Page last updated at 12:17 GMT, Sunday, 1 November 2009
Guide to the House of Commons



To be elected to the Commons, prospective MPs must first select a particular slice of the UK and woo its voters in an elaborate political courtship, involving hustings, pamphleteering, and the systematic rubbishing of rival suitors.

Unlike other electoral systems, where voters choose candidates from a list and second choices matter, this particular race for votes is described as "first-past-the-post", meaning that the also-rans get nothing.

Or even less: any candidate who fails to win more than 5% of the votes cast loses their £500 deposit.

Ballot paper
Job security? What job security?

This process enables the populace to select the person they feel will best represent their views in Parliament - in theory, at least, propelling the candidate with the quickest wit or most persuasive rhetoric into a role where they may deploy these skills to good effect.

Once elected, the job security is excellent - at least until the next election, when the MP will once more face the prospect of thwarting the advances of rivals and defending his or her record in office to voters.

Fierce competition is understandable given the prize at stake: a chance to influence the law of the land and the administration of the country.

Rising to the top

The Commons is a hierarchical club, however, and the prospects to make the most of this opportunity are not evenly distributed.

The fate of talented MPs determined to make a splash depends on several key factors: the status of their party within Parliament, their own status within the party, and their ability to convince colleagues of the virtue of their ideas.

Backbenchers can:
Demand answers from government ministers
Join select committees
Amend legislation
Propose new bills
Block government bills
Highlight constituents' concerns

Opposition party MPs may either interrogate the government from the backbenches or seek to attain promotion within their political parties in order to "shadow" particular ministers.

Rising through the ranks in this way gives an opposition MP the opportunity to specialise in a particular policy brief and probe government policy on it in more depth.

MPs from the main opposition parties who take on shadow ministerial positions are allowed to speak in the Commons from the front row of seats, hence the distinction drawn between "frontbenchers" and "backbenchers".

The shadow system - in theory - enables an orderly transition of power in the event that fortunes shift at a general election.

MPs from the political party that has won the most seats at the latest election make up the talent pool from which the government is extracted. The party leader becomes prime minister and distributes all other ministerial positions among party colleagues.

If no one party has enough seats to win an overall majority - in other words more than the combined total of seats won by opposing parties - then the party will either form a "minority" government, or enter into a coalition , as happened following the 2010 general election.

Commons despatch box
Party promotions entitle MPs to speak from the despatch box

The most senior government ministers form a group called the cabinet; these men and women, led by the prime minister, collectively instigate the majority of legislation passed by the Commons.

Ministers are also described as frontbenchers, since they occupy the front row of seats on their side of the House when they attend debates.

But the government doesn't have complete control over either the principles or the precise wording of legislation produced by the Commons. When MPs disagree with proposed government bills, they can bid to change them by tabling amendments. They can also propose new legislation themselves by drafting private members' bills.

More questions

In addition to their role in the scrutiny of legislation, backbench MPs can raise their constituents' concerns with ministers at Parliamentary question sessions or by tabling written questions.

They will also present petitions to Parliament on their constituents' behalf - whether or not they agree with the subject of the petition.

MPs can propose subjects for debate in the Commons chamber at adjournment debates, so called because they take place at the end of the parliamentary day; or in the alternative debating chamber of Westminster Hall; or to the Backbench Business Committee, which is responsible for scheduling business on 35 days in the Commons and Westminster Hall.

Backbenchers from any political party can also be chosen to serve on select committees - cross-party groups that undertake detailed scrutiny of particular aspects of the work of government.

Select committees have the power to call expert witnesses to testify at their inquiries, and their reports carry a lot of clout.




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