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“LOCK THE LOBBIES!”

For those confused by Brexit votes in Parliament and shouts of "Division," "Clear the lobbies" and "Unlock", a short note on House of Commons voting process:

The Speaker first announces a question or motion being presented to Parliament:

"The Question is that…" (and states the question)

"As many as are of that opinion, say "Aye"...(shouts of "Aye")

"of the contrary, "No"...(shouts of "No")  

If one side is an obvious winner, the Speaker will then announce his opinion as: -  

"I think the Ayes / Noes have it...The Ayes / Noes have it".

Any member can challenge the Speaker's opinion in which case the House will vote on whether the Speaker's view should prevail.

 If the result is not clear, the Speaker will shout:

"Division ! Clear the lobbies".

The Speaker is referring here to the two long rooms found on either side of the House of Commons Chamber - known as the "Aye" and "No" Division Lobbies. The call of "clear the lobbies" is a call to clear the lobby of "strangers" or those not entitled to vote and it dates back to an incident in 1771 when a non-MP found his way into the "No lobby" and was counted as a voter in more than one parliamentary debate.

A minute or so after "Division" is called, the Speaker will announce the identity of the two pairs of tellers who will count the votes in each lobby.

MPs will file into the lobbies to vote and a "Division Bell" is sounded to call MPs to vote. From the moment the bell starts to ring, MPs have just 8 minutes to find their way to the lobbies. The bell also rings in at least 14 restaurants, pubs and clubs in the vicinity of Parliament and some MPs (including Michael Portillo) even had bells fitted in their houses to notify them of voting divisions.

After 8 minutes of the bell sounding, the Speaker announces:

"lock the lobbies"

At this point, no more MPs may file into the lobbies to vote. Those in the lobbies continue to vote by giving their names to the tellers as they exit. Two tellers guard the exit to each of the lobbies – usually comprising a government MP and an opposition MP (very often the whips).

The votes are counted and each total is written on a card. The tellers from both lobbies compare results and stand in a line in front of the speaker. The tellers on the winning side stand on the Speaker’s left so that MPs will know the outcome of the vote at this point.

The tellers read out the results to the House and the Speaker then announces the numbers a second time, finishing with:

"The Ayes / Noes have it - the Ayes / Noes have it" and

"Unlock" referring to the voting lobby doors (ready for the next vote).

The Speaker's shouts of "Order - Order" often intersperse these proceedings – usually to ensure that individual speakers may be heard. His role is essentially to uphold the traditions of parliamentary language, conduct and protocols of the House and to guard that MPs do not insult or accuse each other of disreputable conduct, lying, deceitfulness or drunkenness in the course of parliamentary proceedings.

Interestingly, over the years, Speakers have asked MPs to withdraw insults such as "blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor" and MPs throughout the ages have applied themselves to get around the rules of language. Disraeli, on being instructed to withdraw his allegation that "half the cabinet are knaves", asserted instead that "half the cabinet are not knaves".

For more information, please get in touch with Deryn Rees. 

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