PARLIAMENTARY CHAMBERSCategory: Politics
People outside Great Britain believe, that if a man is elected to sit in Parliament, he ought to have a seat. Indeed, most Parliaments provide each member not only with a seat, but with a reserved seat, often a desk in which papers can be kept.
Why, then, when the opportunity came after the war to rebuild the bombed House of Commons, did its members decide that their own Chamber should, like the pre-war Chamber, be too small to provide seats for all of them? The decision was a deliberate one, made after a debate in the House. Members rejected the idea that there should be seats for all.
The new House of Commons has many improvements, including airconditioning and provision of microphones. It has, however, seats for only about two-thirds of its members, No change has been made in its shape. It is still an oblong, with seats for the Government supporters on the Speaker’s right and seats for the Opposition on his left. There are, facing the Speaker, cross benches for Independent members, those who do not belong to either of the two great political parties.
There are obvious disadvantages in this arrangement. If after an election, the two parties are about equal in number, there is not much difficulty. If, however, the Government has a large majority seating will certainly be a problem. If one party has 400 members and the other 230, it becomes difficult to have Government and Opposition facing one another across the House except when the attendance is small.
If we examine the kind of Chamber favoured in other countries we find that it is in some cases semi-circular.
This semi-circular arrangement of seats is the most probable explanation for the political terms that are commonly used to-day, especially of European politics. When we say that a man is left, right, centre, we are thinking of the seat he occupies in this French style of Chamber.
Another difference between the British House of Commons and Parliamentary Chambers in many other countries is that in the House of Commons there are benches; in other Chambers there are separate seats. From this we get the terms “front benches”, “back benches” and “cross benches”. The term “front benches” stands for the two benches, one on each side of the House, as far as the centre gangway. The front bench on the Speaker’s right is for the Prime Minister and the leading members of the Government. That on the Speaker’s left is for the Leader of the Opposition and those members of the Opposition who have formed, or arelikely to form, an alternative government. The back benches are those seats occupied by members who have no right to front bench seats. The cross benches may be used by those Independent members who do not vote regularly with the Government or with the official Opposition.
In most semi-circular Chambers a member who is called upon to speak leaves his seat and goes to a reading-desk (a tribune or rostrum) placed below the raised seat of the President. Instead of facing and addressing the chairman, as in the House of Commons, he faces and addresses the whole House.
When a member ends his speech in the House of Commons, other members stand up and face the Speaker. They try to catch his eye,, for the order of speakers is not arranged in advance. The Speaker decides who is to speak next. The member who is named remains standing, and speaks from the place where he has been sitting. He must address the Speaker, not the House as a whole. The only members who speak from the Clerk’s table are the Government and Opposition Leaders.
Voting is a simple matter when every member has a reserved seat. In the House of Commons members have to leave their benches and walk out into two corridors (called Lobbies). As they pass out they are counted by four persons— two for each side — and it may take ten or fifteen minutes before the figures are announced.
(From Oxford Progressive English for Adult Learners by A. S. Hornby)