1.1 Look through these questions before reading text 1.
What are the major activities of Parliament in Britain?
What are the distinctive features of the design and layout of the House of Commons? Can we say that the fairly informal atmosphere in the House is the result of these features?
In what way do MPs organise their work?
What is the central rule of procedure in Parliament set out by standing orders?
When the Commons decide to vote, they don’t vote immediately. Instead, a “division bell” rings throughout the Palace of Westminster, after which MPs have eight minutes in which to vote. Why?
What makes the House committees so powerful?
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
The activities of Parliament in Britain are more or less the same as those of the Parliament in any western democracy. It makes new laws, gives authority for the government to raise and spend money, keeps a close eye on government activities and discusses those activities. The British Parliament is divided into two ‘houses’, and its members belong to one or other of them, although only members of the Commons are normally known as MPs (Members of Parliament). The Commons is by far the more important of the two houses.
The atmosphere of the House. The design and layout of the House of Commons differ from the interior of the parliament buildings in most other countries. These differences can tell us a lot about what is distinctive about the British Parliament. First, there are just two rows of benches facing each other. There is no opportunity in this layout for a reflection of all the various shades of political opinion (as there is with semi-circle). According to where they sit, MPs are seen to be either ‘for’ the government (supporting it) or against it. This physical division is emphasized by the table on the floor of the House between the two rows of benches. The Speaker’s chair, which is raised some way off the floor, is also here. From this commanding position, the Speaker chairs (that is, controls) the debates. The arrangement of the benches encourages confrontation between government and opposition.
Second, the Commons has no ‘front’, no obvious place from which an MP can address everybody there. MPs simply stand up and speak from wherever they happen to be sitting. Third, there are no desks for the MPs. The benches where they sit are exactly and only that – benches, just as in a church. This makes it physically easy for them to drift in and out of the room, which is something that they frequently do during debates. Fourth, the House is very small. In fact, there isn’t enough room for all the MPs. There are more than 650 of them, but there is seating for less than 400. A candidate at an election is said to have won ‘a seat’ in the Commons, but this ‘seat’ is imaginary. MPs do not have their ‘own’ place to sit. No names are marked on the benches. MPs just sit down wherever (on ‘their’ side of the House) they can find room.
All these features result in a fairly informal atmosphere. Individual MPs, without their own ‘territory’ (which a personal seat and desk would give them), are encouraged to co-operate. Moreover, the small size of the House, together with the lack of a podium or dais from which to address it, means that MPs do not normally speak in the way that they would at a large public rally. MPs normally speak in a conversational tone, and because they have nowhere to place their notes while speaking, they do not normally speak for very long either! It is only on particularly important occasions, when all the MPs are present, that passionate oratory is sometimes used.
The ancient habits are preserved today in the many customs and detailed rules of procedure which all new MPs find that they have to learn. The most noticeable of these is the rule that forbids MPs to address one another directly or use personal names. All remarks and questions must go ‘through the Chair’. An MP who is speaking refers to or asks a question of ‘the honorable Member for Winchester’ or ‘my right honorable friend’. The MP for Winchester may be sitting directly opposite, but the MP never says ‘you’. These ancient rules were originally formulated to take the ‘heat’ out of debate and decrease the possibility that violence might break out. Today, they lend a touch of formality which balances the informal aspects of the Commons and further increases the feeling of MPs that they belong to a special group of people.
An MP’s life. Traditionally, MPs were supposed to be ordinary people giving some of their time to representing the people. This is why MPs were not even paid until the beginning of this century. Traditionally, they were supposed to be doing a public service, not making a career for themselves. In fact MPs have been paid salaries since 1911. The rate has lately been nearly twice the average industrial worker’s wage. The Leader of the Opposition receives a salary from the state funds as if he were a minister. But many MPs say that they need to have outside earnings, through journalism, work in the law courts or business, to enable them to live at the standard they expect. British MPs do not get paid very much in comparison with many of their European counterparts. Moreover, by European standards, they have incredibly poor facilities. Most MPs have to share an office and secretary with two or more other MPs.
The ideal of the talented amateur does not, of course, reflect modern reality. Politics in Britain in the last forty years has become professional. Most MPs are full-time politicians, and do another job, if at all, only part-time. But the amateur tradition is still reflected in the hours of business of the Commons. They are ‘gentleman’s hours’. The House does not sit in the morning. This is when, in traditional ideal, MPs would be doing their ordinary work or pursuing other interests outside Parliament. From Monday to Thursday, the House does not start its business until 14.30 (on Friday it starts in the morning, but then finishes in the early afternoon for the weekend). It also gives itself long holidays: four weeks at Christmas, two each at Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost)2 and about eleven weeks in the summer (from the beginning of August until the middle of October).
