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British House of Commons

In the politics of the United Kingdom, the British House of Commons is the dominant component of the bicameral Parliament, the other half being the House of Lords. It consists of 659 Members of Parliament (MPs) since 1997, each elected by citizens of an electoral constituency to represent that constituency in the House.

The country is divided into constituencies by the permanent independent Boundary Commission[?]. On average each MP represents 68,000 people, although there is considerable variation in the population and size of constituencies. The constituency boundaries are reviewed roughly once a decade although there can be inter-review changes as needed. The last general review increased the number of MPs from 651 (1992) to 659 (1997), England has 529, Scotland has 72, Wales has 40, and Northern Ireland 18. After the next, fifth, review the Boundary Commission will be absorbed into the Electoral Commission[?], established in 2000.

The majority party in the House forms a Government, with its leader becoming Prime Minister. (The Prime Minister and other members of the cabinet are appointed by the monarch.) The day-to-day management of the House is dealt with by the Speaker of the House[?] and his or her deputies, who act as representatives of the House to the Crown and the House of Lords, and govern the conduct of debates. Management of the House's domestic affairs---accommodation, security, staff and so on---is ultimately the responsibility of the House of Commons Commission[?], a statutory body which the Speaker chairs. It is convention that the Speaker be non-partisan; he resigns his party membership when elected as Speaker and, if he seeks re-election to Parliament, stands as an independent (the main parties do not stand candidates against him).

As the formal checks on the power of the House of Commons are very limited, a party with a majority in the House has very few formal limits on its ability change government policies. In addition, Members of Parliament almost always vote with their party. The reasons for this are complex, but derive partly from natural party loyalty, and partly from job security: MPs who vote against their party are unlikely to reach ministerial rank, and may be deselected as official party candidates in the next election (though in some circumstances, an MP may be threatened with deselection if he or she does vote with the party). In addition, unlike presidental systems, a government cannot function without a majority support of the House of Commons, hence the parties have much more interest in ensuring that people do not vote against the party either by pressuring MP's to change their vote, or more often by modifying legislation to avoid an adverse vote.

There are two cases in which MP's will vote against party lines. One is when a party announces a free vote over an issue of conscience in which invidividual members are allowed to vote according to their personal beliefs; in this case, there is no official party line to vote for or against. This is the case ethical issues like the death penalty, abortion etc. MPs representing the majority party occassionally may also vote against their party in large numbers where there is widespread discontent among backbenchers over the government's policies. Since the late 19th century, major backbench rebellions have only occurred once every few years, most recently in 2003 when Labour MP's voted against Tony Blair's support of the United States over the Iraq war. Smaller rebellions, in which only a handful of back benchers vote against their party, are more common when the Government has a very large majority. The Labour Government suffered 16 back bench rebellions in the 1997-2001 Parliament.

Because the outcome of votes are largely predetermined, parliamentary debates are intended less to change the outcome of pending legislation, than for the party in power and those out of power to appeal to the public for the next election.

Unlike in the United States Congress, committees in the House of Commons are not very powerful, and most of the review of legislation occurs in the Cabinet.

One other important characteristic of the House of Commons is Question Time, in which members of both the party in power and the opposition parties have a weekly opportunity to ask questions of Cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister.

There is a convention known as the Salisbury convention[?] according to which the House of Lords will not oppose any government legislation promised by its election manifesto. And in the case of legislation not covered by this convention, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 apply. They limit the power of the House of Lords to delaying a bill for up to one year, after which it may receive Royal Assent, if the Commons passes it again, without the Lords' consent. In the case of money bills (the main purpose of which relates to taxation or expenditure), the agreement of the Lords is not required at all, though in practice it is usually given.

There are however increasing restrictions on the power of the House of Commons. Under the terms of the European Communities Act 1972 (UK), European Community law overrides any incompatible UK legislation. Although the House of Commons could in theory amend or repeal the European Communities Act, in practice it would be inconceivable for it to do so. Parliamentary legislation that violates UK law can be challenged through both the UK national courts, and the European Court of Justice.

Another restriction is the European Convention on Human Rights. Since the 1940s the European Court of Human Rights has had the power to rule UK legislation to be in violation of the rights guaranteed by the Convention. However, although in all but one case (involving detention of terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland) Parliament stood by the decision of the Court, there was no legal requirement to do so under domestic UK law. The entry into force of the Human Rights Act 1998 dramatically changed this, by incorporating the Convention into British law. British courts now have the power to enforce the Convention rights, including the obligation to interpret parliamentary legislation whenever possible so that it is compatible with those rights. However, in the event of a court being unable to harmonise the legislation with the Convention rights, the court does not have the power to strike it down; all it can do is issue a declaration of incompatibility, stating the legislation to be incompatible. But once this declaration has been issued, there exist under the Act expedited parliamentary procedures to pass legislation to remove the incompatibility.

In addition to European Union membership and the European Convention on Human Rights, devolution has also reduced the apparent power of the House of Commons compared to the past. Many areas of legislation formerly dealt with at Westminster are now dealt with by devolved institutions; this applies especially to Scotland, where the process of devolution has gone the farthest. Although Westminster could in theory legislate in these devolved areas, there is a constitutional convention that Westminster shall not do so in normal circumstances. However it is debatable whether any real power has been lost since the House of Commons can suspend or wind up any of the devolved assaemblies at any time, and has indeed already done so at least once in the case of the Northern Irish assembly.

The monarch must assent to any legislation for it to enter into law, although it has been convention since the time of William and Mary that the monarch will assent to all legislation passed by Parliament.

Since the suspension of the Northern Ireland Parliament[?] in the 1970s, relatively weak local councils have been the only other level of government in the UK. This has changed with the formation of the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales[?] and Northern Ireland Assembly[?], under the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998[?], and the Northern Ireland Act 1998[?].

The House of Commons meets in the Palace of Westminster.

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