Lower House of the Parliament of the United Kingdom
John Bercow MP Since 22 June 2009
Leader of the Commons
David Lidington MP, Conservative Since 14 July 2016
Shadow Leader of the Commons
Valerie Vaz MP, Labour Since 6 October 2016
Minor Parties Shadow Leaders
Pete Wishart MP, Scottish National Tom Brake MP, Liberal Democrat Nigel Dodds MP, Democratic Unionist
The House of Commons of the United Kingdom is the lower house of the country's parliament. Like the upper house, the House of Lords, it meets in the Palace of Westminster. Officially, the full name of the house is: The Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.
- Relationship with Her Majestys Government
- Legislative functions
- Layout and design
- 19th century
- 20th century
- Expenses scandal
- Members and elections
- Current composition
- Commons symbol
- In film and television
The House is an elected body consisting of 650 members known as Members of Parliament (MPs). Members are elected to represent constituencies by first-past-the-post and hold their seats until Parliament is dissolved.
A House of Commons of England evolved in the 13th and 14th centuries, became the House of Commons of Great Britain after the political union with Scotland in 1707, and assumed its current title after the political union with Ireland at the start of the 19th century. The "United Kingdom" referred to was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1800, and became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland after the independence of the Irish Free State in 1922.
Under the Parliament Act 1911, the Lords' power to reject legislation was reduced to a delaying power. The Government is primarily responsible to the House of Commons and the prime minister stays in office only as long as he or she retains the support of a majority of its members.
Relationship with Her Majesty's Government
Although it does not formally elect the prime minister, the position of the parties in the House of Commons is of overriding importance. By convention, the prime minister is answerable to, and must maintain the support of, the House of Commons. Thus, whenever the office of prime minister falls vacant, the Sovereign appoints the person who has the support of the House, or who is most likely to command the support of the House—normally the leader of the largest party in the Commons. (The leader of the second-largest party becomes the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.) Since 1963, by convention, the prime minister is always a member of the House of Commons, rather than the House of Lords.
The Commons may indicate its lack of support for the Government by rejecting a motion of confidence or by passing a motion of no confidence. Confidence and no confidence motions are sometimes phrased explicitly, for instance: "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government." Many other motions were considered confidence issues, even though not explicitly phrased as such. In particular, important bills that form a part of the Government's agenda were formerly considered matters of confidence, as is the annual Budget. When a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the prime minister is obliged either to resign, making way for another MP who can command confidence, or to request the monarch to dissolve Parliament, thereby precipitating a general election.
Parliament normally sits for a maximum term of five years. Subject to that limit, the prime minister could formerly choose the timing of the dissolution of parliament, with the permission of the Monarch. However, since the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, terms are now a fixed five years, and an early general election can only be brought about either by a two-thirds majority in favour of a motion for a dissolution, or by a vote of no confidence that is not followed within fourteen days by a vote of confidence (which may be for confidence in the same government or a different one). By this second mechanism, the government of the United Kingdom can change without an intervening general election. Only four of the eight last Prime Ministers have attained office as the immediate result of a general election; the others have gained office upon the resignation of a Prime Minister of their own party. The latter four were Jim Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown and the current Prime Minister Theresa May; these four inherited the office from Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron respectively. In such circumstances there may not even have been an internal party leadership election, as the new leader may be chosen by acclaim, having no electoral rival (as in the case of both Brown and May).
A prime minister may resign even if he or she is not defeated at the polls (for example, for personal health reasons). In such a case, the premiership goes to whoever can command a majority in the House of Commons; in practice this is usually the new leader of the outgoing prime minister's party. Until 1965, the Conservative Party had no mechanism for electing a new leader; when Anthony Eden resigned as PM in 1957 without recommending a successor, the party was unable to nominate one. It fell to the Queen to appoint Harold Macmillan as the new prime minister, after taking the advice of ministers.
