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THE SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT
In theory, the constitution has three branches: Parliament. which makes laws, the government, which "executes" laws, i.e. puts them into effect, and the law courts, which interpret laws. Although the Queen is officially head of all three branches, she has little direct power.
Parliament has two parts: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Members of the House of Commons are elected by the voters of 650 constituencies. They are known as MPs, or Members of Parliament. The Prime Minister, or leader of the Government, is also an MP, usually the leader of the political party with a majority in the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister is advised by a Cabinet of about twenty other ministers. The Cabinet includes the ministers in charge of major government departments or ministries. Departments and ministries are run by civil servants, who are permanent officials. Even if the Government changes after an election, the same civil servants are employed.
The House of Lords consists of the Lords Temporal and the Lords Spiritual. The Lords Spiritual are the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, together with twenty-four senior bishops of the Church of England. The Lords Temporal consist of hereditary peers who have inherited their titles; life peers who are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Government for various services to the nation; and the Lords of Appeal (Law Lords) who become life peers on their judicial appointments. The latter serve the House of Lords as the ultimate court of appeal. This appeal court consists of some nine Law Lords who hold senior judicial office. They are presided over by the Lord Chancellor and they form a quorum of three to five when they hear appeal cases.
Making New Laws: Bills and Acts
The functions of Parliament are: making laws; providing money for the government through taxation; examining government policy, administration and spending; debating political questions.
Every year Parliament passes about a hundred laws directly, by making Acts of Parliament. Because this can be a long process, Parliament sometimes passes a very general law and leaves a minister to fill in the details. In this way, in indirectly passes about 2,000 additional rules and regulations.
No new law can be passed unless it has completed a number of stages in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The monarch also has to give a Bill the Royal Assent, which is now just a formality. Since 1707 no sovereign has refused a Bill. Whilst a law is still going through Parliament it is called a Bill. There are two main types of Bills - Public Bills which deal with matters of public importance and Private Bills which deal with local matters and individuals.
Public and Private Bills are passed through Parliament in much the same way. When a Bill is introduced in the House of Commons, it receives a formal first reading. It is then printed and read a second time, when it is debated but not amended. After the second reading the Bill is referred to a committee, either a special committee made up of certain members of the House, or to the House itself as a committee. Here it is discussed in detail and amended, if necessary. The Bill is then presented for a third reading and is debated. If the Bill is passed by the Commons it goes to the Lords, and provided it is not rejected by them, it goes through the same procedure as in the Commons. After receiving the Royal Assent the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament. In order to be enforced, it must be published in Statute form, becoming a part of Statute Law. The power of the Lords to reject a Bill has been severely curtailed. A money Bill must be passed by the Lords without amendment within a month of being presented in the House. The Act of 1949 provides that any Public Bill passed by the Commons in two successive parliamentary sessions and rejected both times by the Lords, may be presented for the Royal Assent, even though it has not been passed by the Lords. The lords, therefore, can only delay the passage of a Public Bill, they cannot reject it.
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The executive can be divided into the three parts.
The Privy Council: The Privy Council developed from a small group of royal advisers at court into the chief source of executive authority. But its position was weakened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as more of its functions were transferred to a developing parliamentary Cabinet.
Today its main role is to advise the monarch on a range of matters, like the resolution of constitutional issues and the approval of Orders in Council, such as the granting of Royal Charters to public bodies. The most important task of the Privy Council today is performed by its Judicial Committee. This serves as the final court of appeal from those dependencies and Commonwealth countries which have retained this avenue of appeal. It may also be used as an arbiter for a wide range of courts and committees in Britain and overseas, and its rulings can be influential.
The office of Privy Councillor is an honorary one, conferred, for example, on former Prime Ministers.
The Ministry: The Ministry is the government of the moment. The head of the Ministry is the Prime Minister. The functions of the Prime Minister are: leading the majority party; running the Government; appointing Cabinet Ministers and other ministers; representing the nation in political matters.
Upon accepting office the Prime Minister must form a government, that is, select a cabinet and ministry from among the Members of Parliament of his own party. The Cabinet constitutes the centre of the government and is composed of about 20 of the most important ministers. All major decisions of the Government are made by the Cabinet, and therefore it is the Cabinet which forms Government policy. Decisions made by the Cabinet must be unanimous. It makes its decisions collectively and is collectively responsible to Parliament.
After the Prime Minister has formed his cabinet, he selects the rest of his ministry. Most of these ministers are the political heads of Government Departments and are members of one of the Houses.
Government Departments: Government departments are responsible for implementing Government policy. Each department is headed by two people: a political head who is usually the minister, and an administrative head from the Civil Service, called a permanent secretary. They are responsible for a permanent staff which is part of the Civil Service. There are many such departments, for example the Home Office, the Department of Education, the Ministry of Defence, etc. The most important department is the Treasury, and the Prime Minister is usually its political head. It is the Department which controls the economy of the nation.
As well as government departments there are government agencies formed to operate public services, e.g., the Post Office, British Rail, etc. Most of these agencies are subject to the control of one of the government departments.
The main parties in the UK are the Conservative party (right wing), the Labour party (left wing) and the Liberal Democrats (centre).
The Conservative party goes back to the Tories, or Royalists, who originated in King Charles reign (1660-1685). The Tories were the party that supported Church and King; the other main party at the time were the Whigs, who were a group eager for political reform. The Tory party gave way to its successor, the Conservative party, in around 1830.
The Conservative party believes in free enterprise and the importance of a capitalist economy, with private ownership, preferred to state control.
In 1899 the Trade Union Congress summoned a special conference of trade unions and socialist bodies to make plans to repre-sent labour in Parliament. The proposal for such a meeting had come from Thomas Steels, a member of the Independent Labour Party which had been formed in 1893. The conference met in February 1900 in London and has always been looked on as the foundation of the Labour Party. The Labour party believes that private ownership and enterprise should be allowed to flourish, but not at the expense of their traditional support of the public services.
There has been a Liberal party in Great Britain since 1868 when the name was adopted by the Whig party. The Whig party was created after the revolution of 1688 and aimed to subordinate the power of the Crown to that of Parliament and the upper classes. In 1981 a second centre party was created by 24 Labour MPs. It was called the Social Democratic party, and soon formed an alliance with the Liberal party. They formed a single party which became the Liberal Democrats after the 1987 election.
The Liberal Democrats believe that the state should have some control over the economy, but that there should be individual ownership.
There are other political parties within the UK. The Green party offers economic and industrial policies that relate directly to the environment. The Scottish Nationalist Party wants independence for Scotland within the European Community. Plaid Cymru - the Welsh Nationalist Party - is determined to preserve the Welsh language and culture as the foundation of a distinctive Welsh identity within the UK. Its radical wing has resorted to arson attempts as a means of protest.
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