A-Z of the British Parliament

Some of them wear funny wigs and call each other "Right Honourable". The Speaker hardly ever speaks, and there is someone called Black Rod who is neither black, nor is his name Rod. But all are vital to the day-to-day running of the British Houses of Parliament. The strange behaviour and rituals of the Members of Parliament and officials is based on traditions that go back to medieval times. We present our guide to all you need to know about the British legislative chambers.

Act of Parliament - Members of Parliament (MPs) debate a draft law (called a bill) and when they are happy with it they send it to The Queen for her to sign. She can, technically, refuse to sign it. But if she ever does refuse to accept a bill as law, then the MPs might simply remind her of what happened to King Charles I (he had his head chopped off by a Republican, Oliver Cromwell, in 1649).

Black Rod - is the senior official of both the House of Commons (like the Sejm) and the House of Lords (like the Senate). He also performs a very important ritual when the Queen comes to open Parliament every November. Black Rod walks from the House of Lords to the House of Commons where the MPs are waiting. The door is then slammed shut in the face of Black Rod, symbolising the independence of the MPs from the Monarch. Black Rod then knocks on the door, which is opened once more. Then the MPs walk the short distance to the House of Lords where the Monarch reads her speech to them (see Queen's Speech).

Civil List - is the annual grant given by the British taxpayer (via the Houses of Parliament) to the Monarch so that she can pay for the costs involved in managing so many palaces. This includes enough money to buy some dog food for her pet corgis.

Dogs - are not allowed in the House (not even corgis!). The only exceptions are police sniffer dogs looking for bombs, and Guide Dogs for the blind. This is lucky, as the Home Secretary (Minister for the Interior) is blind, and his dog Lucy, a black retriever, is a regular visitor to the House of Commons (though she has no voting rights).

Expulsion - meaning, getting kicked out of the House - is the ultimate punishment for naughty MPs. There have only been three expulsions in the last one hundred years. For instance, Gary Milligan MP was expelled for telling lies and telling the newspapers that everyone in the Commons was permanently drunk. Which couldn't possibly be true, could it?

Frontbench - the architecture of the House of Commons is designed to create arguments. Two sets of green benches face each other so that conflict and argument is inevitable. On the right hand side of the Speaker sits the government, and on the left, the opposition. The front benches on the government side are where the Ministers sit. These people are known as "frontbenchers".

Green - the favourite colour of the Commons. The benches are green, and have been since at least 1660, (in the House of Lords they are red). Nobody knows why this is so. A Green Paper is a consultation paper, which contains details of a forthcoming piece of legislation. Once the government is happy with this it is then turned into a White Paper (draft bill).

Hansard - is a kind of House of Parliament newspaper. It is printed early in the morning and contains every word that was spoken in the Houses of Parliament the day before.

I Spy a Stranger - anyone who is not an MP, Lord or an official is known as a "stranger". For a stranger to be removed the MP must shout, "I spy a stranger." The Speaker must then take a vote on whether the stranger should be removed or not. The last "stranger" to be removed in this way was the Prince of Wales in 1870.

Lords, House of - used to be full of hereditary peers, who inherited their title and came from the old aristocracy and other so-called "good families" So-called Life peers were given their title by the Queen but could not pass it on to their children. But in 1999, 666 heredity peers were thrown out of the Lords in a reform to make it more "democratic". Unfortunately, the House of Lords is still undemocratic as none of the members are elected since the Prime Minister appoints them. In other words, a typical British compromise (meaning, nobody is happy with the result).

Loony - meaning an insane person. The Monster Raving Loony Party has been trying to get into The House of Commons since 1964. The party was founded by Screaming Lord Sutch (and his pet cat, Mandu). Their policies include: solve the problem of the EU butter mountain - let people ski down it; and solve the problem of asylum seekers - make the asylums better sign-posted. Not one candidate for the Loonies has ever been elected to Parliament. yet.

Mace - is a silver ornament, about 1.5 meters long. It dates back to the time of Charles I (the headless one) and can be seen on the large table in the centre of the Commons. It is a symbol of Royal authority. Each day it is put on the table by the Sergeant of Arms, who is a kind of parliamentary policeman. Nobody, apart from the Sergeant, is allowed to touch it. But one infamous day in 1976, an MP called Michael Hesletine (whose nickname is Tarzan due to his long flowing hair) was so annoyed at the speeches being given by MP's, that he picked up the mace and waved it around above his head. The Speaker immediately closed the session.

Naming - MPs never call each other by name but by a formal title. For instance, "I agree with the Honourable Member for Chelsea and Kensington." Or, "I agree with my Honourable Friend." But when an MP is being naughty the Speaker punishes them by "Naming" them. "I name you Michael Hesletine and you are barred from the House," was what the Speaker said to the MP after he waved the mace around his head.

Oaths - all MPs have to say the following sentence before they can sit in Parliament. "I swear by almighty God (or if an atheist then, "I do solemnly swear") that I shall be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, her heirs and successors, according to law (so help me God)."

Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) - occur every Wednesday afternoon for half an hour. This is the time when MPs can ask anything they want without the Prime Minister knowing the questions in advance.

Queen's Speech - formally opens each session of parliament, usually in November. The speech outlines what the government will do over the next year in parliament. But the Queen does not write this speech - the government does.

Refreshments Department - is responsible for the many bars and restaurants to be found in the Houses of Parliament, to refresh MPs and Lords after a hard day's argument. These include 8 bars (Smoking Room, Stranger's Bar, Annie's Bar, for example), 6 self-service restaurants, and 7 up-market restaurants with silver-service, etc. The strict licensing laws in Britain, (pubs must close at 11 pm), do not apply in Parliament. So you can drink there 24 hours a day, if you want. In its annual report last year, the Refreshments Department noted that the total expenditure on "refreshments" in the House of Parliament cost the British tax-payer 6 million pounds.

Speaker - he, or she, is a kind of referee in the House of Commons. The Speaker lives in the Speaker's House, in the Palace of Westminster. He wears a black cloak, and a wig (which looks a bit like a dead sheep on top of his head). The Speaker does not speak very often, however. The only time he does is when trying to get MPs to calm down and be quiet, which he does by calling out, "Order, order in the House."

Unparliamentary language - there are some things MPs cannot say in parliament. They cannot say that another MP is "a liar", (which must be difficult, sometimes), and they cannot use abusive or foul language. If they do, they might be "named", or even worse, they could be "expelled" if they do so.

Voting Lobby - MP's vote, not by pressing a button as they do in Poland, but by walking through the Voting Lobby. If they want to vote "yes" then they walk through the door marked "aye". If they want to vote "no" then they walk through the door marked "nae". Clerks count the MP's as they come through the doors.

Whips - are people who make sure that MPs of the same party all vote the same way. If there are rebel MPs who are determined not to tow the line of the government, then the MP can have his "whip removed", which sounds painful, but isn't. The term "whip' has its origins in foxhunting; a Whip was someone who made sure the hounds did not run away from the hunt. The term has been used in the British parliament since the late 1700's.

Yawn - what normal people do when MPs are talking.

Zzzzzzzzz - what MPs do in the Commons when they are not talking.