By convention, all ministers must be members of the House of Commons or of the House of Lords. A handful have been appointed who were outside Parliament, but in most cases they then entered Parliament either in a by-election or by receiving a peerage. Since 1902, all prime ministers have been members of the Commons (the sole exception, the Earl of Home, disclaimed his peerage three days after becoming prime minister, and was immediately elected to the House of Commons as Sir Alec Douglas-Home after twenty days in neither House).
In modern times, the vast majority of ministers belong to the Commons rather than the Lords. Few major cabinet positions (except Lord Privy Seal, Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Lords) have been filled by a peer in recent times. Notable exceptions are Lord Carrington, who served as Foreign Secretary from 1979 to 1982, and Lord Young, who was appointed Employment Secretary in 1985. Lord Mandelson was appointed Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in October 2008; he was also briefly a member of neither the Lords nor the Commons while serving in this capacity. The elected status of members of the Commons, as opposed to the unelected nature of members of the Lords, is seen to lend more legitimacy to ministers. The prime minister chooses the ministers, and may decide to remove them at any time; the formal appointment or dismissal, however, is made by the Sovereign.
The House of Commons scrutinises HM Government through "Prime Minister's Questions", when members have the opportunity to ask questions of the prime minister; there are other opportunities to question other cabinet ministers. Prime Minister's Questions occurs once each week, normally for a half-hour each Wednesday. Questions must relate to the responding minister's official government activities, not to his or her activities as a party leader or as a private Member of Parliament. Customarily, members of the Government party and members of the Opposition alternate when asking questions. In addition to questions asked orally during Question Time, Members of Parliament may also make inquiries in writing.
In practice, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the Government is fairly weak. Since the first-past-the-post electoral system is employed, the governing party often enjoys a large majority in the Commons, and there is often little need to compromise with other parties. Modern British political parties are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. Also, many ruling party MPs are paid members of the Government. Thus, during the 20th century, the Government has lost confidence issues only three times—twice in 1924, and once in 1979. However, the threat of rebellions by their own party's backbench MPs often forces Governments to make concessions (under the Coalition, over foundation hospitals and under Labour over top-up fees and compensation for failed company pension schemes). Occasionally the Government is defeated by backbench rebellions (Terrorism Act 2006). However, the scrutiny provided by the Select Committees is more serious.
The House of Commons technically retains the power to impeach Ministers of the Crown (or any other subject, even if not a public officer) for their crimes. Impeachments are tried by the House of Lords, where a simple majority is necessary to convict. The power of impeachment, however, has fallen into disuse: the House of Commons exercises its checks on the Government through other means, such as No Confidence Motions; the last impeachment was that of Viscount Melville in 1806.
Bills may be introduced in either house, though controversial bills normally originate in the House of Commons. The supremacy of the Commons in legislative matters is assured by the Parliament Acts, under which certain types of bills may be presented for the Royal Assent without the consent of the House of Lords. The Lords may not delay a money bill (a bill that, in the view of the Speaker of the House of Commons, solely concerns national taxation or public funds) for more than one month. Moreover, the Lords may not delay most other public bills for more than two parliamentary sessions, or one calendar year. These provisions, however, only apply to public bills that originate in the House of Commons. Moreover, a bill that seeks to extend a parliamentary term beyond five years requires the consent of the House of Lords.
By a custom that prevailed even before the Parliament Acts, only the House of Commons may originate bills concerning taxation or Supply. Furthermore, supply bills passed by the House of Commons are immune to amendments in the House of Lords. In addition, the House of Lords is barred from amending a bill so as to insert a taxation or supply-related provision, but the House of Commons often waives its privileges and allows the Lords to make amendments with financial implications. Under a separate convention, known as the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not seek to oppose legislation promised in the Government's election manifesto. Hence, as the power of the House of Lords has been severely curtailed by statute and by practice, the House of Commons is clearly the most powerful branch of Parliament.
