Traditions of Parliament

A number of traditions are involved in the working of Parliament. Below are some examples.

Dragging the Speaker of the House of Commons

When a new Speaker of the House of Commons is elected, the successful candidate is physically dragged to the Chair by other MPs.

This custom has its roots in the Speaker's function to communicate the Commons' opinions to the monarch. Historically, if the monarch didn't agree with the message being communicated then the early death of the Speaker could follow. Therefore, as you can imagine, previous Speakers required some gentle persuasion to accept the post.

Voting

When MPs vote in the Commons they say 'aye' or 'no'. In the Lords, Members vote saying 'content' or 'not content'.

Prayers

Each sitting in both Houses begins with prayers that follow the Christian faith. In the Commons the Speaker's Chaplain usually reads the prayers. In the Lords a senior bishop (Lord Spiritual) who sits in the Lords usually reads the prayers.

Catching the Speaker's eye

To participate in a debate in the House of Commons or at question time, MPs have to be called by the Speaker. MPs usually rise or half-rise from their seats in a bid to get the Speaker's attention - this is known as 'catching the Speaker's eye'.

The Woolsack in the House of Lords

The Woolsack is the seat of the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords Chamber. The Woolsack is a large, wool-stuffed cushion or seat covered with red cloth.

The Lord Speaker on the Woolsack

The Lord Speaker presides over business in the House of Lords, but does not control them like the Speaker in the Commons, as Members of the Lords regulate their own discussions.

If a Deputy Speaker presides in the absence of the Lord Speaker, then that individual uses the Woolsack.

When the House of Lords is sitting, the Mace is placed on the rear of the Woolsack, behind the Lord Speaker.

Judges' Woolsack

In front of the Woolsack in the House of Lords Chamber is a larger cushion known as the Judges' Woolsack. During the State Opening of Parliament, the Judges' Woolsack is occupied by senior judges. This is a reminder of medieval Parliaments, when judges attended to offer legal advice. During normal sittings of the House, any Member of the Lords may sit on it.

General Public in the House of Commons

The general public is allowed into those parts of the House not exclusively for the use of Members. Until 1845, the Commons by a Sessional Order maintained the exclusion of the public from every part of the House.

The Serjeant at Arms is able to take into custody non-Members who are in any part of the House or gallery reserved for Members, and members of the public who misconduct themselves or do not leave when asked to do so.

The Serjeant has taken members of the public into custody who have not come through the correct procedure to get into the House, or have behaved inappropriately.

Related information

Conventions: Letter from the Speaker in the Commons

In 2003 the Speaker of the House of Commons sent a letter to all MPs setting out a number of conventions that he thought were worth noting.

Further information

House of Commons library paper:

History of the Woolsack

The Woolsack was introduced by King Edward III (1327-77) and originally stuffed with English wool as a reminder of England's traditional source of wealth - the wool trade - and as a sign of prosperity.

Over the years its stuffing changed to hair but in 1938 it was restuffed with wool from each of the countries of the Commonwealth, to symbolise Commonwealth unity.

House of Commons Chamber Film - How the Chamber Works


In this chapter we look at some of the conventions and practices that remain an important part of the House of Commons and its work

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