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United Kingdom Government

The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy, based on universal suffrage. It is also a constitutional monarchy in which ministers of the Crown govern in the name of the Sovereign, who is Head of State and Head of the Government. There is no single document that forms the UK constitution; instead, the relationship between the State and the people relies on statute law, common law and conventions.

The UK Parliament is one of the oldest representative assemblies in the world, with its origins in the 13th century. During the 14th century two distinct Houses of Parliament began to emerge, with the 'Commons' sitting apart from the 'Upper House' from 1341. It was also accepted that there should be no taxation without parliamentary consent, which remains a fundamental principle.

There are three parts of Parliament - the elected House of Commons, the appointed House of Lords and the Sovereign. The agreement of all three is normally needed to pass laws, but that of the Sovereign is given as a matter of course. The Monarch is head of the executive and plays an integral part in the legislature. The Monarch is the judiciary and is both the commander-in-chief of all the Armed Forces of the Crown and 'supreme governor' of the established Church of England. In practice, the Monarch acts on the advice of her ministers.

The UK Parliament (the legislature) makes primary legislation, although it has devolved a range of issues to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and, when it is sitting, the Northern Ireland Assembly. Under the constitution, Parliament is supreme and has authority over government and law-making in the United Kingdom as a whole. The executive comprises the Government (members of the Cabinet and other ministers responsible for policies); government departments and agencies; local authorities; public corporations; independent regulatory bodies; and certain other organisations subject to ministerial control. The Government derives its authority and membership from Parliament and can only stay in office if it is able to command a majority in the House of Commons.

Parliament at Westminster can legislate for the United Kingdom as a whole and has powers to legislate for any parts of it separately. However, by convention it will not normally legislate on devolved matters in Scotland or Northern Ireland without the agreement of the Scottish Parliament or, when it is sitting, the Northern Ireland Assembly. Under the Acts of Parliament that set up these administrations, the Westminster Parliament still has UK-wide responsibility in a number of areas.

As of May 2010, the maximum parliamentary term was 5 years, and the prime minister could ask the monarch to dissolve Parliament and call a general election at any time. Following the May 6, 2010 election the newly-formed Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government announced plans to institute fixed 5-year Parliament terms. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed in early 2011, provideing for general elections to be held on the first Thursday in May every five years. It had been a convention rather than a legal requirement that elections were held on Thursdays. One theory about the Thursday origins is that people were not paid until Fridays and so holding polls on Thursdays ensured they were not too drunk to vote.

There are two ways an early election could be called, both of which involve votes in the House of Commons. One requires a vote of no confidence in the current government, which can be passed by a simple majority (326-324). If an alternative government then cannot be formed within 14 days from the parties already in the House, then a general election must take place. The other is a vote explicitly for a general election, and requires a two-thirds majority, or 434 MPs, to pass.

The parliamentary system contains a number of checks to ensure that a government remains accountable. Through raising Parliamentary Questions, MPs seek information about the Government's intentions and can raise issues and grievances, including complaints brought to their notice by constituents. In the 2002-03 session nearly 59,600 questions were tabled: 4,100 oral questions and over 55,400 written questions. Oral statements are made by government ministers, when announcing a statement of government policy, such as the publication of a White Paper, or in response to a significant event. The parliamentary convention is that Parliament should be first to hear a major announcement.

In addition to the scrutiny by select committees, both Houses offer opportunities for backbenchers to examine policy. In the House of Commons, these include Question Time: for about an hour on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday when the House is sitting, ministers answer MPs' oral questions. Ministers are questioned on a rota agreed by the Government and Opposition parties. Prime Minister's Question Time takes place for 30 minutes every Wednesday.

The judiciary determines common law and interprets legislation. In June 2003 the Government announced a series of constitutional changes designed to put the relationship between the executive, legislature and judiciary on a modern footing.

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