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House of Commons


This section contains non-partisan factual information about the House of Commons. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions


Does the House of Commons strike the right balance between effective government and effective scrutiny of legislation?

The Common’s rules of procedure must allow a Government with a majority to get its business done.  However a number of apparently quite minor changes in procedure over the last twenty years have made it possible for Governments to push through major pieces of legislation rapidly and irrespective of comments raised in debate.  

This raises the concern that insufficient time is taken for reflection and public comment before legislation is brought to the House.  Such concerns are exacerbated by the increasing number of laws which are brought into being as 'delegated legislation', bypassing the Commons altogether. More

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'Delegated legislation' is law introduced as regulations or statutory instruments by a person, such as a Minister, to whom the power to make such rules has been delegated by an enabling Act of Parliament.  Such rules and regulations can, but do not have to, be reviewed by Parliament.  For more information see Legislation in the Key Facts below.
It is not possible, according to these arguments, for MPs scrutinise to legislation effectively.

On the other hand it is argued that strong government requires the Government of the day to be able to give effect to the policies which it has been elected to bring forward to the House.


What should the job of an MP entail?

MPs have no job descriptions.  More than a third of all MPs are either Government Ministers, opposition front bench spokesmen or Parliamentary Private Secretaries.  All MPs (especially those from non-metropolitan constituencies) are expected to spend a good deal of time dealing with individual  constituency  grievances, with limited office resources.  The volume of legislation and delegated legislation has grown significantly in recent years. More

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Click here to access the speech of Mark Todd, former Labour MP for South Derbyshire, on the role of an MP.

Some hold that we have too many MPs and that numbers should be significantly reduced.  This would necessarily mean that the size of constituencies and the number of constituents would be increased, potentially adding to the workload at a constituency level. The current government has proposed a reduction in the number of seats to 600, to be tied to a reorganisation of constiuency boundaries which would regularise the size of constituencies at the saem time.

Should the scope of constituency work be limited and defined and should the staffing and operation of local constituency offices be managed according to uniform standards, applicable to all MPs?  

Given the volume of new legislation is it actually possible for MPs to scrutinise it effectively?

The public think MPs are highly paid.  The Taxpayers Alliance report indicates that, compared to contemporaries in business or the professions, or to legislators in other advanced democracies, they are poorly paid.  Who actually wants these jobs? Originally the introduction of pay for MPs was intended to diversify the house by making it possible for candidates without an independent income to enter Parliament.

The Kelly report has made a raft of recommendations regarding the amendment or curtailing of allowances which MPs can claim, but would it be a better solution simply to increase MPs' salaries and to do away with allowances and expenses altogether?  If MPs are to be paid an increased rate, should there also be introduced a requirement for minimum standards of work and attendance? More

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Click here to see the full report

 


Should we be concerned about the rise of the ‘professional’ politician?

Many MPs have only limited or no work experience outside politics and Westminster.  Some people feel that as a result is our MPs are out of touch with ‘real’ life.   Others argue that it is in the very nature of politics that those involved need to understand how politics works and that it is therefore essential to good and effective government that those involved have many years experience of politics and political processes.  

Should MPs be allowed to have second jobs? This should play a part in reducing the number of politicians who are Westminster insiders. Yet preventing them from doing so may find favour among electors angry at the perceived cost to the taxpayer of MPs' salaries and allowances (with opinions enflamed by the recent debacle over MPs' expenses). Some think that MPs already spend too little time in Westminster considering their salaries.  Others think that the knowledge of the 'real' world gained from professional experience is an asset.

 

Is the House of Commons democratic?

The comments of  Douglas Carswell MP during the recent debate on the Consitutional Reform and Governance Bill on 20th October 2009, gave a sceptical view of the efficacy of the House.  

"This debate, I believe, illustrates what is so wrong with our constitution and demonstrates how dire things are, not because of anything that is being said, but by the manner of the exchange. Look how barely attended the Chamber is! We debate our constitution, yet the people’s tribunes are not here. Whips scurry around outside desperate to gather enough speakers to try to keep things ticking along and running until 10 pm. The agents of the Executive try to create the illusion of debate—a debate with all the spontaneity of a Latin Mass. So moribund is our constitution, so monumentally useless our legislature, it is reduced to a talking shop, and it cannot even do that until 10 pm without prodding from the Executive. So much for our proud tradition of Parliament, so much for this legislature." 

Is he right?

The House of Commons is usually thought of as the democratic house within Parliament because MPs are elected at general elections.  However, there are question marks over the fairness and democratic nature of our electoral system. In addition, the dominance of the party political system within the House means that although the public perception is that MPs are elected by the people in order to represent the views of their constituents, MPs’ opportunities to do this can be restricted. 

The extensive use of the party whip and the relative rarity of free votes means that the central policies of the main political parties dominate the debate within the House and that the policy of the Government tends to be enacted.&nbs p;

The practice of lobbying and the consequent influence of those individuals or entities with sufficient funds to enable them to get their views heard by MPs only serve to give weight to the view that the House is more akin to a 'private club' rather than a transparent democratic institution. 

The extent to which the House is democratic, therefore, may be said to hinge on the size of the majority of the Government and the willingness of MPs as individuals to act according to their conscience or their constituents' interests.

 

Should the House of Commons become more transparent?

The introduction in the 1970s of television cameras into the chamber of the House was regarded at the time as a major step towards more open and accountable government.   The BBC’s digital channel and the online Democracy Live website now enable the public to view live debates, recordings of some old debates and the business of some select committees.   The extent to which this makes the house more transparent is debatable, because so much of the business of the house is conducted not in the formal chambers, but in the lobbies and private offices of Westminster.   The fact that the public can see what goes on inside the House may give an impression of transparency, but this may be more apparent than real.


Should we move away from adversarial debate and towards consensus politics?

The so-called ‘Thatcher experiment’ broke away from the consensus politics of the post war period.   Margaret Thatcher made no secret of her contempt for consensus politics (dubbing her more cautious ministers as ‘wet’) preferring instead to proclaim the virtues of conviction and principles in politics.  Tony Blair often claimed himself to be the natural successor to Margaret Thatcher and similarly pursued a path of policy implementation justified by statements of his convictions and principles.  But commentators have extremely mixed views as to whether the policies of either can be said to have been successful or in the best interests of the country.  The Liberal Democrats have traditionally espoused reforms which would lead to what they term ‘fairer’ representation of the views of the electorate in government, by extension to a greater consensus.  Critics might suggest that this would lead only to compromise and ineffectual leadership for the country.  Where should the balance lie? More

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Dennis Kavanagh Thatcherism and politics; the end of consensus (Oxford University Press, 1990)

 

 

Section last updated September 2010

What you need to know


Parliament, which is also known as the Legislature, consists of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown in Parliament.  Parliament is the main source of political authority in the United Kingdom, but it is the House of Commons which has the dominant political power, because, unlike the House of Lords, members of the House of Commons (known as Members of Parliament or MPs) are elected, and it is the political party which has a majority of MPs which forms the Government.

