Numerous all-party groups (APGs) are set up in Parliament, each having its own terms of reference. They allow for MPs to promote the interests of certain subjects or countries (eg motorcycling or the USA) and have ad hoc cross-party membership. APGs are registered and regulated by House authorities.
The Alliance party describes itself as a non-sectarian party which advocates co-operation between nationalist and unionist communities and is aligned with the Liberal Democrats.
The Alliance party has been involved in Northern Irish politics since the early 1970s but it has never really been able to shrug off its small party status. Its most well-known member was John Alderdice, who became leader of the party ahead of the 1987 general election, contested the Belfast East parliamentary seat and received 32% of the vote, the highest percentage ever achieved by Alliance in an individual seat in a Westminster election. He was elected to the Northern Irish Assembly in its first elections in 1998, becoming Speaker, a position which led him to resign as leader of the Alliance party, holding the position until 2004.
On its website the Alliance party describes its aims as being "to build a Northern Irish society devoid of segregation, sectarianism and prejudice where everyone - Catholic or Protestant, black or white, local or immigrant, rich or poor, young or old - can live their live the way they want, free from fear".
While these are worthy aims the nature of Northern Irish politics means that the shared society the Alliance Party wants to create where Northern Ireland takes advantage of its links to the UK, Ireland and Europe may be some way away.
The Alliance party is opposed to the Northern Ireland power sharing executive on the grounds that it believes the people of Northern Ireland should be able to elect their own executive and decide their own system of government without systems imposed on them by Westminster.
David Ford, the party's current leader, was asked to be justice minister in the powersharing executive last year but turned down the offer saying: "It's a very definite and a very emphatic no. This executive is incompetent, it's time they got on with doing the job that they were set up to do." The Alliance party vote has largely held steady but seen no real increase.
In the 2010 general election the party made headlines when candidate Naomi Long ousted Democratic Unionist party leader Peter Robinson from his Belfast East seat. She won a 22.6% swing, but the seat will be marginal next time it comes up for election in 2015.
The Assembly is a bilingual body. It operates in English and Welsh and is overseen by a Presiding Officer - the chair - who is elected at the first plenary meeting after an election. An official record of proceedings in plenary sessions is maintained in both languages. It is normally published 24 hours after the end of proceedings, with all contributions in Welsh translated into English. A full bilingual version is available after five working days.
In contrast to the House of Commons, AMs refer to each other by name and use the second person in dealings with colleagues.
The agenda is normally decided by the Welsh Assembly Government in the person of the Business Minister (on the advice of the Business Committee), who tables a weekly business motion. If ten AMs have indicated that they object to the motion, it is put to a vote. The Assembly Government can normally rely on its majority in the Assembly to approve its business, although on at least one occasion a drawn vote has been decided by the Presiding Officer's casting vote. On such occasions, the chair always votes for the status quo.
The Presiding Officer can grant emergency debates in response to applications from individual AMs. Similarly, the chair may permit an urgent question to be asked of a Welsh Minister.
When the Assembly is sitting, it meets in plenary session on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The order of business is normally as follows:
Questions to Ministers
Statements or Urgent Questions
Government debates/Secondary legislation/Minority party debates/Committee business
Council of Ministers
The Council of Ministers, typically referred to as just 'the Council', is the EU's main decision-making and legislative body. In conjunction with the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers forms the EU's legislature.
The Council of Ministers should not be confused either with the European Council or the Council of Europe. The former is a distinct EU institution that is discussed under 2.4 below. The latter is an international body, completely separate from the EU, set up in 1949 with the aim of promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law within its 40 Member States.
The Council of Ministers comprises Ministers from each member state with responsibility for the policy area under discussion. As such, the Council of Ministers is not a body that has a fixed membership - rather it is a legislative concept that is given expression at any given time in one of nine distinct 'Councils'.
1. General Affairs and External Relations Council
2. Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN)
3. Justice and Home Affairs Council
4. Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council
5. Competitiveness (Internal Market, Industry and Research) Council
6. Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council
7. Agriculture and Fisheries Council
8. Environment Council
9. Education, Youth and Culture Council
The General Affairs Council discusses international policy and general policy matters - it is comprised of Member States' foreign ministers or ministers with responsibility for EU matters. The GAC and ECOFIN are regarded as the most 'senior' Councils. The GAC, ECOFIN and the Agriculture Council meet every month, while the other Councils meet between twice and four times per year.
