House of Commons of the United Kingdom |
The House of Commons, officially the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Like the upper house, the House of Lords, it meets in the Palace of Westminster. Owing to shortage of space, its office accommodation extends into Portcullis House.
The Commons may indicate its lack of support for the Government by rejecting a motion of confidence or by passing a motion of no confidence. Confidence and no confidence motions are phrased explicitly: for instance, "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government." Many other motions were until recent decades considered confidence issues, even though not explicitly phrased as such: in particular, important bills that were part of the Government's agenda. The annual Budget is still considered a matter of confidence. When a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the prime minister is obliged either to resign, making way for another MP who can command confidence, or to request the monarch to dissolve Parliament, thereby precipitating a general election.
By convention, ministers are members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. A handful have been appointed who were outside Parliament, but in most cases they then entered Parliament in a by-election or by receiving a peerage (being made a life peer). Since 1902, all prime ministers have been members of the Commons; the sole exception was during the long summer recess in 1963: the 14th Earl of Home disclaimed his peerage (under a new mechanism which remains in force) three days after becoming prime minister, and became Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The new session of Parliament was delayed to await the outcome of his by-election, which happened to be already under way due to a recent death. As anticipated, he won that election, which was for the highest-majority seat in Scotland among his party; otherwise he would have been constitutionally obliged to resign.
By a custom that prevailed even before the Parliament Acts, only the House of Commons may originate bills concerning taxation or Supply. Furthermore, supply bills passed by the House of Commons are immune to amendments in the House of Lords. In addition, the House of Lords is barred from amending a bill so as to insert a taxation or supply-related provision, but the House of Commons often waives its privileges and allows the Lords to make amendments with financial implications. Under a separate convention, known as the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not seek to oppose legislation promised in the Government's election manifesto. Hence, as the power of the House of Lords has been severely curtailed by statute and by practice, the House of Commons is clearly the more powerful chamber of Parliament.
The rectangular shape is derived from the shape of the chapel. Benches were arranged using the configuration of the chapel's choir stalls whereby they were facing across from one another. This arrangement facilitated an adversarial atmosphere that is representative of the British parliamentary approach.
In the ensuing years, the Commons grew more assertive, the influence of the House of Lords having been reduced by the Reform Bill crisis, and the power of the patrons reduced. The Lords became more reluctant to reject bills that the Commons had passed with large majorities, and it became an accepted political principle that the confidence of the House of Commons alone was necessary for a government to remain in office.
In 1918, women over 30 who owned property were given the right to vote, as were men over 21 who did not own property, quickly followed by the passage of a law enabling women to be eligible for election as members of parliament at the younger age of 21. The only woman to be elected that year was an Irish Sinn Fein candidate, Constance Markievicz, who therefore became the first woman to be an MP. However, owing to Sinn Fein's policy of abstention from Westminster, she never took her seat.
A person may not sit in the Commons if he or she is the subject of a Bankruptcy Restrictions Order (applicable in England and Wales only), or if she or he is adjudged bankrupt (in Northern Ireland), or if his or her estate is sequestered (in Scotland). Previously, MPs detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 for six months or more would have their seat vacated if two specialists reported to the Speaker that the member was suffering from a mental disorder. However, this disqualification was removed by the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013. There also exists a common law precedent from the 18th century that the deaf and dumb are ineligible to sit in the Lower House; this precedent, however, has not been tested in recent years.
Whilst presiding, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker traditionally wears ceremonial dress. The presiding officer may also wear a wig, but this tradition was abandoned by Speaker Betty Boothroyd. Her successor, Michael Martin, also did not wear a wig while in the chamber. The current Speaker, John Bercow, has chosen to wear a gown over a lounge suit, a decision that has sparked much debate and opposition.