The typical course of business for the House of Commons
Called a 'sitting', a typical day of the House that commences with 'prayers' and concludes with the sitting being adjourned.
Parliament sits for 8 hours each day, with the exception of Friday sittings for Private Members Bills, which lasts for six hours. The start and finish time of each sitting is different each day except for Tuesday and Wednesday.Monday 2.30pm - 10.30pm
The schedule reflects the fact that MPs represent constituencies that may be some distance from London and MPs have to spend time returning to their constituencies for local engagements such as surgeries.
For example, if Parliament was to commence at 9:00am on Monday morning, most MPs would have had to leave their constituency homes on Sunday afternoon in order to be present each Monday morning. By having a late opening (and late closing) on Mondays, it allows MPs to return to London on Monday morning and still have an 8 hour Parliamentary day.
Similarly, by not sitting on Fridays, MPs often return to their constituencies on Thursday evening and perform local events on the Friday.
The origin of late sittings was the Victorian-era MP, who typically held business commitments in addition to their duties in the House. By starting sittings late (frequently as late as 5pm), an MP could attend to business in the morning and early afternoon, before heading to Parliament. In addition, with many families residing in the constituency, MPs in London were often unaccompanied men with no family commitments to maintain. Even during the 1990s, sittings commenced at 2.30pm every day, and Parliamentary procedures allowed filibustering to extend the time of sittings far into the night.
However, the trend towards professional politicians and the expectation of a family life for MPs led over time to hours more amendable to the average MP. In 2000, the Commons Modernisation Committee created the new timetable, and programme motions were introduced that eliminated filibustering of Government legislation.
These changes mean it is increasingly rare for sittings to extend late into the night. In recent years only around 10% of sittings extended beyond 10pm, and none after midnight. However, there is no requirement for the House to rise at the planned time of adjournment, should Members vote to continue the debate.
With the exception of Fridays, which are solely for Private Members Bills, each day will follow the same broad structure of three distinct phases:
Phase 1 - Scrutiny
On Wednesdays this schedule is disrupted by Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) at 12:00 . Only an oral question session is held for department before the Prime Minister. Technically, PMQs is a oral questions session, but one in which all the questions asked (except the first) are supplemental.
The schedule for which department does what day is produced about a month in advance in the form of a rota. MPs have until a few days before each hearing to table questions, whose precedence is usually allocated by ballot. Questions and PMQs in particular are the most attended parts of the day.
Phase 2 - Urgent Affairs
Parliament then allocates time for any urgent issues that require debate. Almost every day, there will be an Urgent Question, a question to Ministers that has only been decided that morning by the Speaker, 30 minutes before prayers and about 2.5 hours before the debate is held.
An Urgent Question requires a response to be given from the Government, usually by a junior Minister. The sessions lasts for about 45 minutes for each question, with 2 Urgent Questions usually asked each day. This is a fairly recent innovation as urgent questions used to be fairly rare, but since 2010, Speakers have included more of them.
Urgent Questions can be followed by a Ministerial Statement. These are given when some event of national importance has occurred, and Parliament wants to hear directly from the Minister. For instance, following a G20 summit or a national crisis. The Speaker can keep questions during a Ministerial Statement going for as long as they see fit, which may be several hours.
Phase 3 - Main Business
On occasion, urgent business that requires extensive debate may supercede the planned business. For example, the main business of the 16th January 2019 was to be the Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security (EU Withdrawal) Bill. However, on the 15th January, the Leader of the Opposition tabled a 'Motion of No Confidence' in the Government, and the main business of the 16th January became a debate on this motion.
The daily agenda is printed in the Order Paper (which you may see backbenchers waving at moments of uncontainable agitation). The Order Paper is a comprehensive lists of the planned business of the day, all other official events (Committee sittings and Westminster Hall debates) that are scheduled to occur that day, and future business.