Inside the UK House of Commons

In an earlier post, I described the interior of the Canadian House of Commons. In this post, I will provide readers with an overview of the layout of the British House of Commons.

The Chamber of the House of Commons is at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster; it was opened in 1950 after the Victorian chamber had been destroyed in 1941 and re-built under the architect Giles Gilbert Scott. The Chamber measures 14 by 20.7 metres, which is smaller than the Canadian Chamber (16 by 21 metres). This is noteworthy because there are more than twice as many MPs elected to the UK House of Commons (650). It is impossible for all MPs to sit in the Chamber at the same time; indeed, only about 427 MPs can be accommodated at any one time. Another noteworthy difference between the Canadian and British Chambers is that British MPs do not have individual desks or assigned seats; rather, all MPs sit on benches.

Legend

1. Speaker’s Chair
2. Table of the House
3. Despatch boxes
4. The Mace
5. The Bar of the House
6. Aye division lobby
7. No division lobby
8. Division Clerks’ Desks
9. Entrances to lobby
10. Exits from lobby
11. Petition bag
12. Prime Minister
13. Government Whips
14. Other ministers
15. Parliamentary Private Secretaries
16. Government backbenches
17. Leader of the Official Opposition
18. Opposition whips
19. Shadow ministers
20. Opposition backbenches
21. Third party
22. Other smaller parties
23. Clerks at the Table
24. Serjeant at Arms
25. Public servants
26. Strangers

The above schematic is how the Chamber would normally look when there is a single-party majority government in place. For example, when Labour formed the government, the parties were arranged thusly:

As we can see, the Government side, indicated in red, occupies most of the right side of the Chamber, except for one small area which is seating for members from smaller parties [#22]. The Opposition side was dominated by the Conservative party (blue), who formed the Official Opposition, and the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in the House, were seated to left of the Conservatives [#21].

Because the current government is a coalition government comprised of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, the government side would be both blue and yellow. The front bench [#14] would consist of both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, as would the section reserved for parliamentary private secretaries [#15]. On the government backbenches, however, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs tend not to intermingle, with the Lib Dems MPs sitting as a block to the right of the Conservatives. On the Opposition side of the House, the section numbered 21 is now occupied mostly by Labour MPs as the third party, the Lib Dems, are now on the Government side of the Chamber. (See this interactive guide from the BBC for a better view of the current seating arrangements.)

Another interesting difference between the Canadian and British chambers is the presence of division lobbies. Because not all MPs can be present in the Chamber at one time, MPs do not stand to vote in their place as they do in Canada. Voting is done in division lobbies [#6 and #7]. MPs have to walk through the two Division Lobbies on either side of the House and give their name to the Division Clerks [#8] at the end of the respective Lobbies to vote. They are then counted by the Tellers as they leave the Lobby. After all members have voted in the lobbies, the vote totals are written on a card and the numbers are read out to the House by the Tellers. The Speaker then announces these numbers a second time, announcing the final result by saying ‘The Ayes/Noes have it, the Ayes/Noes have it’.

Other differences include the despatch (or dispatch) boxes and the Petition Bag. The despatch boxes are two ornate wooden boxes [#3], one box on the Government side and one on the Opposition side of the table [#2] that divides the opposing frontbenches. Whereas backbenchers in both Parliaments generally deliver addresses to the chamber while standing at their seat, frontbenchers (ministers and shadow ministers) deliver their addresses from their side’s despatch box. For this reason, the expression “speaking from the despatch box” is often used to describe the performance of a member of parliament (even backbenchers) in addressing the Chamber. Here is a photo showing both despatch boxes, as well as the Mace [#4]:

The Petition Bag [#11] hangs on the back of the Speaker’s Chair [#1]. MPs present petitions by either giving a short statement in the Chamber or by simply placing the petition in the Petition Bag. The Bar of the House [#5], is not an actual bar as it is in the Canadian House of Commons, but simply a white line painted on the floor of the Chamber.

 

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