8

MPs took the unprecedented step of voting to seize control of the parliamentary timetable [...] --BBC

Is this speaking hyperbolically, or is it really the case that it never happened before in the history of the House?


After a bit more digging, basically the (claimed) unprecedented event was the one-day suspension (by Letwin's motion) of Standing Order 14, more precisely

(a) Standing Order No. 14(1) (which provides that government business shall have precedence at every sitting save as provided in that order) shall not apply on Wednesday 27 March;

So basically we can ask more specifically if Oder 14 was never suspended in its (100+ years) history. Because the allocation of time was otherwise somewhat modified in the 2010 reform:

Some of these reforms were put into action: the Backbench Business Committee was established, and is responsible for choosing subjects for the 35 days’ of backbench time each session. But the House Business Committee idea ultimately did not get off the ground. Despite the Commons endorsing the idea in 2010, and the Coalition Government committing to its establishment, the then-government dropped the plan in 2013. It claimed that they couldn’t find a consensus on how the new system would work in practice—and no subsequent government has seen fit to resurrect the idea.

  • N.B.; I've also asked a related question which puts this one in a bit more context. – Fizz Mar 27 '19 at 8:06
10

This is just hyperbole, by all concerned, parliamentarians and newspapers.

The simple truth is that the House of Commons has made a point for several centuries that its order of business is not prescribed by the Crown or by Ministers of the Crown. This is what the ritual of debating some odd Bills before debating the Queen's Speech at the opening of Parliament is all about.

There has been an uneasy relationship, and a tension over the matter of Government business, for a lot of that time. The simple truth is that this is neither a revolution nor an innovation. Standing orders have varied a lot over the decades and centuries, and there have regularly been reports commissioned on Parliamentary reform that have considered the matter.

Consider a few points:

  • On 1868-04-30, Gladstone, in opposition at the time, served notice that he was going to ask for a suspension of standing orders so that the Government could not set a low priority for his resolution on Irish disestablishment, which was eventually to result in the Irish Church Act 1869. In the end, the Disraeli government conceded, giving time to the measure. (Alpheus Todd (1869). On Parliamentary Government in England. Volume 2. Longmans, Green and Company. p. 323)
  • At the time, Government business only got priority on Monday, Thursday, and Friday; Wednesday being set aside for private Members' bills, and Tuesday being mainly debates on Notices.(op cit. p. 322)
  • This had actually been Commons practice for several decades by that point, and the Standing Order in force at the time, that remained in force until pretty much the end of the century, had been resolved on 1861-05-03, reading:
    That unless the House shall otherwise direct: […] the right being reserved to her Majesty's ministers of placing government orders at the head of the [orders of the day] list on every order day [i.e. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday], except Wednesday.
    This order was a revision of earlier orders, resulting from a Select Committee On The Business Of The House report of April 1861. There had been previous select committees in 1837, 1848, and 1854. (James Graham (1861-04-15). "Draft Report by the Chairman to the Select Committee On The Business Of The House". Reports from Committees. House of Commons.)
  • In 1854, the House of Commons resolved that from April 1854 to June 1854, Goverment orders not be given priority over other orders of the day, on every alternate Thursday. (Resolutions of the House. Journals of the House of Commons. Volumes 108–120. p. 911) Removing priority from Government business is clearly not an innovation, by well over a century and a half, and well before Gladstone gave his notice.
  • It is widely acknowledged that by the turn of the 20th century the balance had shifted in favour of the executive, with priority being given to Government business most of the time by then. (Similar processes had happened in the Parliaments of Canada and New Zealand, incidentally.)
  • It was World War Two that gave us the present situation where government business had precedence pretty much all of the time, though. The time for Private Members Bills on Wednesdays and Fridays (and some Tuesdays before Easter) was abolished in 1939, never to really return post-war.
  • Some of the attempts to balance this out included, ironically, the Government putting Private Members Bills to the head of the order list. This caused controversy when it was done for the Divorce Reform Bill on 1969-06-12, but also caused attention to be drawn to the fact that roughly five times per year, for the preceding two decades, the Government had used its right to bring Bills to the top of the order list to prioritize things that were not in fact Government Bills.(Philip Norton (1975). Dissension in the House of Commons: Intra-Party Dissent in the House of Commons’ Division Lobbies 1945–1974. Macmillan International Higher Education. ISBN 9781349025596. p.356)
  • There were several more reports on procedure during the 20th and 21st centuries that attempted to address this. The 2010 reform that you mention was the result of one that actually managed to gain some traction. The problem, also widely acknowledged, was in part that the people in charge of reviewing Commons procedure were also Government ministers, and "reform" was generally read as "make it easier for the Government and for Government business".

