Life > The Commons: How it works & how it governs

Posted on September 28, 2017

Stanley Barrell-Kane demystifies the UK’s primary instrument of democracy
The House of Commons is critical to the function of government yet is little understood, particularly among young people, due to its often opaque operation.

Prime Ministers may come across as the absolute ruler but they and their party must ultimately pass everything through the Commons, if they want to make their agenda a reality.

The House of Commons is where our elected members of parliament (MPs) sit. There are 650 seats. If a single party secures a majority of seats at an election, it can govern alone. If not – as is the case now, and between 2010 and 2015 – two or more parties must form a coalition (a partnership) to secure an overall majority.

If the parties can’t come to an agreement, such as in February of 1974, one party (usually the one with the most seats) will form a minority government, and work together with other parties on a vote-by-vote basis to pass legislation.

The reason all this matters is due to the role MPs have in setting a government’s agenda in motion. All prospective policy must be scrutinised, voted on and passed in the Commons as a bill (a draft of a law).

The relevant government minister (an MP with specific responsibilities) usually proposes each bill, though occasionally bills are passed as ‘private members’ bills’ (bills introduced by MPs who are not ministers).

With no parliamentary majority, and weak parliamentary allegiance on the matter of Brexit, the role of the House of Commons is as important as ever

Each bill has three ‘readings’. The first reading is a formality, however the second and third are where scrutiny takes place.

The second reading begins with the government minister who introduced the bill, speaking in its favour. A debate then takes place between government and opposition MPs. The bill must secure a majority of MPs’ votes to progress.

From here it is reviewed by a group of MPs from different parties on a ‘Public Bill Committee’. They interview experts on the subject, and propose amendments to be voted on in the third reading.

The third reading involves one final debate followed by a vote to make the bill an act of parliament, including incorporating any amendments.

Prime Minister’s Questions (the stuff you might see on TV) takes place every Wednesday from noon to half past twelve. It is the MPs’ only chance to ask the Prime Minister questions directly. It also allows for verbal jousting between the party leaders, to rally their MPs.

All of these mechanisms are vital for the effective functioning of government, and allows it to bring into law their election pledges (manifesto).

With no parliamentary majority, and weak parliamentary allegiance on the matter of Brexit, the role of the House of Commons is as important as ever.

Stanley Barrell-Kane
Stanley Barrell-Kane claims he’s not Exposure’s emphatic answer to Andrew Marr (but he’s being modest). He is currently studying for his GCSEs and is so boring that he even likes politics.

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