The British Parliament of today largely descends, in practice, from the Parliament of England, although the 1706 Treaty of Union, and the Acts of Union that ratified the Treaty, created a new Parliament of Great Britain to replace the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland, with the addition of 45 MPs and sixteen Peers to represent Scotland. Later still the Acts of Union 1800 brought about the abolition of the Parliament of Ireland and enlarged the Commons at Westminster with 100 Irish members, creating the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Although popularly considered to refer to the fact its members are commoners, the actual name of the House of Commons comes from the Norman French word for communities - communes.
Layout and design
The current Commons' layout is influenced by the use of the original St. Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. The rectangular shape is derived from the shape of the chapel. Benches were arranged using the configuration of the chapel's choir stalls whereby they were facing across from one another. This arrangement facilitated an adversarial atmosphere that is representative of the British parliamentary approach.
The House of Commons underwent an important period of reform during the 19th century. Over the years, several anomalies had developed in borough representation. The constituency boundaries had not been changed since 1660, so many towns that were once important but had declined by the 19th century still retained their ancient right of electing two members, in addition to other boroughs that had never been important, e.g. Gatton.
Among the most notorious of these "rotten boroughs" were Old Sarum, which had only six voters for two MPs, and Dunwich which had largely collapsed into the sea due to coastal erosion. At the same time, large cities such as Manchester received no separate representation (although their eligible residents were entitled to vote in the corresponding county seat). Also notable were the pocket boroughs, small constituencies controlled by wealthy landowners and aristocrats, whose "nominees" were invariably elected.
The Commons attempted to address these anomalies by passing a Reform Bill in 1831. At first, the House of Lords proved unwilling to pass the bill, but were forced to relent when the prime minister, Lord Grey, advised King William IV to flood the House of Lords by creating pro-Reform peers. To avoid this the Lords relented and passed the bill in 1832. The Reform Act 1832, also known as the "Great Reform Act", abolished the rotten boroughs, established uniform voting requirements for the boroughs, and granted representation to populous cities, but still retained many pocket boroughs.
In the ensuing years, the Commons grew more assertive, the influence of the House of Lords having been reduced by the Reform Bill crisis, and the power of the patrons reduced. The Lords became more reluctant to reject bills that the Commons had passed with large majorities, and it became an accepted political principle that the confidence of the House of Commons alone was necessary for a government to remain in office.
Many more reforms were introduced in the latter half of the 19th century. The Reform Act 1867 lowered property requirements for voting in the boroughs, reduced the representation of the less populous boroughs, and granted parliamentary seats to several growing industrial towns. The electorate was further expanded by the Representation of the People Act 1884, under which property qualifications in the counties were lowered. The Redistribution of Seats Act of the following year replaced almost all multi-member constituencies with single-member constituencies.
In 1908, the Liberal Government under Asquith introduced a number of social welfare programmes, which, together with an expensive arms race, forced the Government to seek higher taxes. In 1909, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced the "People's Budget", which proposed a new tax targeting wealthy landowners. But this measure failed in the heavily Conservative House of Lords, and the government resigned.
The resulting general election returned a hung parliament, but Asquith remained prime minister with the support of the smaller parties. Asquith then proposed that the powers of the Lords be severely curtailed. After a further election in December 1910, the Asquith Government secured the passage of a bill to curtail the powers of the House of Lords after threatening to flood the House with 500 new Liberal peers to ensure the passage of the bill.
Thus the Parliament Act 1911 came into effect, destroying the legislative equality of the two Houses of Parliament. The House of Lords was permitted only to delay most legislation, for a maximum of three parliamentary sessions or two calendar years (reduced to two sessions or one year by the Parliament Act 1949). Since the passage of these Acts, the House of Commons has become the dominant branch of Parliament, both in theory and in practice.
In 1918, women over 30 were given the right to vote, quickly followed by the passage of a law enabling women to be eligible for election as members of parliament at the younger age of 21. The only woman to be elected that year was an Irish Sinn Féin candidate, Constance Markievicz, who therefore became the first woman MP. However, due to Sinn Féin's policy of abstention from Westminster, she never took her seat.
