The structure and role of the House of Commons and House of Lords

House of Commons

Parliament, figure 1

Membership of the House of Commons is gained through being elected as a constituency representative through a general election. There are currently 650 MPs, elected through the first-past-the-post voting system. MPs are usually members of political parties, although it is possible to stand (and win) as an independent candidate. The majority of MPs either represent the Conservatives or Labour. Most MPs are backbenchers, who do not hold a role in government. Those who do hold such a role (for example government ministers) are known as frontbenchers.

There are various ‘office holders’ in the Commons, for example:

  1. Speaker: a party-neutral officer elected by the Commons to preside over debates and ruling on parliamentary rules and procedures. Sits in the middle of the House.
  2. Leader of the Opposition: leader of the largest opposition party (the party with the second-largest number of MPs) with responsibility for leading scrutiny of and opposition to the Government.
  3. __Whips: __party members responsible for enforcing discipline, particularly on backbenchers, ensuring that they vote in accordance with their party line. The system used is a ‘line’ system- if a reading/voting of a bill is underlined three times, the MP must vote according to the party line.

House of Lords

The House of Lords is larger than the Commons- there are around 800 members. Until 1999, the majority of the members were hereditary peers, who had inherited a seat as a result of inheriting a title (for example a duke or an earl). The Lords Act 1999 __reduced the number of hereditary peers to 92. The vast majority of the Lords is now therefore made up of __life peers, who are appointed by the Prime Minister (although opposition leaders can also propose peers). The House of Lords Appointments Commission can also propose life peers. Life peers may be appointed for a variety of reasons, for example showing loyalty to a particular party, having had a long political career, a special achievement in their field or profession, or to represent the views and interests of particular groups in society. In addition, there are 26 Lords Spiritual- these are high-ranking members of the Church of England.


The monarch is also technically part of Parliament, as they are the head of state. Their role is to officially appoint a government by choosing a Prime Minister (by convention, the leader of the largest party in the Commons), to open and dismiss Parliament, and to deliver the Queen’s speech, which sets out the governments legislative programme for the coming year. Also, the monarch reads the speech, it is written by the Prime Minister and their advisors. The monarch also gives Royal Assent to all bills, with is the final stage of a bill becoming a law.

Functions of Parliament - how well does the Parliament perform?

Making laws: Parliament fulfils this function because:

  1. It can make and unmake any law it wants (with the exception of EU laws)
  2. There is no codified constitution restricting Parliament
  3. Parliament is superior to other institutions such as devolved bodies

Parliament may not be that good at fulfilling this function because:

  1. Parliament mostly considers government-made bills, rather than private members’ bills (which are created by individual MPs). Therefore, it is government, rather than Parliament, which is legislating
  2. Governments usually have majorities in the Commons, so the passing of their laws is often a foregone conclusion. This means Parliament is effectively side-lined in the legislative process
  3. The Lords rarely proposed its own legislation and usually just ‘cleans up’ government bills that pass through the Commons

Represent the people: Parliament fulfils this function because:

  1. The House of Commons is elected and is superior to the Lords
  2. In theory, each MP acts on behalf of their constituents

Parliament may not be that good at fulfilling this function because:

  1. The House of Lords remains entirely unelected
  2. Due to the voting system, the make-up of the Commons often does not reflect how the population voted (__2015 __being a prime example)
  3. It is argued that MPs and peers come from a narrow background, so Parliament does not reflect the percentage of females, ethnic minority groups and so on in society

Scrutinise the government: Parliament fulfils this function because:

  1. During Question Time sessions, the PM and government ministers must explain their actions
  2. Select committees are used to scrutinise government department policy, and public bill committees examine proposed legislation
  3. Debates can be held discussing the merits of government actions
  4. The opposition party is given time to challenge the government
  5. MPs and peers can submit questions to ministers, which must be responded to

Parliament may not be that good at fulfilling this function because:

  1. The government usually has a majority of MPs in the Commons, so most MPs tend to be supportive of the government
  2. Question Time is not an effective form of scrutiny- there are rarely proper answers given to questions, and it often turns into a petty, points-scoring exercise
  3. The government has a majority on select committees, and these committees have limited powers to change policy (they can only criticise)

Recruit and train future government ministers: Parliament fulfils this function because:

  1. All ministers are MPs, so will have spent time as backbenchers ‘learning the ropes’
  2. Backbenchers learn how government and Parliament work, before progressing to junior ministerial posts, before potentially running a government department

Parliament may not be that good at fulfilling this function because:

  1. Ministers only come from the pool of MPs of the largest Commons party, so there are not many people to choose from
  2. The skills learned in Parliament may be more debating and speaking rather than managing and organising
  3. Ministers increasingly have no experience of a career outside politics (the ‘Westminster bubble’), so may lack perspective or understanding of the implications of their actions

Promote legitimacy: Parliament fulfils this function because:

  1. Being elected, the Commons has the approval of the people, so its actions are legitimate
  2. Government actions are scrutinised and challenged by Parliament, making those actions better

Parliament may not be that good at fulfilling this function because:

  1. The Lords is not elected, so it is not democratically legitimate, yet it still plays a part in creating legislation
  2. A number of scandals (for example, MP’s expenses, ‘cash for questions’) have undermined public faith and trust in Parliament