Visiting the Houses of Parliament

You are in London on holiday, and you decide to take a guided tour around the Houses of Parliament. You are going with some English friends of yours who have made a special appointment with one of the Members of Parliament.

Here is what the MP tells you:

Welcome to the Houses of Parliament, or the New Palace of Westminster as it is officially called. My name is James Smith, and I am a Member of Parliament. I represent the Conservative Party.

The British Parliament is made up of two houses or chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We’ll visit both and I'll try to explain the difference between the two as we go along. If there's anything that you don't understand or something you want to know more about, feel free to ask questions.

We are now in the House of Commons. This is where British national politics are decided.

 

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As we speak, there are 646 Members of Parliament, or MPs, like myself. Not all of us attend every meeting here, but it is usually pretty lively. You can see that the room is divided in two parts and that the two face each other. The government party sits on one side. The rest of us face them from the other side. We are known as the Opposition. Our meetings are presided over by the Speaker who tries to control our debates. But mind you, it is quite a show during the debates. It is normal to shout out comments to the person who is speaking!

Q: How are the Members of Parliament elected?

I am the representative of a constituency. A constituency is a geographical area: a country district, a town, or part of a city. There are about 50,000 inhabitants in each constituency. At present there are 646 parliamentary constituencies in Britain. Each constituency sends only one MP to Parliament. This means that the candidate with the most votes wins, even if he or she only gets one more vote than the person who comes second. This system is called simple majority or ‘the first past the post’.

Q: How often do you have a general election?

General elections take place at least every five years. It is the Prime Minister who decides whether to hold an election or not. Although the Prime Minister can call an election at any time within the period, in practice elections are usually held at the end of the five-year term.

Q: Does the Prime Minister live here in Westminster?

Yes, he lives nearby. Since 1731, British Prime Ministers have lived at 10 Downing Street. And this is also where the cabinet meetings take place.

Q: Does the Queen take part in your meetings?

No, she doesn't. Britain is what is called a constitutional monarchy. This means that Queen Elizabeth is the Head of State: She reigns but does not rule. If she is here, it is because she has ceremonial duties. She opens Parliament every autumn, but the speech she makes is written for her by politicians. Anyway, she is never here in the House of Commons. The Queen's Speech is always held in the House of Lords. So if there are no more questions, maybe you'd like to follow me to the House of Lords.


The House of Lords is in many ways a strange institution. For one thing, the members are not elected (which is quite unusual in a democracy, don't you think?). There are several ways to become a member of this house. Some of the members are hereditary peers, which means that they have inherited a noble title from their forefathers. Other members are life peers. They have been given a title for their lifetime and their children cannot inherit their titles. There are also a number of judges and bishops in the House of Lords. The meetings in the House of Lords are led by the Lord Chancellor.

Q: Does the House of Lords have any function at all?

The powers of the House of Lords are very limited. It cannot veto (that is, stop) a bill, but it can ask the House of Commons to rewrite certain parts of it before it becomes a new law.

Now, if you'll excuse me I have a meeting to attend. I hope you have enjoyed the visit and that you have learned something about our political system.