With effect from the General Election in 1950, various forms of plural voting (i.e. some individuals had the right to vote in more than one constituency in the same election), including University constituencies, were abolished.
Since the 17th century, MPs had been unpaid. Most of the men elected to the Commons had private incomes, while a few relied on financial support from a wealthy patron. Early Labour MPs were often provided with a salary by a trade union, but this was declared illegal by a House of Lords judgment of 1909. Consequently, a resolution was passed in the House of Commons in 1911 introducing salaries for MPs. Government ministers had always been paid.
In May and June 2009 revelations of MPs' expenses claims caused a major scandal and loss of confidence by the public in the integrity of MPs, as well as causing the forced resignation of the Speaker.
Members and elections
Since 1950 each Member of Parliament has represented a single constituency. There remains a technical distinction between county constituencies and borough constituencies, but the only effect of this difference is in the amount of money candidates are allowed to spend during campaigns. The boundaries of the constituencies are determined by four permanent and independent Boundary Commissions, one each for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The commissions conduct general reviews of electoral boundaries once every 8 to 12 years, and a number of interim reviews. In drawing boundaries, they are required to take into account local government boundaries, but may deviate from this requirement to prevent great disparities in the populations of the various constituencies. The proposals of the Boundary Commissions are subject to parliamentary approval, but may not be amended. After the next general review of constituencies, the Boundary Commissions will be absorbed into the Electoral Commission, which was established in 2000. As of 2017, the United Kingdom is divided into 650 constituencies, with 533 in England, 40 in Wales, 59 in Scotland, and 18 in Northern Ireland.
General elections occur whenever Parliament is dissolved. The timing of the dissolution was normally chosen by the prime minister (see relationship with the Government above); however, as a result of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, Parliamentary terms are now fixed at five years, except in the event of the Commons passing a vote of no confidence or an "early election" motion, the latter having to be passed by two-thirds majority.
All British elections are held on a Thursday. The Electoral Commission is unsure when this practice arose, but dates it to 1931, with the suggestion that it was made to coincide with market day; this would ease voting for those who had to travel to the towns to cast their ballot.
A candidate for a constituency must submit nomination papers signed by ten registered voters from that constituency, and pay a deposit of £500, which is refunded only if the candidate wins at least five per cent of the vote. The deposit seeks to discourage frivolous candidates. Each constituency returns one member, using the first-past-the-post electoral system, under which the candidate with a plurality of votes wins. Minors (that is, anyone under the age of 18), members of the House of Lords, prisoners, and insane persons are not qualified to become members of the House of Commons. To vote, one must be a resident of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and a British citizen, or a citizen of a British overseas territory, of the Republic of Ireland, or of a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. British citizens living abroad are allowed to vote for 15 years after moving from the United Kingdom. No person may vote in more than one constituency.
Once elected, Members of Parliament normally continue to serve until the next dissolution of Parliament. But if a member dies or ceases to be qualified (see qualifications below), his or her seat falls vacant. It is also possible for the House of Commons to expel a member, but this power is exercised only in cases of serious misconduct or criminal activity. In each case, the vacancy is filled by a by-election in the constituency, with the same electoral system as in general elections.
The term "Member of Parliament" is normally used only to refer to members of the House of Commons, even though the House of Lords is also a part of Parliament. Members of the House of Commons may use the post-nominal letters "MP". The annual salary of each member is £74,962, effective from 1 April 2016. Members may also receive additional salaries for other offices they hold (for instance, the Speakership). Most members also claim for various office expenses (staff costs, postage, travelling, etc.) and, in the case of non-London members, for the costs of maintaining a home in the capital.
There are numerous qualifications that apply to Members of Parliament. Most importantly, one must be aged at least 18 (the minimum age was 21 until S.17 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 came into force), and must be a citizen of the United Kingdom, of a British overseas territory, of the Republic of Ireland, or of a member state of the Commonwealth of Nations. These restrictions were introduced by the British Nationality Act 1981, but were previously far more stringent: under the Act of Settlement 1701, only natural-born subjects were qualified. Members of the House of Lords may not serve in the House of Commons, or even vote in parliamentary elections (just as the Queen does not vote); however, they are permitted to sit in the chamber during debates (unlike the Queen, who cannot enter the chamber).
