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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Why parliamentary procedure matters

4 min read

Procedure. Parliamentary procedure. Standing Orders. Erskine May. Points of Order. Ten Minute Rule bills. Are you still reading?

Then you're either one of those people who is fascinated by the intricacies of the House of Commons Order Paper or maybe after this week you've noticed that sometimes the House of Commons and MPs use procedure to get their own way.

Since being elected to chair the House of Commons Procedure Committee, I have considered allowing MPs being treated for long term illness to exercise their votes, how MPs can scrutinise a Foreign Secretary who is not an MP, what steps we could take to improve relations between elected representatives in devolved parliaments and Westminster and, of course, the biggest change in our procedures for hundreds of years during the pandemic.  

And now the Speaker has said that he plans to ask my committee to consider the operation of Standing Order No. 31, which is the Standing Order that governs the way that the House of Commons considers amendments, and in particular the order of amendments on allotted opposition days. It was this topic that proved to be a great deal of interest on Wednesday last week.

There are all sorts of motions put in front of the House to consider and potentially divide on - a division being where a motion is opposed and each MP is required to decide whether to vote aye or no. Some are known as "take note". These are for general debates and would start "This House has considered....".  It would be unusual to divide on such a motion - clearly the House has considered the matter so a vote of no is basically saying that the House hasn't had the debate which has just taken place.  And there will only be a live vote if some MPs shout "no".

Voteable motions are normally ones that concern legislation or substantive ones that start "This House calls for..." or "This House believes...".   Last week's issues concerned the latter on one of the SNP's allotted Opposition days. To explain, as stated in Standing Order No. 14, twenty days each session are "allotted" to opposition parties to allow them to table any motion of their choice, with seventeen days allotted to Labour and three allotted to the SNP.  

On such days, and on motions put down by the relevant opposition party leader, under the rules of Standing Order No. 31, the original motion is voted on before any amendment tabled by the Government. Without this provision, opposition parties would simply not get to vote on their own policies and positions because the Government controls the Order Paper, decides what business will be taken and what words will be tabled.  So this rule is important in allowing opposition parties to be heard. 

Last Wednesday, as an allotted SNP opposition day, the SNP motion should have been voted on first and the normal procedure would be that, if the Government had tabled an amendment, that should be moved and then voted on after the vote on the SNP's motion. There was a Government amendment and, in recent years, the long-established convention has been that amendments put down by parties other than the Government would not be selected by the Speaker. Wednesday was not a normal circumstance and, by deciding to also allow a vote on the Labour Party amendment as well as the Government's, the Speaker departed from that convention for dealing with such amendments on Opposition days. 

But what does all this mean to the outside world? The whole debate could not bind the Government to change its position and so, the most it could achieve was to send a message to those outside where MPs sit on the terrible situation in the Middle East. Anyone looking at the motion and the three amendments that were tabled - the Liberal Democrats also tabled an amendment - would see that there were a few pointed phrases that differentiate the various positions, but that everyone agrees that we want to see an end to the dreadful situation, no more deaths and the hostages released. I can well understand why my constituents cannot understand how the day ended the way it did. 

I will now work with my committee to look at how we can make the procedural situation clearer.  But never let it be said that parliamentary procedure isn't interesting. 

The Rt Hon Dame Karen Bradley MP is Chair of the Procedure Committee

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