It is impossible to over-emphasise the importance of time, and the control of time, in the Commons. It is a key Parliamentary tactic because, except in certain circumstances, legislation falls if it does not become law before prorogation. This means that a government cannot fulfil its commitments to the electorate and implement its policy, which might affect its chances in future elections. It is easy to see why those opposed to a government would seek to delay measures to which they object, while a government seeks to ensure the smooth running of its legislative programme.
In the Commons, a Cabinet Minister – the Leader of the House of Commons – announces the 'business' for coming weeks to the House, normally every Thursday at about 12.30pm. Normally, one-tenth of Commons' sitting days are given over to debates brought forward by opposition parties. The rest of the time, excepting Fridays set aside for private members' Bills, is government time.
During government time, the Government pursues its agenda, as mandated in the general election. It does not, however, disregard the views of other parties. Party managers – the Whips – meet regularly to discuss and negotiate the schedule. This informal, behind the scenes contact between parties that are outwardly at each others' throats is referred to universally as 'the Usual Channels'.
Indeed, the Usual Channels come into play whenever there is cause for the Government party and the opposition parties to collude. The Usual Channels are responsible for putting names forward to be considered for nomination as members of Select Committees. They also operate the system of 'pairing' whereby an MP who has a prior engagement that means a vote will be missed is paired with an MP from an opposing party who agrees also to miss the vote, ensuring the outcome is a fair measure of the House's opinion.
Crucially, it is often the Usual Channels that hammer out compromises between the parties in order to secure the passage of a Bill.
While no one would deny that the Usual Channels exist, it is a rarity from them to be mentioned in the House. They are key to the smooth running of the Commons but their influence is matched only by their secrecy.
That said, the Speaker may grant emergency debates or urgent questions on application from any MP, although normally only government-initiated debates are granted. Ministers may also seek permission at short notice to come to the House to make announcements or to update MPs on developing situations. These are called statements and permission is invariably granted.
When Parliament is sitting, the Commons meets Mondays to Thursdays and on Fridays if it has been scheduled for the consideration of private members' Bills.
A day's agenda in the House is called the Order of Business and it normally follows the following pattern:
Statements or urgent questions if any have been granted
Points of order, if any
Start of Public Business
Ten-minute rule Bill, if any
Main Business – debates or legislation
Moment of Interruption