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The Legislature: Parliament


British parliament picture
British parliament picture

Parliament comprises three parts: the crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. Over the course of centuries, the seat of power has passed from the crown to the Lords to its final resting place in the House of Commons. Parliament originated in the great councils called by the crown during the Middle Ages. Through these meetings, medieval monarchs sought the advice of their subjects, exchanged information about the realm, and gathered petitions. In other words, Parliament originated with the royal wish to gain the approval and sanction of the realm for acts of state. Later, Parliament served to supplement royal revenues by making grants of taxation—that is, by granting the monarch’s request for extra subsidies to pay for wars. The crown invited all great nobles and church leaders to attend these councils. By the end of the 13th century representatives from the counties, called knights of the shire, and representatives of the towns, called burgesses, were also being summoned to attend regularly. The knights and the burgesses eventually came to sit separately from the nobles and church leaders, in what eventually became the House of Commons. The nobles and church leaders sat in what came to be called the House of Lords.

By the end of the Middle Ages Parliament had taken on a form that would be recognized today. It legislated and approved taxes and passed laws. Long, complicated struggles between the monarch and the two houses of Parliament resulted in the government gaining power, while the crown lost power. In the 20th century the House of Commons successfully struggled to curtail the power of the House of Lords.

Today the House of Lords can only delay legislation. For the past 280 years the monarch’s royal assent to legislation has been given automatically. Parliament is elected roughly every five years and is dissolved by the crown on the advice of the prime minister, who then calls a general election. Parliamentary sessions are held each year and begin in October or November. Parliament meets at the Houses of Parliament in London, officially called the New Palace of Westminster. The Parliament of the United Kingdom legislates for the entire nation and includes representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The House of Lords today is more a place of discussion and debate than one of power, and it normally passes legislation already approved by the House of Commons. Its members are not elected. The House of Lords is made up of the lords temporal, the lords spiritual, and the law lords.

The House of Lords


London picture
London picture

TThe lords temporal are either hereditary peers or life peers. The House of Lords long consisted primarily of hereditary peers, but the House of Lords Act passed by Parliament in 1999 abolished peers who inherit their position, with the exception of 90 interim members who will hold their power until the next stage of reform. These 90 members were chosen by committee in 2001. Today, the majority of members of the House of Lords—about 600—are life peers. Life peers are appointed by the monarch for the duration of the person’s lifetime. These appointments are usually made in recognition of outstanding careers or contributions to society. Famous people who have been made peers are former British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson. The lords spiritual include the archbishops of Canterbury and York; the bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester; and the 21 next most senior bishops. The law lords, or lords of appeal, assist in the judicial functions of the House of Lords. The House of Lords has the power to introduce bills, although bills dealing with financial matters can only originate in the House of Commons. The Lords can also offer amendments to bills passed by the House of Commons, and Commons is obligated to consider these amendments before passing a bill into law. The Lords have the right to delay legislation, and may delay bills for up to about a year. Financial bills, however, may only be delayed for a month, and they become law in 30 days whether or not the House of Lords approves of them. The terms of the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 forbid the Lords from disapproving nonfinancial bills if the House of Commons has passed them in two successive sessions. The only exception is a bill to lengthen the life of a Parliament past five years, which requires the assent of both chambers.

These powers of the House of Lords are limited because most Britons believe that in a modern democracy a nonelected house should only act as a forum for opinion, one that is comparatively free from party politics and pressures. Although this house has relatively little power, many Britons would like to either abolish it completely or replace it with some form of elected second chamber. "England" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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