But this apparently easy life is misleading. In fact, the average modern MP spends more time at work than any other professional in the country. From Monday to Thursday, the Commons never ‘rises’ (i.e. finishes work for the day) before 22.30 and sometimes it continues sitting for several hours longer. Occasionally, it debates through most of the night.
MP’s mornings are taken up with committee work, research, preparing speeches and dealing with the problems of constituents (the people they represent). Weekends are not free for MPs either. They are expected to visit their constituencies (the areas they represent) and listen to the problems of anybody who wants to see them. It is an extremely busy life that leaves little time for pursuing another career. It does not leave MPs much time for their families either. Politicians have a higher rate of divorce than the (already high) national average.
Parliamentary business. The basic procedure for business in the Commons is a debate on a particular proposal, followed by a resolution which either accepts or rejects this proposal. Sometimes the resolution just expresses a viewpoint, but most often it is a matter of framing a new law or of approving (or not approving) government plans to raise taxes or spend money in certain ways.
Standing Orders set out the main formal rules of procedure. The central rule of procedure is that every debate must relate to a specific proposal or “motion”. Some member moves (proposes) a motion; the House debates it and finally decides whether to agree or disagree with it, When a motion has been moved, another member may propose “to amend” it, and in that case his proposal is debated. When the House has decided on the amendment it goes back to the original motion, which is now in a new form if an amendment to it has been accepted. A debate ends either (1) when every member who wants to speak has done so, or (2) at a time fixed in advance by informal agreement between the parties, or by a vote of the House (that is, by the Government without the agreement of the Opposition), or (3) when the House with the Speaker’s consent, votes that it shall end. At the end of every debate the Speaker puts the question whether or not to accept the motion that has been debated.
Occasionally, there is no need to take a vote, but there usually is, and at such times there is a ‘division’. That is, MPs have to vote for or against a particular proposal. They do this by walking through one of two corridors at the side of the House – one is for the “Ayes” (those who agree with the proposal) and the other is for the “Noes” (those who disagree). Eight minutes after the beginning of the division the doors leading into the lobbies are locked. The practice of allowing eight minutes before members must enter their lobbies gives enough time for them to come from any part of the Palace of Westminster. Bells ring all over the building to summon members to the chamber to vote. Members often vote without having heard a debate and perhaps without knowing exactly what is the question; they know which way to vote because whips of the parties stand outside the doors and members vote almost automatically with their parties.
But the resolutions of the Commons are only part of its activities. There are also the committees. Some committees are appointed to examine particular proposals for laws, but there are also permanent committees whose job is to investigate the activities of government in a particular field. There is a Commons Select Committee for each government department, examining three aspects: spending, policies and administration. These departmental committees have a minimum of 11 members, who decide upon the line of inquiry and then gather written and oral evidence. Findings are reported to the Commons, printed, and published on the Parliament website. The government then usually has 60 days to reply to the committee's recommendations. (Other Commons Committees are involved in a range of on-going investigations, like administration of the House itself or allegations about the conduct of individual MPs.)
The Committees often have to decide on whether to produce a hostile and critical report, which will simply be repudiated by the government and may cost some of their members their chances of promotion, or to trade some of their criticism away in return for minor concessions from the ministers. As elsewhere in Parliament, the result is a mixture of general compliance with a dash of independence.
1.2. Give the English equivalents to the following Russian words and word-combinations:
уполномочивать правительство собирать и расходовать государственные средства
иметь какие-либо интересы (работу) вне Парламента
быть отвергнутым, не принятым правительством (о докладе, законопроекте)
ослаблять критику в обмен на уступки со стороны министров.
1.3. Look through these questions before reading Text 2.
What powers are allotted to the Whips in the House? How can you account for the downgrading of the Whips' office under the present government?
Why do MPs nearly always vote the way their party tells them to? Do the major parties sometimes allow a "free vote" to their MPs? When?
What makes the government and the legislature so dissolubly fused together in the United Kingdom? What are advantages and disadvantages of this system of governing the country?
Describe the procedure of appointing a new speaker and the traditions connected with it.
What are the powers of the Speaker in the House?
Why does the newly-appointed speaker agree to give up all party politics for the rest of his or her life?