A person may not sit in the Commons if he or she is the subject of a Bankruptcy Restrictions Order (applicable in England and Wales only), or if he or she is adjudged bankrupt (in Northern Ireland), or if his or her estate is sequestered (in Scotland). Previously, MPs detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 for six months or more would have their seat vacated if two specialists reported to the Speaker that the member was suffering from a mental disorder. However, this disqualification was removed by the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013. There also exists a common law precedent from the 18th century that the "deaf and dumb" are ineligible to sit in the Lower House; this precedent, however, has not been tested in recent years. Jack Ashley continued to serve as an MP for 25 years after becoming profoundly deaf.
Anyone found guilty of high treason may not sit in Parliament until he or she has either completed the term of imprisonment, or received a full pardon from the Crown. Moreover, anyone serving a prison sentence of one year or more is ineligible. Finally, the Representation of the People Act 1983 disqualifies for ten years those found guilty of certain election-related offences. Several other disqualifications are codified in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975: holders of high judicial offices, civil servants, members of the regular armed forces, members of foreign legislatures (excluding the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth countries), and holders of several Crown offices. Ministers, even though they are paid officers of the Crown, are not disqualified.
The rule that precludes certain Crown officers from serving in the House of Commons is used to circumvent a resolution adopted by the House of Commons in 1623, under which members are not permitted to resign their seats. In practice, however, they always can. Should a member wish to resign from the Commons, he or she may request appointment to one of two ceremonial Crown offices: that of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, or that of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. These offices are sinecures (that is, they involve no actual duties); they exist solely to permit the "resignation" of members of the House of Commons. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is responsible for making the appointment, and, by convention, never refuses to do so when asked by a member who desires to leave the House of Commons.
At the beginning of each new parliamentary term, the House of Commons elects one of its members as a presiding officer, known as the Speaker. If the incumbent Speaker seeks a new term, then the House may re-elect him or her merely by passing a motion; otherwise, a secret ballot is held. A Speaker-elect cannot take office until he or she has been approved by the Sovereign; the granting of the royal approbation, however, is a formality. The Speaker is assisted by three Deputy Speakers, the most senior of which holds the title of Chairman of Ways and Means. The two other Deputy Speakers are known as the First and Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. These titles derive from the Committee of Ways and Means, a body over which the chairman once used to preside; even though the Committee was abolished in 1967, the traditional titles of the Deputy Speakers are still retained. The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers are always members of the House of Commons.
Whilst presiding, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker wears ceremonial dress. The presiding officer may also wear a wig, but this tradition was abandoned by a former Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. Michael Martin, who succeeded the office also did not wear a wig whilst in the chamber. The current speaker, John Bercow, has chosen to wear a gown over a lounge suit, a decision which has sparked much debate and opposition. The Speaker or deputy presides from a chair at the front of the House. This chair was designed by Augustus Pugin who initially built a prototype of the chair at King Edward's School, Birmingham, the chair is called Sapientia, and is where the Chief master sits. The Speaker is also chairman of the House of Commons Commission, which oversees the running of the House, and he or she controls debates by calling on members to speak. If a member believes that a rule (or Standing Order) has been breached, he or she may raise a "point of order", on which the Speaker makes a ruling that is not subject to any appeal. The Speaker may discipline members who fail to observe the rules of the House. Thus, the Speaker is far more powerful than his Lords counterpart, the Lord Speaker, who has no disciplinary powers. Customarily, the Speaker and the deputies are non-partisan; they do not vote (with the notable exception of tied votes, where the Speaker votes in accordance with Denison's rule), or participate in the affairs of any political party. By convention, a Speaker seeking re-election to parliament is not opposed in his or her constituency by any of the major parties. The lack of partisanship continues even after the Speaker leaves the House of Commons.