It's simply untrue that this is innovative, revolutionary, or unprecedented in history. The idea of changing or suspending Standing Orders goes back a long way, and they have been changed around, a lot. As does the idea of pushing for such changes in times of great debate, as was the case for Irish disestablishment, or escaping the restrictions of Standing Orders, as happened with Divorce Reform. As even, indeed, does the idea of not giving precedence to Government business on a Wednesday.

Further reading

  • Michael Hunt (1987). "Parliament and official secrecy". In Richard A. Chapman and Michael Hunt: Open Government: A study of the prospects of open government within the limitations of the British political system. Routledge. ISBN 9781136451799.
  • Simon Patrick (2017). "A History of the Standing Orders". In Paul Evans: Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781509900220.
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  • This is all very interesting. No doubt standing orders have been amended a lot. (In my companion question, there's a list of dates for SO14 amendments, in the answer). And no doubt that the time given to private bills etc. also varied. I also found a more concise summary books.google.com/books?id=RfpmDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA304 of the post-1939 rules/changes. But it does mention that the government could still preempt the order even in those times normally allowed for the private bill (perhaps it rarely did that). So did have some kind of at-will precedence, even if theoretical. – Fizz Mar 27 '19 at 15:48
3

It really did never happen in the House of Commons.

This course of events has deep constitutional ramifications that the government brought up again and again during the debate before the vote. Until this week it was the government's exclusive prerogative to set the voting agenda in the House of Commons. No longer.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-barclay-idUSKCN1R62OD

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-news-live-theresa-may-deal-vote-deadline-revoke-article-50-a8838236.html?page=3#post-1161570541

The prime minister's spokesman said Ms May had concerns about the constitutional implications of the amendment tabled by Sir Oliver Letwin which would give Parliament control of the agenda in the Commons.

"The Prime Minister has previously said that tying the Government's hands in this way by seeking to commandeer the order paper would have far-reaching implications for the way in which the UK is governed and the balance of powers and responsibilities in our democratic institutions."

https://europeanfoundation.org/sir-william-cash-it-is-in-fact-a-constitutional-revolution-and-the-house-will-come-to-regret-it/

it is in fact a constitutional revolution, and the House will come to regret it

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  • 2
    Pretty weird given that in most other countries [citation needed] parliaments get to decide their own agenda (subject to parliamentarians voting on it of course). It would improve your answer if quoted some of what the UK gov't said on the matter (why is it such a huge/dire issue). – Fizz Mar 27 '19 at 5:29
  • @Fizz: yeah, I was looking for a reasonable quote while you were entering this comment. – Denis de Bernardy Mar 27 '19 at 5:33
  • I don't agree with the "deep constitutional ramifications"; they suspended Standing Order 14 for a single day. This isn't a major reform, which was attempted before, but failed. – Fizz Mar 27 '19 at 6:23
  • @Fizz: I get that, but the UK is a bit of a UFO when it comes to democratic institutions and practice. Some constitutional jurists quip it's some kid of elected dictatorship, with an all powerful government that does what it wants until it looses the support of the Commons. Also, it has no written constitution like the US, France, or Germany. Rather, it depends on precedents and procedures that get established over time. What this vote did basically amounts to changing the constitution. Going forward the Commons will be able to cite this precedent and set the agenda. That makes it significant. – Denis de Bernardy Mar 27 '19 at 6:30
  • For balance you could also quite the Lib Dem (from last link) who just called it "constitutional innovation", but I agree that the way the debate on it went is strong evidence it never happened before. Opponents to the suspension described it in the most dramatic/scary terms, for obvious reasons. But supporters never mentioned any precedents, so... they probably don't exist. – Fizz Mar 27 '19 at 7:52

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