The House of Commons comprises 650 Members of Parliament, currently representing 12 different political parties, with only 5 MPs who are independent of any party.  More than 600 Members of Parliament currently in office represent the 3 largest political parties. 

MPs are elected by the public, usually every 5 years, in ‘general elections’.  The country is divided into ‘constituencies’ and voters in each constituency vote for their own MP.  MPs are elected both to represent their political party, but also to represent the views of their constituents.   Accordingly, the work of MPs requires them to work both in Westminster, to take part in debates and committee work, and in their home constituency, to deal with individual problems and issues affecting the constituency generally.   MPs who serve as Ministers in the Cabinet retain their obligation to serve as constituency MPs as well.

There are no minimum qualification requirements for anyone standing for election as an MP, either in terms of educational achievements or professional or working history.  MPs determine their own salaries and allowances by a majority vote.

 


Why does it matter?


The revelations about MPs' expenses has damaged the public’s trust in Parliament and provoked a debate about the need for reform. But even before the question of expenses arose, there had for many years been proposals under discussion which would reform the way in which the House of Commons works.

Any reform of the House of Commons has the potential to impact the way we are governed because the House of Commons is the central body in Parliament.


What are the key dates?


Key dates in the evolution of the House of Commons are as follows:

1832
(Also 1867 and 1872) Representation of the People Acts in these years extended the right to vote to most men. However, there was still a property qualification, and women were excluded entirely.
1911
Parliament Act substituted the Lords’ power to veto legislation to a power of delay.
1918
Representation of the People Act removed the requirement of owning property and allowed women over 30 to vote.
1928
Representation of the People Act lowered the voting age of women to 21.
1948
Parliament Act reduced the Lords’ power to delay legislation to 1 year.
1969
Representation of the People Act lowered voting age to 18.
1978
establishment of the modern select committee system.
1998
the transfer of legislative powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
2001
(Up to 2003) various reforms to Commons procedure made under the leadership of Robin Cook.
2006
reform of the standing committees, now called public bill committees.
2007
further devolution of powers to Wales.
2009
the expenses scandal.

What are the key facts?


 

The Functions and procedures of the House of Commons

The House of Commons has a number of functions:

  • It provides the country with a Government
  • It debates and votes on proposed government legislation (law making)
  • It scrutinises government, debates the important issues of the day and holds the Government to account
  • It controls finance
  • It represents the British nation, and its individual constituencies

 

Legislation

New laws are implemented either by enactment in an Act of Parliament (‘statutes’) or by being contained in a ‘statutory instrument’. More

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When an Act of Parliament/statute is in draft it is known as a bill.
  Whereas statutes are required to be scrutinised and debated by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, statutory instruments (‘delegated legislation’) do not necessarily require Parliamentary approval. More
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Some statutes contain only outline provisions and say that a nominated person or body can make detailed regulations at a later date (this is called 'delegated legislation').  The statute will stipulate what procedure is to be followed in making such regulations, and in particular whether any Parliamentary approval is required.    In practise, where Parliamentary scrutiny is required, much of the work is done by committees of MPs set up for this purpose.  Most statutory instruments are drafted by the Government department with responsibility for administering the rules they contain, once introduced as law.  A detailed explanation of the many and varied procedures for creating and approving statutory instruments will be found in: Statutory Instruments Factsheet L7 Legislative Series House of Commons Information Office 

About 30-50 statutes and 3000-4000 statutory instruments are passed each year by Parliament and it is estimated that half of Parliament’s time is spent reviewing the Government’s proposed legislation.  Although the number of statutes passed has been declining over the past 20-30 years, the number of statutory instruments has been increasing.  The number of pages of legislation for both statutes and statutory instruments is now far higher than in the past. More

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  • In 1950, there were 50 public general acts passed, numbering 70 pages; 2144 statutory instruments passed, numbering 2970 pages.
  • In 2000, there were 57 public general acts passed, numbering 3865 pages; 3878 statutory instruments were passed, numbering 8770 pages.
  • In 2005, there were 40 public general acts passed, numbering 2712 pages; 4266 statutory instruments were passed, numbering 11868 pages.

Source: http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/notes/snsg-02911.pdf

In general, it is the Government which determines and initiates legislation and the timetable for its consideration.  Before the House of Commons gives consent to legislation, it usually tests the Government on its proposals, and it may do this either through the tabling of formal questions in the House of Commons, by debates conducted in the chamber of the House of Commons, or by the creation of specialist committees of MPs nominated to consider particular issues.  Debates in the House of Commons do not necessarily seek consensus, but are more usually adversarial. 

Because of the time taken for debate and consideration of each draft proposal, timetabling is a major issue.  MPs and Lords who are not Government ministers may introduce draft legislation (‘Private Members Bills’), but little time is allocated for their consideration and therefore they are less likely to succeed in becoming law. More

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A ballot takes place on the second sitting Thursday of each sitting of Parliament to determine which Private Members Bills will be allocated time for debate in the House.  Bills which ‘win’ in this ballot ,‘Ballot Bills’, stand a better chance of becoming law as they get priority in the limited amount of time allocated to Private Members Bills in the House.

All bills are debated by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and each house ultimately votes as to whether they should become law.  In practice, because the Government has a majority in the House of Commons it is generally able to ensure that the legislation it proposes is passed. 

There are several stages to passing a law, and at any stage proposed legislation may be held up by debate.  In general, this rarely happens, because the majority of seats in the Commons is controlled by the Government.  A bill must pass through all the required stages in the House of Commons before it is referred to the House of Lords for debate.  The stages for draft Public Bills (all bills which affect the general public) are:

• The first reading

• The second reading

• The Committee stage

• The Report stage

• The third reading.

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  • the first reading: printed copies of the bill are made available for all to read.   No debate takes place. After 2 weeks, the second reading takes place.
  • the second reading: This involves a debate on the purpose of the legislation. At the end of the debate ‘the votes are whipped’, which means MPs are expected to vote with their parties. Many bills are also ‘timetabled’ at this point, in order to ensure their passage through the remaining stages
  • Committee stage: this involves looking at the proposed bill in detail by a committee of anywhere between 16 and 50 MPs, reflecting the overall proportions of the House as a whole. Here, amendments to proposed legislation are first suggested, but once again, the government has a majority.
  • Report stage: members of the House as a whole are given an opportunity to debate the proposed legislation. This stage and the third reading usually take place on the same day.
  • the third reading: this is usually a brief debate where MPs vote along party lines.

Voting is mostly conducted by ‘divisions’ of the House, when MPs are required to leave the house and congregate in the lobbies outside to indicate which way they are voting.

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Voting and Pairing

The Speaker or the presiding deputy will on each motion ask MPs in favour to call ‘aye’ and those against to call out ‘no’.  If it is clear from this oral vote that those present are either for or against the motion, the Speaker declares the motion as carried or not (using the form of words ‘the ayes have it’).  This is the House of Commons equivalent to a vote on a show of hands. 