THE PARTY SYSTEM IN PARLIAMENT Most divisions take place along party lines. MPs know that they owe their position to their party, so they nearly always vote the way that their party tells them to. They are subject to the constraints of strict party discipline. The people who make sure that MPs do this are called the Whips. Each of the two major parties has several MPs who perform this role. It is their job to inform all MPs in their party how they should vote. By tradition, if the government loses a vote in Parliament on a very important matter, it has to resign. Therefore, when there is a division on such a matter, MPs are expected to go to the House and vote even if they have not been there during the debate.
The Whips act as intermediaries between the backbenchers and the frontbench of a party. They keep the party leadership informed about
Frontbenchers and backbenchers
Although MPs do not have their own personal seats in the Commons, there are two seating areas reserved for particular MPs. These areas are the front benches on either side of the House. These benches are where the leading members of the governing party (i.e. ministers) and the leading members of the main opposition party sit. These people are thus known as ‘frontbenchers’. MPs who do not hold a government post or a post in the shadow cabinet are known as ‘backbenchers’
ackbench opinion. They are powerful people. Because they ‘have the ear’ of the party leaders, they can have an effect on which backbenchers get promoted to the front bench and which do not. For reasons such as this, ‘rebellions’ among a group of a party’s MPs (in which they vote against their party) are very rare.
Sometimes the major parties allow a ‘free vote’, when MPs vote according to their own beliefs and not according to party policy. Some quite important decisions, such as the
abolition of the death penalty and the decision to allow television cameras into the Commons, have been made in this way.
The result of the dominance of party is that Parliament has found it hard to perform the functions allotted to it. In countries such as the USA, the powers of the government and the legislature are separated. They are elected on separate occasions and are granted separate rights and responsibilities in the constitution. The legislature cannot easily remove the government, short of impeachment, nor can the government dissolve the legislature. In the UK, the government and the legislature are dissolubly fused together. They are not elected on separate occasions and they do not enjoy separate legitimacy. This has the advantage that clashes or deadlock between the government and legislature are relatively uncommon in the United Kingdom.
Should the Government be caught out in some unethical behaviour it can usually rely on its parliamentary majority to pull it through the crisis. This was made painfully apparent in 1996 when the publication of the Scott Report into British arms sales to Iraq revealed that Conservative Government ministers had repeatedly “misled” Parliament. The failure of Parliament to force the resignations of the ministers involved was largely the results of the work of the Conservative party whips in twisting the arms of those on the Government side who might have rebelled.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION…
Anybody who happened to be watching the live broadcast of Parliament on 22 June 2009 was able to witness an extraordinary spectacle. An MP was physically dragged, apparently against his will, out of his seat on the back benches by fellow MPs and was forced to sit in the large chair in the middle of the House of Commons.
What the House of Commons was actually doing was appointing a new Speaker. The Speaker is the person who chairs and controls discussion in the House, decides which MP is going to speak next and makes sure that the rules of procedure are followed. (If they are not, the Speaker has the power to demand a public apology from an MP or even to ban an MP from the House for a number of days). It is a very important position. In fact, the Speaker is, officially the second most important ‘commoner’ (non-aristocrat) in the kingdom after the Prime Minister.
Hundreds of years ago it was the Speaker’s job to communicate the decisions of the Commons to the King (that is where the title ‘Speaker’ comes from). As the king was often very displeased with that the Commons decided this was not a pleasant task. As a result nobody wanted the job. They had to be forced to take it. These days, the position is a much safer one, but the tradition of dragging an unwilling Speaker to the chair has remained.
The occasion in 2009 was the first time that the Speaker (John Bercow) had been elected by an exhaustive secret ballot. The process is as follows:
MPs are given a list of candidates and place an x next to the candidate of their choice
If a candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the question is put to the House that he or she takes the chair as Speaker
If no candidate does so, the candidate with the fewest votes, and those with less than five per cent of the vote, are eliminated
In addition, any candidate may withdraw within 10 minutes of the announcement of the result of the ballot
MPs then vote again on the reduced slate of candidates and continue doing so until one candidate receives more than half the votes.
Once a Speaker has been appointed, he or she agrees to give up all party politics for the rest of his or her life and remains in the job for as long as he or she wants it. However, the Speaker will deal with their constituents’ problems like a normal MP. Speakers still stand in general elections. They are generally unopposed by the major political parties, who will not field a candidate in the Speaker’s constituency – this includes the original party they were a member of. During a general election, Speakers do not campaign on any political issues but simply stand as “the Speaker seeking re-election”
This is the best attended, and usually the noisiest, part of the parliamentary day. MPs are allowed to ask questions of government ministers. Opposition MPs in particular have an opportunity to make government ministers look incompetent or perhaps dishonest.
