Why does a Parliament end?
By law, a general election must be held in the UK, and a new Parliament elected, every five years.
After the Fixed Term Parliament Act was passed on 15 September 2011, the date of the next general election is set at 7 May 2015.
The act provides for general elections to be held on the first Thursday in May every five years. There are two provisions that trigger an election other than at five year intervals.
- A motion of no confidence is passed in Her Majesty's Government by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a confidence motion in any new Government formed
- A motion for a general election is agreed by two thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons including vacant seats (currently 434 out of 650)
Previous to this act the Prime Minister could call a general election at any time within the five year period and not all Parliaments lasted the full five years.
Before 2011 a general election could be called earlier for a number of reasons: for example, if a government lost its 'working majority' in the House of Commons, or was defeated on a confidence motion, a general election would normally follow.
Usually the Prime Minister decided to call an election at a time when he or she was most confident of winning the election (getting more MPs than any other party).
What does dissolution mean for MPs?
When Parliament is dissolved every seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant. MPs immediately revert to being members of the general public and lose all the privileges associated with being a Member of Parliament.
They are allowed access to Parliament for just a few days in which to remove papers and equipment from their offices. All facilities and services for MPs at Westminster are closed at 5pm on the day of dissolution.
Until a new Parliament is elected, MPs do not exist. Those who wish to re-apply must stand again for election as candidates in their constituencies.
Who runs the country while there is no Parliament?
The Government does not resign when Parliament is dissolved; essential business must carry on and government ministers remain in charge of their departments until after the result of the election is known. Only then will the Queen ask the leader of the majority party to form a new administration.
During the period between dissolution and polling day, however, the Government suspends any advertising campaigns and refrains from major policy decisions or announcements. This was known as ‘purdah’ but is now usually called the pre-election period.
What does dissolution mean for the House of Lords?
Members of the House of Lords are appointed - not elected - and during dissolution they remain Members of the House of Lords. All business in the House comes to an end, and while Members of the Lords can access the premises of Parliament, only limited facilities and services are available to them.
Members of the Lords are required by law to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown when they take their seats in the new Parliament. At the start of Parliament in 2010 they also signed an undertaking to abide by the House of Lords Code of Conduct. They are issued with new writs of summons to the next Parliament during dissolution.
Differences between Parliament and Government
Parliament examines and challenges the work of the Government. Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords use similar methods of scrutiny, although the procedures vary.
The main methods are: questioning government ministers both in debate and through written and oral questions and by the investigative work of committees. The Government can publicly respond to explain and justify policies and decisions.