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10 Interesting Facts about the British Houses of Parliament You Probably Didn’t Know

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Parliament—the houses of power for the British Government. Making laws, debating important issues, and using code words such as “the right honourable member” for “that prat on the other side”. With the English Parliament around since the tenants-in-chief forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, and the British Parliament in existence since 1801, this legislative body has racked up its fair share of interesting facts and figures. What fun things can we find out about one of the world’s leading assemblies?

No Smoking

Bars, restaurants, and public places in general aren’t the only places you can’t smoke in the United Kingdom. That’s right, there’s no smoking in Parliament. In fact, there is a snuffbox at the front door of the House of Commons and has been there for centuries. There’s no evidence to suggest anyone partakes of it anymore, though.

Fewer Sittings, More Legislation

Since 1944, the number of times that Parliament has sat averages at 209 times per year. However, every year since 1998 has seen fewer sittings than the post-war average. This isn’t stopping the Members from writing even longer acts, despite the total number of acts being passed at 30-40 (the post-war average was 98 acts per year).

It’s Not Easy Being Green

House_of_Commons

The custom of the green benches of the House of Commons go back 300 years and the current chamber was rebuilt in 1945 by Sir Giles Gillbert Scott after the original was destroyed during the London Blitz. Westminster Bridge, leading to the Houses of Parliament is painted the same green as the Commons’ benches- which are green leather. By contrast, the benches in the House of Lords are upholstered red.

Royal Assent

Whereas in America, the President must sign a bill passed by both Houses of Congress before it can become law, in Britain, that is one of the few actual governmental responsibilities ascribe to the monarch. For an act to become a law, the Queen must give her “Royal Assent”, and sign it. The Queen may also withhold (refuse) or reserve (postpone) her assent, though no monarch has done so since 1708, when Queen Anne refused the Scottish Militia Bill. The bill aimed to give arms back to the Scottish Militia, but was scrapped when rumours that the French were sailing for Scotland gave rise to the fear of rebellion.

Your Peers

Peers are the members of the House of Lords. While some peers are hereditary, others are created by the government, called Life Peers, whose titles cannot be inherited. Bishops of the Church of England also hold seats in the House of Lords. The Prime Minister who created the most peers was Tony Blair at 357. The second-most created was 201 by Margaret Thatcher.

No Monarchs Allowed

Constitutionally, the monarch is not allowed to enter the House of Commons. The Queen actually has a throne in the House of Lords in which she sits for the traditional opening of Parliament. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod traditionally goes to the House of Commons on the Queen’s behalf to summon them to the House of Lords for the ceremony. No monarch has entered the House of Commons since King Charles I stormed into the chamber to arrest five MPs for treason. It probably didn’t help his popularity much and it was a catalyst of the English Civil War.

Raise the Ancient Roof

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Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament, built in 1097 by King William II and completed in 1099. At the time it was built, it was the largest hall in Europe at 240 by 67 feet and about 17,000 square feet. What’s more, it was built approximately 500 years after the Hagia Sofia in Turkey.

In the Bag

This phrase comes from the Partition Bag, a velvet bag which hangs from the back of the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Commons. The bag was for any member to post a petition that they were too shy to address in public.

Please, Do Not Swear

Members of Parliament are forbidden from using curse words or other language that might “offend the dignity” of Parliament (stop sniggering at your computer). MPs also cannot insult their fellow members or accuse them of dishonesty on the floor of the House of Commons. This perhaps is the origin for terms like “the right honourable member” for a member of the opposition and “being economical with the truth” for lying. It’s almost a game for some members to see what they can get away with saying without reprimand, especially during Question Time.

Good Luck Charms

Outside the House of Commons in the Members’ Lobby are four bronze statues of some of the nation’s greatest Prime Ministers, including Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee, Margaret Thatcher, and David Lloyd George. There are three stone statues as well of Benjamin Disraeli, Arthur Balfour, and Herbert Asquith, as well as numerous busts of other Prime Ministers. Until 2002, you could only have a statue in the lobby if you had died, but the rule was changed to permit it under certain conditions. Thatcher’s statue was commissioned in 2003 and debuted in 2007. A bust of Tony Blair has also been commissioned. Members will touch the statue or bust of their favourite PM before they give a speech for good luck.

Visiting Information

You can tour the Houses of Parliament when the house is not in session and usually every Saturday. Tours must be booked in advance. Full details and booking information can be found here.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. That impressive hammerbeam roof in Westminster Hall was added at the end of the 14th century. There’s evidence that the original roof was supported by two columns of beams, so that the space was actually divided into 3 long halls. (Still impressive for the 11th century, but not quite as astounding as this article makes it seem.)

  2. The term “Right Honourable” can only be used for members of the Privy Council – membership of which is strictly controlled. All other are referred to as the honourable member for.. (name of constituency” or “my honourable friend” (usually for members of the same party).

    • For the record, the Privvy Council generally consists of members of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet only. However, any MP who is no longer a member of the Cabinet or Shadow, but is still a sitting MP, may retain their Rt,Hon status until they are no longer an MP.

      • The Privy Council is something politicians who are members of it hold for life, until they either decide to leave the Council due to resignation or committing a grave crime. Even if they are no longer MPs, “The Right Honourable” is a title held for life. While in Parliament, a question from an MP who is also a Privy Council member is prioritized.

        The Queen presides the Privy Council and invites her immediate heirs (Prince William was recently inducted to the Council) to be part of it. Some prominent peers and members of the clergy are also part of this group. However, it’s mostly comprised of politicians. It’s obligatory that all the Secretaries of State, together with the Prime Minister (and sometimes includes some junior ministers and cabinet members) are sworn to the Council because they are part of Her Majesty’s Government (HMG). Some members of the Shadow Cabinet will also be part of this, although the Leader of the Opposition will be the first to be sworn in because he is the “Prime Minister in waiting”, especially when the opposition happens to win the next General Election. Other major politicians invited are the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland which are the devolved regions with each assembly/parliament.

        The other known privilege of being a Privy Council member is a major access to sensitive state papers, and in the event that Parliament will vote to join a military activity, those who are part of the council will be prioritized in reading those state secrets.

  3. Is it true that the two parties in the House of Commons are two sword lengths away from each other?

    • Two red lines running the length of the chamber of the House of Commons, one in front of the government benches (to the left, when entering the chamber) and the other in front of the benches of the opposition parties (to the right), are two sword-lengths apart. They supposedly are there in order to prevent opposing members from duelling, although there is no evidence to support this. No member is allowed to speak whilst within those red lines.

  4. The Palace of Westminster contains more than just the two houses of parliament. It retains its status as a royal residence and is the property of the Crown.

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