However, if both ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ shout equally loudly, the Speaker will call for a ‘division’.  A bell rings throughout the building and in nearby offices (the ‘division bell’) to summon all MPs present (whether or not they have been in the chamber and listening to the debate) and they are required to present themselves in one of the two division lobbies to indicate whether they vote for or against the motion.  The party at this point make sure that all their members make their way to the lobbies. When the tellers are ready, the lobbies' exit doors are opened, and the members counted by the tellers, and their names recorded by clerks, as they leave. No earlier than eight minutes after the question has been proposed, the Speaker declares, "Lock the Doors." The lobby entrances are locked, and only those within the lobby may vote.

After all members have voted in the lobbies, the vote totals are written on a card, which is read by the Speaker, who announces the final result. The Speaker does not vote, except in the case of a tie. Members may signify, but not record, an abstention by remaining in their seats during the division.

It is stipulated that all MPs are required to stay in or around the premises of the House of Commons until the main business of the day has ended, however long that may be. In the unlikely event that fewer than forty members voted in the division, the division is ignored, the question at hand is postponed until the next sitting, and the House proceeds to the next business.

Not every member must be present for every division.  Provided he has formally agreed with a member of an opposing party not to participate in the division he will be excused since the absence of both memebers will not affect the overall result.  Pairing arrangements have to be registered with the party whips and are not used on the most important matters. 

The mechanism for voting may seem arcane to the outsider but efforts to reform it have been resisted.    The calling together of MPs in the divisions both provides a means of engaging all MPs on the business in hand, even though they may not have been present during the debate.  It is also a useful opportunity for ‘networking’ between MPs.

Once proposed legislation has been accepted by the Commons, it is sent to the House of Lords.  By convention, the Lords do not reject any legislation set out in the government’s election manifesto. More

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This is known as the Salisbury-Addison Convention after Lord Salisbury, the Conservative leader in the House of Lords from 1942-1957.
However, the Lords frequently make amendments, which the Commons may not agree to, leading to  ‘ping pong’: the to-and-fro of proposals between the two chambers.  Ultimately, though, under the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, the House of Lords can only delay legislation for a period of one year.

The volume of legislation going through the House means that timetabling is a major issue, a problem made worse by the fact that if a bill does not manage to complete all of its legislative stages in one sitting of the House, then in the next sitting it must start again from scratch.   At the beginning of each parliamentary session the Chief Whip and the opposition whips meet to try to agree on a timetable for legislation.  But if they cannot reach agreement, the Government can rely on its majority in the House to pass a guillotine motion or a programming motion to ensure that the timetable follows the Government’s required schedule. More

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Although in theory all bills are examined carefully by MPs throughout the process of passing legislation, in practice there are various means by which this process is truncated—in particular, the guillotine motion and the programming motion. Guillotine motions set a date for completion of the passage of a bill. Such motions are usually made at late stages of a bill and are used to avoid excessive delay.

Programming motions were an innovation introduced in 1998, and have essentially supplanted guillotine motions. They are passed after the second reading of a bill in the House of Commons and establish a timetable for the remaining process of enactment. 

Originally, programming was seen as a means of ensuring the government’s legislative programme could be completed on time, and to prevent late-night sittings. They were also the outcome of all-party consensus. However, over time, programming of bills has come to be used far more broadly by the Government, prompting criticism that it is being used to prevent scrutiny.

On programming, see House of Commons Information Office “Programming of Government Bills”

http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/P10.pdf

The House of Commons Procedure Committee has launched an inquiry into Timetabling of business.  The Hansard Society has given evidence to the Committee proposing

  • A Business Committee should be established to deal with aspects of parliamentary business, including elements of the legislative process such as the decision to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny.
  • The Business Committee should be designed to meet the following principles: greater certainty to the parliamentary timetable; more involvement between the main political parties in the management of business; greater discussion between all interested parties in the Commons about the shape and timing of the legislative programme; and greater transparency in the overall process

Another method of ensuring more effective use of the time available in the House for debate is pre-legislative scrutiny, where a draft bill is circulated to a committee for comment and consultation before it is tabled for its first reading in the House. Pre-legislative scrutiny is used relatively sparingly in the House of Commons at present.  More

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The Hansard Society recommends increasing the use of pre-legislative scrutiny, but critics suggest that, in the absence of the Government being bound to take account of concerns addressed at this stage, an additional layer of procedure in this manner is unlikely to assist in the passage of legislation, but only to slow it down.    See further:  House of Commons debate 29th June 2009 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090629/debtext/90629-0003.htm; Pre-legislative scrutiny House of Comons Standard Note: SN/PC/02822   Author: Richard Kelly, Helen Holden and Keith Parry Parliament and Constitution Centre

The law-making powers of Parliament have in practice been limited by Europe and the devolutionary settlements.  European law has become increasingly important, and impacts Westminster’s ability to make law for its citizens.

 

Composition of the House of Commons

MPs are elected by the public, usually every 5 years, in ‘general elections’.  The country is divided into ‘constituencies’ and voters in each constituency vote for their own MP.  The individual gaining the most votes becomes the MP for that constituency. More

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Depending on the number of candidates, the winning MP will not necessarily have secured more than 50% of votes cast in the constituency

It is not a requirement for a candidate for election to be a member of a political party, but in practice most MPs are.  The House of Commons currently constists of 650 MPs representing 12 different political parties, with only 5 MPs who are independent of any party.  More than 600 Members of Parliament currently in office represent the 3 largest political parties, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party. According to a proposition by the current government, the membership of the Commons may soon be cut to 600 as part of a redefining of constituency boundaries.

Currently, the ‘average’ MP is middle-aged, white and male.

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The number of women in Parliament is increasing, but only reached 20% in 2005.  Ethnic minorities are under-represented, being only 2% of the whole.  

  • Age: the average age is 50.6 years old (at 2005). This has remained consistent since 1979.
  • Gender: there are 126 female MPs, or 19.5%. However, this is an improvement from 1979 when there were only 19 women MPs (3%).
  • Ethnicity: there are 15 MPs from an ethnic minority, or 2%.
  • Region: there are 72 Scottish, 40 Welsh, and 18 Northern Irish MPs.
  • Occupation: The number of MPs with professional backgrounds has decreased slightly (from 45% in 1979 to under 40% in 2005); similarly, those from the business world (22% to 17% in 2002, and then 19% in 2005); but the number of MPs with a political background has increased from 3% in 1979 to 14% in 2005.

Some of these figures can be compared with the House of Lords:

  • Age: HOC = 50.6; HOL = 69.
  • Gender: HOC = 126 female MPs, or 19.5%; HOC = 148 female peers, or 20%.
  • Ethnicity: HOC = 15 MPs from an ethnic minority, or 2%. HOL = 31 non-white peers, or 4%.

