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The Real Power of Some UK Parliamentary Procedures

British House of Commons: Some Strange Procedures - Editor5807
Early Day Motions to be signed, Adjournment Debates to be attended, Private Members’ Bills to pass: life in the Commons is not all effective.

The MPs’ expenses scandals in 2008-2010 and refreshing of the Commons at the 2010 General Election did not elevate public approval of elected representatives. Most people understand how laws emanating from the European Union render Parliamentarians impotent. Nevertheless, a disapproving public expects MPs to do their duty.

And that means doing voters’ bidding. Edmund Burke’s warning from 1774: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’, means little to voters who want their MP to deal with localised unemployment, doctor/dentist/schooling matters, tax/unemployment issues, planning consents and a new pedestrian crossing. Many of these issues are in the domains of local councils and other organisations.

However, no MP with ambition to be re-elected would say that. Everything is taken on. An MP is expected to have an opinion, be informed, act on, take up the cause of everything that affects the entire constituency and every soul in it. As part of this, when a campaign is started for/against something, people will often demand their MP joins in.

Adjournment Debates

Richard Eyre, director of the UK’s National Theatre 1987-97, wrote in his diary National Service (2003), 18th May 1989: ‘Went late, 10.30pm to the House of Commons for an Adjournment Debate. It’s apparently a way of putting a point on record and forcing a minister to answer it. Tory MP Alastair Goodlad made a good (well briefed) speech about the National Theatre to an audience of two Tory backbenchers, the Minister Richard Luce and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, director David Aukin, National‘s Head of Press Stephen Wood, and myself. He gave us very good review and argued for increased funding from the Arts Council…Luce was wholly noncommittal but wholly respectful’.

The tone suggested that Eyre believed an Adjournment Debate was an especially grand Parliamentary event played out in front of a packed House. Little could be further from the case. The fact that he noted two Members of Parliament andthree visitors in the gallery watching, suggested, in fact, a large audience for such a procedure.

The motion, ‘That this House do now adjourn’ is a formality. It’s usually taken without vote, although Members intent on rebellion or disruption could vote that this House do NOT adjourn. Once the Motion is put, there is an opportunity for one Member from the backbenches (chosen by the Speaker’s Office) to put a matter of burning interest to the House, usually from his/her constituency, recorded in Hansard, the official record of Parliament’s proceedings.

It’s normally on such topics as coastal erosion, the closure of a particular school or hospital, the case of an individual pensioner, child, victim, criminal, company who may have suffered some travesty or miscarriage of justice or administration. The Ministerial reply usually argues a defence for the Government department and a defence or criticism of local government, depending on which party controls it.

The Minister often promises to look into it, to address it in some way, hold an enquiry, report back to the MP concerned. Sometimes a regional group of MPs will raise an issue of wider importance, like roads, rail, jobs, the actions of a council or quango. Sometimes an MP will choose a topic of national significance (to show a growing expertise to boost his/her credentials).

Whatever the cause, an MP speaking in an Adjournment Debate goes down well in the local media, nicely ticking the box marked; ‘being seen to be speaking up for constituents’. To say that is not to belittle it. It’s a rare and valued opportunity for a backbencher to speak directly and publicly to a Minister to get something done.

The Power of Petitions

In the 1800s the Chartists and others presented huge petitions mainly on electoral reform and suffrage. In modern times people in their thousands sign petitions to Parliament demanding redress of grievance or particular action. Pleas are placed by an individual MP ‘in the bag’ at the rear of the Speaker’s Chair. They can be introduced by an MP speaking in the chamber if he/she can catch the eye of the Speaker, follow the protocols and get in a quick bit of publicity for the cause.

Most petitions are quietly placed without fanfare, but they are reported in Parliamentary proceedings; so again, publicity is created. All well and good, it’s just that often people expect their petitions to move the mountain of Government disagreement, whatever the number of signatures.

Early Day Motions and Private Members’ Bills

EDMs are motions on the Order Paper each day for the House to consider ‘at an early day’. In practice, that means almost never. But again, they allow MPs to raise issues of national or local concern. Some can be parochial, about local football teams or school results; most are serious. A single Member can table an EDM, and then other Members can sign it too.

In the course of a Parliamentary session, there may be hundreds of Motions, some signed by one, some by dozens, a few by hundreds. It’s a mark of success to table one that is signed by many. Rare is the EDM that gets debated, though a Select Committee might take one up, or a Member use one in an Adjournment Debate. Publicity given to EDM’s is out of proportion to their value in changing Government policy. The public urges their own MP to sign a particular one, and protests if he/she declines.

Once a Session there is a ballot for twenty backbench MPs to put forward in allotted time a Bill of his/her choice. Campaign groups look out for the winners to adopt ‘their’ Bill. The realities of Parliamentary time, willingness of Government to let a backbencher change legislation, constraints of European membership and contentiousness of the topic determine that six or so are debated. Perhaps one a year becomes law.

Again. the public sees these bills as opportunities for their pet subjects to get the laws they deserve, and they pressure MPs accordingly. Of course, that’s what the job is partly all about, doing things that often make little difference. If the public don’t feel satisfied, they can vote the MP out next election.

First published on Suite 101, 26 November 2010.

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