The House of Commons (also referred to as the Commons) is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which also comprises the Sovereign and the House of Lords (the upper house). Both Commons and Lords meet in the Palace of Westminster. The Commons is a democratically elected body, consisting of 646 members, who are known as “Members of Parliament” or MPs. Members are elected, through the first-past-the-post system, by electoral districts known as constituencies, and hold their seats until Parliament is dissolved (a maximum of five years after the preceding election).
The full, formal style and title of the House of Commons is The Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.
The Lords and Commons began to meet separately some five centuries ago and the Commons were allotted St Stephen’ Chapel of the Palace of Westminster, built on a marsh island in the Thames. Members of Parliament (MPs) sat in the choir stalls facing each other, with the Speaker’s chair on a dais in front of the altar. Some MPs sat in pews situated crosswise.
This seating arrangement is the same today. The practice of MPs making a bow in the direction of the Speaker on entering or leaving the Chamber is a gesture of respect from the days when the altar stood there. At the time when MPs carried swords the two opposing sides in the Chamber were kept two sword lengths apart, marked even now on the floor of the House by red bands in the woven carpet. Should a member while addressing the House accidentally put a foot aero! this red line, he is at once greeted with cries of “Order, order”.
The day’s work in the Commons begins with prayers the one ceremony visitors are never permitted to witness. After brief prayers by the Chaplain he retires and an attendant calls out “Speaker in the Chair!” The great Mace, symbol the authority of the House of Commons,
is placed on the table facing the Speaker, the House is then in session and its daily work begins. Almost immediately follows one of the most important of routines in the Commons. For about an hour any MP may, with due notice, ask a question of any Minister of the Crown who must answer. No stranger is allowed to enter the Chamber beyond the Bar of the House (a rail dividing off space to which non-members are admitted on business) and the Sovereign, by established custom, is never permitted to enter the House when it is in session.
By an unwritten law the House of Lords is never referred Io in the Commons otherwise than as “another place”, for the Commons theoretically do not admit the existence of the House of Lords. MPs are always addressed in the Commons as “Sir”, irrespective of sex, the reason being that all remarks uttered within the Chamber are supposed to be directed at the Speaker. Consequently MPs are always spoken of in the Chamber in the third person – “the honourable member for”. A political opponent is described as “honourable gentleman” and a member of the same party as “my honourable friend”.
At the end of the day’s sitting the Speaker or his deputy, declares: “This House now stands adjourned”. The lantern above Big Ben is extinguished. As a reminder of the days when London streets were unsafe at night, and the MPs went to their homes in groups, Westminster Palace police still crу out loudly in the corridors of the House: “Who goes home?”