Source: “The Social Backgrounds of MPs”

http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snsg-01528.pdf

The political party which gains the largest number of elected Members of Parliament in a general election is invited by the Queen to form the Government. More

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If no single party has as overall majority of Members of Parliament (a ‘hung parliament’), the Queen will either invite one party to form a ‘minority government’ or will invite a group of parties to form the Government together, a ‘coalition’ government. 
The leader of the political party forming the Government becomes the Prime Minister.   The political parties other than the party which forms the Government are together termed the ‘Opposition’ or the opposition parties.

 

Key Actors and terms

Prime Minister  The Prime Minister, in constitutional theory, is the Queen’s chief adviser.  He heads the Government and in this capacity he selects who will be Ministers and which Ministers will form the Cabinet.  He presides over the Cabinet and provides leadership, direction and coherence to the Government.  The prime minister is elected to his or her role by the members of his party, and is not directly elected by the public. More

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Each political party has its own system for electing a leader.

Ministers  The Prime Minister selects senior MPs from his party, but also on occasion, peers from the House of Lords, to be in charge of the departments of state, ‘Ministers’.  The Prime Minister also chooses which Ministers will sit in the Cabinet, the ‘inner circle’ of politicians who advise the Prime Minister and assist in the development and implementation of Government policy.  The opposition parties also nominate their own leaders and ‘shadow’ ministers of similar or proportionate numbers to the Government.

Frontbencher  is the term used to describe any MP who holds office as a Minister in the Government, Government whips, the leaders of the opposition parties and the shadow ministers of the opposition parties.  They are so called because they sit on the front benches in the chamber of the House of Commons.

Backbenchers  all MPs who are not frontbenchers.

Whips  All the larger political parties appoint teams of MPs, known as ‘Whips’,  to maintain party discipline (usually meaning requiring MPs to vote along party lines and not to ‘rebel’).  The Whips also help organise House business, such as determining select committee membership and the timetable for consideration of business in the House, or keeping Ministers aware of backbencher concerns.  The Whips send their MPs weekly notifications of scheduled business (called ‘whips’) and will draw attention to important matters where MPs are required to attend and vote with their party by underlining the relevant parts with three lines  - a three line whip.  MPs who defy the party Whips are usually expelled from their party (also referred to as having the whip withdrawn).

The Government Chief Whip, known as the Parliamentary secretary to the Treasury, is appointed by the Prime Minister and is answerable to him.  The Government Chief Whip sits in the Cabinet.  It is customary for all the chief Whips not to take part in debates in the House.

Independents MPs who are not members of a political party and not, therefore, subject to direction or discipline by the Whips.

The Speaker of the House  a serving MP who, chosen by an election amongst all MPs, acts as chairman of debates and maintains order in the House.  The Speaker must be impartial, and once elected, resigns from his political party and takes no further part in party politics.  The Speaker is also ultimately responsible for the management of the Commons and the provision of services to Members.  He or she requires MPs to comply with the accepted formalities of the house. More

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The customs of the House are founded in history, many of them difficult for outsiders to understand.  They tend to reinforce the ‘otherness’ of the House.   Some examples are:

How MPs must refer to other MPs in the Chamber: the description used is ‘the Honourable Member for . . . ‘. However, Privy Councillors (senior Ministers, past or present, and other senior Members) are "the Right Honourable Member for ...’. Often the constituency is omitted and a Member will be described as "the Honourable Member who spoke last", "the Right Honourable Lady opposite", "the Honourable Member below the gangway".  MPs must address each other in the third person and may not use the word ‘you’. Members of the same party are most often called "my Honourable (or Right Honourable) friend".

How Members are called to speak:   Members may speak only if called by the Speaker.  They are called by name and must sit down if the Speaker rises to his or her feet (e.g. to call for order or to interrupt the debate).  To catch the Speaker’s eye Members commonly rise or half rise from their seats but if they are not called they have no redress. They may, of course, write or speak in advance to the Speaker or his staff to indicate their desire to be called during a particular debate.  

Prayers: Each sitting of the House begins with prayers.  Members stand for prayers, facing the wall behind them.  This practice has sometimes been attributed to the difficulty Members would once have faced of kneeling to pray whilst wearing a sword.

Where Members sit and speak; the form and style of debate: By convention, Ministers sit on the front bench on the right hand of the Speaker: the Chief Whip usually sits in this row immediately next to the gangway.  Elder statesman and former Prime Ministers have often sat on the first front bench seat beyond the gangway.  Parliamentary Private Secretaries usually sit in the row behind their minister. Official Opposition spokesmen use the front bench to the Speaker's left. Minority parties sit on the benches (often the front two) below the gangway on the left, though a minority party that identifies with the Government may sit on the right hand side.  

There is nothing sacrosanct about these places and on occasions when a Member has deliberately chosen to occupy a place on the front bench or on the opposite side of the House from normal there is no redress for such action.

Members may speak only from where they were called, which must be within the House: that is, in front of the Chair, and not beyond the Bar (the white line across the width of the Chamber). They may not speak from the floor of the House between the red lines (traditionally supposed to be two sword lengths apart). They may speak from the side galleries but with the lack of microphones there is a strong disincentive from doing so.  Also, the Speaker will not call a Member in the Gallery if there is room downstairs.  They must stand whilst speaking but if a Member is unable to do so they are allowed to address the House seated.

To maintain the spontaneity of debate, reading a prepared speech is not allowed though using notes is.  Notes are not permitted at all in asking Supplementary Questions, although the absolute ban on direct quotations has recently been lifted.  Ministers do have notes on possible supplementary questions, drawn up by their Civil Servants to aid them in providing answers to Parliamentary questioning.

Sitting in Private:  The House nowadays allows members of the public to be present at its debates, though not at prayers.  This, however, was not always the case and the right to debate a matter in private is maintained.  Should it be desired to conduct a debate in private, a Member moves "That this House sit in private", the Speaker, or whoever is in the Chair, must then put the motion "That this House sit in private" without debate.  The House last sat in private on the 4 December 2001 when it was debating the Anti Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.  Once in private session, no verbatim, sound or television record of that session can be made.

Activities which are out of order during debate:  Briefcases are not allowed in the Chamber and the reading of newspapers, magazines, letters or other material (except when connected with the issue under discussion) is not permitted.  Members must not pass between the Chair and the Member who is speaking.  The Speaker has deprecated the noise of distracting electronic pagers, telephones and other electronic devices in the Chamber, although they are acceptable providing they are silent.

Greeting to the Chair:  Members generally bow to the Speaker on leaving the House, usually when they cross the Bar, and elsewhere in the Palace, at other times, for instance, during the Speaker's procession.  

Relations with other Members:  By convention, a Member intending to make an accusation against or reflection on another must notify the other Member in advance.

Factsheet M2 Members series House of Commons Information Office The Speaker.

 

Leader of the House a member of the Cabinet who is responsible for arranging government business in the House of Commons.

F ather of the House the MP who has the longest unbroken service in the House of Commons.  He presides over the House at the election of a new Speaker. More

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Currently the Father of the House is the Sir Peter Tapsell, who has served in the House since 1964 Factsheet M3 Members Series House of Commons Information Office: The Father of the House

 

Scrutiny and Accountability

Much of the work of the House of Commons is done by committees of MPs of varying sizes and constitution.

