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Great Britain’s Constitution and Government

How does Britain elect its government ?

Parliament, the law-making body of the British people, consists of three elements: the Monarchy, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They meet together only on occasions of ceremonial significance, such as the state opening of Parliament, although the agreement of all three is normally required for legislation.

The House of Commons consists of 659 elected members called Members of Parliament or MPs. Its main purpose is to make laws by passing Acts of Parliament, as well as to discuss current political issues. Elections to the House of Commons are an important part of Britain's democratic system.

The roles, powers and functions of the second chamber, the House of Lords have been the subject of a Royal Commission, established in February 1999 under the chairmanship of Lord Wakeham. Its report, published in January 2000, recommended a number of reform measures, including a totally independent appointments system with a remit to bring in representatives from all sectors of society; a statutory minimum (30%) for both women and men; fair representation for members of ethnic groups and a broader range of religious representation.

General elections are held after Parliament has been 'dissolved', either by a royal proclamation or because the maximum term between elections - five years - has expired. The decision on when to hold a general election is made by the Prime Minister. For electoral purposes Britain is divided into constituencies, each of which returns one MP to the House of Commons. The British electoral system is based on the relative majority method - sometimes called the 'first past the post' principle - which means the candidate with more votes than any other is elected.

Right to vote: All British citizens together with citizens of other Commonwealth countries and citizens of the Irish Republic resident in Britain may vote, provided they are aged 18 years or over and not legally barred from voting. People not entitled to vote include those serving prison sentences, peers and peeresses who are members of the House of Lords, and those kept in hospital under mental health legislation. Voting is by secret ballot. The elector selects just one candidate on the ballot paper and marks an 'X' by the candidate's name. Voting in elections is voluntary. On average about 75 per cent of the electorate votes.

Right to stand for election: Any person aged 21 or over who is a British citizen or citizen of another Commonwealth country or the Irish Republic may stand for election to Parliament, provided they are not disqualified. People disqualified include those who are bankrupt, those sentenced to more than one year's imprisonment, members of the clergy, members of the House of Lords and a range of public servants and officials. Approved candidates are usually selected by their political party organisations in the constituency which they represent, although candidates do not have to have party backing. The leader of the political party which wins most seats (although not necessarily most votes) at a general election, or who has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons, is by convention invited by the Sovereign to form the new government.

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