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Thursday 19th July 2012 | 20:00
Words: Harry Spencer and Max Tholl
A-Alloted days. Also known as Opposition Days, allotted days are days in a legislature in which the opposition parties set the agenda, allowing them to set the debate. The total number of allotted days is 20 and they are divided among parties, with the Official Opposition party allotted 17 and the second Opposition party allotted three days. April 29th 2009 marked the first defeat of a British government in an opposition day vote since January 1978, following a debate on the residence rights of Gurkhas .
B-Black Rod. The Black Rod is the senior officer responsible for security of the Lords; the direct equivalent of the Serjeant at Arms of the Commons. However, the Black Rod is most renowned for his ceremonial function during the State Opening of Parliament, in which he marches from the Lords to the Commons to summon MPs to hear the Queen’s Speech – only to have the Commons door slammed in his face. The title is now well over 600 years old.
C-Commons. The lower seat of Parliament, the House of Commons is often assumed to be derived from ‘House of Commoners’ as opposed to the House of Lords. However, the term actually comes from the Norman French word “commune” referring to the different areas being represented. An identifiable House of Commons evolved in the mid 14th century.
D-Departmental select committees. Select committees are committees of 14 cross-party MPs, which conduct inquiries, develop expertise and make recommendations to the government in their particular policy area. Select committees are a relatively new innovation, having been introduced in their modern form in 1979 by the late Tory MP Norman St John Stevas, but committees have been a feature of Parliament for centuries. Since 2010, their members have been elected by MPs.
E-Emergency debates. Ordinarily debates are announced in advance, in order to allow parliamentarians to prepare their arguments, scrutinise the proposed legislation and arrange their timetables. Occasionally however, emergency debates can be requested by an MP by invoking Standing Order 24, so long as the Speaker is satisfied the matter requires urgent debate. Emergency debates have been rare in recent decades, though this Parliament has already featured three; more than any Parliament since 1983-87.
F-Father of the House. The longest continuously sitting member of the Commons is known as the Father of the House. The current incumbent is Sir Peter Tapsell, whose winning streak goes back to 1966. The oldest ever is believed to be Sir Francis Knollys, who was re-elected aged 90 in 1640, and served until his death aged 98.
G-Green Card. Anybody wanting to visit their MP in Parliament without prior appointment has to fill in a Green Card stating their details as well as the name of their MP. The card will then be passed on to one of the attendants in Central Lobby who will then do their uttermost to get a hold of the MP and get him to meet his visitor. If the MP is allocated and has time to meet, he will come down to Central Lobby and meet with his constituent. If not, a message for the MP is left. Generally, an appointment is advised.
H-Henry VIII clauses. These clauses are a statutory instrument which, by adding a provision to a Bill, enables the government to repeal or amend the latter even after it has become an Act of Parliament. The clauses derive their name from the Statue of Proclamations 1539 which gave King Henry VIII such power. The use of such clauses is often very controversial, for example that in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.
I-Introduction. The ceremony of Introduction takes place at the House of Lords and “introduces” new members to the House and its existing members. A Lord cannot take his seat unless he participated in such a ritual. The ceremony is usually very brief, lasting no longer than five minutes and marks the beginning of business in the Lords. The ceremony started in 1621 when the personal introduction by the Sovereign was abolished.
J-Jailed MPs. While many MPs have gone to jail, relatively few have done so whilst still members of Parliament. John Stonehouse is by far the most famous, due to faking his own death en route to imprisonment. Peter Baker, a backbench Conservative in the 1950s, received seven years for fraud whilst still sitting, though he was then expelled from the House. Terry Fields, the outspoken left-wing Labour MP also served time whilst serving as an MP, being convicted due to his refusal to pay the poll tax.
K-Knights. After their parliamentary career, knighthood is often awarded for the services made as politician. The highest honour is the membership of the Garter, which currently includes former PMs Margaret Thatcher and John Major
L-Lords. The upper seat of parliament, the Lords was traditionally the most powerful house. This remained the case until the 19th century, when the adoption of more democratic elections lent legitimacy to the Commons, whilst the power of the Lords was diluted in battles over the Reform acts.
M-Majorities. Most governments have healthy majorities, but none can match the whopping 493 seat majority the National government enjoyed following the 1931 election.
N-Norman French. A rather unusual tradition involves the use of Norman French in some formalities of a Bill’s passage. Although English is the official language in Parliament, Norman French is still used for these formalities as the tradition goes back to a time just after the Norman Conquest when Norman French was the official language. An example of the use: “La Reine le veult” which is used to express her Majesty’s consent.