Select Committees

The modern system of select committees was established in 1979 at the beginning of the Thatcher government.  They have become the most important means by which the Commons holds the government accountable.

Generally, select committees examine the spending, policies and administration of a particular Government department and its associated public bodies.  They hold inquiries, seek evidence, publish reports and recommend changes to which departments are expected to reply. More

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There are 19 departmental select committees. There are also a number of non-departmental select committees, which includes the Liaison Committee, which consists of all select committee chairpersons and deals with matters affecting select committees, the Public Accounts Committee, which examines the public spending of all Government departments, and the European Scrutiny Committee, which examines all European documents and their importance for the UK. Finally there are 9 regional committees, which examine the regional strategies of the regions of England, including London.

Select committees consist of 11-14 backbenchers, with membership (and chairperson positions) of the committees reflecting the overall political makeup of the Commons.  Thus, the Government always has a majority.  Moreover, in practice, it is the party whips who decide committee membership.  This means the extent to which select committees can be effective is limited.

Joint committees

Joint committees consist of members of both Houses.  An example is the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which scrutinises government bills and alerts the Government to those which have human rights implications. More

General committees

There are several kinds of General committees although the most common are Public Bill committees which look at the bulk of legislation going through the House once it reaches the Committee stage.  Public Bill committees consist of 16-50 members and they are charged with scrutinising and if necessary amending proposed legislation after the second reading.  More

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Previously, Public Bill committees (PBCs) were called standing committees, and were in practice partisan and the scrutiny was poor, because members were chosen by the whips and had few powers.  There have been reforms, including giving PBCs the power to invite those from outside Parliament to give evidence. However, membership is still determined by the committee of selection, and depends on the interest shown in the bill and party interest. 

There are also other general committees, including Grand committees, European committees and Delegated legislation committees.

Grand committees: there are 3 in the House of Commons, which consider matters relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and consist of MPs from those regions.

European committees: when the European Scrutiny select committee recommends further scrutiny of European documents, these are referred to one of the three European committees, each committee dealing with a different area.

Delegated Legislation Committees: these general committees meet to consider statutory instruments (and allied documents) referred to them by the House. More

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Each committee is constituted afresh to consider each item of delegated legislation. The committee debates the instrument (for a maximum of 90 minutes; 2 hours 30 minutes in the case of a Northern Ireland instrument) and reports that it has considered it: in the case of instruments which require an affirmative vote from the House of Commons, formal approval is normally given in reliance on the report of the committee, without debate in the House (usually the next day), though the House can divide and reject the instrument if it wishes.      Source:  http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/l06.pdf

Officers of Parliament: these are bodies appointed by and reporting to Parliament. Parliamentary officers act as constitutional watchdogs on behalf of Parliament, examining government processes to ensure fairness and legality.  They are often given statutory independence because of their importance.  The best-known ones are the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the Ombudsman. More

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  • The Comptroller and Auditor-General: this office is responsible for auditing public expenditure, and holding government to account for the way it uses public money.   The Comptroller and Auditor General is the head of the National Audit Office.
  • The Ombudsman: this is usually a former senior lawyer or civil servant, who is responsible for dealing with serious administrative abuses.
  • The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards: this non-statutory position was created in 1995 to oversee parliamentary standards.   There are two other bodies whose features suggest they are also offices of Parliament:
  • The Electoral Commission: this is responsible for overseeing the election of MPs.
  • The Information Commissioner: this office is responsible for promoting access to official information, and protecting personal information under the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

There is currently some debate over whether other offices, such as the Civil Service Commissioners and the Commissioner for Public Appointments should also be given the protection of parliamentary officers.

Source: http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2003/rp03-077.pdf

Questions

Parliamentary questions, or ‘PQs’—questions raised in the Commons—are a key means by which the Commons holds the Government to account.  They shine a spotlight on specific areas and keep the Government on its toes.  The Prime Minister is currently required to answer questions from the Commons once a week (Prime Minister’s Questions or ‘PMQs’).  Ministers are required to answer questions from the Commons at least once a month.  Question time takes place from Monday to Thursday for an hour each day. More

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Commons oral questions are tabled by MPs at least three days in advance of Question Time.  The questions are then printed in the Commons Questions Book.  The order in which the questions are asked is determined randomly by a computer.

MPs who are called by the Speaker to ask their question do not read it out, but simply call out its number.  When the government minister has replied, the MP can ask another question (known as a supplementary) and other MPs may also be called to ask supplementary questions.  The Minister must reply to each in turn.  Supplementary questions must be on the same subject as the original question.

The last few minutes of question time is reserved for 'topical questions'.  During the 'topical questions' slot, MPs can ask supplementary questions on any subject relating to the department's responsibilities.

At Prime Ministers Question time only one MP and the leaders of the two major opposition parties are allowed to ask supplementary questions.

Parliamentary questions were a late development, emerging in the 19th century, with written questions not emerging till the 20th century, and only becoming important after the 1960s.  The number of written PQs has been increasing steadily.  In 2000-2001, there were 33000 written PQs; by 2006-2007 this had risen to 63450 PQs.  Moreover, the kind of questions being asked were not ‘inquisitorial’—asking the government to explain its actions—but rather related to research or general knowledge.  PQs are gradually becoming a free research tool rather than a means of holding the government to account.  This has happened for a number of reasons, amongst them being that the increase in allowances has allowed MPs to employ more staff, who in turn draft more PQs; and the pressure on MPs to seem active. More

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The cost of an oral question is currently estimated at £410 on average; a written question £119.  One key result of the dramatic increase in written PQs is the establishment of bodies within government departments with primary responsibility to answer such questions to relieve the burden on departments.

http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/business/questions.cfm

Source: http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-04148.pdf

Debates

 

There are different kinds of debates held in the Commons, but all show that it is a key forum in which important issues are discussed.  Moreover, these are times for testing and challenging Government policies, forcing the Government to justify its policies and actions.  For this reason, it is sometimes said that it is the duty of the opposition to oppose the government, in order that policy should be fully tested by means of open debate before it is brought into effect. More

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  • Adjournment debates: at the end of the day, the House adjourns, or closes; but the last half hour is given over to individual MPs who wish to raise an issue of particular importance.
  • Opposition debates: opposition parties are given 20 days a year in which they may choose the subject of debate.   In recent times, the Conservatives have chosen to talk about the EU Constitution and council tax; the Liberal Democrats about NHS dentistry and climate change.
  • Legislation: debates on government policies also take place during the various stages of passing legislation.

