Guide to democracy


Democracy is the process which gives people a voice in society. It allows each of us to influence how Britain is governed and have our say about the kind of society we want. That's why it's important for everyone to understand how it works, so that we can all play a full and positive role.

This section of OBV's education site aims to demistify British Democracy and its institutions. The page below give an overview of our system.

  1. Parliament

  2. The Role of the House of Commons

  3. The House of Lords

  4. The Government

  5. Elections

  6. How Laws are Made

  7. Political Parties

  8. The Party System in Parliament

  9. Local Government


Parliament is the highest law-making body of the UK. It consists of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, each of which has its own role in the process of making laws. The House of Commons is the more important because it decides which laws will be discussed and passed, whereas the House of Lords spends its time examining and perfecting the details of each law. Other levels of government, such as local councils and the Scottish Parliament, are given their powers by Parliament.

Cabinet members, including the Prime Minister, are members of either of the houses but are collectively responsible to the House of Commons. The House of Lords is also the highest court of appeal in Britain's judicial system. The proceedings of both Houses of Parliament are broadcast on television and radio, sometimes live or more usually in recorded and edited form.

Parliament has a number of ways to exert control over the Government.Committees of MPs question ministers and civil servants before preparing reports on matters of Government policy. Although the Government has no obligation to change its policies in response to these reports, it usually tries to avoid criticism which can attract unwanted publicity. MPs belonging to the governing party also play a part in the creation of policies.

However, ultimate power rests in the ability of the House of Commons to force the Government to resign by passing a resolution of 'no confidence'. This power is rarely used. Go to top

The Role of the House of Commons

The House of Commons is traditionally regarded as the lower house, but it is the main parliamentary arena for political battle. A Government can only remain in office for as long as it has the support of a majority in the House of Commons. As with the House of Lords, the House of Commons debates new primary legislation as part of the process of making an Act of Parliament, but the Commons has primacy over the non-elected House of Lords. 'Money bills', concerned solely with taxation and public expenditure, are always introduced in the Commons and must be passed by the Lords promptly and without amendment. When the two houses disagree on a non-money bill, the Parliament Acts can be invoked to ensure that the will of the elected chamber prevails.

The House also scrutinises the work of the Government - it does that by various means, including questioning ministers in the Chamber and through the Select Committee system.

The leader of the party that wins the majority of Commons seats in a general election is called on to form the next government. Go to top

The House of Lords

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the U.K. Houses of Parliament. Members of the House of Lords (known as 'peers') consist of Lords Spiritual (senior bishops) and Lords Temporal (lay peers). Law Lords (senior judges) also sit as Lords Temporal. Members of the House of Lords are not elected. Originally, they were drawn from the various groups of senior and influential nobility in Britain, who advised the monarch throughout the country's early early history.

Following the House of Lords Act 1999 there are only 92 peers who sit by virtue of hereditary peerage. The majority of members are now life peers and the Government has been consulting on proposals and attempting to legislate for further reform of the Lords. There were  725 peers in total on 2nd  May  2006.

Role of the House of Lords

In general, the functions of the House of Lords are similar to those of the House of Commons in legislating, debating and questioning the executive. There are two important exceptions: members of the Lords do not represent constituencies, and are not involved in matters of taxation and finance. The role of the Lords is generally recognised to be complementary to that of the Commons and it acts as a revising chamber for many of the more important and controversial bills. Go to top

The Government

This is the team of politicians who run the country. They are the Prime Minister and the ministers he/she appoints. Around thirty ministers are in charge of their own government department, such as the Department of Health. These 'heads of department', along with a few other senior ministers, make up the Cabinet. Under each head of department or 'Secretary of State', there are several junior ministers.

It is the duty of the Government to oversee the running of the State departments and to put in place the policies their party believes in, by enacting laws. Go to top


General elections are held at least every five years. However not all Parliaments run for the whole five years, and a general election may be held before this period is up. In the event of a government having a small majority the election may well take place much earlier. For example, the general election of February 1974 resulted in a minority Labour government. The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, therefore called another election in October 1974, which resulted in Labour increasing its representation to just above 50% of the number of seats. Despite its small overall majority, the Labour government then remained in power for four-and-a-half years, finally calling an election in May 1979.

The last General Election was held on 5 May 2005.

In between general elections, by-elections are held as necessary to elect a new Member of Parliament to an individual constituency.

The House of Commons currently has 646 Members of Parliament (MPs), each representing an individual constituency. Of the 646 seats, 529 are for England, 40 for Wales, 59 for Scotland and 18 for Northern Ireland. Go to top

How Laws are Made

A Government puts into place its policies by enacting new laws or by changing existing ones. Laws are more formally known as Acts of Parliament and deal with issues ranging from fox-hunting to taxation, from the creation of regional parliaments to drink driving.

While the law undergoes constant refinement and interpretation in the courts, significant changes to law are made by Parliament alone. Before a law is passed by Parliament, it is called a Bill, in effect, a draftAct. There are different types of Bills but most are called Public Bills and, because they are introduced to Parliament by the Government, they are also known as Government Bills. Before a government Bill is drafted, there may be consultation with organisations which are interested in the subject.

