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Chris Hodder takes a quick look at a handful of odd terms used in parliament.

Chris HodderParliamentary language can be quite impenetrable to those of us on the outside, especially when they take a word that means something else in normal usage. Understanding some of the terms requires a good understanding of how parliament works, but others are straightforward. We’ve picked a selection of some words which you may hear on the news.


Nothing to do with either ducks or letterboxes.

There are various types of bills, but essentially bills are simply draft pieces of primary legislation (see Statutory Instruments below). Normally, they are introduced into either the Lords or the Commons and go through several stages of scrutiny before being passed to the other house to scrutinise as well. Finally, they receive “Royal Assent" which is where the monarch (i.e. Queen Elizabeth II) signs the bill into law and it becomes an Act of Parliament.


Not the maths kind.

A division is a vote in parliament. In the Commons, it is signalled by the Speaker shouting “clear the lobbies!" and the peeling of the “Division Bell". MPs are supposed to file into the two separate antechambers, the Aye (yes) lobby and the Noe (no) lobby and will rush from all over the parliamentary estate to make sure they are standing in the place they are supposed to be. They are then counted and return to their seats with an MP for each side reporting the numbers (“Tellers").


Unrelated to Whiff-Whaff.

This is officially called “Consideration of Amendments" and is the stage where the Lords and Commons send amendments to bills (see above) back and forth until they agree on a final form of words in the legislation (or one side, usually the Lords, gives up). This can be a lengthy process as there is no real time limit on how long the wait between stages can be.

Statutory Instruments

Not the lutes played by cherubs in churches.

Legislation debated in parliament is either “primary legislation", i.e. legislation that must go through the full process of scrutiny (see Bills above), or “secondary legislation" where legislation is simply laid in parliament and agreed without being scrutinised line-by-line (although a selection are scrutinised and some require votes in parliament before coming into effect).

Statutory Instruments are these pieces of “secondary legislation". They are created under powers given to Ministers by Acts of Parliament (the “primary legislation") and usually have strict constraints over what they can cover. In practice, they tend to be quite technical or detailed in nature and are there to avoid parliament spending days debating whether driving test fees, as a good example, are £32 or £34.


No soap involved.

At the end of a parliamentary session (“prorogation" – the end of a session which usually lasts about a year), government and the opposition get together and look at all the legislation currently not yet finished its journey through parliament and basically do deals as to which they think they can get through and how each side will vote to ensure that happens. This usually results in a few pieces of legislation getting whizzed through the process and being agreed on the last day parliament sits. Any legislation which doesn’t get through “falls" and would need to be formally re-introduced in the next session and start the process over again.


The 50 shades are very grey, sadly.

Each party has a selection of whips. Essentially, their job is to tell MPs which way to vote in divisions (see above). They do this by drawing lines on the week’s agenda with three lines under an item marking out a vote which MPs will be sanctioned if they miss and one or two lines for items of lesser importance.

The job is quite complicated and has many facets beyond simply bossing MPs around. Why whips need to boss MPs around is a fundamental part of parliamentary democracy: without this clear direction, MPs would have to spend days researching issues before voting on them, days which may be better spent dealing with issues of greater direct interest to constituents. Of course, MPs don’t always want to be bossed around so there can be some friction, but the whips usually deal with this by threatening and bargaining. Famous fictional whips include Francis Urquhart from House of Cards.

Whips also do other important jobs like deciding who sits on which committees and the like. Having a whip on your side is good if you want to get stuff done in parliament, but they do expect party loyalty in return.

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