British parliamentary debate is the process by which the UK government discusses issues and makes decisions on new laws. It might seem obvious when you put it like that, but the actual process can be a bit of a mystery for people. This debating style has been very influential on how official debates are held in many countries across the globe, as well as in unofficial debating in universities. Here are some of the rules and customs behind the traditional British parliament style of debating to get you started.
Today’s Process Dates Back to 13th Century
Before new legislation can be passed in the UK, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords must debate the proposed law, and usually both houses need to pass it. The House of Commons consists of publicly elected members, and the House of Lords consists of members who are mostly appointed. The process of debate in both houses is similar and follows strict rules, many of which go back to the origins of Parliament in the 13th century.
The First Step
First, a proposal or motion is introduced by members. Debates are chaired by the Speaker, who is a specially elected MP who keeps order and must remain impartial. Members of the government sit on the benches to the right of the Speaker while members of the opposition sit on the left. During the debate, members can only speak if they are called on by the Speaker. The speaker traditionally alternates between calling members from the government and the opposition. To get the Speaker’s attention, members rise from their seats—this is known as ‘catching the Speaker’s eye’. Members always address the Speaker directly, and must refer to other members in the third person.
Interruptions Are Commonplace
Debates in the House of Commons usually do not consist of members reading out set speeches but are instead an ongoing discussion. Members often intervene to ask a question or to comment or react to what others are saying. A formal ‘intervention’ occurs when a member is interrupted and asked to give way. Because members need to stand up before they can speak, speaking out of turn or heckling is referred to as speaking ‘from a sedentary position’. Although debates can be lively, often involving shouting, ‘unparliamentary language’ is not officially permitted. There is no formal time limit for debates, but if a speech is too long the Speaker may order the member to stop.
The Vote and Official Recording
Finally, after the debate, there is usually a vote or ‘division’ for or against a proposed new law. All British parliamentary debates are recorded in a publication called ‘Hansard’, so they are accessible to the public and can be read by anyone interested in learning more about British debating customs.