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A Tale of Two Houses

THE TEXTS BELOW PROVIDE INFORMATION ABOUT SOME ASPECTS OF GOVERNMENT IN THE UK. EACH TEXT IS FOLLOWED BY A SUGGESTION FOR A SHORT TASK OR DISCUSSION QUESTION WHICH TEACHERS MAY LIKE TO ASSIGN TO STUDENTS.


Palace of Westminster: the home of government

The historic Palace of Westminster, former residence of kings, is home to one of the oldest representative assemblies in the world,  the British parliament.  The Palace itself is a huge complex of buildings containing almost 1,200 rooms, 100 staircases and more than 3 kilometres of passages and corridors. The texts below will give you a glimpse of what goes on behind the doors of Westminster, of some of the people who work there and of what they do.



Before you read any further discuss the following questions in class:
  • What do you know about how the British system of government is organised?
  • What questions do you have about it? Brainstorm a list.

Parliamentary government in the United Kingdom is based on a two-tier, or two-chamber, system: the House of Lords (also known as the Upper House) and the House of Commons (known as the Lower House). The Commons and the Lords are housed within separate, historic debating chambers in the Palace of Westminster. The seating arrangements in the chambers reflect the nature of the predominantly two-party system which has characterised UK politics for at least the last 150 years. Both chambers are rectangular in shape and at one end there is a special seat  for the Speaker (House of Commons), or the Lord Chancellor (House of Lords). The Speaker of the Commons has the very important job of keeping order in the debating chamber and making sure that all the rules are followed. In the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor’s responsibilities are rather more limited than the Speaker’s but, unlike the Speaker, his seat has a special name. It is known as ‘the Woolsack’.

Opposite these seats, at the other end there is a formal barrier, known as the ‘Bar’ and benches for members of each house run the length of the chamber on both sides. In the House of Commons, the benches to the right of the Speaker are used by the Government and those to the left are used by the Opposition and members of other parties. The leaders of the Government and the Opposition - the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition - sit on the front benches together with their supporters. These people, who are usually members of the Cabinet and other Ministers (Government) and members of the Shadow Cabinet (Opposition), are known as ‘frontbenchers’; other Members of Parliament who do not occupy any special role of extra responsibility in Government or Opposition are known as ‘backbenchers’ and they sit behind the front benches on their respective sides of the House.

The House of Lords is similarly organised with those Members who support the Government sitting on the right and those who oppose the Government sitting on the left. There is also another bench on the Government side, known as the Bishop’s Bench, where bishops sit. In addition, the House of Lords has a number of  ‘cross-benches’ i.e. neither to the right of the House nor the left,  where those members who do not wish to be associated with any particular political party can sit.



Click here for a simplified diagram of the House of Commons. Using the text above to help you, locate the items below on the diagram and label it, the first one is done for you:
  • Speaker’s Chair (SC)
  • Government front benches (GFB)
  • Government back benches (GBB)
  • Opposition front benches (OFB)
  • Opposition back benches (OBB)
  • The Bar (BAR)
Now place the following people in their correct seats. The first one is done for you:
  • Speaker of the House of Commons (SHC)
  • Prime Minister (PM)
  • Home Office Minister - Home Secretary (HS)
  • backbenchers (BBs)
  • Leader of the Opposition (LO)

The business of government

Although the system of parliamentary government in the UK is based on the two-chamber system of  both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the two Houses sit separately and are based on entirely different principles.  The legislative process - the process of formulating laws and governing the country - involves both Houses, but the Lower House (Commons) is arguably the most pivotal part of system since it is here that the democratically elected representatives of the people sit.

The House of Commons is entirely made up of elected  Members of Parliament (MPs), each of whom represents an individual electoral constituency.  General Elections, during which MPs are voted for by the public, are held at least every 5 years, which is the maximum duration of any parliament. Not all parliaments run for the whole five years and a general election may be held before the period is up. In between General Elections ‘by-elections’ may be held to elect an MP if a vacancy arises in an individual constituency perhaps because someone resigns or dies.
 

Go to the website below to complete this table of information about  the current composition of the House. Dod On line www.politicallinks.co.uk.
 