Parliamentary Privilege

Parliamentary Privelege is the protection granted to MPs when carrying out their duties within the House of Commons.  It gives them immunity from any civil proceedings against them within the grounds of the Palace of Westminster, and essentially allows Parliament itself to solve these disputes (although criminal offences will be dealt with by the full force of the law).  The most important Parliamentary Privelege in place today is the right to speak freely within the chamber with no possibility of defamation claims, or in other words, "immunity from litigation for words spoken in the House of Commons". More

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Parliamentary Privilege stems from Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, which states that:

"Freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament."   See:  Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privelege - First Report  http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/jt199899/jtselect/jtpriv/43/4303.htm

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  The issue of parliamentary privilege was called into question in November 2009 when police entered the Houses of Parliament and searched the office of Damian Green (the Conservative MP for Ashford) without a warrant, and subsequently arrested him on suspicion of “conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office”, following allegations that Mr Green had been receiving leaked information from a civil servant in the Home Office.   This occurrence was highly controversial particularly as the then Speaker – Michael Martin – had allowed the police access to the House; critics asserted that the matter should have been an issue dealt with internally by the House of Commons, maintaining the benefit of parliamentary privilege.  At the time the police argued that the information leaked concerned national security and justified a criminal investigation on those grounds. However when Mr Green was released without charge, they admitted that the information had not been very serious and did not undermine the effectiveness of government, thus could not have been deemed a ‘criminal’ offence.   The Speaker appointed a committee of seven senior MPs to investigate the issue and ruled that, in future, no MP's office could be searched without a warrant. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7754099.stm

Opposition politicians and journalists traditionally rely on leaked information to be able to challenge the Government and hold it to account.   This process - often referred to as ‘whistleblowing’ -  is an effective form of scrutiny even though its legitimacy falls into a grey area.   The Commons Public Administration Select Committee published a report in August 2009 calling for a more above-the-board way of civil servants bringing concerns about the conduct of government to attention. This can be seen here.

 

Early Day Motions (EDMs)

 

Early Day Motions (EDMs) are notices of motions for which no time for debate has been fixed.  They are given by MPs in the House of Commons, and essentially act as a tool to bring the attention of the House, and often the public, to an issue that they feel is important.  They also act as petitions that other MPs can sign to show their support.  They are therefore an important way of gauging the attitude of the rest of the House to a particular cause.  There is no guarantee that an EDM will be debated, and in fact the majority won't be, but their main purpose is simply to put the issue in front of the House.

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Procedure: An EDM must be handed into the Table Office near the chamber, and must be in the form of a single sentence, and a maximum of 250 words.

Signatures: There is no quota of signatures that, if gained, will lead to a formal debate.   However, a large number of signatures would imply a high level of support and thus may lead to time being set aside to debate it.   Only six or seven EDMs get more than 200 signatures in a session.   The record number of signatures is 502, and was on an EDM submitted by Malcolm Savidge on the need to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan (in the 2001-02 session).   An EDM will remain in place until the end of a session, but must be resubmitted in a new session and all the signatures regained.

Types of EDMs: There are a number of different types, but three major ones are:

1) EDMs from the Opposition which relate dissatisfaction with a Statutory Instrument and urge it to be brought to the House for debate.

2) EDMs from a group within a party which wants to express different views from the rest of the party.   These are mainly, therefore, submitted by backbenchers on social issues.

3) 'All-party motions' which show wide support for an issue across party divides.

Source: House of Commons factsheet http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/p03.pdf

To see the current list of EDMs, visit http://edmi.parliament.uk/edmi/

Right of audience in the House

Only elected MPs are allowed to speak in the House of Commons.  More

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The Speaker currently has plans to permit Ministers who are members of the House of Lords to answer questions in the mini-Commons chamber attached to the medieval Westminster Hall.  However, Gordon Brown has recently written to the Speaker to say that he sees ‘no reason’ why a Minister who is a peer should not be held to account to MPs in the chamber of the House of Commons.

Finance

Constitutionally, the Government must seek the permission of the House of Commons to levy taxes or spend public money.  As elected representatives of the people, it seems appropriate that the Commons should have sole responsibility to determine taxes, not the Lords.  However, it is the Government who puts forward proposals for expenditure, not the Commons.  The key way this is done is through the debate held each year to approve the Government’s proposed budget.  The Government’s actual expenditure is also scrutinised through the Public Accounts Committee, a Commons select committee, aided by the National Audit Office. More

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The National Audit Office is headed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is an officer of the house of Commons appointed by the Queen on advice from the Prime Minister, with the agreement of the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, and approved by the House of Commons.  The Comptroller appoints the professional staff, of the NAO who are not classified as civil servants, and are therefore independent of the Government.  The role of the NAO is to audit the accounts of all government deparments and agencies and some other public bodies.  It has about 850 employees.  It is criticised, however, for being too neutral in its reports and insufficiently transparent in its proceedings. 

 

Sessions and hours of sittings

The Parliamentary year starts in November with the State opening of Parliament and ends with the ‘prorogation’ about a year later.  When the House of Commons is open for business it is said to be sitting, and when it is not, it is said to be in recess.  The exact dates of recess each year are determined by the Leader of the House at the beginning of each year, but are broadly as follows:

State Opening of Parliament  November 

Christmas recess  Late December/early January, usually 2 to 3 weeks 

Half term recess  February, usually up to a week 

Easter recess  Usually Good Friday and around one more week 

Whit recess  Usually the week of the Late Spring Bank Holiday 

Summer recess  Mid-July to early September 

Prorogation  November 

Sitting times in the Main Chamber are as follows:

Monday  2.30pm–10.30pm   

Tuesday  2.30pm–10.30pm 

Wednesday  11.30am–7.30pm 

Thursday  10.30am–6.30pm 

Friday  9.30am–3.00pm  More

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The House only sits on a Friday if there are Private Members’ Bills to discuss.

Sitting times can be extended in certain circumstances.

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  • A  business  of  the  house  motion  is  agreed  allowing  extra  time; 
  • The  time  allocated  to  an  item  of  business  in  a  programme  order  has  not  expired; 
  • The  business  is  exempt  from  the  usual  time  of  interruption; 
  • The  business  is  unopposed. 

The role of MPs

An MP has 3 roles:

  • To represent a constituency and the constituents’ interests
  • To represent a political party
  • To represent the interests of the British nation

 

Because of party politics, these responsibilities can conflict with each other, for example, when an issue affecting a particular MP’s constituency would suggest that in the interests of his constituents he should vote in one way, but the party line (embodied in instructions issued by the party whips) dictates that he should vote in another.  Faced with this dilemma most MPs will vote according to the instructions of the whips, although it is not unknown for MPs to rebel, although to do so may risk them being expelled from their party. More

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The website Public Whip records all divisions and enables constituents to see when their MP has rebelled.

The constituency role of MPs has become more important in recent years.  In general MPs can only assist individual constituents in relation to issues which concern national government or central Government departments (eg NHS, HM Revenue and Customs), and should not become involved in relation to issues within the jurisdiction of local government (schools, social services, council tax).  Public expectations of what MPs can and should be able to achieve for their constituents are high, to the extent that MPs are now said to face ‘a tidal wave of constituency work’.  MPs are uniquely placed to be able to lobby the appropriate Minister or department on behalf of a constituent.  In more serious cases they may table a question in the House to draw attention to a particular issue.  More

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The first report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons expressed concern that public attention is increasingly focused away from the work in the chamber of the House of Commons.  The report states in the 1950s and 1960s Members received on average twelve to fifteen letters per week. Today the average is over 300 per week; and then there are the e-mails, faxes and telephone calls
The amount of MPs’ time which is spent on constituency issues raises questions about the extent to which MPs can properly perform one of the key functions of Parliament, the scrutiny of Government action and policies. 

