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Commons, House of

Commons, House of. From modest beginnings, the House of Commons has progressed until it shares effective sovereignty with the prime minister. Commoners were summoned to Parliament at first less for their advice than for their consent to taxation. Knights of the shire were first called to Parliament in 1254 and in Simon de Montfort's Parliament of 1265 they were joined by representatives from certain boroughs and cities. They were not necessarily summoned to every parliament at first, and might be dismissed before the Parliament ended, or held back for separate discussions. Early usage was extremely fluid, with committees and groups joining for plenary sessions. From the early 14th cent. the Commons began to meet as a separate house, usually in the chapter house of the abbey of Westminster. The knights stayed with the citizens rather than joining the baronage, with whom they had much in common, adding great weight to the Commons house. The lesser clergy, who had been represented in some of the early parliaments, dropped out after 1340 and used convocation, making it easier for the Commons to cohere as a body.

The Commons soon began to act as a channel for receiving petitions and took the lead in legislating to remove grievances. Their chief weapon was control of taxation and as early as 1395 the formula was in use that the grant was made ‘by the Commons with the advice and assent of the Lords’. The principle of elective representation stood them in good stead in relation to both the crown and the Lords. At an early stage members took refuge in the reply that they must consult their constituents. The crown could and did intervene in elections and could create new parliamentary boroughs but its influence over the Lords was even more direct by the creation of peers. During the 18th and 19th cents. the House of Commons, through the prime minister, seized this prerogative and used it to bring the Lords to heel.

The use of Parliament by the Tudors to regulate the succession to the throne and to reform the church enhanced the standing of that body. Two further developments helped to confirm the Commons' identity. In 1547 they were granted St Stephen's chapel as their meeting place and stayed there until the great fire of 1834. At the same time, the House began a formal record of its own proceedings, the Journals of the House of Commons.

The result of the great struggles of the 17th cent. was to increase the power of the Commons at the expense of the Lords. Indeed, when the Commons in 1649 galloped out of control, Lords and monarchy were abolished as ‘dangerous and useless’. Though the pendulum swung back after 1660, the strengthened position of Parliament after 1688 helped the Commons, particularly by limiting the power of the crown to govern without Parliament or to retain a complaisant Parliament. This helped to neutralize the advantage that lords had, that they could lobby the monarch through the court and their privilege of direct audience. In addition the Commons reasserted its sole right to decide matters of taxation. Though the House of Lords retained considerable influence, the balance was further affected by the extensions of the franchise from 1832 onwards, which increased the Commons' claim to speak for the nation, and by a slow loss of faith in the hereditary principle.

J. A. Cannon

The starting-point of any discussion of the modern House of Commons is two related features—the near dominance of the executive and the ever-present power of the political parties. Romantic parliamentarianism looks back to a golden age in the mid-19th cent. that probably never was—the age of the private member.

Among the functions of the House of Commons, that of legislation would be given pride of place. But legislation bears the stamp of the executive, especially of the bureaucracy, rather than that of the Commons. Most important bills are introduced by the government of the day, which reflects both the privileges accorded in fact, if not always in name, to the government in the procedures of the House, and the quasi-monopoly of knowledge enjoyed by the executive. Popular criticism of the modern role of the House of Commons focuses on the alleged rigour of party control over the backbenchers, exercised through the whips, and tends to overlook the advantage the executive would have, even if the House were composed of 659 genuinely independent members.

Note first the long-standing rule that increases in taxation and expenditure can be imposed only on the proposal of the crown. Any private member who sponsors a bill that would increase public expenditure must either obtain the backing of the government or impose the new duties on local councils. More recent procedural changes allocate most of the time of the House to the government, an arrangement which rests ultimately on the government's control of its majority. Private members are allotted ten days a year for the discussion of their bills and the privilege of being awarded a day is decided by ballot. If a member's bill is controversial, there will be an attempt to ‘talk it out’. If, at the end of the allotted time, the member seeks to move the closure, he faces two hurdles. The Speaker may think that the measure has not been adequately debated and may refuse to accept the motion: if a motion is accepted, it may not be passed by the numbers required—a majority, with at least 100 members voting in that majority. Lacking the organization of the whips' office, the backbencher may simply not be able to ensure the attendance of 100 supporters; and if it passes this test but faces obstruction in standing committee, he will not, as the government can, be able to propose and carry a guillotine motion to limit the time spent debating his bill.

