backbenchers sit behind the front bench (thus on the back bench) in each chamber. Often dismissively referred to as lobby fodder.

Bicameralism

Legislatures that have two chambers. Often allows for representation by both population and geographic units; one chamber is sometimes dominant, with a second, more limited chamber as in the UK. The US has two houses of equal legislative power which allows for greater scrutiny of the executive. However, legislative gridlock can occur.

Elective Dictatorship

Describes the way in which power and authority of Parliament is concentrated in the hands of any party leader who possesses and can control a working majority in the House of Commons. (FPTP + Whips + Parliament Act).
Lord Hailsham, a Conservative who served three terms as Lord Chancellor, coined the term in 1976.

Frontbencher

An MP who holds a ministerial or shadow ministerial position.

Guillotine

A device by which the government can cut short parliamentary debate and force a vote on a legislative proposal or amendment.
Guillotines are commonly used to end or prevent a filibuste. A guillotine may also be used where there is simply insufficient time, either on the floor of Parliament or in standing committee, to discuss things at length.

House of Commons

A fully elected chamber of Parliament, the UK's bicameral legislature, located in the Palace of Westminster.
The UK has an unbalanced bicameral system - the Commons has significantly more power than the House of Lords (Parliament Acts & Salisbury Convention).
Has three core functions : legislate, scrutinise and represent constituents.

House of Lords

The unelected second chamber of Parliament, the UK's bicameral legislature.
Most hereditary peers were abolished in 1999. Still has 26 bishops of the Church of England.
More of a revising chamber than co-equal legislative chamber with the Commons.

Legislation

A law or set of laws made by a government (Acts of Parliament).

Legislative Process

The stages by which a bill becomes an Act of Parliament. Most major bills begin their life in the House of Commons (first reading, second reading, committee sateg, report stage, third reading). They then pass through the House of Lords before receiving Royal assent. If the Lords and Commons may disagree on a bill passing it abck and forth. This is called 'legislative ping-pong'.

Mandate

The right of a governing party to pursue the policies it sets out in its general election manifesto. This doctrine gives the governing party the authority to pursue these policies, it does not require them to do so or prevent them pursuing other proposals. For example, Labour promised minimum wage and House of Lords reform in 1997.

Minister's Question Time

A regular slot at which MPs or Peers can ask oral questions of a government ministers in the House of Commons or House of Lords. Ministers take it in turns to answer questions relating to their departmental portfolios.

Official Opposition

The political party with the second largest number of MPs in the House of Commons and officially referred to as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. The official opposition's front bench team makes up the shadow cabinet, which is led by the leader of the opposition. Can scrutinise with PMs, Opposition Days and Urgent Questions.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

The central constitutional doctrine that holds that Parliament is the supreme law-making body witn the UK system of government.
Parliamentary sovereignty is closely linked to the primacy of statute law.
Based upon three interlocking principles: first, that only Parliament can make UK law; second, that Parliament can make or unmake any law; and third, that no parliament can bind its successor.
Has it been undermined by EU membership and devolution.

Prime Minister's Questions

A half-hourly slot in the House of Commons every Wednesday when MPs may ask the prime minister oral questions.
Form of executive scrutiny.
Introduced under prime minister Harold Macmillan in 1961.
Changed from two 15 minute sessions on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in 1997 under Blair.

Representation

The act of speaking behalf of someone else. It is said to be a core function of political parties and pressure groups as well as MPs, though the latter are also required to represent the interests of their political party.

Resemblance Theory

Holds that those serving in an elected legislature should be typical of the communities that they serve. Thus, it is argued, they can more fully communities' collective values and beliefs.
Only 22% of MPS are women, only 4% BME, 90% university educated.

Scrutiny

The process by which the government is checked and held accountable by the legislature and other bodies.
The government is scrutinised by Parliament, in particular by the standing committees and select committees that operate in the Commons and the Lords.
The media are also said to play a key role in scrutinising the work of government.

Select Committee

A parliamentary committee established for the purpose of scrutinising the executive or investigating a particular area of policy or pratice. Made up of 11-13 backbenchers who can request 'people, papers and records' and produce a report with recommendations. Although there is a government majority, they are not fully whipped and can be critical of the government. For example the Transport Select Committee in 2002 lambasted Labour's transport policy as "incoherent" and "just plain wrong". Transport Secretary Stephen Byers resigned. However, some reports are 'shelved'.