In view of the volume of constituency work, most MPs find it necessary to maintain a constituency office as well as an office in Westminster.  A significant proportion of the allowance available to MPs is designed to cover the expenses of maintaining such an office.  More

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There is considerable variation between MPs as to the amounts claimed and this is one of the many factors which has given rise to adverse comment in the recent MPs expenses scandal.  Not only have different MPs interpreted the allowance rules differently, but it has also drawn attention to the fact that there is far from uniformity in the way that MPs conduct their business at constituency level. 
 

Generally speaking, when parliament is in session MPs will spend from Monday to Thursday at Westminster (and on occasions, Friday), and the remaining time in their constituency.  However, the long sitting hours, the volume of business to be considered, and the requirement for MPs to perform several different roles (for example, as Ministers or committee members or to attend to constituency business) mean that it is not possible for all MPs to be present all the time in the chamber during all sittings.  Indeed during many debates there are very few MPs present in the chamber at all.  This, combined with the long periods of recess – or holiday -  and the fact that there are no minimum standards or requirements for the hours that MPs are required to work leads to the perception that MPs are not hard-working. 

One survey which followed the work of new MPs over a year, found that MPs reported working 71 hours per week on average. It also set out how, on average, their time was spent:

  • Constituency work: 49%.
  • In the Chamber: 14%.
  • Committee work: 14%.
  • Other work: 22%.
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Source: Hansard Society “A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament”

http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/files/folders/590/download.aspx

This survey was however a qualitative one and not representative.

In short, one half of an MP’s time was spent on constituency work—not, as is commonly assumed, at Westminster. More

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The key reason for the focus on the constituency was the notion of a permanent party political campaign: it was a way of building up a mass of supporters between elections.

In terms of time in the Chamber, MPs noted as time went on during the parliamentary term the time devoted to work in the Chamber actually declined. One study found almost 90% of MPs spent less than 10 hours a week in the Commons. The category ‘other work’ included acting as a spokesperson, party business, or even writing a newspaper column. It should be noted, however, that attendance in the Commons chamber itself is not necessarily a measure of an MP’s work ethic: it may be that they spend more time in select committee, or influencing others informally.

An MP who is a Minister spends his or her time differently—usually, in Cabinet, Cabinet committees, dealing with departmental issues, and debates and questions in Parliament on their ministerial portfolio. 

MPs are only certain of employment as an MP for the life of the Parliament for which they have been elected; a maximum of 5 years.  So long as they keep the party whip, MPs in safe seats can be more assured of a long career in politics.   Most senior Ministers and shadow ministers are elected to safe seats and that security of tenure may lead them to give less priority to constituency work than an MP elected to a marginal seat.  It also encourages the growth of a class of ‘career politicians’, individuals who have spent their entire working career in politics.  Many MPs have jobs apart from their job as an MP; some view this as a good thing, as it means that MPs will have experience of the ‘real’ world, whilst others regard this as a bad thing because of the potential for conflicts of interest between their commercial responsibilities and their role as politicians.

The House of Commons Select Committee on the modernisation of the House of Commons listed a number of key tasks of MPs, including:

  • supporting their party in votes in Parliament (furnishing and maintaining the Government and Opposition);
  • representing and furthering the interests of their constituency;
  • representing individual constituents and taking up their problems and grievances;
  • scrutinising and holding the Government to account and monitoring, stimulating and challenging the Executive;
  • initiating, reviewing and amending legislation; and
  • contributing to the development of policy whether in the Chamber, Committees or party structures and promoting public understanding of party policies. 
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House of Commons Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons Revitalising the Chamber: The Role of the Back Bench Member (HC 333, 2007)

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmmodern/337/337.pd

 The recent Kelly Report also noted some of the unusual features of being an MP, including:

  • Responsibility for legislation, and the parliamentary privileges associated with the sovereignty of Parliament.
  • Direct accountability to constituents through elections.
  • The requirement to have two places of work – in Westminster and in the constituency – and to travel regularly between them.
  • The potentially unlimited demands on an MP’s time and the fact that an MP’s duties are rarely, if at all, circumscribed in terms of hours or duties, in the way that most jobs are, either legally or by convention.
  • The risk of losing their jobs at regular, or occasionally irregular, intervals, not necessarily related to their own performance and often not knowing for certain until the last minute. More
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    Source: Committee on Standards in Public Life MPs’ Expenses and Allowances: Supporting Parliament, Safeguarding the Taxpayer http://www.public-standards.gov.uk/Library/MP_expenses_main_report.pdf

 

Party discipline

Party politics dominates the House of Commons and is largely responsible for the manner in which all business in the Chamber and elsewhere in the House is conducted.  Without party discipline, a government would find it impossible to govern.  MPs tend to vote with their party because they believe in their party’s policy but they may also vote because the party whip tells them to.  They obey the party whips, even when they disagree with the party line, either because they may wish to advance up the career ladder within the party or because the ultimate alternative means no party support, without which an MP may find it difficult to maintain his or her seat.  They also obey the whips because the enormous volume of business means that there is not sufficient time for all MPs to study all issues in detail and they therefore rely on the whips to give directions, where the MP himself may have no knowledge of the issue or the debate which has taken place.  Thus, a political party with a majority in the House of Commons is generally able to get its way. However, backbench rebellions were common under the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments. More

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Backbench rebellions are often a reflection of governments who have long been in power; but they occur also because some of the measures proposed have been seen as objectionable by a large number of MPs.  These rebellions have often meant substantial changes to the government’s original proposals.  However, rebellions are the exception and not the rule.

Under the Blair governments of 1997-2007, there were several rebellions.

  • 2003: 139 Labour MPs support an amendment urging the government not to go to war in Iraq. This was the largest rebellion by MPs of any governing party in the past 150 years. 84 MPs voted against a later government motion approving military action.
  • 2004: 72 Labour MPs vote against the second reading of the Higher Education Bill, which would introduce ‘top-up’ fees for university education.
  • 2005: the government was defeated twice in the Commons in the report stage of the Terrorism Bill, which proposed to extend the period for detaining terrorism suspects from 14 to 90 days. This was kept at 28 days.

Source: Mark Stuart “The Role of Parliament under Blair” in Terence Casey (ed) The Blair Legacy: Politics, Policy, Governance and Foreign Affairs (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009)

On matters of conscience the political parties will occasionally allow a free vote, that is one where the party whips will not direct MPs how to vote.  This allows MPs to test the views of the constituents and also to vote according to their own conscience.  More

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An example of a free vote was the vote in 2006 on whether to ban smoking in all public places.

