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How Parliament Works

The UK Parliament is made up of three parts: the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarch. They are responsible for creating laws, representing the views of people across the country and keeping a check on the work of the Government.

Parliament

House of Commons

There are 650 Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Members of Parliament or MPs are individuals voted for by the people in their area in the democratic process of an election. Each MP represents a different area of the UK called a constituency. The people living in this area are called Constituents. Every Constituent who is 18 or over has a right to vote for who they want to hold the seat for their constituency, i.e. represent them in Parliament. These votes for all constituencies take place in a general election, held every five years, although sometimes general elections can be called early. If an MP leaves before the end of their term, a by-election will be held for that constituency.

Most MPs belong to a political party, a group of people who have similar ideas about how they want to run the UK. The main parties in the UK are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin and the Green Party. The Government is formed by the party that has the most MPs with seats in the House of Commons after an election (this needs to be a majority – at least 326 seats). The Government is in charge of running the UK. It is made up of the Prime Minister and the MPs and Lords they choose to make up their Cabinet. The Cabinet are Ministers who are responsible for different areas like transport, health and education. It works a little like the running of a school: there is the headteacher (Prime Minister), the heads of department (Cabinet Ministers) and the teachers (MPs) who ensure that it all works well for the students who attend (UK population).

The party with the next highest number of seats becomes the Opposition. Much like the Government selecting Ministers for each area, the opposition select their own Shadow Ministers for each department, and the leader of that party is known as the Leader of the Opposition. Their role is to scrutinise their corresponding Government Ministers, develop alternative policies and hold them to account. MPs who hold Government or Opposition roles sit on the front bench in the House of Commons. MPs from all parties who do not hold specific roles sit behind, so are known as Backbenchers.

House of Lords

There are 800 members of the House of Lords. Many Lords have worked in politics, but many have done other jobs. There are doctors, soldiers, scientists, writers, teachers, police officers, sportspeople and many other professional people. They are chosen for their knowledge and experience, so they can use their skills to ask questions, debate important issues and examine and suggest changes to plans for new laws. They can use this professional knowledge and experience to check that the detail in plans for new laws makes sense, is fair, and will work for different groups of people. If they think a plan for a new law could be improved they suggest changes. Most are called ‘Life Peers’ as they are given membership for their lifetime.

Monarch

The role of the Monarch (the King or Queen) in the UK Parliament is mainly ceremonial. They meet the Prime Minister once a week to discuss what is going on in Parliament, sign any new laws and attend the state opening of Parliament each year.

The work done in the UK Parliament

In the House of Commons Chamber, important topics are debated and laws are discussed. This is where Backbench MPs and the Opposition can challenge the work of the Government.

A new idea for a law is called a Bill. These can start in either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Both these parts of Parliament have to look at the bill and there can be some back and forth discussion before the final law is agreed. Once agreed, the Monarch is asked to pass the new law – this is called Royal Assent. All parts of parliament must agree on the law before it can be put in place. Legislation is another term that refers to a law or some aspect of the law. A policy is a declaration of the Government's plans and intentions relating to an issue or cause.

Green Papers are documents produced by the Government. The aim of this document is to allow people both inside and outside Parliament to give the department feedback on its policy or legislative proposals, in a process known as a consultation.

White Papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation. These can be based on a previous Green Paper, though is not always. This provides a basis for further consultation and discussion with interested or affected groups and allows final changes to be made before a Bill is formally presented to Parliament.

Select Committees are made up of MPs or Members of the House of Lords. They examine the spending, administration and policy of Government departments. They also look at anything else that Parliament decides needs to be looked at, such as a problem happening in the country at that time. Select Committees can ask people from the Government to answer questions, and ask people outside of Parliament to share views and ideas too. They then tell Parliament what they found out and what they think needs to change, and produce a publicly available report.

All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) bring together MPs from across all parties in Parliament who have a special interest in a particular issue or topic. During meetings, MPs discuss improvements to policy and may hear from those affected by the issue. In 2019, Beat provide support and administration for the setup of an APPG on eating disorders. A particular focus of this group is improving access and treatment for people affected by eating disorders and measures that support prevention and early intervention.

Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

The UK Parliament is the main law-making body, but some powers have been ‘devolved’ to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament (Senedd Cymru) and the Northern Ireland Assembly. This means that those institutions have the power to make their own laws about some issues, including education and health. As healthcare is a devolved issue, this means that decisions about this are made by each country’s own Parliament or Assembly.

In Scotland, a Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP) sits in the Scottish Parliament.

In Wales, an Member of the Senedd (MS)sits in the Welsh Parliament (more likely to be known as the Senedd Cymru in Wales).

In Northern Ireland, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Getting in touch with a local politician

Your local politician is your voice in your Parliament or Assembly. It’s important to let them know about issues that are affecting you and others in your area. You can find out more about engaging with them here