A set of laws, conventions and Standing Orders govern how and when a Parliament starts and ends, how it is divided into sessions and sitting periods, and what ceremonies and procedures take place at different points. This guide takes you through them.
A Parliament begins when it meets for the first time following a general election.
A Parliament ends when it dissolves before a general election.
Formally, a new Parliament is called (‘summoned’) to meet for the first time by the Queen. She does this by making a Proclamation, once the previous Parliament has dissolved. The Proclamation is issued through the Privy Council as an Order in Council.
The summoning of a new Parliament is one of the Queen’s prerogative powers.
The Proclamation sets the date for the new Parliament’s first meeting (the ‘date of summons’). Once the Proclamation has been issued, this date can be changed only by another Proclamation.
In practice, the date for the first meeting of the new Parliament is set on the advice of the government.
In 2019, the Proclamation summoning the new Parliament for 17 December [pdf] was made on 6 November and published the following day.
In contrast to the summoning of a new Parliament, since passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) the dissolution of Parliament is no longer a prerogative power. Instead, under the FTPA, dissolution occurs automatically as a consequence of a general election having been triggered under the Act. Under the FTPA, the date of dissolution is generated automatically by the date of any general election which is being held under the Act, once this is known.
Whereas the start of a new Parliament involves various ceremonies and procedures that must take place there – such as the election of the House of Commons Speaker on the first day and then the swearing-in of Members in both Houses) – dissolution under the FTPA does not, and simply occurs automatically.
The date of the first meeting of a new Parliament (the ‘date of summons’) is set by the Queen in a Proclamation, issued through the Privy Council as an Order in Council after the previous Parliament dissolves.
Once the Proclamation has been issued, the date of a new Parliament’s first meeting could be changed only by another Proclamation. Two types of Proclamation could do this:
- a Proclamation changing the date of the first meeting (the ‘date of summons’); or
- under the Prorogation Act 1867, a Proclamation proroguing the new Parliament to a date later than that set for its first meeting. Any such delayed date must be at least 14 days after the date of the Proclamation which sets it.
There is no legal minimum or maximum period after a general election before the new Parliament first meets.
House of Commons Library data show that since 1922 the number of days from a general election to the new Parliament’s first meeting has ranged from five to 34.
In 2007, the then-Modernisation Committee of the House of Commons recommended that the period between an election and the new Parliament’s first meeting should be around 12 days. This was primarily to allow new MPs sufficient time to establish their offices and undertake induction activities.
In the run-up to the 2015 election, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended that in the event of an inconclusive election result the new Parliament should meet more quickly than this, but that as a general principle the date of a new Parliament’s first meeting should in any case be put on a statutory basis.
The Modernisation Committee’s recommendation of around 12 days was followed in 2010 (12 days) and 2015 (11 days). However, the early elections of 2017 and 2019 saw the period reduced to five days. Before 2017, the last time the period from a general election to the first meeting of a new Parliament was only five days was 1922.
All Members of both Houses must ‘swear in’ at the start of a new Parliament. Under the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866, each Member must swear in individually.
In a new House of Commons, swearing-in is the second item of business, following the election of the Speaker. Not having been sworn in does not prevent Members from taking part in the election of the Speaker, nor party leaders from making their customary statements in the Chamber immediately afterwards. Swearing-in could not in any case take place before the Speaker’s election, because under the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 the Speaker must be in the Chair for the process.
But in a new House of Commons, swearing-in must come next after the election of the Speaker, because under the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866, no Member of either House may sit or vote in a debate in the relevant Chamber until he or she has been sworn in. A £500 fine is payable for violating this provision. The need to swear in is especially urgent for MPs (as opposed to Peers). MPs receive no salary until they have been sworn in, and any MP who sits or votes in a debate in the Chamber without having been sworn in automatically and immediately also loses his or her seat, triggering a by-election.
Owing to these swearing-in provisions, neither House normally conducts any business before the Queen’s Speech other than swearing-in. And, while it is possible for Members of either House to swear in after the Queen’s Speech, arrangements are normally made to allow all Members to swear in before it, and certainly before the start of the debate on the Speech.
How does swearing-in take place in the House of Commons?
The Speaker is the first MP to be sworn in. He or she is sworn in standing on the step in front of the Speaker’s Chair.
Other MPs follow the Speaker in order of political seniority:
- the Father of the House goes first; then
- Cabinet Ministers and Shadow Cabinet Ministers; then
- Privy Counsellors; then
- other ministers; and finally
- other MPs, usually by the date of the Parliament in which they most recently entered the House.