Statute Law

Legislation passed by Westminster.
Such measures are often said to be on the 'statute books', with individual pieces of legislation referred to as Acts of Parliament.
In the absence of a codified constitution, statute law is the highest source of UK law and a key source of the UK constitution.

Whips

A legislator in the Commons or the Lords who is charg with the task of maintaining unity and party discipline within the parliamentary party, especially on key votes (three line whip).
Whips act as liaison between the upper echelons of a parliamentary party and the backbenchers.

Parliament

An assembly that has the power to debate and make laws. The UK's parliament is located in the Palace of Westminster on the banks of the Thames. It is one of the oldest in the world and is sometimes called the mother of parliaments'. The UK political system is called the 'Westminster model'.

Legislature

The branch of government responsible for passing laws. The UK's legislature is the Commons & Lords which make up Parliament.

Head of state

The chief public representative of a country, such as a monarch or a president. The UK's head of state is currently Queen Elizabeth II, who has a mainly ceremonial role.

Westminster model

Traditional way of understanding UK politics - puts parliament at the heart of the political system.

Two main virtues:
1. Representative government (through elections)
2. Responsible government (confidence motions, CMR, IMR)

Motion of no confidence

The House of Commons can remove the government by defeating it in a motion of no confidence (of vote of confidence). The convention of CMR states that the entire government must resign if this happens and parliament is dissolved in prepartion for the upcoming general election.
They are rare as the UKs electoral system usually produces majority governments. This combined with the strong whipping system is usually enough to prevent large scale backbench revolt. The most recent defeat was in 1979 when Callaghan's minority Labour government lost by one vote.

Whip

a) A party official responsible for ensuring that MPs turn up to parliamentary votes and follow party instructions on how to vote.
b) An instruction to vote for the upcoming week issued to MPs by political parties.

Peer

A member of the House of Lords.
Life Peer: appointed by the PM or an independent panel
Hereditary Peer: voting right passed down from father. Less than 100 left after 1999 reforms
Spiritual: there are 26 senior C of E bishops in the Lords

The Queen's Speech

Delivered by the monarch at the State Opening of Parliament it sets out the main bills the government intends to introduce that year (legislative agenda). It is written by the PM and his or her officials, not the monarch.

The monarchy

Retain a formal and ceremonial role in parliament. The monarch is head of state, but most powers associate with the Crown are exercised by the PM and ministers.
Role now entails royal assent, appointing the PM, dissolving parliament and The Queen's Speech.

Royal assent

Final stage in the legislative process - only when a bill has been signed by the monarch can it become law. Constitutional convention dictates that the monarch must allows grant the royal assent.

Functions of parliament

1. Legislation
2. Scrutiny and accountability
3. Representation
4. Redress of grievances
5. Recruitment of ministers
6. Legitimacy

Private member's bill

A bill sponsored by a backbench MP. 20 MPs are chosen at randon each year to introduce a bill of their choice. Most fail due to lack of parliamentary time and support. Examples of successful ones are the Murder Act 1965 (abolition of the death penalty) and the Abortion Act 1967

Public Bill Committee

The 'committee stage' of the passage of a bill. 16-50 MPs carry out detailed line by line scrutiny and amendemnts can be made. They can now call witnesses and they are ad hoc - dissolved once the bill completed the stage.
However, the committees have an inbuilt govenment majority and are heavily whipped so amendments athat are unacceptable to the government are destined to fail.

Green paper

These are official documents which give details of a government department's proposal for changes in the law. They provide an opportunity for public consultation and comment.

White paper

A government statement that outlines detailed proposed legislation; the last stage before the submission of a bill

Bill

A legislative proposal that has yet to complete the parliamentary legislative process

Act

A legislative proposal that has completed the legislative process and entered into law.

Parliament Acts

Passed in 1911 & 1949, removing the Lords power to block legislation. It can now only delay bills for one year, after which legislation can be forced through. However, this power is rarely used. A recent example was the Hunting with Dogs Act 2004.

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