The House of Commons is the democratically elected house of the UK Parliament. Although the House of Commons is called the Lower House, it is more important and powerful than the Senate. The 646 Members of Parliament (MPs) each represent a different area of the UK.
The age of voting has been reduced to 18 from January 1, 1970 . The right of voting can not be exercised in England by an alien, infant, mental patient, peer, a person convicted of treason or felony, who has not completed his punishment or has not been pardoned provided he was sentenced to imprisonment for more than 12 months and a person convicted of corrupt and illegal practices at election.
All British subjects, of either sex, provided they are 21 years old or over and from whatever part of her Majesty’s dominions (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Island) they come, are eligible for election. But there are certain categories of persons who can not become member of House of Commons. This is so in the cases of aliens, bankrupt, infants, mental patients, peers, a person convicted of treason or felony, who has not completed his punishment or has not been pardoned and holders of certain offices. Such as- a Judge of a High Court or Court of Appeals to a Resident Magistrate, a person who is a civil servant of Crown, a member of any armed force or police force etc. [House of Commons Disqualification Act, 1957]
Before passing of the Parliament Act of 1911, the duration of the House of Commons was 7 years. At present the life of the House of Commons is for 5 years. It must meet at least once a year, because certain legislation including taxation or expenditure of public funds is passed only for a year at a time and must be renewed annually.
The Chief Officer of the House of Commons is the Speaker who is elected by the members to preside over the House immediately after a new Parliament is formed. He alone has the right to speak on behalf of the House of Commons before the King. Although the Speaker is elected on party lines but he becomes a no-party man after the election. Speaker does not vote but if there is a tie then he is called upon to give a casting vote. In this situation the Speaker does not act according to his own opinion, he acts according to certain well established principles. The Act of 1911 empowers the Speaker to certify that a Bill is a Money Bill.
The House of Commons has broadly speaking three functions. These are discussed in below:
Every law begins as a Bill which is read three times in each House of Parliament and after receiving the King’s assent becomes an Act. The practice of reading a Bill three times is only a practice, not a legal necessity. Bills can be divided into two categories: Public Bill and Private Bill. A Public Bill is one which affects the general interest and
Ostensibly concern the whole people or at any rate, a large portion of them. On the other hand, a Private Bill relates to the interest of some one locality or corporation, municipality or their particular person or body of persons. The object of private Bill is not to alter the general law of the country but to alter the law related to some particular locality. A public Bill may be introduced by Government and comes to known as a Government Bill. The procedure of passing these Bills are different.
As regards a Government Bill, the same can be introduced either in the House of Commons or in the Senate. Irrespective of the House in which it is introduced, it has to be approved by both the Houses. A public Bill in becoming law passes through three readings but five stages in the House of Commons. The five stages are:
(1) Introduction and First Reading (2) Second Reading (3) Committee Stage (4) Report Stage (5) Third Reading.
Before a Public Bill begins its career in the House of Commons, the Cabinet discusses the proposal to introduce a Bill at the initiation of the Minister concerned. If the Cabinet accepts the proposal then a memorandum is sent to the Office of the Parliamentary Council. The Parliamentary Councils are the skilled lawyers who draw up the Bill on the lines suggested by the memorandum. When the Bill has been finally approved by the Cabinet, it stands its turn for introduction. The normal procedure of introducing a Bill is on written notice. The clerk reads out the title of the Bill and it is just a special form if stationery officially furnished on which the title of the Bill is written down. There is no debate and discussion and that finishes First reading of the Bill. The Bill is printed and Members get its printed as soon as it is ready and members get its copies to study. The measures then waits its turn for the Second Reading. At the Second Reading of the Bill, only its fundamental principles are discussed and voted upon. There is no debate on the individual clauses of the Bill. After the second reading there is a voting on the bill. If the bill introduced by the Government is defeated then ministry has to resign.
After the approval of the principles of the Bill, the bill goes to the Committee stage. Generally it goes automatically to one of the Standing Committees unless some member rises immediately after the second reading and moves that the bill be committed to a Committee of the Whole House or to a select Committee or to a Joint Committee of Senate and Commons. Public bills to which Cabinet attaches great importance are often sent to the Committee of the whole House. The Committee stage provides the occasion for a detailed discussion of the Bill. Every clause must be put separately to the Committee and accepted, amended or rejected with or without debate. But once the Bill is passed through the Second reading, its fundamental principles are supposed to have been accepted. It is out of order to propose an amendment in a Committee intended to negative the effect of the Bill.
The next stage is the Report Stage. Ordinarily the Chairman of the Committee presents the Report. Amendments are debated upon and the alternative amendments can be made unless a bill is very urgently required to be passes or in non- controversial.
After the Report Stage third reading comes of the bill. It is a formal stage. Nothing but mere verbal amendments can be made at this stage. The House must either accepts or rejects the Bill as it stands.
When a bill has passed through five stages in one House it is sent to the other House and it has to pass through the same stages in that House also. When it is done, the bill is sent to the King for his formal approval. The convention is that the King will not use his veto power.
A large number of private bills are passed every year in England. Private bills deal with a special situation or a limited locality and the great majority of such bills concern the rights and powers of local authorities. It is presented in the form of a petition by the promoters and it is deposited in the Private Bill Office of the House of Commons. The promoters are not the members of Parliament , but outside persons or bodies acting through a firm of Parliamentary agents. Thereafter the agents must appear before the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills and prove that they have observed the provisions of all the Standing orders relative to giving notice to interested persons and general public. The Examiners report to both the Houses simultaneously and if in one or the other House within the dates prescribed by Standing Order and read a first time.