 

Pay

The current annual salary for an MP is £64,766.  In addition MPs are entitled to claim allowances to cover the costs of retaining staff, running an office and living in their constituency and in London and for travel costs between Westminster and their constituency.  The recent expenses scandal, involving revelations about the precise nature of the expenses which MPs have sought to recover under the umbrella of these allowances, has called into question the propriety of such claims and the way in which they are monitored and audited.  A report into MPs expenses has made a series of recommendations for change which are currently under discussion.   However it is MPs themselves whose vote decides the level of their pay and the amount and method for claiming expenses. More

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Twelfth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Chair: Sir Christopher Kelly KCB MPs’ expenses and allowances Supporting Parliament, safeguarding the taxpayer

Ministers and other office holders receive additional salaries of amounts varying from about £14,000 for junior roles such as select committee chairman up to £132,000 for the Prime Minister. More

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Prior to 1 June 2009 more than 130 MPs received additional salaries at a total cost of £3.5million  There is some controversy over whether our MPs are well paid or not.  By comparison with executives in the commercial sector, their pay is relatively poor, but in comparison to the opposite number politicians in Europe, they are relatively well paid.  See further www.taxpayersalliance.com RESEARCH NOTE 48 MP’s Salaries:  Putting parliamentary pay in context
These amounts are paid on top of their basic salary as MPs.  Furthermore all MPs benefit from a contributory ‘final salary’ pension scheme. More
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Factsheet M5 Members Series House of Commons Information Office  Members’ pay, pensions  and allowances 
MPs determine their own salaries and allowances by a majority vote. More
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But their decisions are based on the recommendation of an independent body, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.  The Kelly report into MPs' expenses has recommended that that body should be allowed to determine the level of MPs' pay and expenses.

 

Lobbying

Lobbying is the term used to describe the practice of trying to influence an MP’s votes, either by his own colleagues or by his constituents or by other interested parties.  Within Westminster there has grown up a professional industry of lobbyists, who are paid by commercial organisations or wealthy individuals specifically to represent their interests and to lobby MPs accordingly.  The professional lobbying industry was estimated by the Hansard Society in 2007 to be worth £1.9 billion and employ 14,000 people.   The power and influence of lobbyists is a cause for concern.  The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee has called for "a statutory register of lobbying activity to bring greater transparency to the dealings between Whitehall decision makers and outside interests."

The industry has two self-regulatory bodies, but the committee has described the self-regulation as "fragmented" and involving "very little regulation of any substance". More

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Dr Phil Parvin (January 2007). "Friend or Foe: Lobbying in British Democracy"  http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/files/folders/357/download.aspx.

Public Administration Select Committee (5 January 2009). http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/public_administration_select_committee/pasc0809pn6.cfm

 

Reform of the House of Commons

The method of operation of the House of Commons is idiosyncratic, and incorporates many forms, traditions and conventions that have endured for centuries.  These, together with the plethora of committees, the hierarchies inherent in party politics and the fact that the average MP is white, male, middle aged and middle class, mean that the House gives the impression to an outsider of an exclusive private members' club. Mindful of this, there  have been a number of attempts to reform or modernise the Commons. In 1997, the select committee on the modernisation of the House of Commons chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons was established specifically to examine Commons reform.  Progress since then has been sporadic, depending on the attitude of the Leader of the Commons, who is the chairman of that committee and a member of the Government. More

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Some of the most significant reforms in the last 25 years include:

* Regular live transmission of debates in the House

* The reduction of hours of work on Wednesdays and Thursdays

* The shortening of the long summer recess

* The introduction of programming, which enables a fixed timetable for the consideration of legislation.

Less important changes included the decision by the new Speaker, John Bercow MP not to wear the traditional clothes associated with the Speaker. 

The expenses scandal means that proposals for the reform of MPs' allowances are now before the House for consideration.  A change in the mechanism and structure in MPs pay, whilst it may go some way towards restoring faith in the integrity of MPs, is unlikely to make a major difference to the way that the House of Commons works.

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Twelfth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life Chair: Sir Christopher Kelly KCB MPs' expenses and allowances Supporting Parliament, safeguarding the taxpayer.

In light of the expenses scandal the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (often called the 'Wright Committee') was appointed on 20 July 2009 to consider and report by 13 November 2009 on four specified matters:

* the appointment of members and chairmen of select committees;

* the appointment of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means;

* scheduling business in the House;

* enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House

 

The committee reported in late November 2009 ('the Wright Report'). It recommended, amongst other things, that:

* chairs of select committees be appointed by secret ballot; membership of select committees to be determined by election within the parties; a reduction in the size of select committees.  These reforms are aimed at increasing attendance at and participation in select committees; and ultimately redressing the imbalance between the legislature and the executive.

* The establishment of a backbench business committee, and the division of House of Commons business into ministerial (government) business and non-ministerial business.  The business committee would have to work with representatives of the government and opposition to determine a weekly agenda. This would give the legislature greater control and responsibility over its own business - business which is not necessarily the government's business.

* Transforming, for a trial period, the Procedure Committee into a Procedure and Petitions Committee, which would deal with petitions; give petitions a greater profile; and look at introducing e-petitions.  These reforms are aimed at increasing public participation in the legislative process. More

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The Wright Report can be viewed here

 

On 22nd February and 4th March 2010, the House of Commons debated and voted on some of the recommendations of the Wright Report. The results of these decisions have been summarised by the Wright Committee, and some of the key changes are as follows:

* The size of select committees will be reduced

* Chairs of many select committees will be elected by secret ballot (using the AV system) by the whole house; members of the committees will also be elected by secret ballot but within parties

* The Backbench Business Committee established. More

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The current chair of the committee is Natascha Engel - a Labour MP. The other seven members are also backbenchers and represent the make up of the parties within the House of Commons, and thus there are currently two Labour members, one Liberal Democract, and four Conservatives sitting on the committee, aside from the chair. The committee's remit is to decide what is debated in backbench time, which used to be determined by business managers and government whips.

* Steps are being made to improve procedure on public petitions More

 

 


References and Links


Research Papers


Useful websites


Further reading


Research Papers

A Brief Chronology of the House of Commons, House of Commons Information Office

A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, Hansard Society

The Kelly Report on MPs expenses and allowances, Committee on Standards in Public Life

Modernisation of the House of Commons, 1997-2005, House of Commons Library

TCS Briefing Paper on Fixed-term Parliaments

Evidence given by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Lords Constitution Committee

Evidence given by Professor Robert Blackburn, Lords Constitution Committee

Useful Websites

House of Commons official site

House of Commons Information Office

House of Commons Factsheets

FAQs about the House of Commons

TheyWorkForYou.Com

The Public Whip

Revolts.co.uk

Current party make-up of the Commons and Lords

Further reading

- Paul Seaward and Paul Silk “The House of Commons” in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Robin Cook The Point of Departure: Diaries from the Front Bench (Simon and Schuster, London, 2003)

- Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters How Parliament Works (sixth edition, Pearson Education, Harlow, 2006)

- FN Forman and NDJ Baldwin Mastering British Politics (fifth edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007)



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