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Parliamentary Procedures and Committees

How long is a Parliament?

The life of a Parliament is largely defined by the calling of a General Election at which point a Government will be formed and a new Parliament begins. In September 2011 the Fixed Term Parliaments Act became law. This removes the discretion of the Prime Minister in the timing of a General Election.

Previously, the Parliament Act 1911 provided that the maximum life of a Parliament was five years. The life of a Parliament could therefore be shorter than five years, leaving room for the Prime Minister to request the dissolution of Parliament and a new election at any point, but no more than five.

For example, a crisis or a Government with a small or no majority at all could result in a short Parliament – as in 1974 when there were two general elections – whereas a Government with a secure majority would tend not to seek an election until four or five years had elapsed. If it was doing well in the opinion polls, it tended to go after four years and if it was in trouble in the polls it preferred to wait the full five sessions in the hope that the situation would improve.

The only circumstances in which an early election can take place is if a vote of no confidence is carried by the House of Commons (and no new government, enjoying the confidence of the House, can be formed within 14 days) or if the House carries a motion that there shall be an early general election, with at least two-thirds of all the members of the House voting in favour of the motion.

The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949

There are two Acts of Parliament in the United Kingdom. Section 2(2) of the Parliament Act 1949 provides that that Act and the Parliament Act 1911 are to be considered as one.

Supremacy of the House of Commons

The Parliament Act 1911 asserted the supremacy of the House of Commons by limiting the legislation-blocking powers of the House of Lords. Provided the provisions of the Act are met, legislation can be passed without the approval of the House of Lords. Additionally, the 1911 Act amended the Septennial Act to reduce the maximum life of a Parliament from seven years to five years.

The Parliament Act 1911 was amended by the Parliament Act 1949 which further limited the power of the House of Lords by reducing the time that they could delay bills, from two years to one.

The Parliament Acts have been used to pass legislation against the wishes of the House of Lords on seven occasions since 1911. This includes the passing of the Parliament Act 1949.

Some constitutional lawyers had questioned the validity of the 1949 Act. These doubts were rejected in 2005 when members of the Countryside Alliance unsuccessfully challenged the validity of the Hunting Act 2004, which had been passed under the auspices of the Act. In October 2005, the House of Lords dismissed the Alliance’s appeal against this decision, with an unusually large panel of nine Law Lords holding that the 1949 Act was a valid Act of Parliament.

Bills not subject to the Parliament Acts

  • Bills prolonging the length of a Parliament beyond five years
  • Private Bills
  • Bills sent up to the Lords less than a month before the end of a session
  • Bills which start in the Lords

Creating Debate and Scrutiny

There are a number of ways in which Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords (called Peers) can be involved in creating and debating legislation and the impact of existing policies and laws.

Early Day Motion

This is a motion put on the notice paper by a Member of Parliament without, in general, the real prospect of it being debated. Such motions are expressions of backbench opinion.

Grand Committees

There are three grand committees in the House of Commons, one each for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; they consider matters relating specifically to that country. In the House of Lords, bills may be sent to a grand committee instead of a committee of the whole House.

Prime Minister’s Questions

The Prime Minister answers questions in the House of Commons from 12 noon until 12.30pm on Wednesdays. This allows Members of Parliament from any political party to ask a question to the Parliament.

The Leader of the Opposition is permitted to ask the Prime Minister three questions every week. If the Prime Minister is unable to attend then the session is passed to Deputy Leaders.

Question Time

Oral questions are answered by Ministers in the House of Commons from 2.30pm – 3.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, 11.30am to 12.30pm on Wednesdays, and 10.30am to 11.30am on Thursdays. Questions are also taken at the start of proceedings in the House of Lords sittings with a daily limit of four oral questions.

Private Notice Question

This is a question adjudged of urgent importance on submission to the Speaker of the House of Commons or the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords, answered at the end of oral questions.

Select Committees

Consisting of usually ten to fifteen members of all parties, select committees are a means used by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to investigate certain matters.

Most select committees in the House of Commons are tied to government departments: each committee investigates subjects within the government department’s remit.

There are other select committees dealing with matters such as public accounts (which scrutinise the spending by the government of money voted by Parliament) and European legislation, and also committees advising on procedures and domestic administration of the House of Commons.

Major select committees usually take evidence in public; their evidence and reports are published on the Parliament website and in hard copy by the stationary office. House of Commons select committees are reconstituted following a general election.

In the House of Lords, select committees do not mirror government departments but cover broader issues. There is a select committee on the European Union (EU), which has seven sub- committees dealing with specific areas of EU policy, a select committee on science and technology, a select committee on economic affairs and also one on the constitution. There is also a select committee on delegated powers and regulatory reform and one on privileges and conduct.

Select committees have been set up from time to time to investigate specific subjects. There are also joint committees of the two Houses of Parliament, for example, the joint committees on statutory instruments and on human rights.

Westminster Hall Sittings

Following a report by the Modernisation of the House of Commons Select Committee, the Committee decided in May 1999 to establish a second debating forum. It is known as ‘Westminster Hall’ and sittings are in the Grand Committee Room on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 9.30am to 11.30am, and from 2pm to 5pm and from 2.30pm to 5.30pm on Thursdays. Sittings are open to the general public.

Free Debate – Parliamentary Privilege

The House of Commons has rights and immunities to protect it from obstruction in carrying out its duties. These are known as parliamentary privilege and enable Members of Parliament to debate freely. The most important privilege is that of freedom of speech. Members of Parliament cannot be prosecuted for sedition or sued for libel or slander over anything said during proceedings in the Houses of Parliament. This further enables Members of Parliament to raise in Parliament questions affecting the public interest which might be difficult to raise outside owing to the possibility of legal action against them. The House of Lords has similar privileges.

What do Whips do?

The whip refers to membership of a political party. If a politician is not toeing the party line or damages the party through their individual behaviour then the whip can be withdrawn. This would mean they are still a Member of Parliament but not a member of the party.

In addition, people are appointed within each political party called ‘The Whips’. They are responsible for maintaining discipline. Maintaining discipline is essential in order to look united and therefore credible to the British public.

The whips role is important when it comes to votes in the House of Commons or House of Lords on new laws where politicians are required to vote in favour of their parties’ policy. Those who do not vote with their party are known as rebels.

The written appeal or circular letter issued by them is also known as a ‘whip’, its urgency being denoted by the number of times it is underlined.

Three line whip

These are crucial votes for the Government for example there was a three line whip by the Labour Party for the vote on going to war with Iraq in 2003. Failure to respond to a three line whip is tantamount in the House of Commons to removal from the political party.

Two line whip

Attendance is expected but if you’re unable to attend you can find someone to pair up with from your opposite party who also cannot attend therefore not affecting the overall numbers.

One line whip

You’re expected to attend but if you do not there are not any significant consequences.

Supporting the role

Whips are provided with office accommodation in both Houses of Parliament and some government and opposition whips receive salaries from public funds. With often hundreds of Members of Parliament within their party, whips often have a number of deputies.

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