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How Does Parliament Work? – The Basics

The House of Commons is organised in particular ways and a basic knowledge of this is important to understanding how it works.

Two sets of benches facing each other

The Commons consists of two sets of benches facing each other with MPs supporting the Government on one side and those in Opposition to the Government on the other.

This creates a more confrontational atmosphere, especially when the House is full, than in other Parliaments where parties sit in blocks in a semicircle or the Swedish Parliament where MPs sit by regions. If an MP leaves or joins the governing party they cross sides.

Frontbenchers – Government and ‘Shadow’

About 90 MPs on the Government side have a responsibility for some aspect of running the government and are frontbenchers.  Most of them have the responsibility for introducing the Government’s legislation and defending Government policies and when they do so, on their topic of responsibility, they come to the lowest bench at front next to what is called the despatch box. There is a small team for each Government Department consisting of the Cabinet Minister and his or her Junior Ministers.

The Opposition also has frontbench MPs whose job is to ‘shadow’ Government ministers in each policy area and critique what they are doing. Their number was at one time quite limited and Churchill as Leader of the Opposition after 1945 had no real Front Bench and used to call on individual MPs with expertise to speak from the Opposition Front Bench as and when needed.

A feature of the post-war period has been the growth in the size of both Front Benches. All other MPs are Backbenchers with no policy responsibilities but they are still expected to speak for and vote with their side.

The frontbencher/backbencher division is quite different from, for example, the US Congress from which the Executive is excluded and all Senators or Members of the House of Representatives have the same role.

When the Liberal Democrats were in Opposition, before 2010, the smaller size of their parliamentary group meant that the division between frontbenchers and backbenchers was rather blurred with most of their MPs having some sort of policy role and over half of the current Scottish Nationalist Party have a spokesperson role.

Individuals that play key roles

The Speaker of the House

One of the MPs is elected by other MPs as the Speaker of the House whose job it is to preside over meetings and rule on the interpretation of procedures and also makes sure that the Parliamentary buildings are functioning properly. Although Speakers come from one of the parties they are expected to be completely non-partisan in the role.  There are three other MPs to deputise for the Speaker.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition lead their sides and their performance is important for party morale but they actually speak only on key occasions including Prime Minister’s Questions once a week and major statements by the Prime Minister on foreign policy or EU matters.

Harold Wilson would attend quite regularly to listen to ministers and debates but Tony Blair was hardly in the Commons and reduced Prime Minister’s Questions from twice a week to once a week. The attendance of Gordon Brown and David Cameron was also limited.

The pressure of the media and international meetings have made it more difficult for Prime Ministers to spend time in the Commons.

The Leader of the House and the Chief Whip

The Leader of the House is the Government Minister whose job is to organise the Government’s business so that in gets dealt with in the Commons.

The Chief Whip is the Government Minister whose job is to make sure Government supporters speak in debates and vote with the Government. A small team of Junior Whips, all Government Ministers, keep in touch with MPs to make sure that they support the Government.

The main Opposition Party has MPs in the same shadow posts and. although the Government always has the upper hand, may be able to reach compromises with their Government counterparts on what is debated and when.  The smaller parties will also have Whips.

Types of Committees

Significant amounts of the work of the House of Commons takes place in Committees. There are three types.

Legislative Committees

These are smaller groups of MPs that are meant to look in detail at Bills.

They are not permanent but are created only for the life of the Bill. The majority deal with Government legislation and are tightly controlled by the Minister promoting the legislation (normally a Junior Minister) and a Government Whip assigned to the Committee.

Policy Committees

These investigate the policies of Government Departments and other Government bodies but, more broadly, more or less any public issue that they want to.  They consist entirely of backbenchers.

The most prestigious is the Public Accounts Committee which looks at the financial performance of Government bodies and is always chaired by an experienced Opposition MP.

Most of the other Committees are the Select Committees which shadow each of the Government Departments. Which MPs sit on the Committees is decided for each session of Parliament but MPs may stay on a Committee for a number of years.

In House Committees

These deal with the running of Parliament. The most important is the Committee of Standards and Privileges which decides on any breaches of the code of conduct by MPs.

Grand Committees

These exist for each of the four parts of the UK.  The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Grand Committees, consisting of all MPs for each area, have been able to look at Bills related to their area, discuss issues and question the relevant Government minister. However, since devolution their role is limited.

The Conservative Government created an English Grand Committee as part of their 2015 manifesto commitment to introduce English Votes for English Laws. A legislative grand committee, reflecting the balance of parties in England, is able to veto the details of Bills certified by the Speaker as relating to England only. The same procedure is followed for Bills that relate to England and Wales only. Northern Ireland MPs may also be included in a Finance Bill that does not affect Scotland.

Backbench Business Committees

This was introduced in 2010 to allow Backbench MPs to decide on issue for debate rather than just the Government and the leadership of the Opposition parties. The membership is decided by a vote of MPs in party groups. It has chosen topics that the Government would not particularly want to discuss such as Afghanistan, immigration and the Hillsborough disaster.