The fundamental principles of government and the rights of the people are defined in a constitution. The constitution of the United Kingdom is not contained in any single document but has evolved over the years partly by statute, partly by common law and partly by convention. The United Kingdom is defined as a constitutional monarchy governed by Ministers of the Crown in the name of the Sovereign.
The Sovereign is an integral part of the legislature (Parliament), head of the executive (Cabinet and other Ministers), head of the judiciary (Judges), Commander in Chief of the armed forces and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
The powers of the Monarchy are limited to summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament, giving Royal Assent to Bills, appointing important office holders and granting pardon to those wrongly convicted of a crime.
The Privy Council. The Sovereign in Council or Privy Council was the chief source of executive power until the system of Cabinet government developed. Its main function these days is to advise the Sovereign.
Parliament is the supreme law making authority; its main function is to pass laws. Parliament emerged during the late 13th century with a prototype House of Lords formed from officers of the King's household and the King's judges. Edward I's 'Model Parliament' of King, Lords and Commons was formed in 1295.
House of Lords. The House of Lords consists of the Lords Spiritual (Archbishops and Bishops) and Lords Temporal (hereditary and life peers). Until the beginning of this century the House of Lords had considerable power, being able to veto any Bill submitted to it by the House of Commons. These powers were greatly reduced by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949.
House of Commons. The Members of the House of Commons are elected by universal adult suffrage and are those candidates who obtain the largest number of votes cast in each of 651 constituencies. The opposition parties (those that are not part of the government) traditionally sit on the left as viewed by the Speaker.
The political party that holds the majority of seats in Parliament is invited by the Queen to form a Government. It is responsible for the administration of the nation and the translation of party policy into law.
The Cabinet. The Cabinet developed during the 18th century as an inner committee of the Privy Council. It is composed of about 20 ministers chosen by the Prime Minister. The job of the Cabinet is to determine policy and ensure the control and co-ordination of government.
The Prime Minister. The office of Prime Minister has been in existence since 1721 and was officially recognised and granted a place in the table of precedence in 1905. As the chairman of Cabinet meetings and leader of a political party, the Prime Minister is responsible for translating party policy into government activity. The Prime Minister informs the Sovereign on political matters, advises on the dissolution of Parliament and makes recommendations for important Crown appointments and the award of honours.
Local goverment in England is divided into Metropolitan, London Borough and Unitary single-tier authorities, County and District councils and finally town and Parish councils.
There are 36 Metropolitan Borough Councils covering the main urban areas outside London: Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Merseyside, South and West Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear. There are 32 London Borough Councils and the Corporation of the City of London. They provide all the main local government services for the area.
In the rest of England there are 46 unitary authorities and 34 County Councils. Unitary authorities provide all the main services. County councils have a two-tier structure of local government. In addition there are district councils which cover smaller areas within counties and which provide some of the services.
Many local areas also have a Town or Parish Council in addition to the councils described above. These are most often rural areas, but urban areas can also be parished.
Councillors are elected throughout England for a 4 year term. A borough is a district council that has been granted a Royal Charter. The top civic dignitary in a borough is a mayor.
Single-tier authorities (Metropolitan, London Borough, Unitary). Responsible for: education, social services and housing and council tax benefits, housing, public libraries, museums and art galleries, traffic and transportation, refuse collection, recycling and disposal, planning, environmental health, swimming pools and leisure facilities, parks, open spaces, and countryside including footpaths, cemeteries and crematoria, markets and fairs, registration of births, deaths, marriages and electorates, collecting council tax and business rates.
County Councils. Responsible for: education, libraries, social services, trading, standards, waste disposal, highways and transport, strategic land use, planning.
District Councils. Responsible for: housing, parks, sports, arts and entertainment, land, use planning permission, environmental health, waste collection and recycling, street cleaning, council tax collection, council tax and housing, benefits, electoral registration and administration.
Town and Parish Councils. Responsible for: community centres, arts and leisure facilities, parks and play areas, public conveniences and other services, and have a right to be notified about planning applications in the area.
There are 32 unitary councils in Scotland. They provide all the main local government services in Scotland. Elections are held every four years. Local government in Scotland is a devolved matter, with legislation and financial decisions being part of the powers of the Scottish Parliament. Responsibilities are similar to those in England.
Local government in Wales is divided into Principal Authorities and Town and Community Councils. They are responsible to the National Assembly for Wales which is in turn responsible to the UK Government.
There are 22 local unitary authorities known variously as city, county or county borough councils. Whilst many of the responsibilities are similar to those in England, local authories in Wales work within a defined partnership with the Welsh Assembly.