The presentation and first reading of Private Bills are mere ‘book entries’ and the Members of Parliament normally have nothing to do with them until they come up for Second Reading. The Second Reading is also likely to be entirely a formality, except in the rare case where an important new principle is contained in the measure. The real hearing takes place at the Committee stages. Opposed Private Bills go to an ordinary Private Bill Committee. It consists of four members, chosen in the Senate and in the House of Commons by the Committee of Selection. Members selected on the Committee must sign a declaration that they are not personally interested in the Bill before the Committee and their constituents are not locally affected by it. A Committee on a private bill is to decide whether the bill is justified at all, whether the promoters really need it. The Committee must decide whether it is to the public advantage that the bill should pass into law.
The Committee, then makes a report which for practical purposes is its decision. After the third reading of the Bill passes to the other House and in due course if no mishap occurs becomes an Act.
Delegated legislation is a term used to describe the Statutory instruments- Rules, Orders and Regulations-issued by Government Departments to supplement, amplify and apply statutes passed by Parliament. British legislation is always lengthy and detailed. Although the draftsmen of a bill try to provide for all contigencies, but there is a limit to the details which a bill can contain. And then the conditions vary and circumstances change. To meet those varying conditions and circumstances Parliament delegates through its statute powers to Ministers and their administrative assistants to make Orders and Regulations in their discretion, that is to apply the provisions to regulate.
The main purpose for which powers are delegated by Parliament to the Executive are: to allow the amendment of existing legislation in order to bring it up to date; to create machinery to administer the Act, to allow the departments to decide details within the framework of legislation that consists only of broad principles.
Delegated legislation accordingly means the function of sub-legislation by the Executive. It is legislation not by direct functioning of Parliament but by powers conferred on the Executive by an Act of Parliament. The power to legislate when delegated is normally confined to matters of detail bordering upon administration, but in case of sudden emergency power may be delegated to legislate on major matters. In case of an emergency, delegated legislation is ideal. By this method, the Government can be given all the powers it requires immediately and without public discussions.
- Financial Functions:
The House of Commons determines the taxes. It makes appropriations. It scrutinizes account. It criticizes the manner in which the national funds are to be spent.
The Parliament Act 1911 defines money bill as a public bill which, in the judgment of the Speaker of the House of Commons, contains only provisions dealing with all or any of the following subjects, namely the imposition, repeal, remission, alteration or regulation of Taxation. The Parliament Act 1911 prescribes that Money Bill passed by the House of Commons and sent to the House of Lords one month before the ending of session, may be submitted to the Royal assent and become law after one month whether passed by the House of Lords or not.
The principle financial function performed year to year is the preparation, consideration and authorization of the Budget. The Budget is prepared by the treasury in consultation with and on the basis of estimates supplied by the various departments of the Government. It is discussed in the Cabinet before it is presented in House of Commons.
The financial year begins on April first. The estimates for the coming financial year are presented to the House of Commons somewhat in the second or third week of February. A little later the Chancellor of Exchequer makes his budget speech reviewing the finances of the past year and detailing the financial programme of the current year, particularly as regards new taxes, or increased taxes or reduced taxes. The estimates are discussed in the Committee of the Whole on Supply. This Committee, like Committee of Ways and Means meets under the Chairman of Ways and Means or his deputy in place of the Speaker. The procedure is more informal than in a sitting of the House. Motions do not have to be seconded, debate can not be cut off by Closure rules and members may speak any number of times.
It is clear from the above that the House of Commons controls the raising of funds through discussion in the Committee of Ways and Means and the Finance Act. It controls the appropriation of money through discussion in the Committee of Supply, the Appropriation Act and the authorisation by the controller and auditor general who is responsible to Parliament. The scrutiny of accounts is done through the Committee of public accounts. The House of Commons criticises the manner in which money is spent through questions and debates.
- Controlling the Executive:
A third great function of the House of Commons is that of controlling the Executive. The responsibility of the Ministry to the House of Commons involve a constant control of the House over the Government. Control and responsibility go naturally hand in hand. Since responsibility of Government means its resignation from office whenever the policy government proves fundamentally unacceptable to the House of Commons. If the actual and possible mistakes of government were not apparent, the Government might become irresponsible. Control by the House of Commons prevents this. It tends to keep the Ministers constantly conscious of the fact that they will be called upon to give an account of what they do.
The House of Commons maintains its control in two ways. The first is the constant demand in the House for information about the actions of Government; the Second is the criticism that is constantly aimed at the Government in the House. The most effective instrument by which the House of Commons seeks information from the Executive is the oral or written question. A member can not put down more than two questions for oral answer on any one day. The person to whom they are addressed must be officially responsible for the subject matter of the question. Questions relating to public policy are answered by the Prime Minister or his Deputy who leads the House of Commons. It is also a debating assembly. This is done when laws are made and policy of the Government in under review.
Today the House of Commons has become synonymous with British Parliament. Moreover the House of Commons has acquired a universal dimension as it has evolved conventions which have become globally applicable in various countries opting for Parliamentary institutions.