In the second episode of our Parliament Unpacked podcast looking at how parliament works, we’re examining the UK Parliamentary calendar – when Parliament sits, for how long it sits, and why it sits for the set periods of time it does.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act
In 2011 MPs passed a law called the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, under which the length of a Parliament is fixed to five years, with each General Election taking place on the first Thursday in May in the fifth year.
This new law was brought in under the Coalition Government to ensure fair power-sharing between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. Prior to this, the Prime Minister had the power to dissolve Parliament and set the date for a General Election at the time of their choosing.
However, support for the Act has not lasted long and early elections were called in both 2017 and 2019, the latter through the passing of a new Early Parliamentary General Election Act in 2019 to do so. 10 years after it passed and the current Government are planning on repealing the Act in 2022.
A Parliament versus a Parliamentary Session
As well as the physical building in which MPs meet, a ‘Parliament’ is also is the period of time between one general election and the next.
Each Parliament is divided into five year-long ‘sessions’, usually beginning and ending in spring. However it is important to note that there is not a fixed length for a session, and in recent years, a couple of sessions have extended beyond their traditional one-year length, but they generally do follow the same pattern of spring to spring, with a number of recesses, or breaks, during the session when Parliament does not meet. Recesses more or less follow the school calendar year, so if school's out, it’s likely Parliament is out too.
The Government get to choose when to bring each session to an end – the technical term for this being prorogation. Essentially, it’s a way of breaking Parliament without ending it. Parliament exists in a 'prorogued' state between the end of one session and the State Opening of Parliament which marks the beginning of a new session, but it does not meet.
When Parliament comes to the end of its lifecycle, Parliament is dissolved 25 days ahead of the General Election. This period is also known as ‘Purdah’, which lays down that, by convention, the Government cannot make any major announcements during this period, seen as a period of heightened political sensitivity in the run up to the General Election.
Recess, Prorogation and Dissolution
In the podcast we mentioned we’d set out the effects recess, prorogation and dissolution all have on different areas of parliamentary activity, from bills to select committees, to questions:
Remain in process
Fall, except for those government bills which are made the subject of carry-over motions
Select committee activity
Inquiries may survive but committees cannot meet
Tabling of oral questions
Can be answered
Tabling of new questions
May be possible
Questions already tabled
Stand, and may be answered (but without the normal sitting-day deadlines for answer)
Laying of government papers
A typical day in the House of Commons Chamber
Parliament sits regularly from Monday to Thursday: from 2.30pm on a Monday to give MPs to time to get to Westminster from their constituencies, 11.30am on a Tuesday and Wednesday, and 9.30am on a Thursday. There are also 13 Fridays that Parliament sits from 9.30am, for the passage of Private Members Bills.
Each day begins with Oral Questions to a ministerial team for a Government Department for between half an hour and one hour. Straight after Oral Questions, there could be an Urgent Question from an MP to the Government. Following Urgent Questions, there could be an oral Ministerial Statement, used to make announcements on major Government policy or actions, or to address major incidents. Following the statements, parliamentary debates get underway – usually set stages of pieces of legislation, or general debates on topical issues brought forward by opposition parties or backbench MPs. The day always ends with an adjournment debate, a short half-hour long debate on a particular issue often highly-specific to an MP’s constituency or individual interests.
Listen to the full podcast for a more detailed run-through of the topics above, and do let us know what you think.