For MPs other than the Speaker, swearing-in takes place at the Chamber’s central table, which bears the despatch box.
Father of the House: the MP with the longest continuous service who is not a minister.
The order in which MPs swear in can be important: at the point at which the previous Father of the House ceases to be a member of the Commons, if more than one Member with continuous service entered the House at the same election and no Member has longer continous service, the Member who was sworn in first would be the new Father of the House.
MPs and Peers may be sworn in in two ways, in accordance with the Oaths Act 1878:
- By swearing an oath of allegiance to the Crown as specified in the Promissory Oaths Act 1868. This runs: “I, [name], do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.” The oath may be sworn using any holy text the Member requests. The oath may also be sworn in the Scottish manner, using a slightly different form of words.
- By making a solemn affirmation, that “I, [name], do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.”
The oath or affirmation must be made in English. However, MPs and Peers may repeat it in any other language.
After swearing-in, MPs sign the ‘test roll’, a parchment book, and the Clerk of the House then introduces them to the Speaker. Newly-sworn MPs are also invited to inform the House of Commons authorities of the way in which they wish their name to appear in official publications.
Swearing-in in the House of Lords is similar to the process in the Commons. Unlike their elected counterparts, once they have been sworn in Members of the House of Lords must sign a commitment to abide by the House’s Code of Conduct [PDF].
How long does swearing-in take?
In the House of Commons, swearing-in normally starts only on the day after the day of the Speaker’s election, and then takes place over three to four hours each day over two to four days.
In 2015, the then-Clerk of the House told the then-Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that under the normal arrangements it takes around half an hour to swear in around 90 MPs.
However, the normal pace and length of the process reflect what is usually a lack of any great urgency before the Queen’s Speech, which is normally set for a date three-to-five sitting days after the new Parliament first meets.
There are several ways in which the process could be expedited if necessary, with the agreement of the Speaker. For example, swearing-in could begin on the same day as, and immediately after, the Speaker’s election; more hours per day could be made available for the process; and changed arrangements in the Chamber, with two lines of Members going through the process either side of the table instead of one, could allow two MPs to be sworn in still individually but at the same time.
In his 2015 evidence, the then-Clerk told the then-Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that if this last device were used, the whole process could probably be concluded in two to two-and-a-half hours.
Normally, once swearing-in is completed, the House of Commons adjourns for several days before the Queen’s Speech, but, again, this gap could be dispensed with to allow the Queen’s Speech to take place more quickly.
The ultimate decision-maker on arrangements for House of Commons swearing-in is the Speaker, who under the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 must be in the Chair for the process.
How does Parliament know who is entitled to be sworn in?
The House of Commons authorities know the identity of those who are entitled to be sworn in as MPs through the ‘Return Book’. This contains the list of names of people returned in the general election to serve as MPs, and serves as evidence of someone’s right to take their seat. (The ‘Return Book’ is also known colloquially as the ‘White Book’, owing to the colour of its binding.)
Clerk of the Crown in Chancery: a ceremonial post for the conveying of the Crown’s commands to Parliament. It is simultaneously a parliamentary office and a position in the Ministry of Justice, held by a senior civil servant.
The ‘Return Book’ is delivered to the Clerk of the House of Commons by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery (or the Deputy Clerk of the Crown in Chancery) as the very first item of business in a new House of Commons, before even the election of the Speaker. In the Chamber, the Return Book is physically received by the Clerk Assistant (the second most-senior House of Commons Clerk after the Clerk of the House).
In the House of Lords, before being sworn in Members must present their ‘writs of summons’. These are issued from the office of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, by direction of the Lord Chancellor, to all Peers who are entitled to seats in the Lords.
Each Parliament is divided into sessions.
This is a way of organising parliamentary business and time. Most importantly, a parliamentary session is intended to encompass the government’s current legislative programme. The start of a new parliamentary session functions as the opportunity to launch the next such programme, via the Queen’s Speech.
How is a parliamentary session ended and begun?
A parliamentary session is ended by the prorogation of Parliament. Broadly, Parliament is prorogued from one date, when the session ends, to another in the future, when the next session starts.
A prorogation applies to Parliament as a whole: both Houses are prorogued together.
Formally, prorogation is done by the Queen, in a Proclamation issued through the Privy Council as an Order in Council.
