The House of Commons Chamber
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The House of Commons Chamber

November 18, 2019

I love the Chamber of the House of Commons, I’m a Chamber devotee or a Chamber fanatic. I suppose really I regard it as the cockpit of our democracy.
It is the heart of Parliament and the heart of democracy for this country and it’s a great example to the world. That’s why the Chamber is so important. The Chamber is really the heart of our Parliament. It’s the one place where Members all gather together to ask questions, to debate, to legislate. So this is the House of Commons Chamber. It’s said that Churchill himself got
involved in the discussion about how big the Chamber could be and it was felt it would make it more intimate and a bit more argumentative if it was smaller, so that people were packed in for the big debates. The Government sits on this side, or to the right of the Speaker. The front bench is for Government
ministers and on the left hand side the opposition and the shadow ministers sit on these benches here. [MP speaking] So if a Member wants to reserve a seat for
the day, other than the front benches which are
reserved for ministers or shadow ministers, Members would have to write their name
on a prayer card, put it in the prayer card holder, and that would reserve their seat for the day, as long as they’re here for prayers, which is always the first business of the day. On Prime Minister’s Questions, it’s amazing how many seats are reserved and how many people come in for prayers. So, synonymous with the sitting on the House is the Mace, which is always present whenever the House is sitting. The Mace is carried in the by the Serjeant at Arms each day, and is placed either on the Table or below
the Table if the House is in committee. Maces belong to the royal household. The current mace was made for
Charles II and when the House dissolves at the end
of its term they actually go back to the royal household where they are stored safely. This is called the government despatch
box, so any minister, including the Prime Minister, that is making a speech to the House or
replying to questions from other members, would stand at this despatch box. It can be incredibly intimidating, particularly when the House is very busy, as is the opposition box. If we look back in history, we’ve had these great politicians that have been at that despatch box, banging away, making statements. So this is the Speaker’s Chair, where the Speaker sits and he is here to keep order in the House, particularly during very rowdy and busy debates.
[Speaker calls for order] In front of the Speaker’s Chair are the clerks who advise the Speaker
and Members on procedural matters. The Clerk of the House usually sits in this
chair and the Clerk Assistant there. When Members are asked to decide on a
particular issue coming through the House of Commons the Speaker will call a division. The division lobbies run parallel to the
Chamber on either side. We have the ayes behind the government side and the noes behind the opposition side. So if you’re a Member of Parliament and
you want to vote for a particular amendment or bill you will go through the aye lobby. Or if you’re against it you’ll go through no. This is the Serjeant at Arms’ chair. We are there to represent the authority
of the Speaker. Up here we have the Press Gallery, which
is where the media sit and Hansard, the official
reporters, and they record everything, so there is a record of what is said and done in the House of Commons. In the other galleries around either side is where the public sit. A very important element to
parliamentary business is that it doesn’t only sit but is seen to sit. The other very special thing about the House of Commons Chamber is you get a sense of the power of it; how the decisions that
are taken in this place affect everybody’s lives. The stakes are always high. It’s always a big occasion. Order! Order! In Westminster we start with prayers where
the Speaker processes through Parliament, arrives, the doors shut and what’s interesting is that that’s
the only time where it is all MPs and then after prayers are over the doors open, the journalists come in, the gallery fills up. It will then be followed by Question Time. Ministers have to come to Parliament to account for their departmental
activities. It might be Home Office questions, it could be Foreign Office questions or Education
questions or Defence questions. The interrogation of Ministers is something that takes place every day, Monday to Thursday. [MP addressing the Chamber] MPs have to put in in advance what
they want to ask for part of the session but there is a bit at the end called Topical Questions where people can ask anything they like we’re there to give some answers. We then move onto Statements or Urgent Questions If something critical happened, perhaps the Prime Minister needs to report back on a big international conference then he will give a statement. A Member can ask permission from the Speaker urgently to question a Minister on a matter that has arisen on
which for whatever reason the Minister hasn’t offered to make a statement to
Parliament. [Member questioning Minister in Chamber] Then we’ll get into the main business of
the day, which typically would be perhaps the second reading of a bill, so for the first time Parliament is
looking at the the scope of a particular bill. Somedays, it will be an opposition day so the opposition will actually choose what’s being discussed in the Chamber There is accountability, the opposition can have their debates on their choice, so can the back-benchers too so I think it works really well. Members of Parliament can present petitions and any Member of Parliament is entitled to do that and then the the last thing that
happens in Parliament would be an adjournment debate. An adjournment debate is where parliamentarians want to raise particular issues. It raises its
profile because the government that has to send a
minister to respond to the back-bencher on the adjournment debate and therefore that Minister needs a speech, needs to research what they’re saying and and make sure
that they are effectively up to date on whatever the issue
happens to be. My role as Speaker, as is true of my work in the Chamber more widely when chairing debates, is not to take sides. Not to be on one side or the other. Not, in other words, to be a player. It is to serve as as the referee of the match.
Everybody wants to get the attention of the Speaker, whoever’s in the Chair, whether it’s the Deputy, whether it’s the Speaker themselves. People, to get noticed, stand up. It’s very much for the Chair to choose who to call. Members will stand up each time someone
sits down. I’m looking around to see who’s standing up and I then have to decide who to call.
How do I decide? Well I go back and forth from one side to the other so there’s a mix between Government and Opposition. I’m looking to call Members of Parliament from different intakes, not just from people who came in forty years ago, but from people who came in two years ago. I’m looking to get a geographical spread and to some extent I’m looking to call people expressing a range of different views.
The Speaker and the people in the Chair are referred to as Mr Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker/Mr Deputy Speaker. There’s very little use of individual
surnames. That’s because only the Speaker will call a Member by name. Other Members will refer to people
on their benches as my Honorable Friend or the Honorable Member for a
constituency. [MP referring to his Honorable Friend] [MP referring to his Honorable Friend] The Members opposite are normally
the Honorable Lady or Gentlemen or again by constituency. Votes in Parliament are often referred to
as divisions. At the end of a debate, typically the Speaker will say: “The question is as on the Order Paper. As many as there are of the opinion say aye?” People will yell “Aye”. “Of the contrary no?” And very often Members will yell “No”. At that point the Speaker in the
Chair says: “Division. Clear the lobbies.” Voting is really exciting and first of all we have the division bell ringing. We have that all around the parliamentary estate so wherever you are in Parliament you hear the division bell going. You have eight minutes until the doors are shut. The doorkeepers who keep the doors open, after the eight minutes have finished, shout “lock the doors” if you haven’t made it you’ve missed the vote. We divide and you are either in support of whatever the issue happens to be so you go to the aye lobby or you’re against it so you go into the no lobby and that’s how we divide. We physically divide by the way, i.e. we walk through the division lobbies and have our names noted off a big list of paper of all the MPs. At first when I came to Parliament I
thought that this is a cumbersome and clunky way of doing things but actually
now after being here for two years I find it an incredibly useful way for being able to get hold of a minister
because if I have a particular issue that I would like to raise with that
minister, that my constituents are concerned about, as a backbencher it’s one of the useful, less formal tools. Parliament sits on a sessional basis and each session there is a Queen’s speech and that Queen’s speech sets out the Government’s main legislative programme. The first thing that
normally happens is there might have been a draft bill published that everybody can have a
look at even before it comes into the chamber to be debated. Once they appear on the order paper the Clerk will read out the title of the bill. It’s the formal first reading of a bill and that starts the whole process off. The next thing that is a debate in Parliament and it is called a second reading debate and what that really means is in principle what do we think this bill is about. Members from both sides will indicate what they like about it what
they don’t like about it. At end of that process it will then go to to a Committee Basically, it’s just like a project team of MPs from across all the different parties. They go away and they literally go through the the bill line-by-line, it’s a bit like editing a book. Then, it comes back to Parliament and the chamber looks at this
revised bill and then have that final debate. At that stage the Commons has
really had it’s say it goes over to the House of Lords they do pretty much the same process they then
throw it back to the Commons, we debate that all over again and then generally we reach a conclusion about what it
should end up looking like. The way you introduce legislation as back-bencher is there is a presentation bill that you can ask for, there is a ten minute rule bill that you can again request or enter the ballot. [MP addressing Chamber] I always look at the Chamber and think the Chamber is the great place of the House, this is to me what belongs to the back benchers. The vast majority of Members of Parliament on not ministers and the responsibility of Members of Parliament apart from handling casework for their constituents is to come to the Chamber and to probe, question, scrutinize, challenge [Member of Parliament addressing Chamber] [Member of Parliament addressing Chamber] One of the main functions of Parliament is to scrutinize government Members will do that through questions, both written and oral so it’s not just the
questions on the floor of the House Often MPs have their own one-to-one meetings with Ministers if they have got a particular local interest. MPs are on select committees and they hold inquiries and then of
course is the Backbench Business Committee. Since this Parliament started the
government has given backbenchers thirty five days of the Parliamentary calendar to schedule for themselves the debates that they want to raise so that’s been a really exciting development and has really changed the way that Parliament is working. Of course there can be emergency items that can be brought to the House, at times, there could be an emergency statement, big issues that really affect the country,