Between actual meetings of the Council of Ministers, the work of the Councils is carried on by a set of national delegations or 'Permanent Representations' - which interact with one another in a body called the Committee of Permanent Representatives, or COREPER. COREPER meets around once a week.
There are in fact a number of bodies under the COREPER heading.
- COREPER 2 - the senior body, comprising the Permanent Representatives and their staffs, which typically works primarily for the GAC and ECOFIN.
- Special Committee on Agriculture (SCA) - this comprises senior staff from the Permanent Representations and national agriculture ministry staff, and deals with the work of the Agriculture Council
- COREPER 1 - the junior body, comprising Deputy Permanent Representatives and their staffs, which typically deals with the work of the other Councils
COREPER, by virtue of its permanence, tends to function as the Commission's main channel of communication with the Council of Ministers, as well as between the EU and Member States' national governments. It tends to decide on non-controversial and technical matters on behalf of the Council, leaving the more political and contentious matters to the full Councils.
Member states take it in turns to assume the presidency of the Council of Ministers for six months at a time in accordance with a pre-established rota. In the context of May 2004's enlargement, it was decided that the previous six months rotation between the 15 pre-enlargement Member States will continue until 2006.
The calendar of council presidency between 2010 and 2020 is as follows:
Spain January-June 2010
Belgium July-December 2010
Hungary January-June 2011
Poland July-December 2011
Denmark January-June 2012
Cyprus July-December 2012
Ireland January-June 2013
Lithuania July-December 2013
Greece January-June 2014
Italy July-December 2014
Latvia January-June 2015
Luxembourg July-December 2015
Netherlands January-June 2016
Slovakia July-December 2016
Malta January-June 2017
United Kingdom July-December 2017
Estonia January-June 2018
Bulgaria July-December 2018
Austria January-June 2019
Romania July-December 2019
Finland January-June 2020
During a member state's Presidency, the Ministerial representatives of that Member State chair the Council meetings.
Presidency of the Council gives a Member State substantial influence over the conduct of EU business during that six months (which run from January to June and from June to December each year).
1. The Presidency represents the Council in dealings with outside bodies, including other EU bodies.
2. The Presidency and the Council's General Secretariat (the Council's own civil service) set the agendas of meetings, the terms of meetings, and the frequency and location of meetings.
3. The Presidency has responsibility for launching and building consensuses on initiatives - ie it takes the lead in promoting negotiations and agreement.
The Council of Ministers exercises the following functions.
1. The Council of Ministers is the EU's principal legislative body, with the unique power to make legislation in some areas. In others, this is exercised in conjunction with the European Parliament.
2. The Council of Ministers (through ECOFIN) co-ordinates the domestic economic policies of Member States.
3. The Council of Ministers concludes international agreements, negotiated by the Commission.
4. Along with the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers authorises the budget proposed by the Commission. The Council has the final word in relation to 'compulsory' expenditure (eg CAP spending).
5. The Council of Ministers is the sole decision-making authority in respect of Common Foreign and Security Policy proposals, within the framework set by the European Council.
6. The Council of Ministers co-ordinates the activities of Member States and adopts measures in relation to justice and home affairs policy.
The Council votes either by unanimity of by qualified majority voting (QMV). The voting system used for a given decision depends on the policy area to which that decision belongs. According to the Treaties, some subjects require unanimity, while others require only a qualified majority.
Under QMV each Member State has a fixed (weighted) number of votes. The total number of votes is 345 and a qualified majority will be obtained if the decision receives at least 255 votes (the qualified majority threshold) and the decision is approved by a majority of the Member States.
Where the Council is required to act by a qualified majority, the votes of its members are weighted as follows:
Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom: 29
Spain and Poland: 27
The Netherlands: 13
Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary and Portugal: 12
Austria, Bulgaria and Sweden: 10
Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Finland: 7
Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia: 4