O-Office of profit under the crown. Members of Parliament are technically forbidden from resigning their seats, a rule that dates from the time when parliamentary office was unpaid, and thus many MPs were extremely keen to leave office. The only way for an MP to vacate their seat is to accept an office of profit under the crown. Several different offices of no responsibility and token payment have been used, of which the most frequently taken is Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham.
P-Parliament Acts. The Parliament Acts confirmed the supremacy of the House of Commons over the Lords. The acts allow the Commons to override Lords vetoes to legislation, and have been in place since the Lords tried to veto the People’s Budget of 1909. Despite being in place for over a century, the acts have been invoked just seven times – the threat of their use is usually enough to cow the Lords into submission.
Q-Questions. Not only does the Prime Minister take questions in the weekly showpiece, but all secretaries of state have regular question sessions in the chamber. Furthermore, all MPs can table questions for answer outside of formal sessions. But it was not always so. There is no record of a tabled parliamentary question before 1721, and in 1847, there was an average of a single question per day; by contrast in 2009-10, over 27,000 oral and written questions for ministers were submitted.
R-Readings. All bills are ‘read’ three times in both Houses. The first reading is a formality, consisting of the title of the bill and an order to print it. Second reading is when the first debates take place, and a vote is required for the bill to progress. The third reading features a shorter debate on the actual contents of the bill, rather than what might have been in it. Perhaps surprisingly, this process is not governed by formal rules and is simply well established convention.
S-Speaker. The Speaker, currently John Bercow, is the presiding officer of the House, responsible for chairing debates and keeping order. It is an ancient post, with a continuous history going back to 1376. Whilst the Speaker is nowadays required to be impartial, in the past it was often a key office in the government – and a perilous one too, as no fewer than seven were beheaded between 1394 and 1535. This explains the tradition of dragging speakers to the chair; many were understandably reluctant to take the office.
T-Ten Minute Rule. The ten minute rule allows MPs to propose a private member’s bill in a ten minute speech, which can then be opposed by another ten minute speech. In practice, private member’s bills almost never become law, serving mainly as a way for MPs to make their point. As MPs need to be the first to the Public Bill Office on the Tuesday or Wednesday two weeks before they would like their debate, in order to invoke the ten minute rule, it is not unheard of for MPs to sleep outside the Public Bill Office overnight.
U-Useless Parliament. The unfortunate nickname attached itself to Charles the First’s first parliament, which earned his wrath for failing to support his war with France. Nicknames have also been applied to many other parliaments – there have been good, bad, wonderful, merciless, unlearned, addled, happy, short, long, rump and barebones parliaments. Rather menacingly, there has also been a Parliament of Devils.
V-Voting. Voting in Parliament is not a simple hand in the air affair. The Commons votes by shouting ‘aye’ or ‘no’ whilst in the Lords they shout ‘content’ or ‘not content’. Assuming that either side is not satisfied with this rather imprecise way of counting, a division can be ordered. To vote on a division parliamentarians walk into one of two lobbies, representing yes and no respectively, and they are recorded on the way through.
W-Whips. Whips were introduced to the Commons in the 1880s, by Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, although individual MPs had long carried out a similar function. Whips issue a whip letter at the start of each week, making clear which upcoming votes they expect their MPs to attend, and how to vote. Given that explicit direction to MPs on how to vote is technically a breach of parliamentary privilege, whips can only “advise” their MPs how to vote – though the consequences of defying the whip can be severe.
X-X(E)x-MPs. Although no inherent part of Parliament, they are still very present. Hardly a day passes on which you can’t see one of them wandering around Westminster. Many former MPs compare losing their seat to losing a leg or an arm. So, it’s not very surprising that they try to cling on to it as good as possible. After all, Parliament is quite addictive. There is even an association for former MPs (formed by Joe Ashton) that helps them to overcome the trauma and start a new career.
Y-Yeomen of the Guard. Another parliament curiosity. The Yeomen of the Guard’s task might be purely ceremonial, yet a lot depends on it. Before the State Opening of Parliament, the Yeomen of the Guard, Britain’s oldest military corps still in existence, search the the cellars of the Palace of Westminster to ensure that it is bomb-free. The tradition dates back to after the Gunpowder plot when Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the building. Don’t worry, today, the Metropolitan Police conducts a more sophisticated additional search.
Z-Zahawi or Zilliacus. Only two MPs with surnames beginning in Z have sat in the House of Commons in the past century – Nadhim Zahawi, pictured right with David Cameron, and Konni Zilliacus. Aside from both migrating to Britain, the two could not be more different. Zilliacus was a left-wing Labour MP who was a founder member CND and was expelled from the party for voting against joining NATO. Zahawi is a successful entrepreneur and Conservative backbencher.
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