However, the Queen acts on the advice of the government, and in practice prorogation is a government decision.
The prorogation Proclamation normally specifies a small range of dates within which prorogation will take place, and the government then makes arrangements in Parliament to bring the session to a close on one of the specified days.
Formally, the Queen also sets the date for the opening of a new session of Parliament. The way in which this occurs depends on the circumstances:
- A prorogation may take place during a Parliament. In this case, the Queen sets the date for the start of the new session in the prorogation Proclamation (as occurred in October 2019 [pdf]). When a new session starts during a Parliament, the Queen’s Speech and State Opening take place on the new session’s first day (as on 14 October 2019).
- A prorogation may take place at the end of a Parliament, before a dissolution and general election. The government prorogues Parliament before a dissolution when it is able to finish its desired parliamentary business before the dissolution date and does not need Parliament to sit for the whole period until it is dissolved. In this case, the Queen makes a prorogation Proclamation which only prorogues Parliament, until the date on which it will dissolve. Then, after dissolution, the Queen makes a further, separate, Proclamation, summoning the new Parliament and setting the date on which it will first meet (the ‘date of summons’) and thus start its first session. In such instances, the Queen’s Speech and State Opening take place a few days after the start of the new session, to allow time before the Queen’s Speech for the election of the House of Commons Speaker and the swearing-in of Members of both Houses.
- A prorogation may take place before the first meeting of a new Parliament, under the Prorogation Act 1867. In this case, the Queen makes a prorogation Proclamation which prorogues the new Parliament from the date previously set for its first meeting (the ‘date of summons’) to a later date. Any such later date must be at least 14 days after the date of the Proclamation which sets it. In effect, this mechanism is a way of delaying the first meeting of a new Parliament beyond the date previously set for it.
Once a Proclamation proroguing Parliament has been made, the Queen may by a further Proclamation alter the date previously set for the start of the new session, to either delay it or bring it forward.
How long is a parliamentary session?
A parliamentary session is normally assumed to last around a year.
Reflecting this default assumption, when a new session opens it is referred to by a title referencing two calendar years (for example, the 2019-20 session).
In recent history, parliamentary sessions have indeed mostly lasted around one year (with the exceptions of 2010-12 and 2017-19).
However, there is no minimum or maximum length for a parliamentary session. The government has discretion to bring a session to an end at any point (or not to do so), to suit its preferred management of parliamentary business.
There is also no requirement on the government to announce in advance if it is planning a session lasting other than a year, although in 2010 and 2017 it indicated four months and nine days, respectively, after the general election held in those years that it was planning the first session of the new Parliament to be a two-year one.
Sessions used normally to end and start in October or November each year. With general elections – and thus the start of Parliaments’ first sessions – typically taking place in the late spring, this meant that first sessions often lasted for around 18 months, and final sessions only for around six.
However, after passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA), which established that general elections would normally be held in May, the timetable was switched so that sessions now normally end and start in the period between April and June. This generated sessions of roughly equal one-year duration.
The 2017-19 Parliament and the early general election which ended it disrupted this pattern. As shown by the charts at the end of this section, the 2017-19 Parliament had both the longest and the shortest sessions of recent times, while the starts of the 2019 and 2019-20 sessions were the first session openings since 2009 to take place in the autumn/winter. (House of Commons Library data show that the date of the start of the 2019-20 session was the latest in a year since at least 1900.)
What parliamentary business is affected by session lengths and timings?
Sessions affect primary legislation in three especially prominent ways:
A. Bills falling.
When Parliament is prorogued and a session ends, bills that have not completed their parliamentary proceedings fall, unless they are eligible for, and made the subject of, ‘carry-over’ motions that ‘save’ them to continue their proceedings in the next session.
A carry-over motion for a bill is moved by the government, in the House where the bill is under consideration.
A carry-over motion can be moved for a bill only if the bill is a government bill, and only if the bill is still in the House where it was introduced. A carry-over motion may save a bill only into the next session, and a bill carried-over into one new session cannot be carried-over again. And even if a bill has been carried over, it will fall if proceedings on it have not been completed within a calendar year of its introduction.
Private Members’ Bills fall on prorogation and cannot be carried over.
