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Parliament in Session


The general procedure of each House follows a well-established pattern. Except during recesses the two Houses meet from Monday to Friday each week {although the Lords occasionally do not sit on Mondays, and seldom on Fridays).

The sitting of each House every day gets under way with processions of the Lord Chancellor and Mr Speaker into their respective Houses. Prayers are then read, in the Lords by the bishop on duty for that day, and in the Commons by the Speaker’s Chaplain.

After prayers the proceedings almost always are public, and visitors are admitted to the galleries of each House. In the afternoon the first main business of each House, from Monday to Thursday, is Members’ Question Time. In the Commons this lasts about three-quarters of an hour and ranges at high speed over an incredible variety of national problems, personal grievances and vexed local issues. Ministers take their turn on a rota basis to stand at the dispatch box and answer questioners, the Prime Minister doing so in person on Tuesday and Thursday each week at 3.15 p.m. After each question there is a second or ‘supplementary’ question, of which the Minister has no prior knowledge and which is often more challenging than the first. Question Time may then be followed by further ministerial statements and sometimes by the raising of an issue of immediate urgency. Much of the drama and excitement of parliamentary life is concentrated in the first hour or so of the Commons afternoon sittings.

The principal debate of the day takes place in each House in accordance with a programme previously arranged. It often concerns a broad issue of foreign or home policy, or it may be the examination of the contents of a bill. Whatever the subject of the debate, it is carried on under rules of procedure that have gradually evolved over the centuries. For instance, in the Commons it has long been established that the Speaker maintains strict control over debates. It is he who selects Members to speak, he who admonishes them if they break the rules of debate, and he has the power in extreme cases to suspend a Member from the House.

Debates in both Houses may be punctuated by ‘divisions’ – that is, voting with the House dividing, those in favour of the motion going through one lobby and those against it through the opposite lobby. Their names are recorded by clerks as they pass through. The Lords vote ‘Content’ or ‘Not Content’, the Commons ‘Aye’ or ‘No’. In the Commons a division may take about ten minutes, and there are perhaps two or three hundred divisions in a session.

The main debates in both Houses may be over by 10 p.m., although in the Commons all-night sittings have frequently occurred. Each sitting concludes with a half-hour debate on a subject which may be topical or urgent which is raised by a backbencher on the motion for adjournment of the House. In other words, the Commons sitting ends with an expression of the fundamental right of the House (the right of the ordinary MP, not a member of the Government) to raise grievances and problems.

At the conclusion of each day of sitting the Speaker leaves the Chair, the corridors echo to the cry ‘Who goes home?’ and the light above Big Ben (the signal that Parliament is sitting) is extinguished.



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