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The Powers of Parliament
Parliament is the supreme legislative authority in Britain. Its three elements - the Queen and the two Houses of Parliament (the House of Lords and the elected House of Commons) - are outwardly separate; they are constituted on different principles; and they meet together only on occasions of symbolic significance such as a coronation, or the State opening of Parliament when Commons are Summoned by the Queen to the House of Lords. As a law-making organ of State, however, Parliament is a corporate body and with certain exceptions cannot legislate without concurrence of all its parts. The Parliament Act 1911 fixed the life of a Parliament at five years (although it may be dissolved and a general election held before the expiry of the legal term).
Constitutionally the legal existence of Parliament depends upon the exercise of the royal prerogative (the collection of residual powers left in the hands of the Crown). However, the powers of the Crown in connection with Parliament are subject to limitation and change by legislative process and are always exercised through and on the advice of ministers responsible to Parliament.
Parliament is summoned by royal proclamation; and is prorogued (discontinued until the next season) and is dissolved by the Queen. The Sovereign’s Assent is required before any legislation can take effect - Royal Assent to Bills is now usually declared to Parliament by the Speakers of the two Houses. The Sovereign has the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn, but the right to veto has long since fallen into disuse.
The life of Parliament is divided into sessions. Each session usually lasts for one year and is usually terminated by probation although it may be terminated by dissolution. During a session either House may adjoin itself, on its own motion, to whichever date it pleases.
The average number of sitting days for the House of Commons in a normal session is about 175, divided into the following periods: one from November till Christmas lasting about 40 sitting days, one from January to Easter of about 50 sitting days, One from Easter until the late (English) Spring Holiday at the end of May of about 30 sitting days, and one from about the beginning of June until about late July or early August lasting about 40 to 50 sitting days. During most session the House of Lords sits on about 150 days. The period when Parliament is not sitting are popularly known as recesses, although the correct term is “adjournment”.
The two-chamber system is an integral part of British parliamentary government. The House of Lords (the upper House) and the House of Commons (the lower House) sit separately and are constituted on entirely different principles, but the process of legislation is the duty of both Houses.
The main junctions of Parliament are to:
• make all UK law
• provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of government
• protect the public and safeguard the rights of individuals
• scrutinise government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure
• examine European proposals before they become law
• hear appeals in the House of Lords, the highest Court of Appeal in Britain
• debate the major issues of the day.
Parliament has a maximum duration of five years. At any time up to the end of this period, a general election can be held for a new House of Commons.