Why MPs taking charge of the Commons timetable is not a “dangerous, unpredictable precedent”.


Holger Hestermeyer on why, contrary to what government claims, it is quite normal for parliament in other countries, not the executive, to decide what it debates.



Let’s talk a bit SO14. Yes. That is the mysterious standing order 14, at the core of the current Brexit constitutional revolution.

So, here it is: SO14.

Arrangement and Timing of Public and Private Business. / Parliament.uk

While the public face of UK constitutional law is sovereignty of parliament and thus the strongest parliament in the world, not constrained by a written constitution, the secret boss is government: government business has precedence at every sitting.

That means the timetable is under control of the government — but there are exceptions: 17 session days for the leader of the opposition, 3 for the second largest opposition party, 13 Fridays for private members’ bills, 35 days are set aside for backbench business. There’s a number of small fry detailed exceptions.

So, how many days are in one session? Depending on the year it varies, roughly 150.

This is in stark contrast to other parliaments, who control their business themselves. Some examples: The US House of Representatives. This is a bit dated, but rather clear: the majority leadership (not the government) controls.

Floor Procedure In The U.S. House Of Representatives. / House.gov

Now, of course, in the UK because it is a parliamentary system the government and the majority leadership are one and the same (that is also the reason we never spoke about SO14, because the majority was in control) - so maybe not a good example.

So let’s go continental: The German Bundestag, the Ältestenrat, controls the timetable. So who’s that?

buzer.de

It’s a committee that mirrors the composition of parliament (that’s § 12 of the GO).

buzer.de

What about France? The basic rule seems to be this: The assembly determines its business on proposition of the Conference of the Presidents.

What strange beast is that?

Règlement de l'Assemblée nationale. / Assemblee-nationale.fr

Here it is, another parliamentary body (Presidents of the parliamentary commissions).

Règlement de l'Assemblée nationale. / Assemblee-nationale.fr

Caveats. The first one is that in a two-party system generally the difference between parliamentary majority and government is ... well... you only really notice in extraordinary times.

The second relates to laws (that is how I understand 48(2)): most bills are brought forward by governments, so the right to bring forward bills has a large effect on the timetable.

And then, there are things like the right to put forward private members’ bills, the right to speak, the right to ask questions, etc. The devil is truly in the detail.🔷




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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.)


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Reader of The Shell Lectureship in Intl Dispute Resolution. School of Law, King's College London.
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