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Some distinguishing features of the British Parliamentary system

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· Much of the work of Parliament is done in Committees rather than on the floor of the chamber. The House of Commons has two types of committee: Select Committees which are appointed for the lifetime of a Parliament and “shadow” the work of a Government Department, conduct investigations, and issue reports; General Committees (previously known as Standing Committees) which are temporary bodies formed to examine the detail of a particular piece of legislation and consider amendments to the Bill. The House of Lords only has Select Committees (it does not need Standing Committees because the details of Bills are considered on the floor of the chamber). Finally there are some Joint Committees of the Commons and the Lords.

· Discussion and debate involves quite a confrontational approach. This is reflected in the physical shape of the chambers. Whereas most legislatures are semi-circular, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are rectangular with the Government party sitting on one side and the Opposition parties sitting on the other side. The House of Lords alone has cross-benches for independent peers.

· There is a Prime Minister’s Question Time for 30 minutes every Wednesday. Questions can be asked on any subject.

· The press is present all the time and live audio and visual broadcasting can take place at any time.

· Most of the parties, large and small, have important officials, chosen from among their MPs, known as Whips. Within each of the main parties there is a Chief Whip, together with 10-12 Whips. They have a variety of functions, the most important of which is maintaining discipline. Although MPs in the House of Commons can theoretically vote as they wish, they are generally expected to vote with their party.Every week a Whip sends the MPs a notice, also known as The Whip, giving the order of business for the following week. Each matter to be discussed will be underlined once, twice or three times according to its importance. If it is underlined once then it is not a particularly important issue and attendance is merely requested. A rather more important matter will be underlined twice meaning that attendance is particularly requested. When the two largest parties have roughly similar numbers of MPs then a Member who wishes to be absent from a ‘two line whip’ will ‘pair’ with an MP from the opposing side. This ‘pairing’ is recorded by the Whips and as both sides would be losing a vote then neither would gain an advantage. Attendance is essential when an item is underlined three times (a ‘three-line whip’).In the case of a three-line whip, a Member will normally be expected to attend unless he or she is either seriously ill or has to attend to some extremely urgent business elsewhere and has permission from the Whips’ office to be absent.

· A clear and independent record of all the proceedings in the Chamber of the House of Commons and its Standing Committees can be found in Hansard — the Official Report. (A separate Hansard covers the House of Lords). Hansard is named after the family who used to publish the reports in the 19th century. Regular programmes featuring Parliament can be heard on Radio 4. Continuous and unedited coverage of proceedings can be found on the BBC Parliament channel.

· Debates in the House of Commons are conducted by certain rules. Speakers address all their comments to the chairman (the Speaker), not to each other. If tempers become heated, it is the chairman who will step in to control the debate, saying “Order, Order”. Whenever a Member finishes speaking it is the Speaker who decides who should speak next. At the end of each speech, a number of hopeful MPs who want to speak next will rise to their feet to try to ‘catch the Speaker’s eye’. In fact, this is often unnecessary, as the Speaker will usually know in advance who particularly wants to speak. MPs speak from wherever they have been sitting and not from a rostrum, although front-bench members usually stand at one of the despatch boxes on the Table of the House. MPs may not read their speeches, although they may refresh their memories by referring to notes. If one Member, in the course of a speech, wishes to refer to another Member, he or she must not mention their name, but should instead refer to “The Honourable Member for...” followed by the name of the constituency or “My Honorable Friend”.

· At the end of the debate the occupant of the Chair 'puts the question' whether to agree with the motion or not. Votes may be taken by acclamation - the norm for uncontroversial business (this is referred to as “voice vote” and means MPs shouting “Aye” if they agree or “No” if they disagree). However, if MPs or Peers wish to 'divide the House', which generally happens on more controversial votes, then a division is held. Members have to file through one of two division lobbies, one for the Ayes to vote yes, one for the Noes to vote no. The numbers going through each lobby are counted and the result given (in the Commons) to the Speaker by the 'tellers' (MPs appointed to supervise the vote). The Speaker formally announces the result and adds “So the ‘Ayes’ (or ‘Noes’) have it”.In a tied vote the Speaker gives a casting vote, according to defined principles rather than on the merits of the question. The House of Lords uses a similar system; instead of ‘Ayes’ and ‘Noes’, however, the Lords will be divided into ‘Contents’ (those voting ‘Yes’) and ‘Not-Contents’ (those voting ‘No’), Lord Speaker does not have a casting vote.

· The life of a Parliament is divided into sessions. Each usually lasts for one year - normally ending in October or November when Parliament is 'prorogued', followed shortly by the State Opening of Parliament, marking the beginning of the new session. The two Houses do not normally sit at weekends, at Christmas, Easter and the late Spring Bank Holiday. In the Commons there is also a 'half-term' break of a week in February. The traditional long summer break ('recess'), starts in late July and finishes in October.

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