B. House of Lords rejection of a bill and the Parliament Act 1911
Under the Parliament Act 1911, if the House of Commons completes proceedings on a public bill and sends it to the Lords in two successive sessions, but the Lords continues to reject it, the bill is presented for Royal Assent without the Lords’ consent. This applies as long as there has been at least a calendar year between the 2nd Reading of the bill in the Commons in the first session and the bill’s passing by the Commons in the second session; and as long as the bill was sent from the Commons to the Lords at least a calendar month before the end of both sessions. In effect, the Lords cannot delay enactment of a public bill for more than one session, as long as the total time since the Commons first gave it a 2nd Reading is at least 13 months.
C. Private Members’ Ballot Bills
In both Houses, the Private Members’ Bill ballot only opens legislative slots for bills to be introduced in the parliamentary session in which it is held.
In the Commons, the number of sitting Fridays mandated by Standing Orders for consideration of Private Members’ Bill is set per session.
When a parliamentary session ends, most undischarged business in the Chambers of both Houses falls. This applies, for example, to motions and parliamentary questions, and, in the Commons, to Early Day Motions (EDMs).
Other ways in which sessions matter include, in the House of Commons:
- The number of Opposition Days and Backbench Business Days mandated by Standing Orders are set by session.
- The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected only for one session.
In the House of Lords:
- Limits are set per session on the number of oral questions that each Member may ask and on the number of topical questions for short debate which each Member may seek to raise (via the ballot that takes place for such debates).
- The main select committees established to scrutinise the government are formally established only for a session (although their re-creation at the start of a new one is normally a formality).
- For most select committees, Members who have been appointed to a committee for three successive parliamentary sessions may not be reappointed in the next two, under the Lords’ ‘rotation rule’.
- The Senior Deputy Speaker (who is also the Chairman of Committees), the Chairman of the EU Committee (who is also the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees) and other Deputy Chairmen of Committees are appointed only for a session.
Where parliamentary business is governed by session-based rules, very long or very short sessions can cause difficulties, as occurred in the 2017-19 Parliament with respect to several of these provisions.
This section was added to the page on 20 December 2019 and further content added on 27 December 2019.
What does the Fixed-term Parliaments Act do?
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) establishes the maximum and default length of a Parliament. It does this by establishing:
- default dates on which general elections are held; and
- dates on which Parliament automatically dissolves, defined in terms of a fixed number of days counting back from the date of any general election held under the Act.
Under the FTPA, a Parliament cannot last longer than five years. The expiry of the roughly five-year term established in the FTPA automatically triggers a general election, and therefore also the dissolution of Parliament beforehand. The expiry of the five-year fixed term is how the 2015 general election was triggered.
Any of the provisions of the FTPA may of course be amended or overridden by another, later, Act of Parliament.
In their manifestos for the December 2019 general election, both the Conservatives [pdf] and Labour [pdf] pledged to repeal the FTPA. If this were done, apart from other consequential changes some alternative provision would have to be put into legislation to limit the length of a Parliament.
When are scheduled elections held under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?
The next general election: Following the general election of 12 December 2019, the next general election under the FTPA is due on 2 May 2024.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) establishes that a general election is held on the first Thursday in May in the fifth calendar year following that in which the previous general election took place, if that election took place on or after the first Thursday in May in the year in which it was held. If the previous general election took place before the first Thursday in May in the year in which it was held, the next election is held on the first Thursday in May in the fourth calendar year following the year in which the previous general election was held.
Can a general election scheduled under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act be delayed?
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA), the Prime Minister may delay by up to two months the date of any general election triggered by the expiry of the fixed parliamentary term. The Prime Minister may do so by making a Statutory Instrument subject to the affirmative procedure (that is, requiring the approval of both Houses of Parliament). The Prime Minister would also be required to lay before Parliament a statement explaining the proposed delay.
When does Parliament dissolve?
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) further establishes that Parliament dissolves at the start of the 25th working day before the date of any general election held under the Act. For the purposes of the FTPA, the definition of ‘working day’ excludes Saturdays, Sundays, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Good Friday, bank holidays in any part of the UK, and days of public mourning or thanksgiving.
(When it was originally passed, the FTPA specified 17 working days as the counting-back period from a general election to dissolution. The period was extended to 25 working days by the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.)
When is the 2019 Parliament due to dissolve? With a general election due on 2 May 2024, and assuming current bank holidays, under the FTPA the 2019 Parliament is due to dissolve on Tuesday 26 March 2024, three days before the Easter weekend. Under the FTPA, the 2019 Parliament is thus due to last for only around four years and three months.
This 25-day period to the dissolution of Parliament, counting back from the date of a general election, applies whether the general election being held under the Act is a scheduled one, triggered only by the ending of Parliament’s fixed five-year term, or an early one.
