House of Commons

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U.K. House of Commons

The House of Commons is part of the legislative body of the United Kingdom, the Parliament, along with the Queen and the House of Lords. It consists of approximately 659 Members of Parliament (MPs), each elected by citizens of an electoral consituency to represent that consituency in the House.

The majority party in the House forms a government, with its leader having the title Prime Minister. The day-to-day management of the House is dealt with by the Speaker of the House and his or her deputies, who act as representatives of the House to the Crown and the House of Lords, and govern the conduct of debates.

In practice, as checks on the power of the House Of Commons are very limited, a party with a sizable and co-operative majority in the House has virtually unimpeded power to change government policies. There is a convention known as the Salisbury convention according to which the House of Lords will not oppose any government legislation promised by its election manifesto. And in the case of legislation not covered by this convention, under the Parliament Acts 1911-1949 the House of Lords can only amend legislation and only defeat it by causing it to consume so much parliamentary time by rejecting it twice so that it is abandoned; the sole exception is if the House of Commons were to try to postpone the next general election beyond five years.

There are however increasing restrictions on the power of the House of Commons. Under the terms of the European Communities Act, European Community law overrides any incompatible UK legislation. Although the House of Commons could in theory ammend or repeal the European Communities Act, in practice it would be inconcievable for it to do so. Parliamentary legislation that violates UK law can be challenged through both the UK national courts, and the European Court of Justice.

Another restriction is the European Convention on Human Rights. Since the 1950s the European Court of Human Rights has had the power to rule UK legislation to be in violation of the rights guaranteed by the Convention. However, although in all but one case (involving detention of terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland) Parliament abided by the decision of the Court, there was no legal requirement to do so under domestic UK law. The entry into force of the Human Rights Act 1998 dramatically changed this, which incorporated the Convention into British law. British courts now have the power to enforce the Convention rights, including the obligation to interpret parliamentary legislation whenever possible so for it to be compatible with those rights. However, in the event of a court being unable to harmonise the legislation with the Convention rights, the court does not have the power to strike it down; all it can do is issue a declaration of incompatibility, stating the legislation to be incompatible. But once this declaration has been issued, there exist under the Act expedited parliamentary procedures to pass legislation to remove the incompatibility.

In addition to European Union membership and the European Convention on Human Rights, devolution has also reduced the power of the House of Commons compared to the past. Many areas of legislation formerly dealt with at Westminster are now dealt with by devolved institutions; this applies especially to Scotland, where the process of devolution has gone the farthest. Although Westminster could in theory legislate in these devolved areas, there is a constitutional convention that Westminster shall not do so in normal circumstances.

The Monarch has to sign any legislation for it to enter into law, although Queen Elizabeth II has established the tradition of staying out of party politics and has signed all legislation presented to her. In theory she is advised by the Privy Council, which is a council of advisors she appoints, including present and former Ministers and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council; however in practice she would be advised by only the minister or ministers concerned.

Relatively weak local councils were the only other level of government in the UK until the formation of the Scottish parliament,Welsh assembly and Northern Ireland assembly, under the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The House of Commons meets in the Palace of Westminster.

Canadian House of Commons

Canada, which uses a political system based on that of the United Kingdom, also has a House of Commons. The second house of its parliament is known as the Senate, but performs essentially the same function as the British House of Lords. The Canadian House of Commons currently has 301 members, and meets in the west wing of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill.