Traditions and Customs

Description of Members in the Chamber

In general, the description used is “the Honourable Member for . . . . However, Privy Councillors (senior Ministers, past or present, and other senior Members) are “the Right Honourable Member for … “. Less frequently heard these days are “the Noble Lord, the Member for … “, which is used for a Member with a courtesy title (e.g. the son of a duke, marquess or earl) who sits in the House of Commons, or an Irish peer, “the Honourable Baronet for … “.

Often the constituency is omitted and a Member will be described as “the Honourable Member who spoke last”, “the Right Honourable Lady opposite”, “the Honourable Member below the gangway”.

Members of the same party are most often called “my Honourable (or Right Honourable) friend”.

How Members are called to speak

Members may speak only if called by the Chair. They are called by name and must sit down if the Speaker rises to his or her feet (e.g. to call for order or to interrupt the debate). To catch the Speaker’s eye Members commonly rise or half rise from their seats but if they are not called they have no redress. They may, of course, write or speak in advance to the Speaker or his staff to indicate their desire to be called during a particular debate.

Prayers

Each sitting of the House begins with prayers. Members stand for prayers, facing the wall behind them. This practice has sometimes been attributed to the difficulty Members would once have faced of kneeling to pray whilst wearing a sword.

Where Members sit and speak; the form and style of debate

By convention, Ministers sit on the front bench on the right hand of the Speaker: the Chief Whip usually sits in this row immediately next to the gangway. Elder statesman and former Prime Ministers have often sat on the first front bench seat beyond the gangway. Parliamentary Private Secretaries usually sit in the row behind their minister. Official Opposition spokesmen use the front bench to the Speaker’s left. Minority parties sit on the benches (often the front two) below the gangway on the left, though a minority party that identifies with the Government may sit on the right hand side.

There is nothing sacrosanct about these places and on occasions when a Member has deliberately chosen to occupy a place on the front bench or on the opposite side of the House from normal there is no redress for such action.

Members may speak only from where they were called, which must be within the House: that is, in front of the Chair, and not beyond the Bar (the white line across the width of the Chamber). They may not speak from the floor of the House between the red lines (traditionally supposed to be two sword lengths apart). They may speak from the side galleries but the lack of microphones there is a strong disincentive from doing so. Also, the Speaker will not call a Member in the Gallery if there is room downstairs. They must stand whilst speaking but a Member is unable to do so they are allowed to address the House seated.
To maintain the spontaneity of debate, reading a prepared speech is not allowed though using notes is. Notes are not permitted at all in asking Supplementary Questions, although the absolute ban on direct quotations has recently been lifted. Ministers do have notes on possible supplementary questions, drawn up by their Civil Servants to aid them in providing answers to Parliamentary questioning.

Sitting in Private

The House nowadays allows members of the public to be present at its debates, though not at prayers. This, however, was not always the case and the right to debate a matter in private is maintained. Should it be desired to conduct a debate in private, a Member moves “That this House sit in private”, the Speaker, or whoever is in the Chair, must then put the motion “That this House sit in private” without debate. The House last sat in private on the 4 December 2001 when it was debating the Anti Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. Once in private session, no verbatim, sound or television record of that session can be made.

Activities which are out of order during debate Briefcases are not allowed in the Chamber and the reading of newspapers, magazines, letters or other material (except when connected with the issue under discussion) is not permitted. Members must not pass between the Chair and the Member who is speaking. The Speaker has deprecated the noise of distracting electronic pagers, telephones and other electronic devices in the Chamber, although they are acceptable providing they are silent.

Greeting to the Chair

Members generally bow to the Speaker on leaving the House, usually when they cross the Bar, and elsewhere in the Palace, at other times, for instance, during the Speaker’s procession.

Relations with other Members

By convention, a Member intending to make an accusation against or reflection on another must notify the other Member in advance.

Dress

The dress of Members these days is generally that which might ordinarily be worn for a fairly formal business transaction the Speaker has, on a number of occasions, taken exception to informal clothing, including the non wearing of jackets and ties by men. Hats were another aspect of parliamentary etiquette. They were generally worn in the Chamber, but not when addressing the House, nor entering or leaving it.

Although it was at one time common for Members to wear swords in the Chamber (there is a record of an incident in the eighteenth century when one Member’s sword impaled and removed another’s wig), it is not now permitted to carry arms of any kind into debate. The Serjeant at Arms does, however, wear a sword whilst in the Chamber. Medals are not worn in the House.

Snuff

Another curious survival of the eighteenth century is the provision of snuff, in recent years at public expense, for Members and Officers of the House, at the doorkeepers’ box at the entrance to the Chamber. Very few Members take snuff nowadays. Snuff, however, is the only form of tobacco to be tolerated in or around the Chamber: smoking has been banned there and in committees since 1693.

Dogs

Dogs, except guide dogs, are not generally allowed in the Palace of Westminster. One present Member, Mr David Blunkett, is blind, and regularly brings his guide dog, Sadie, into the Chamber. Mr Blunkett’s previous dogs, Lucy, Ted and Offa, also used to accompany him.

Strangers

By convention, visitors to the House of Commons are referred to as ‘Strangers’. The practice of ‘spying Strangers’ was abandoned in 1998 and references to ‘Strangers’ have elsewhere been abandoned.

But the word is still used in the names of various parts of the Palace of Westminster, such as the Strangers’ Gallery, strangers’ Dining Room and Strangers’ Bar.

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