A second element of the strength of the executive in and over the House of Commons lies in its near monopoly of knowledge. Ministers are backed by an experienced and informed department: the backbencher has only his personal resources. Moreover, the way in which the House of Commons deals with legislation deprives it of the information it might have to counter the accumulated wisdom of the department. The principle of the bill is debated by the whole House, normally at second or third reading, but the detail of the bill is discussed in standing committee. These standing committees are neither permanent in composition nor specialist in subject-matter. Members may indeed have knowledge derived in their personal capacity but they do not through their work on bills develop a corpus of information to match that available to ministers. In the 1960s, the House made fitful attempts to form specialized select committees to inquire into particular areas of government activity, and these arrangements were extended, systematized, and made permanent in 1979. Service on these select committees certainly makes for more informed backbenchers. But the select committees do not themselves examine legislation: this remains the province of the transient and unspecialized standing committees.

The third feature is party loyalty and party organization. Virtually every member (bar the Speaker) is elected as the candidate of a party, and members most of the time vote in the House with their party. The cohesion of parties in the division lobbies of the House dates from the 1890s and reached its peak in the 1950s. Since 1966 there has been a perceptible decline in party cohesion, but conformity rather than rebellion remains the most prominent feature of backbench life.

Many explanations have been offered for the strength of party cohesion in the British Parliament. The whips have the task of mobilizing their party's backbenchers: popular mythology ascribes to them powers beyond their reach. The whips cannot in themselves deny reselection to a dissident member, though withdrawal of the whip, itself rare, can rouse difficulties with the member's constituency association. In both parties the hope of office, and in the Conservative Party the thirst for honours, may prompt the potential rebel back into line, bearing out the truth of Napoleon's observation that ‘men are governed by baubles’. Members, most of the time, follow the party line, in voting if not in debate. But such behaviour usually poses no strain on a member's conscience. Most of the time the House is debating humdrum questions on which many members are uninformed. When the division-bell rings, members stream into the House, many having heard not a word of the debate, and ask the whips, ‘Which is our lobby?’ Sanctions, threats, and rewards become important on the great dramatic issues. But most of the time the House is not witnessing drama, but an ill-attended tedious ritual of claim and counter-claim.

Nevertheless, ministers do sometimes give way to disquiet voiced on the floor of the House; more often, they yield to the importunities of their backbenchers expressed through party committees or behind-the-scenes deputations. When the government has a narrow majority, the discontents of small groups of backbenchers will be listened to even more attentively.

The government then is the dominant force in the legislation passed by the House. But in exercising these and other powers it is accountable to the House. Traditionally this accountability was exercised most obviously through question time, but the value of question time is greatly exaggerated. The Blair government of 1997 curtailed it to one period per week, usually devoted to ‘sound-bites’ between the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition. The ordinary process of debate is another way in which members can highlight blunders, abuse of power, or mismanagement. But members may well be inhibited from embarrassing a minister of their own party by the delight it affords their opponents. The sanction against ministerial, or indeed departmental, incompetence is supposed to be that ministers who fail to convince the House of their competence and integrity will be obliged to resign, but the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is more myth than reality.

Today, the select committees, with all their limitations, are becoming the chief means by which ministers are made accountable to the House. Even though they do not debate legislation, they enable the House to scrutinize the work of the departments, and the publicity given to their reports is a salutary check upon ministerial evasion and bureaucratic complacency.

Hugh Berrington

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House of Commons

House of Commons Lower House of the British Parliament. The Upper House is the unelected House of Lords. The House of Commons dates from the 13th century. It is the major forum for discussion and voting on intended legislation and questioning of ministers. Constituents elect its 659 members in a secret ballot, usually in general elections that must be held at least every five years. The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party in the Commons, and most members of the cabinet are drawn from the Commons, although some may be from the Lords. The speaker controls debates and proceedings of the House. Select committees scrutinize legislation.

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Commons, House of

House of Commons: see Parliament.

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House of Commons

House of Commons: see Parliament.

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Commons, House of

Commons, House of See House of Commons

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