It is only through procedures for debating, questioning and voting that the voice of Parliament as a collective institution can make itself known. It will be recalled that there is no strict separation of powers between the executive and the legislature in that all ministers must also be MPs and the most important ministers must be members of the elected House of Commons. This has democratic strengths, ensuring that ministers must appear in public and are directly answerable to Parliament, but where the government has a strong majority it weakens the independence of Parliament. Parliamentary procedure is adversarial, presupposing a government and Opposition constantly in conflict. The rectangular layout of the chamber reflects this. Government and Opposition confront each other on either side and the seats are symbolically arranged two sword-lengths from each other. Other European legislative chambers are characteristically semicircular in layout, representing a more conciliatory ethos, with the parties, usually elected by proportional representation, merging into each other. The adversarial nature of parliamentary procedure is mitigated by what are known as ‘usual channels’. These involve informal cooperation between the parties so as to ensure that the procedures operate smoothly and fairly. For example, absences from votes may be arranged in ‘pairs’ so as to maintain party balance. Party whips have the responsibility of liaising between the government and backbench MPs and imposing party discipline.
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