‘Parliament’ is the name given to the body which makes all the laws of the United Kingdom. It is made up of two ‘Houses’, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, along with the now purely ceremonial role of the Queen.
Both Houses are located in the historic Palace of Westminster in central London. To arrange a visit to Parliament, contact the Parliamentary Education Service.
The House of Commons is made up of 650 Members of Parliament (MPs), each one representing a different part of the United Kingdom (or ‘constituency’).
Most of Cheltenham is represented by the MP for Cheltenham, currently Conservative Alex Chalk. The parishes of Prestbury and Swindon Village, and other areas near them in the north of Cheltenham, currently fall into neighbouring Tewkesbury constituency and are represented by Conservative Laurence Robertson.
Each MP is elected by the votes of local people at a General Election which normally takes place once every five years, the next being due in June 2022. Anyone over 18 and not a serving convict or a member of the House of Lords can vote. Voting takes place in ‘polling stations’ (normally local schools or churches) in every neighbourhood in the constituency. A simple ‘ballot paper’ is handed to each voter once they’ve given their name and address (or shown staff the card sent by Cheltenham Borough Council in advance).
The ballot papers list every candidate who wants to be the MP with a blank box by each name. The voter simply takes the ballot paper into a private booth and places a cross beside their favourite candidate, then puts the ballot paper into a sealed ballot box. When the 'polls close', normally at 10pm, all the ballot boxes are taken to a central venue (Leisure@ in Cheltenham) and counted by impartial council staff.
Most candidates are members of a political party with an agreed manifesto that sets out their beliefs and policy pledges. Max Wilkinson is now the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham. The Liberal Democrats always provide the main opposition to the Conservative Party in parliamentary elections here.
Whichever party wins a majority (325) of the constituency ‘seats’ is invited to form a government and put their manifesto into practice. At the General Election in 2010, no one party gained a majority and in the end the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties agreed to co-operate in a stable coalition, with the Conservative David Cameron becoming Prime Minister and Lib Dem Nick Clegg becoming Deputy Prime Minister. The Conservatives won the following general election in 2015 with a slim majority, which they lost when new Prime Minister Theresa May called another general election in 2017. She now governs with support from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.
Government policy is implemented by ministers working in a series of government departments, each of which is answerable to Parliament. MPs question ministers in writing or at regular 'question times' or in 'select committees'. Government departments also propose changes in the law which must be agreed by Parliament.
The laws by which the country is governed are decided in stages by parliament. Each 'house' in turn publishes a draft law, or 'bill' (its first reading). It then debates the bill and votes on it in principle (second reading). Then it considers the bill line by line in a committee stage, when it can also be amended. The committee then sends the bill back to the whole house for its report stage (when other MPs get the chance to amend it) and a final, third reading debate and vote. Then the bill goes through a similar process in the other house. If the two houses disagree the bill bounces back and forth until they do agree (a process nicknamed 'ping pong'). Ultimately the elected House of Commons can force the House of Lords to agree but compromise is more common. Finally, the Queen's ceremonial Royal Assent is given and the bill becomes the law of the land as an Act of Parliament.
MPs do not just consider new laws in Parliament. They also play an important role in representing their constituents, both individually and as a community. Martin took up thousands of individual cases for people in Cheltenham with local councils, the NHS, private companies, foreign governments and with our own government. For Cheltenham as a whole, Martin campaigned against cuts and closures in the local NHS, for better broadband services, for investment in Cheltenham Spa station and better railway connections locally, against the destruction of valuable green spaces around town (including back gardens) and for a better deal for victims of flooding.