The Clerk of the House is both the House's chief adviser on matters of procedure and chief executive of the House of Commons. He or she is a permanent official, not a member of the House itself. The Clerk advises the Speaker on the rules and procedure of the House, signs orders and official communications, and signs and endorses bills. He or she chairs the Board of Management, which consists of the heads of the six departments of the House. The Clerk's deputy is known as the Clerk Assistant. Another officer of the House is the Serjeant-at-Arms, whose duties include the maintenance of law, order, and security on the House's premises. The Serjeant-at-Arms carries the ceremonial mace, a symbol of the authority of the Crown and of the House of Commons, into the House each day in front of the Speaker, and the Mace is laid upon the Table of the House during sittings. The Librarian is head of the House of Commons Library, the House's research and information arm.
Like the Lords, the Commons meets in the Palace of Westminster in London. The Commons chamber is small and modestly decorated in green, in contrast to the large, lavishly furnished red Lords chamber. There are benches on two sides of the chamber, divided by a centre aisle. This arrangement reflects the design of St Stephen's Chapel, which served as the home of the House of Commons until destroyed by fire in 1834. The Speaker's chair is at one end of the Chamber; in front of it, is the Table of the House, on which the Mace rests. The Clerks sit at one end of the Table, close to the Speaker so that they may advise him or her on procedure when necessary. Members of the Government sit on the benches on the Speaker's right, whilst members of the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left. In front of each set of benches a red line is drawn, which members are traditionally not allowed to cross during debates. Government ministers and the leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Cabinet sit on the front rows, and are known as frontbenchers. Other members of parliament, in contrast, are known as backbenchers. Not all Members of Parliament can fit into the Chamber at the same time as it only has space to seat 427 of the 650 members. Members who arrive late must stand near the entrance of the House if they wish to listen to debates. Sittings in the Chamber are held each day from Monday to Thursday, and also on some Fridays. During times of national emergency, the House may also sit at weekends.
Sittings of the House are open to the public, but the House may at any time vote to sit in private, which has occurred only twice since 1950. Traditionally, a Member who desired that the House sit privately could shout "I spy strangers" and a vote would automatically follow. In the past, when relations between the Commons and the Crown were less than cordial, this procedure was used whenever the House wanted to keep its debate private. More often, however, this device was used to delay and disrupt proceedings; as a result, it was abolished in 1998. Now, Members seeking that the House sit in private must make a formal motion to that effect.
Public debates are recorded and archived in Hansard. The post war redesign of the House in 1950 included microphones, and debates were allowed to be broadcast by radio in 1975. Since 1989, they have also been broadcast on television, which is now handled by BBC Parliament.
Sessions of the House of Commons have sometimes been disrupted by angry protesters throwing objects into the Chamber from the galleries—items thrown include leaflets, manure, flour by the group Fathers 4 Justice, and a canister of chlorobenzylidene malonitrile (tear gas). Even members have been known to disturb proceedings of the House. For instance, in 1976, Conservative MP Michael Heseltine seized and brandished the Mace of the House during a heated debate. However, perhaps the most famous disruption of the House of Commons was caused by King Charles I, who entered the Commons Chamber in 1642 with an armed force to arrest five members for high treason. This action was deemed a breach of the privilege of the House, and has given rise to the tradition that the monarch does not set foot in the House of Commons.
Each year, the parliamentary session begins with the State Opening of Parliament, a ceremony in the Lords Chamber during which the Sovereign, in the presence of Members of both Houses, delivers an address outlining the Government's legislative agenda. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (a Lords official) is responsible for summoning the Commons to the Lords Chamber. When he arrives to deliver his summons, the doors of the Commons Chamber are traditionally slammed shut in his face, symbolising the right of the Lower House to debate without interference. He then knocks on the door three times with his Black Rod, and only then is granted admittance, where he informs the MPs that the Monarch awaits them, after which they proceed to the House of Lords for the Queen's Speech.