quite rightly, Parliament has got to reflect something not next week but something that’s immediate and that’s the power of the Chamber. [Member addressing the Chamber] [Member addressing the Chamber] [Member addressing the Chamber] [Member addressing the Chamber] The Chamber clearly is the focal
point and it’s what people know best but we also have a secondary chamber called Westminster Hall. That chamber is used for debates where, for instance, an
individual Member of Parliament might be pushing a particular issue. So what it’s provided is really a new
forum in which Members of Parliament can raise issues and critically get a minister to
respond because that’s the important thing.
The debates that happen in Westminster Hall have actually got exactly the same
status, are equally reported, as is an event in the Chamber. The difference is you cannot have a vote in
Westminster Hall, so as long as it’s something where you just want to have a general
debate about something. The minister still comes in to Westminster
Hall who gives answers. You’ve still got the shadow minister as well asking
questions and making speeches. It is exactly
the same, reports in exactly the same way. The only difference is that you can’t have a vote.
[MP addressing Westminster Hall debate] Members sit round a hemicycle rather than facing each other as they do in
the Chamber. It has the advantage that it’s more
intimate than the Chamber. The public sit on the same level which does, for some
debates if you’re talking about something that the people listening are
very concerned about, makes them feel more connected to the people speaking. [MP speaking] You see the Chamber packed for Prime Minister’s Question Time and of course for the big statements; the Budget statement and so on, the Chamber is cramped. At other times my constituents will say to me: “Where are you?” because the chamber is either half empty or actually pretty empty. Actually what MPs do outside the Chamber is really important.
Members of Parliament have a very busy life I think. Many are members of select committees
so they will be attending meetings, probably at least once a week usually. Quite a few
will be on something called public bill committees, which are the committees
which go through legislation. Or they’ll be on committees looking at
secondary legislation or on European documents.
If we’re not in committee we will have lots of all-party groups that we may be
members of, that have subject matters that we are concerned about. Also you’re obviously back in your office, working with your researchers, because we field about a thousand emails and letters a week from constituents.
The job is so varied and one of the things about being an MP that is
fantastic is every single day you arrive and you
absolutely have no idea what’s going to happen that day. It’s
always completely different. If anyone wants to make contact about what is happening in
the Chamber, I think the first port of call would obviously be their constituency Member. Constituents have a number of of ways in
which they can first of all contact their Member of Parliament and then ask their
Member of Parliament to take up an issue. As many Members of Parliament do, I hold
regular surgeries in the constituency in terms of by email, by Twitter,
by Facebook, in person, over the phone If it is an issue which a select committee is looking at then they can write to the committees they can petition, ask the Member to lay a petition. E-petitions there’s no guarantee that an e-petition would get a debate but it’s certainly one of those things which the Backbench Business Committee would look at very seriously, and of
course they can ask Members if something is problem which they’ve been unable to get
resolved they can ask them to raise it in the adjournment. I think a lot of people are not
conscious that they can come watch the proceedings, in fact they
didn’t have to ask their Member of Parliament, people can turn up and queue and get in to watch the proceedings of the
House. If people wanted to visit the House and they have got access to a computer, then they can go to the Parliament website, there’s a lot of information there. They can find out how to do it if
they want to do a tour, they want to come and watch debate, if
they want to go into a committee meeting. Parliament is very welcoming and likes
having people so we do hope people will use that
facility and can come and watch their Parliament. The chamber, is also a place of real theatre and I think the public enjoy that. [Prime Minister, David Cameron addresses Minister] The adrenaline ought to be flowing because it is exciting and you’re conscious that it’s being reported very widely and viewed fairly extensively across the country and indeed beyond the UK. This is a working museum, this is a fantatic building to work in. It’s the envy of the world, home of democracy. But it all comes back down to one place in reality; that is the Chamber, that is where decisions are made.

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  1. The progress of British democracy has always been to grudgingly expand the mandate. Can we have a house of everyone, now that technology has made direct democracy much more feasible?

  2. Hello, i just want to say i am a 12 year old English Citizen, i am interested in politics, so thank you for making this video

  3. It sounds exhausting to do a division every single time a vote is called and to never do it with more 21st century measures…

    But when they wanted to abandon the similar – but more rarely used – "Hammelsprung" in Germany, the MPs were opposed, because it such fun to do…

  4. Does the house of commons chamber have any loudspeaker inside?
    Because the debates are realy heated and everyone in the chamber needs to hear the exchanges. But one thing is that the hanging microphones are not close to the MPs mouth.

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