In this e-learning module you will develop your knowledge and understanding around the difference between UK Parliament and government through articles, video and activities to support your classroom practice.
By the end of this course you will be able to:
- explain some of the the roles of the UK Government
- explain who forms UK Parliament and its functions
- outline some of the methods UK Parliament uses to scrutinise government.
Take your learning further with teaching resources and further reading using the links at the bottom of the page.
What is UK Parliament? (5 min read)
Law making, scrutiny and more
UK Parliament is separate from government. Also known as the legislature, UK Parliament is a law-making authority in the UK, and it also works to check and challenge the work of government through various processes known as scrutiny.
UK Parliament is made up of three parts: the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarch, who has a ceremonial role.
The House of Commons is the democratically elected part of Parliament. Its 650 members are voted in, usually every five years, when there is a general election.
The House of Lords is the appointed part of Parliament. It is independent from and complements the work of the elected House of Commons – they share responsibility for making laws and checking and challenging the work of government.
The third part of Parliament is the Monarch. As Head of State, the Monarch’s role in Parliament is predominantly ceremonial. They are politically neutral, so do not support any political party or get involved in day-to-day politics. The Monarch approves the bills passed by Parliament, enabling them to become law. The Monarch invites the leader of the party that wins the most seats in a general election to form the UK Government, and opens the new parliamentary session each year.
UK Parliament is a bicameral system (literally meaning ‘two chamber’) because both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are involved in making and agreeing new legislation (laws). All three parts of Parliament are needed to legislate: to effect new laws or changes to existing UK law.
The House of Lords and the House of Commons share the task of scrutinising government. They do so by questioning members of the government, debating key issues and holding inquiries – processes you will explore during this module.
The main responsibilities of UK Parliament are:
- Making and changing laws: legislation
- Checking and challenging the work of the Government: scrutiny
- Debating the important issues of the day
- Approving and enabling government spending through the budget and taxes
What is government? (5 min read)
Who is in government?
In British politics, when we talk about ‘the UK Government’ we are referring specifically to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and their junior ministers and officials. This is the team of people responsible for leading and running the UK. They are drawn from the political party which won the most seats at the last general election.
After an election, the leader of the winning party is appointed as Prime Minister and chooses other party members to work in government with them for five years, until the next general election. Even though an MP may be a member of the party that forms the government, if they are not members of that chosen team they are not part of the government.
After the 2017 General Election, the Conservative Party won the most seats in the House of Commons. However, they did not achieve a majority (i.e. over 326 seats) and they formed a minority government with 316 Conservative MPs. Of these, only the Prime Minister, 21 Cabinet ministers and 96 other ministers formed the UK Government.
In the 2019 General Election, the Conservative Party won an overall majority in the House of Commons. Of the 650 MPs elected, 365 were Conservative MPs. Again, only the Prime Minister, 21 Cabinet ministers and 96 other ministers formed the UK Government.
Click here for a list and biographies of current Cabinet ministers.
What does government do?
The government is known as the executive and is responsible for deciding how the country is run and for managing things day to day. They set taxes, choose what to spend public money on and decide how best to deliver public services such as:
- the National Health Service
- the police and armed forces
- welfare benefits like Disability Living Allowance
- the UK’s energy supply
Government ministers have responsibility for different government departments, for example the Department for Health and Social Care or the Department for Transport. They are supported by teams of civil servants who deliver the practical and administrative work of each government department.
Some areas of business and policy are devolved to institutions in the individual nations of the UK: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved legislatures (Scottish Parliament, Senedd or Welsh Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly) and executives (Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive).
While many government powers have been delegated to the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, only the UK Government speaks on behalf of the UK as a whole and represents us abroad.
Government ministers sit in Parliament and are accountable to it. This means that ministers must respond to debates, inquiries and questions from MPs and members of the House of Lords.
MPs and members of the House of Lords who are not government ministers or opposition spokespeople are known as backbenchers. Backbenchers from all parties play an important role in checking and challenging the work of government through questions and debates, and running select committee inquiries.
More information about the day-to-day business of government can be found on the UK Government website.
In this video you will explore how UK Parliament checks and challenges the work of government. Starting with the familiar sight of Prime Minister’s Questions, you will learn about the different processes UK Parliament uses daily as part of its important function to scrutinise the work of government.
This video follows the topic of online harms, demonstrating how important issues can be raised quickly through Urgent Questions and investigated in depth as the focus of a select committee inquiry.
Scrutiny at UK Parliament
MPs and Members of the House of Lords question representatives of government at UK Parliament.
There are question time sessions each day in both chambers. Ministers from each government department attend the Commons to answer questions from MPs on a rotational basis, typically every five weeks. Members of the Lords ask the government questions on any topic, and a minister or spokesperson for the government must respond. Once a week, MPs question the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s Question Time. Questions are submitted (‘tabled’) in advance, and there is usually an opportunity for follow-up (‘supplementary’) questions.
Urgent Questions in the House of Commons, and Private Notice Questions in the House of Lords can be submitted to the Speaker to request a response from the government at short notice about important, urgent issues where they would not otherwise arise in the chamber.
Written questions can also be submitted by MPs or Members of the House of Lords for a government response. You can find a record of these questions and their responses here.
Government Ministers may make oral or written statements to the UK Parliament. Oral statements usually address major incidents, government policies or actions, and are delivered in both the House of Commons and House of Lords. Members then get the opportunity to question the minister on their statement.
Written ministerial statements are normally used to put the day-to-day business of government on the official record and in the public domain. Written statements are published here.
Much of the scrutiny work of UK Parliament takes place through select committees, made up of members from different political parties.
In the Commons, there is a select committee to scrutinise each government department. In the Lords they cover broader issues which cut across government departments. They are made up of 8-15 backbenchers to examine policy issues, public spending and the way departments are run. Most select committees meet in public regularly to take oral evidence from ministers, officials, organisations, and individuals. The Liaison Committee is formed of the chairs of other select committees and meets around three times each year to question the Prime Minister.
Some committees are formed jointly with members of the House of Lords.
Find a list of current committees here.
Debates provide an opportunity for discussion of issues of topical, national and local importance, and provide further opportunities to discuss proposed new laws. They are also a means of raising public awareness or drawing the government’s attention to a concern. MPs can use these opportunities to raise issues faced by their constituents. In the House of Lords, debates provide an opportunity for members with a range of expertise to consider a subject.
Most debates take place on a Government motion, but there are also opportunities in both chambers for the main opposition parties and backbenchers to hold debates on topics of their choosing, with a minister or spokesperson present to respond to the points raised.
Votes are often taken following a debate to see whether a majority of Members either support or reject any discussed laws or proposals.
Many recognisable figures play important roles in both government and UK Parliament.
Use these interactive PDFs to explore the roles and responsibilities of different people and groups in the House of Commons and House of Lords. These resources can also be used in the classroom.