During debates, Members may speak only if called upon by the Speaker (or a Deputy Speaker, if the Speaker is not presiding). Traditionally, the presiding officer alternates between calling Members from the Government and Opposition. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and other leaders from both sides are normally given priority. All Privy Counsellors used to be granted priority; however, the modernisation of Commons procedure in 1998 led to the abolition of this tradition.
Speeches are addressed to the presiding officer, using the words "Mr Speaker", "Madam Speaker", "Mr Deputy Speaker", or "Madam Deputy Speaker". Only the presiding officer may be directly addressed in debate; other members must be referred to in the third person. Traditionally, members do not refer to each other by name, but by constituency, using forms such as "the Honourable Member for [constituency]", or, in the case of Privy Counsellors, "the Right Honourable Member for [constituency]". Members of the same party (or allied parties or groups) refer to each other as "my (Right) Honourable friend". (A member of the Armed Forces used to be called "the Honourable and Gallant Member", a barrister "the Honourable and Learned Member", and a woman "the Honourable Lady the Member".) This may not always be the case during the actual oral delivery, when it might be difficult for a member to remember another member's exact constituency, but it is invariably followed in the transcript entered in the Hansard. The Speaker enforces the rules of the House and may warn and punish members who deviate from them. Disregarding the Speaker's instructions is considered a breach of the rules of the House and may result in the suspension of the offender from the House. In the case of grave disorder, the Speaker may adjourn the House without taking a vote.
The Standing Orders of the House of Commons do not establish any formal time limits for debates. The Speaker may, however, order a member who persists in making a tediously repetitive or irrelevant speech to stop speaking. The time set aside for debate on a particular motion is, however, often limited by informal agreements between the parties. Debate may also be restricted by the passage of "Allocation of Time Motions", which are more commonly known as "Guillotine Motions". Alternatively, the House may put an immediate end to debate by passing a motion to invoke Closure. The Speaker is allowed to deny the motion if he or she believes that it infringes upon the rights of the minority. Today, bills are scheduled according to a Timetable Motion, which the whole House agrees in advance, negating the use of a guillotine.
When the debate concludes, or when the Closure is invoked, the motion in question is put to a vote. The House first votes by voice vote; the Speaker or Deputy Speaker puts the question, and Members respond either "Aye" (in favour of the motion) or "No" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but if his or her assessment is challenged by any member or the voice vote is unclear, a recorded vote known as a division follows. The presiding officer, if he or she believes that the result of the voice vote is clear, may reject the challenge. When a division occurs, members enter one of two lobbies (the "Aye" lobby or the "No" lobby) on either side of the Chamber, where their names are recorded by clerks. A member who wishes to pointedly abstain from a vote may do so by entering both lobbies, casting one vote for and one against. At each lobby are two tellers (themselves members of the House) who count the votes of the members.
Once the division concludes, the tellers provide the results to the presiding officer, who then announces them to the House. If there is an equality of votes, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker has a casting vote. Traditionally, this casting vote is exercised to allow further debate, if this is possible, or otherwise to avoid a decision being taken without a majority (e.g. voting 'No' to a motion or the third reading of a bill). Ties rarely occur—the last one was in July 1993. The quorum of the House of Commons is 40 members for any vote, including the Speaker and four tellers. If fewer than 40 members have participated, the division is invalid.
Formerly, if a member sought to raise a point of order during a division, suggesting that some of the rules governing parliamentary procedure are violated, he was required to wear a hat, thereby signalling that he was not engaging in debate. Collapsible top hats were kept in the Chamber just for this purpose. This custom was discontinued in 1998.