An early general election – and therefore an early dissolution of Parliament – can come about in two ways:
- under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA); or
- under another, later, Act of Parliament which overrides the provisions of the FTPA.
The 2017 early election was triggered under the FTPA, while the 2019 early election came about through a dedicated Act of Parliament, the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019.
Either way, an early election can be triggered at any point in a Parliament.
Early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act
The FTPA provides two routes by which an early general election may be triggered.
1. Successful House of Commons motion for an early general election
In the ‘early election motion’ route to an early general election under the FTPA, the House of Commons agrees the motion “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election” with (if there is a vote) the support of a number of MPs equivalent to at least two-thirds of the number of seats in the House – not the number of MPs, or the number of MPs voting. In other words, for the purposes of this decision, vacant seats and abstentions in effect count as ‘Noes’. With 650 seats in the House of Commons, the required threshold is 434 MPs.
This was the route used to trigger the 2017 general election, when 522 MPs voted for the early poll.
In 2019, the government put the early general election motion to the House of Commons three times unsuccessfully:
- On 4 September, the motion received the support of 298 MPs.
- On 9 September, it received the support of 293 MPs.
- On 28 October, it received the support of 299 MPs.
To trigger an early general election via this route, the motion which the House of Commons agrees must be worded exactly as set out in the FTPA. An early election motion moved under the Act is amendable, but if any amendment were made which rendered the motion differently worded than that specified in the Act, the motion would no longer trigger an early poll under the Act.
The FTPA is silent on the identity of the MP or MPs who must or could move the early election motion, but it is assumed that it is likely to be the government. Given the government’s control of time in the House of Commons, an early election could be triggered by this route within 24 hours of the government deciding to seek one.
2. No confidence
In the ‘no confidence’ route to an early general election under the FTPA, the House of Commons agrees the motion “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government”. Then, if 14 full calendar days pass during which the House of Commons does not agree the motion “That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s government”, an early general election is triggered.
The 14-day period involved in this route to an early general election starts on the day after the no-confidence motion is agreed. In calculating the 14 days, the FTPA makes no provision to take account of weekends, holidays, or periods when the House is not sitting or is prorogued.
To trigger or prevent an early general election under the FTPA’s ‘no confidence’ route, both motions would have to be agreed exactly as worded in the Act. Both motions would be amendable, but if any amendment were made which rendered them differently worded than those specified in the Act, they would not trigger or prevent an early election under the Act.
This route to an early general election has never been used.
On 16 January 2019, the day after the government lost the first ‘meaningful vote’ on the first draft EU Withdrawal Agreement, the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn MP, moved a no-confidence motion in the terms specified in the FTPA. However, the motion was defeated by 325 to 306.
The FTPA is silent on the identity of the MP or MPs who must or could move a no-confidence motion under the terms of the Act. However, it is assumed that it is most likely to be the Leader of the Opposition. By convention, if the Leader of the Opposition tables a motion of no-confidence in the government, the government quickly provides time for its debate (as it did on 16 January 2019). This is because the principle that the government enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons is central to the UK constitution. Should any doubt over the matter have arisen, it is therefore important to establish quickly whether confidence persists.
How is the date set for an early general election?
Whether or not an early general election is triggered is distinct from the question of the date on which it will be held.
An Act of Parliament which triggers an early election by overriding the provisions of the FTPA can itself set the election date. This is what happened in 2019, with the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 making 12 December 2019 the date for the next general election.
If an attempt is to be made to trigger or potentially trigger an early general election under the FTPA, there is no legal requirement that the date of the prospective poll be known when the House of Commons is asked to decide whether to trigger or potentially trigger it. In practice, in both 2017 and 2019, the government indicated its hoped-for early election date via the media before moving the early election motion in the House of Commons.
If an early election is triggered under the FTPA, by either of the two possible routes, the general election date is formally set by the Queen, in a Proclamation issued through the Privy Council as an Order in Council, after the election has been triggered. In 2017, the House of Commons backed the early election motion on 19 April and the Proclamation formally setting the election for 8 June was made on 25 April [pdf].
In practice, the election date is set on the advice of the government.
Whereas the FTPA in effect removed the Prime Minister’s power to dissolve Parliament and call a general election, therefore, it removed his or her power also to set the general election date only in the case of a scheduled poll. In the case of an early election held under the FTPA, the Prime Minister retains his or her power to set the election date.