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Some distinguishing features of the British Parliamentary system

  • 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 are appointed for the lifetime of a Parliament, 'shadow' the work of a particular Government Department, conduct investigations, receive written and oral evidence, and issue reports. Membership is made up only of backbenchers and reflects proportionately the balance of the parties in the Commons.
    • General Committees (previously known as Standing Committees) are temporary bodies, most of them Public Bill Committees formed to examine the detail of a particular piece of proposed legislation and consider amendments to the Bill. Membership includes Government and Opposition spokepersons on the subject matter of the Bill and overall membership reflects proportionately the balance of the parties in the Commons.
    • 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 involve quite a gladiatorial or 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. It is quite normal for speakers in debates to be interrupted by other members, especially of another party, and, in the Commons, cheering and jeering is a regular occurrence.
  • In the Commons, there is a Prime Minister's Question (PMQ) Time for 30 minutes at 12 noon every Wednesday. Questions can be asked on any subject. This is frequently a heated affair with the Leader of the Opposition trying to embarrass the Prime Minister and it is the one part of the week's proceedings guaranteed to attract the interest of the media. In his book "A Journey", former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote: "PMQs was the most nerve-wracking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question."
  • The Government is normally assured of a majority in the House of Commons for any measure or vote. This is mainly because in the Commons there is a strong 'whipping' system in which political parties tell their members how to vote on every significant division though a weekly set of instructions. The importance of actually being present to vote in the manner instructed depends on whether the 'whip' is one-line, two-line or - the most serious - three-line. Even when there is a rebellion by members of the majority party, the Government usually obtains its wish because all Ministers and their Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) are required to vote for the Government or resign their Ministerial or PPS position. This is called 'the payroll vote' (although PPS are not actually paid to be a PPS) and currently around 120 MPs or 22% of the Commons make up this block vote.
  • The official record of the proceedings of the Commons and the Lords is called Hansard. The press and broadcasters are present all the time and live audio and visual broadcasting can take place at any time.

Date: 2014-12-29; view: 1091


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