Government in Parliament
A key principle of the British Constitution is that the government is responsible to Parliament. This is called responsible government.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy in which the reigning monarch (that is, the King or Queen who is the Head of State at any given time) does not make any open political decisions. All political decisions are taken by the government and Parliament. This constitutional state of affairs is the result of a long history of constraining and reducing the political power of the monarch, beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215.
Parliament is split into two houses: the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The House of Commons is the lower house and is the more powerful. The House of Lords is the upper house and although it can vote to amend proposed laws, the House of Commons can usually vote to overrule its amendments. Although the House of Lords can introduce bills, most important laws are introduced in the House of Commons – and most of those are introduced by the government, which schedules the vast majority of parliamentary time in the Commons. Parliamentary time is essential for bills to be passed into law, because they must pass through a number of readings before becoming law. Prior to introducing a bill, the government may run a public consultation to solicit feedback from the public and businesses, and often may have already introduced and discussed the policy in the Queen's Speech, or in an election manifesto or party platform.
Ministers of the Crown are responsible to the House in which they sit; they make statements in that House and take questions from members of that House. For most senior ministers this is usually the elected House of Commons rather than the House of Lords. There have been some recent exceptions to this: for example, cabinet ministers Lord Mandelson (First Secretary of State) and Lord Adonis (Secretary of State for Transport) sat in the Lords and were responsible to that House during the government of Gordon Brown.
Since the start of Edward VII's reign in 1901, the prime minister has always been an elected member of Parliament (MP) and therefore directly accountable to the House of Commons. A similar convention applies to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It would likely be politically unacceptable for the budget speech to be given in the Lords, with MPs unable to directly question the Chancellor, especially now that the Lords have very limited powers in relation to money bills. The last Chancellor of the Exchequer to be a member of the House of Lords was Lord Denman, who served as interim Chancellor of the Exchequer for one month in 1834.
Under the British system, the government is required by convention and for practical reasons to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. It requires the support of the House of Commons for the maintenance of supply (by voting through the government's budgets) and to pass primary legislation. By convention, if a government loses the confidence of the House of Commons it must either resign or a General Election is held. The support of the Lords, while useful to the government in getting its legislation passed without delay, is not vital. A government is not required to resign even if it loses the confidence of the Lords and is defeated in key votes in that House. The House of Commons is thus the Responsible house.
The prime minister is held to account during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) which provides an opportunity for MPs from all parties to question the PM on any subject. There are also departmental questions when ministers answer questions relating to their specific departmental brief. Unlike PMQs both the cabinet ministers for the department and junior ministers within the department may answer on behalf of the government, depending on the topic of the question.
During debates on legislation proposed by the government, ministers—usually with departmental responsibility for the bill—will lead the debate for the government and respond to points made by MPs or Lords.
Committees of both the House of Commons and House of Lords hold the government to account, scrutinise its work and examine in detail proposals for legislation. Ministers appear before committees to give evidence and answer questions.
Government ministers are also required by convention and the Ministerial Code, when Parliament is sitting, to make major statements regarding government policy or issues of national importance to Parliament. This allows MPs or Lords to question the government on the statement. When the government instead chooses to make announcements first outside Parliament, it is often the subject of significant criticism from MPs and the Speaker of the House of Commons.