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Rules and traditions of Parliament

The origins of Parliament go back to the 13th century, so there are many rules, customs and traditions that help explain its workings.


Rules and customs

Much of parliamentary procedure has developed through continued use over the centuries and is not written in the Standing Orders. This is sometimes known as 'custom and practice.'

The practice of bills being 'read' three times in both Houses is not in the Standing Orders for example. Other procedures have developed through precedents such as rulings made by the Speaker and resolutions of the House.

Erskine May

Erskine May was the Clerk of the House of Commons between 1871 and 1886. He wrote 'Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament' which is considered the authoritative source on parliamentary procedure.

It provides details of observed 'rules' within the House, whether they relate to Standing Orders (and are therefore regulated by the House), traditional practice or whether they derive from 'Speaker's Rulings'.

Where Members sit and speak

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. Parliamentary Private Secretaries usually sit in the row behind their minister.

Official Opposition spokespersons use the front bench to the Speaker's left. Minority or smaller parties sit on the benches below the gangway on the left.

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 their usual position there is no redress for such action.

Members may speak only from where they were called, which must be within the House. They may not speak from the floor of the House between the red lines (traditional supposed to be two sword-lengths apart). Also, the Speaker will not call a Member in the gallery if there is room downstairs. Members must stand whilst speaking but if they are unable to do so they are allowed to address the House seated.

The form and style of debate in the House of Commons

The style of debate in the House has traditionally been one of cut-and-thrust; listening to other Members' speeches and intervening in them in spontaneous reaction to opponents' views.

This style of debate can make the Commons Chamber a rather noisy place with robustly expressed opinion, many interventions, expressions of approval or disapproval and, sometimes, of repartee and banter.

Ultimately it is the Chair, The Speaker of the House of Commons, who controls the House and who speaks and when. Members have the right, when speaking, to be heard without unendurable background noise (deliberate or accidental) and the Chair will call for order if it appears there is an attempt to drown out a Member or when a number of Members are leaving the Chamber, or conversing loudly.

Traditions of Parliament

The colours of the Houses of Parliament

A tradition that stands out to most visitors to Parliament is the difference between the colours which are used in the Lords and Commons parts of the building.

Green is the principal colour for furnishing and fabrics throughout the House of Commons, with the green benches of the Chamber perhaps the most recognisable of these. The first authoritative mention of the use of green in the Chamber occured in 1663.

In the House of Lords, red is similarly employed in upholstery, hansard, notepaper etc. This colour most likely stems from the use by monarchs of red as a royal colour and its consequent employment in the room where the Monarch met their court and nobles.

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 tradition 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.


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.

MPs can use prayers cards to reserve seats in the chamber for the remainder of that sitting day. These 'prayer cards' are dated and must be obtained personally by the Member who wishes to use them from an on duty attendant before the House meets.

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'.


When MPs vote on debates or legislation it is done orally, in the first instance. MPs are asked to vote by calling out 'aye' or 'no'. In the Lords, Members vote by saying 'content' or 'not content'.

Only if the decision cannot be determined 'on the voices' does a formal division take place. A division requires the House to divide into two voting lobbies, two corridors that run either side of the chamber, where Members' names are recorded and they are counted by the tellers.


The dress of MPs has of course changed throughout history. 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.

The Lord Speaker on the Woolsack

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 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.

Judge's 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 Houses of Parliament

The general public is allowed into those parts of the House of Commons not exclusively for the use of Members. 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 House of Lords is also open to the public and you can watch business in the chamber and select committees for free.


An alphabetical list of parliamentary terms with definitions.

View glossary

Standing Orders

Standing Orders are written rules formulated by each House to regulate its own proceedings. They cover, for example, how business is arranged and conducted, how time is to be allocated in both Chambers, and the rules relating to committees.

There are currently 163 House of Commons Standing Orders relating to public business and around 250 relating to private business.