Proposals for legislative changes are sometimes set out in government 'White Papers', which may be debated in Parliament before a Bill is introduced. From time to time less detailed consultation papers, sometimes called 'Green Papers', set out government ideas which are still taking shape and seek comments from the public. After these consultation stages, a new Bill is announced in Parliament by the minister in charge of it.

Although this process is called 'the first reading', no debate on the Bill takes place. About two weeks later, after MPs have read the Bill, a thorough debate on general principles is held, known as the second reading. It is then given detailed consideration, clause by clause, by a Commons committee.

The report produced by the committee is then discussed in the House of Commons, during which further amendments may be considered. At the third reading a Bill is reviewed in its final form and may be debated again. The Bill must then be scrutinised by the House of Lords which follows similar procedures. The amendments made to the Bill by the Lords are then discussed in the Commons and accepted, rejected or themselves changed. Bills must normally be passed by both Houses, at which stage, they become Acts of Law.

Private Members Bills, which are introduced by individual MPs, often do not proceed very far, due to the pressure of MPs' time but a few become law each session. They tend to deal with moral issues such as fox hunting, corporal punishment and euthanasia. The name of each MP who wishes to introduce a bill is put in a hat, and the names of a few lucky members are drawn at the beginning of each session. Go to top

Political Parties

Political Parties are organised groups of like-minded people, which present and support candidates in political elections and develop policies for their candidates to pursue if they are successful. The parties are not registered or formally recognised in law, but in practice most candidates in elections, and almost all winning candidates, belong to one of the main parties.

The two main parties in Britain are the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Since 1945 eight general elections have been won by the Conservative Party and six by the Labour Party; the great majority of members of the House of Commons have belonged to one of these two parties. The Liberal Democrats are a significant third party, but have never (since being founded in 1988) received enough support to form the national Government.

Other parties include two nationalist parties, Plaid Cymru (founded in Wales in 1925) and the Scottish National Party (founded in 1934). In Northern Ireland there are also several parties.

The party which wins most seats, although not necessarily the most votes, at a general election, usually forms the Government. The largest minority party becomes the official Opposition, with its own leader and 'shadow cabinet'. Go to top

The Party System in Parliament

Leaders of the Government and Opposition sit on the front benches on either side of the Commons chamber with their supporters, the backbenchers, sitting behind them. Similar arrangements for the parties also apply to the House of Lords; however, Lords who do not wish to be associated with any political party may sit on the 'cross benches'.

The effectiveness of the party system in Parliament rests largely on the relationship between the Government and the opposition parties. Depending on the relative strengths of the parties in the House of Commons, the Opposition may seek to overthrow the Government by defeating it in a vote on a 'matter of confidence'. In general, however, its aims are:

  • to contribute to the formulation of policy and legislation by constructive criticism;
  • to oppose the government proposals it considers objectionable; to seek amendments to government Bills; and
  • to put forward its own policies in order to improve its chances of winning the next general election.

The Opposition performs this role both by debating issues and putting questions on the floor of both Houses and through the committee system.

Outside Parliament, party control is exercised by the national and local organisations. Parties are organised at parliamentary constituency level and also contest local government elections. Inside Parliament, party control is exercised by the Chief Whips and their assistants, who are chosen within the party. Their duties include keeping members informed of forthcoming parliamentary business, maintaining the party's voting strength by ensuring members attend important debates, and passing on to the party leadership the opinions of the backbench members.

General elections to choose MPs must be held at least every five years. However, the Prime Minister can 'call an election' before the end of his five year term of office, at a time when he/she believes his party is most popular.

The country is divided up into 659 constituencies, each of which selects its own MP. Everyone over the age of 18 is eligible to vote, as long as they register when they are contacted by the local electoral authorities, a few months before the election. Each voter has one vote in the election, which is cast at a local polling station, by placing a cross next to the name of the candidate they support.

Anyone can become a candidate for a constituency, or 'seat', but most belong to a political party. Voters can choose their candidate for any reason, but usually, both the policies of the Party they represent and the personal credentials and abilities of the candidate are important. Candidates are elected if they win more votes than any of the other candidates, although not necessarily a majority of the votes in the constituency. After the election, the Party in Parliament with the largest number of seats becomes the Government. Go to top

Local Government

Local authorities work within the powers laid down under various Acts of Parliament. Their functions are far-reaching. Some are mandatory, which means that the authority must do what is required by law. Others are discretionary, allowing an authority to provide services if it wishes.

In certain cases, ministers have powers to secure uniformity in standards to safeguard public health or to protect the rights of individual citizens. Where local authorities exceed their statutory powers, they are regarded as acting outside the law and can be challenged in court.

The main link between local authorities and central government in England is the Department for Communities and Local Government. However, other departments, such as the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and the Home Office, are also concerned with various local government functions.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, local authorities now deal mainly with the devolved Parliament and Assemblies.

About two million people are employed by local authorities in the UK. These include school teachers, the police, firefighters and other non-manual and manual workers. Education is the largest locally-provided service, with 0.9 million full-time equivalent jobs. Councils are individually responsible, within certain legislative requirements, for deciding the structure of their workforces.

Every part of the UK is covered by a local authority fire service. Each of the 59 fire authorities must by law provide a firefighting service and must maintain a brigade to meet all normal requirements. Each fire authority appoints a Chief Fire Officer, or Firemaster in Scotland, who has day-to-day control of operations.  

Useful links

The House of Commons Website

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