The questions and answers, however, are not spontaneous. Questions to ministers have to be “tabled” (written down and placed on the table below the Speaker’s chair) two days in advance, so that ministers have time to prepare their answers. In this way, the government can usually avoid major embarrassment. The trick, though, is to ask an unexpected “supplementary” question. After the minister has answered the tabled question, the MP who originally tabled it is allowed to ask a further question relating to the minister’s answer. In this way, it is sometimes possible for MPs to catch a minister unprepared.
“Question Time” has been widely copied around the world. The vast majority of television new excerpts of Parliament are taken from this period of its day. Especially common is for the news to show an excerpt from the 15 minutes each week when it is the Prime Minister’s turn to answer questions.
How a bill becomes a law.
1.4 Study the chart and say how a bill becomes a law.
Before a proposal for a new law starts its progress through Parliament, there will have been much discussion. If it is a government proposal, Green and White Papers3 will probably have been published, explaining the ideas behind the proposal. After this, lawyers draft the proposal into a bill.
Most bills begin life in the House of Commons, where they go through a number of stages.
This is a formal announcement only, with no debate
The house debates the general principles of the bill and, in most cases, takes a vote.
A committee of MPs examines the details of the bill and votes on amendments (changes) to parts of it.
The House considers the amendments.
The amended bill is debated as a whole.
The bill is sent to the House of Lords, where it goes through the same stages. (If the Lords make new amendments, these will be considered by the Commons.)
After both Houses have reached agreement, the bill receives the royal assent and becomes an Act of Parliament which can be applied as a part of the law.
1.5 Give the English equivalents to the following words and word-combinations.
зависеть от давления/подвергаться давлению партийной дисциплины
выступать в роли посредников между Парламентскими лидерами и рядовыми членами Парламента
выполнять функции, которыми наделен Парламент
распускать законодательный орган власти
быть неразрывно связанным
разногласия (конфликты) и безвыходные (тупиковые) ситуации между правительством и законодательной ветвью власти
Section 2. Use the above-given text and the glossary (2.2) to discuss the British Parliament.
Палата Общин (нижняя Палата в Британском Парламенте))
the House of Lords (the Lords)
Палата Лордов (верхняя Палата в Британском Парламенте)
the House (coll.)
to enter the House
стать членом Парламента
to attend the House
присутствовать на заседании Палаты
to preside the House
председательствовать в палате
to obtain (gain)the majority of seats in the House (both Houses)
получать большинство мест в Палате (в обеих палатах)
to keep (make) a House
the House rose at 9
заседание палаты закончилось в 9
дискуссия, дебаты, прения (в Парламенте)
debates on bills
прения по законопроектам
debates on motions
прения по предложениям, внесенным членами Парламента
the order of speaking in a debate is arranged in advance
порядок выступления в прениях оговаривается заранее
to initiate the debate
быть инициатором обсуждения данного вопроса (предложить вопрос для обсуждения)
голосовать, ставить на голосование, проводить голосование
разделяться при голосовании
Ставьте на голосование!
голосование членов Парламента в Палате Общин
Парламентский звонок (извещающий членов Парламента о начале голосования)
division bell district
район «Парламентского звонка» (улицы близ здания Парламента, на которых проживают некоторые его члены; в их дома, в ряд местных ресторанов проведен звонок, извещающий о начале голосования)
лобби для голосования (один из двух коридоров в Палате Общин, правое от спикера лобби предназначается для голосующих «за», левое – для голосующих «против», при выходе Парламентарием из Палаты счетчики голосов (tellers) отмечают число проголосовавших членов Палаты)
законопроекты, находящиеся на рассмотрении законодательного органа
to pass (endorse) government-proposed legislation
принимать (одобрять) правительственные законопроекты
legislature (syn. legislative power (branch)
осуществлять законодательную власть, издавать законы
to legislate on a wide range of matters
издавать законы по широкому кругу вопросов
to legislate against smth
запретить что-либо в законодательном порядке
лобби, коридор для голосования
лобби, кулуары Парламента
(собир.) группа (представители компаний, организаций и т.д.), “проталкивающая” законопроект.
to lobby for a proposal
to lobby (a bill) through Parliament
провести (законопроект) с помощью закулисных махинаций
to lobby MPs
оказывать давление на членов Парламента
член какой-либо организации
Member of Parliament (MP)/Commons’ member
член Парламента, член Палаты Общин
a Labour (Tory) MP
член Парламента от лейбористской (консервативной) партии