In a 2010 speech to the Oxford Union Society, UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow stated: “I appreciate that the words “parliamentary procedure” are not necessarily the most exciting in the English language. Yet, as I have indicated, parliamentary procedure matters.” Speaker Bercow is not the only Member of the House of Commons who feels that way; two of the most passionate debates in the UK Commons in recent months occurred over proposed changes to the House’s Standing Orders.
Contrary to what one British journalist believes, the Standing Orders are not “an obscure parliamentary procedure“, rather, the Standing Orders are the rules which guide procedure in parliament. And on two occasions recently, the first on the very last sitting day of the previous Parliament (26 March 2015), the second on earlier this week (7 July 2015), the UK House of Commons passionately opposed Government attempts to change the rules of the House.
The debate in March arose because of the Government’s last-minute attempt to adopt a recommendation made by the Procedure Committee in 2011 which reviewed the elections held, for the first time in the previous Parliament, to fill various positions in the House (committee chairs, committee members, Speaker, and deputy speakers). Specifically, the Government wanted to introduce a secret ballot for electing a Speaker in a new Parliament should the returning Speaker be challenged. The motion moved read:
That this House notes the recommendation of the Procedure Committee in its Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, 2010 Elections for positions in the House, that the House should be invited to decide between a secret ballot or open division where the question at the start of a new Parliament that a former Speaker take the Chair is challenged, and accordingly makes the following change to Standing Orders, with effect from the beginning of the new Parliament:
Standing Order 1A (Re-election of former Speaker) Line 11, at end insert—
“(1A) If that question is contested, it shall be determined by secret ballot, to take place on the same day under arrangements made by the Member presiding, who shall announce the result of the ballot to the House as soon as is practicable.”
The problem for MPs was twofold: first, the debate was scheduled with little to know advance notice on the final day of that Parliament, when a large number of MPs had already left London to begin campaigning for the upcoming election; and second, it was clear to most that this was the Government’s attempt to unseat Speaker Bercow, who was not particularly popular with many on the frontbenches. Most MPs did not have a problem per se with the idea of using a secret ballot in this instance, their objections, at times very passionate ones, were largely focused on the way the Government was attempting to bring forward the change. While there were two other procedural motions being moved at the same time, most of the debate focused on this particular motion. You can read it in its entirely beginning here. I will, however, post a few select quotes from the debate:
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I very much support the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) who said that these matters ought to be determined when the current incumbent of the post of Speaker stands down. Otherwise, it looks precisely like what I fear it is: partisan behaviour on the part of the governing party.
Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): The motion before us was decided in underhand negotiations by the Government parties. It has been presented with no notice, no consultation with the Procedure Committee or the Opposition—a point I made extremely forcefully to the Leader of the House when I found out about it by accident late last night—and it is against the express wishes of the Procedure Committee. I refer the House to the minutes of the Procedure Committee from 6 February 2013 which, on this very issue, state that
“with reference to the recommendation on the re-election of a former Speaker, the Committee agreed that the motion to be put to the House should be ‘That no change be made to Standing Order 1A (Re-election of former Speaker).’”
An e-mail I have from the Clerk of the Procedure Committee to the office of the Leader of the House confirms this. In the list of proposed motions that the Clerk of the Committee sent for debate on House business, on the question of re-election of a former Speaker, it reads:
“That no change be made to Standing Order 1A”.
I also have letters from the Chair of the Procedure Committee to the Leader of the House stating that any debate on these matters should take place in the early part of the week and
“not tucked away on a Thursday afternoon”.
In our parliamentary system, the Leader of the House has two jobs. The first is to ensure that the Government of the day get their business by being the voice of the Government in this House. The second is to be the voice of this House in the Government, restraining the wilder excesses of a powerful Executive and ensuring that the House can do its job effectively. I am sorry to say that by supporting this grubby little plot against the Speaker on his last day as a parliamentarian, the Leader of the House has failed in his duty.
Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): Let us ask ourselves just of what is the present Speaker supposed to be guilty? Is it that he has firmly enforced the reforms in the House giving all Members a fair deal? Is it that he has been strong with MPs on both sides, in Prime Minister’s Question Time and elsewhere, who yah-boo their way through events in a way many of our voters feel sick about? Is it that he has let daylight into the House by encouraging many people from outside—charity and educational groups and others—to have access to and use of the facilities in an unprecedented fashion? If there are those in the House who are not happy with the Speaker, they can stand in the next Parliament and say their piece. They can stand up themselves. They can put up or shut up.