The outcome of most votes is largely known beforehand, since political parties normally instruct members on how to vote. A party normally entrusts some members of parliament, known as whips, with the task of ensuring that all party members vote as desired. Members of Parliament do not tend to vote against such instructions, since those who do so jeopardise promotion, or may be deselected as party candidates for future elections. Ministers, junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries who vote against the whips' instructions usually resign. Thus, the independence of Members of Parliament tends to be low, although "backbench rebellions" by members discontent with their party's policies do occur. A member is also traditionally allowed some leeway if the particular interests of his constituency are adversely affected. In some circumstances, however, parties announce "free votes", allowing members to vote as they please. Votes relating to issues of conscience such as abortion and capital punishment are typically free votes.
Pairing is an arrangement where a member from one party agrees with a member of another party not to vote in a particular division, allowing both MPs the opportunity not to attend.
A bisque is permission from the Whips given to a member to miss a vote or debate in the House to attend to constituency business or other matters.
The British Parliament uses committees for a variety of purposes, e.g., for the review of bills. Committees consider bills in detail, and may make amendments. Bills of great constitutional importance, as well as some important financial measures, are usually sent to the "Committee of the Whole House", a body that includes all members of the Commons. Instead of the Speaker, the chairman or a Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means presides. The Committee meets in the House of Commons Chamber.
Most bills were until 2006 considered by Standing Committees, which consisted of between 16 and 50 members. The membership of each Standing Committee roughly reflected the strength of the parties in the House. The membership of Standing Committees changed constantly; new Members were assigned each time the committee considered a new bill. There was no formal limit on the number of Standing Committees, but usually only ten existed. Rarely, a bill was committed to a Special Standing Committee, which investigated and held hearings on the issues raised. In November 2006, Standing Committees were replaced by Public Bill Committees.
The House of Commons also has several Departmental Select Committees. The membership of these bodies, like that of the Standing Committees, reflects the strength of the parties. Each committee elects its own chairman. The primary function of a Departmental Select Committee is to scrutinise and investigate the activities of a particular government department. To fulfil these aims, it is permitted to hold hearings and collect evidence. Bills may be referred to Departmental Select Committees, but such a procedure is seldom used.
A separate type of Select Committee is the Domestic Committee. Domestic Committees oversee the administration of the House and the services provided to Members. Other committees of the House of Commons include Joint Committees (which also include members of the House of Lords), the Committee on Standards and Privileges (which considers questions of parliamentary privilege, as well as matters relating to the conduct of the members), and the Committee of Selection (which determines the membership of other committees).
The symbol used by the Commons consists of a portcullis topped by St Edward's Crown. The portcullis has been one of the Royal Badges of England since the accession of the Tudors in the 15th century, and was a favourite symbol of King Henry VII. It was originally a pun on the name Tudor, as in tu-door. The original badge was of gold, but nowadays is shown in various colours, predominantly green or black.
In film and television
In 1986, the British television production company Granada Television created a near-full size replica of the post-1950 House of Commons debating chamber at its studios in Manchester for use in its adaptation of the Jeffrey Archer novel First Among Equals. The set was highly convincing, and was retained after the production—since then, it has been used in nearly every British film and television production that has featured scenes set in the chamber. From 1988 until 1999 it was also one of the prominent attractions on the Granada Studios Tour, where visitors could watch actors performing mock political debates on the set. The major difference between the studio set and the real House of Commons Chamber is that the studio set has just four rows of seats on either side whereas the real Chamber has five.
In 2002, the set was purchased by the scriptwriter Paul Abbott so that it could be used in his BBC drama serial State of Play. Abbott, a former Granada Television staff writer, bought it personally as the set would otherwise have been destroyed and he feared it would take too long to get the necessary money from the BBC. Abbott kept the set in storage in Oxford.
The post-1941 Commons Chamber was used in the film Ali G Indahouse, the political satire Restart by Komedy Kollective, about a British prime minister seeking re-election, and was mentioned in the Robin Williams stand-up special Robin Williams Live on Broadway in which he describes it as "like Congress, but with a two drink minimum". The pre-1941 Chamber was recreated in Shepperton Studios for the Ridley Scott/Richard Loncraine 2002 biographical film on Churchill, The Gathering Storm.