 

PARTY
NO. OF MP’S
Labour  
Conservative  
Liberal Democrats  
Ulster Unionists   
Scottish Nationalists  
Plaid Cymru  
Social Democratic and Labour Party  
Democratic Unionist Party  
Sinn Fein (have not taken their seats)  
Independent/other  
The Speaker and 3 Deputies (these members do not usually vote)  
TOTAL
659

Tasks

  • Work out from the competed table how large the government majority is. To do this compare the total number of Labour seats with the total number of seats own by the other parties.
  • Which party has MPs, but has no representation in the Commons? Do you know why this is the case?
The role of the Cabinet

The government is formed by the party with the largest number of seats; at the head of the government is the Prime Minister, who is also the leader of the majority party. The Prime Minister chooses a cabinet to decide and implement government policy and to coordinate the various different government departments. The cabinet usually consists of about 15 to 20 MPs who are known as Cabinet Ministers.  Although, in theory, any Member of Parliament may propose changes to the law in the form of a bill presented before Parliament, in practice most legislation is initiated by the Cabinet Minister responsible for a particular department.  The Cabinet, therefore, is a dominant force in government and the policies of the individual ministers must be consistent with that of the government as a whole. The two most important features of Cabinet government are collective and ministerial responsibility. Collective responsibility means that the Cabinet must always act unanimously as a single unit even if they do not always agree about something. Ministerial responsibility means that the ministers are responsible for the work of their own department and answerable to parliament about it. In other words,  if departments do not function properly or if mistakes are made, it is the Cabinet Minister concerned who must ultimately accept responsibility.  Cabinet “reshuffles”, where the Prime Minister reassigns Cabinet members to new responsibilities or drops other members entirely, are always keenly observed by members of the governing party and the oppositions alike. The resignation of a Cabinet Minister is always headline news and is often accompanied by speculation and analysis of the rows and rivalries at the centre of the government of the day!

Some of the biggest and most important government departments for which individual cabinet ministers are responsible include the Treasury (responsible for the financial running of the country including taxation) the Home Office (responsible for internal affairs within the UK such as law and order and the court system) , the Foreign Office (responsible for dealings with foreign governments), the Department for Education, the Health and Social Security Department, the Trade and Industry Department and the Agriculture and Fisheries Department.

Task

  • Is the government of Poland organised into similar departments? In what ways does the organisation differ?
  • Who has  responsibility for the various departments within the Polish government?


Sitting in opposition

It is the job of the government to initiate new laws and policies, while it is the job of the Opposition parties to make sure alternative voices and opinions are heard. The main responsibilities of the Opposition include: contributing to the formulation of policy and legislation by providing constructive criticism; opposing proposals which it does not agree with; working towards amendments to government Bills; and of course, making sure its own policies are well-publicised in order to improve its chances of winning or gaining more seats at the next general election!

Task

  • How is Opposition in Poland organised? Are there any similarities to the UK system?


Modernising government

It took several centuries of power struggles between the people and the monarch to arrive at Britain’s present-day parliamentary structure, but even today the system has its critics. For example, observers note that in order to reflect fairly the composition of the UK population the number of black and female MPs needs to increase. Commentators have noted, somewhat wryly, that there are 20 bars and even a shooting gallery within the complex of the Palace of Westminster but there is apparently no room for a creche! Others maintain that the unsociable working hours of the House make it almost impossible for MPs to lead a normal family life; this, it is claimed, deters many women from entering a career in politics. (These hours were changed in 2003)

“What has the House of Commons got to do with the way ordinary people think, talk and work out problems and decisions?” ask some critics. They claim that the debates in the Commons sound more like an elaborate, ritualised theatre performance than the way ordinary people go about their business; this, they argue, alienates the person in the street. More serious criticisms have been levelled at the way decisions are taken and the business of government is conducted. Some people feel that too much goes on ‘behind closed doors’ or that the party system with its whipping of members into line, stifles independent votes and voices. But the fiercest debate is centred around the position of the House of Lords. “The House of Lords is a relic!” thundered one headline. “Our parliament is way out of date” screamed another.  It seems that people are now seriously asking why some people should get a say in government just because of their privileged birth.

The Labour government elected in 1997, pledged to listen to the concerns of the people and to introduce sweeping reforms in the system of government. Steps have already been taken to initiate change in some areas, for example Government removed voting rights from 750 hereditary peers in the Lords. However, certain other concerns have yet to be tackled. As we move ever closer to a united Europe, Britain, in common with the other countries in the union, is approaching a period of challenging reform which is sure to continue.

Task

  • What are your impressions of the House of Lords? Can you pinpoint what has shaped your views?
  • Go to the sites below to read more information about the House of Lords. If you know any British people, ask them what they think about the House of Lords. Check the Government and Politics - bibliography and Government and Politics - links in this edition for more information about the Lords.  Prepare a short report of your findings to present in class.


Teacher’s notes: The business of government

Strong government majority means that a government is in a very strong position to pass legislation and put its policies in place. This is not always the case however. For example the Conservative Government elected in 1992 had a very small majority which placed it under greater pressure when it attempted to ensure the smooth passage of legislation. A small majority for any government tends to give greater power to individual MPs since their votes may be the crucial deciding factor on whether a Bill is passed or not.


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