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In the United Kingdom
The bell is used in the immediate neighbourhood of Palace of Westminster (which houses Parliament) to signal that a division is occurring and that members of the House of Commons or of the House of Lords have eight minutes to get to their chosen Division lobby to vote for or against the resolution. The call for a division is also displayed on the Annunciator screens throughout the Palace of Westminster. The division bells are also sounded at the point when the house sits (at the start of its day); at the end of the two-minute prayers that start each day and when the house rises. There are approximately five hundred bells in and around the Palace of Westminster.
As some Members may be in nearby offices, restaurants, pubs or shops, some of these have their own division bells connected to those in the Houses of Parliament; others will use a system of pagers co-ordinated by the Whip's office of each party.
The headquarters of the major parties are all within reach of the division bell, and this area roughly defines the geographical limits of the Westminster Bubble.
Though the Commons and Lords share division bells, they are driven from separate ringing generator systems which means that the bells make a noticeably different sound for a division of the House of Commons and a division of the House of Lords.
The generator for the House of Commons simultaneously sounds all the division bells with a 2 Hertz signal for exactly eight minutes. As soon as the bells stop, the door keepers manning the entrances to the two division lobbies close and lock the doors. Any MP who has failed to enter the lobby in time has lost the ability to vote in that division.
A broadcast of the BBC's Antiques Roadshow in October 2007 from the Banqueting House in Whitehall featured the original Ringing Generator System Number 1 from the House of Commons. The programme's expert, Paul Atterbury, with the help of former House of Commons Speaker Baroness Betty Boothroyd, demonstrated the apparatus in use with one of the original Division Bells. The show valued the transmitter at £15,000.
Three Ringing Generator Systems were made at the end of the 19th century by the GPO at the request of the Government. They were numbered 1, 2 and 3. Two were destroyed by a bomb in 1941 and replaced with copies bearing the numbers 4 and 5. Number 5 generator exists, but the whereabouts of number 4 is not known. The current generator is entirely electronic.
External division bells
Besides the Palace of Westminster, division bells are fitted in the following establishments:
- Hispaniola Restaurant, Victoria Embankment
- St. Ermin's Hotel, Caxton St.
- St. James Court Hotel, Buckingham Gate.
- National Liberal Club, Whitehall Place.
- Green's Restaurant, Marsham St.
- St. Stephens Club, 34 Queen Anne's Gate.
- Red Lion Public House, Parliament St.
- St. Germain Restaurant, Royal Westminster Hotel, Buckingham Palace Road.
- The Cinnamon Club, 30 Great Smith St.
- Royal Horseguard Hotel, Whitehall Place.
- Quillon Restaurant, 41 Buckingham Gate
- Kyms Restaurant, 70-71 Wilton Rd.
- Quirinale Restaurant, 1 Great Peter St.
- Marquis of Granby public house, 41 Romney St.
- Vitello Dor Restaurant, Church House.
The proprietors of these establishments are responsible for the maintenance of the bells.
Both State and Federal Parliament buildings use electronic division bells. In states with bicameral parliaments, and in the federal Parliament, red and green lights near the division bells flash to indicate which house is being called. Queensland and the Territories, which have unicameral parliaments, do not require the red light which indicates the Upper House. The bells are rung at the beginning of a sitting, because a member has challenged a vote (called a division), or because there are not enough members in the chamber to constitute quorum.
In the NSW Parliament, the division bell is electronic and rings differently for divisions in the Assembly and the Council.
The electronic bell of the House of Commons sounds to call members of the House for a sitting, a vote, or to announce the lack of a quorum. In the case of a vote, it is referred to as the division bell.
- UK Parliament glossary - division bell
- Divisions in the House of Commons: House of Commons Background Paper. Document ref:SN/PC/06401 (Last updated: 2 August 2013).