What we have today is a grubby piece of schoolboy intrigue that Michael Dobbs would have been ashamed to have dreamt up for one of his novels. These are matters for the House to deliberate on properly and initiate, not the Executive. These are matters of due process and due thought. After the expenses scandal in 2008, we spent two traumatic years trying painstakingly to recover the House’s powers and reputation, including through the Backbench Business Committee and the Select Committee elections, and the present Speaker has faithfully defended that process. It will not do the Government any good having their voters turned off by the pocket Machiavellis behind today’s spectacle. (…)
If Members cravenly cave in to this trumped-up device to attack an incumbent Speaker whose high crime has been to protect Members’ interests and to throw some daylight into a Parliament to redeem its reputation among a disillusioned public, they will not only dishonour the great struggle for independence from the Executive, over which a civil war was fought, but jeopardise the relevance of this great place to the people of this country, who will rightly say, six weeks from a general election, “All the problems and serious issues we face, and what on earth are these people playing at?”
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): For the record, I fully understand the Government’s impulse. As a Back Bencher trying to hold the Government to account over the past four and a half years, the incumbent has made my job much easier. He is a reformer and a champion of Parliament. If a new Government form after 7 May, I suspect they will find the Speaker just as awkward as this Government have done, and that is as it should be. So Mr Speaker, in opposing the motion, I am opposing not the motion but the manner in which it has been brought to the House. I hope it will be returned after the election.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Leader of the House has done himself no favours; he has betrayed the confidence of the House today. He tabled his motion at some time about 7.30 last night. He did not notify the Opposition, but let us get over that. He is arguing that we should have a secret ballot for the election of the Chair of the Procedure Committee, yet he has deliberately gone behind the back of the very person who was elected by the whole House in a secret ballot. His argument bears no weight. Moreover, he constructed today’s one-hour debate in such a way as to make it impossible to table an amendment for consideration. It is completely impossible for us to consider a single amendment today. That is not the action of a Leader of the House who respects Parliament. That is why I say to him: in the name of God, go—and I think the people of this country will say the same.
The most moving speech was delivered by the Chair of the Procedure Committee, Charles Walker, which you can view here:
Luckily, the motion was defeated, and when the result of the vote was announced, the Members present cheered and applauded loudly:
The emergency debate which took place this week was equally passionate. This one centred on changes to the Standing Orders proposed by the Government in order to fulfill its manifesto promise of introducing “English votes for English laws” – otherwise known as EVEL. Put simply, the proposal is based on the belief that bills applying exclusively to England should not become law without the explicit consent of MPs from English constituencies. Therefore, the Government wanted to introduce changes to the Standing Orders which would create a new Commons stage to be introduced for laws passing through Parliament with England’s MPs asked to accept or veto legislation only affecting England before it passes to a vote of all UK MPs at third reading. A similar process would be used, including Welsh MPs, where matters covered only England and Wales. This was to counter the so-called West Lothian question, wherein Scottish MPs can vote on matters such as health and education affecting England but English MPs have no say on similar matters relating to Scotland, where such policies are devolved. Again, MPs’ opposition to the proposal were in large part based on how the Government was attempting to achieve the rule changes, but many were also concerned that the proposal would create two classes of MPs in the House. See this BBC article for more details.
The Government announced the proposals in the House on 2 July, and explained that there would be a full debate and decision shortly before the summer recess – on July 15. However, an MP requested an emergency debate on the process by which the Government was attempting to bring forward their proposed changes:
Let there be no doubt: we are dealing with a major constitutional change. It is one that undermines a fundamental principle of the workings of this House, namely that no matter where we come from, once we get here we are all equal. To seek to do this in one day by amendment to our Standing Orders may be technically competent, but it is, I would suggest, an abuse of process. It is constitutionally outrageous and I fear that it puts a further unnecessary strain on the Union. That is what the House must consider and what the country must hear debated before we go any further.
The request was granted and took place the next day. You can read the transcript here, or watch the proceedings via Parliament TV. The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has an excellent summing up of the debate and its consequences for the Government. The Government has realized that it won’t be able to shove these changes through given that there is sufficient disagreement among its own backbenchers. And today it was announced that the EVEL plans would be “delayed”.
What these two debates demonstrate is that procedure does indeed matter, and that UK MPs, at least, are willing to stand up for their rights and for the House in the face of any attempts by the Government to undermine either. Parliamentary procedure may be a boring topic for most, but it is the heart and soul of any assembly.