What are Business of the House motions in the House of Commons and how do they work?

25 Jan 2019
Photo of Erskine May, parliamentary procedure

With House of Commons business motions attracting unusual interest and controversy, former Clerk Simon Patrick sets out what they are and how they work.

Simon Patrick, Former House of Commons Clerk
Former House of Commons Clerk

Simon Patrick

Simon Patrick
Former House of Commons Clerk

Simon Patrick was a House of Commons Clerk from 1978 until his retirement in 2016. In addition to regularly sitting at the Table of the House from 2009 onwards, he was an Assistant Editor of the last two editions of Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice, in 2004 and 2011. He received an OBE for his parliamentary services in 2017.

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A Business of the House motion is used when what might be called the 'default rules', namely the ancient practice of the House as modified by Standing Orders, would produce a result which is not what is wanted for any particular business or on any particular day or days.

There are sometimes more specific types of motion available, such as programme motions or allocation-of-time motions ('guillotines') in relation to bills. However, in both cases there are limits to what can be included in them. A Business of the House (or Procedure) motion is therefore sometimes required instead, even for a bill - for example, for the Hunting Bill on 15 September 2004, or the European Union (Amendment) Bill (implementing the Lisbon Treaty) on 28 January 2008.

The ancient procedure of the House of Commons, which lasted in most areas of business until well into the 19th century, was as follows:

  • motions were dealt with in the order in which notice had been given of them (unless the House decided otherwise), with no particular priority for the government;

  • all motions were debatable for as long as required;

  • during the debate any MP could move an amendment to the motion;

  • in addition, any MP could move, during the debate, a motion to adjourn the debate (or to adjourn the House), and any such motion (a 'dilatory motion') could in turn be debated for as long as desired (but was not amendable);

  • unless the debate was successfully adjourned until another day, or the motion was withdrawn, the debate would continue as long as MPs wanted to speak, after which the Speaker would put the question on the motion (or the motion as amended) and it would be agreed to or negatived.

From the 19th century onwards, various changes were made, and usually incorporated into Standing Orders (Orders which remained in force beyond the end of the session in which they were passed):

  • the government was given priority for its business on an increasing number of days, culminating in a decision in 1902 that government business had priority at every sitting except where otherwise provided; as well as days for private Members' business, the House later specified a number of allotted days in each session for Opposition business (1982) and Backbench business (2010), but the government controls when these days are;

  • the Speaker was given power to select which amendments could be moved and which not (1919);

  • motions to adjourn the debate and other dilatory motions were put under the control of the Speaker, who could forbid debate on them or forbid them to be moved at all (1888);

  • a debate could be brought to an end by a closure motion (1882) (a Member can interrupt debate and move 'that the question be now put', and subject to the Speaker’s approval the House decides the closure motion at once, although if there is a division there need to be at least 100 MPs voting 'Aye');

  • debate on most categories of business could not continue beyond a specified time (the 'moment of interruption'), and if still proceeding then would stand adjourned to another day unless a closure motion had been moved (1872 and 1888) (if it is government business, the day named might be 'tomorrow', but the business could continue on the order paper from day to day until it is actually taken);

  • debates on some categories of business, notably debates on Statutory Instruments (SIs) and later EU documents, and on any other motions 'in pursuance of any Act of Parliament', were limited in length (currently to 90 minutes) and the Speaker automatically put the question when the time was up, with no need for a closure motion (1967). (Such motions include motions under Section 13 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, hence the need for a business motion to allow debate to continue for more than 90 minutes.)

An increasing feature of Standing Orders was that certain questions were to be put by the Speaker without debate. Various forms of words were used for this, such as 'decided without amendment or debate' or 'shall be put forthwith, no amendment, adjournment or debate being allowed', but the words 'shall be put forthwith' are now standard.

Standing Order No. 15(2) provides for a business motion allowing specified business to proceed beyond the moment of interruption (either for a specified time or indefinitely), and this is to be moved at the moment of interruption (on the day) and decided forthwith. These used to be very common, particularly for allowing an open-ended debate on the report stage of bills, but as nearly all government bills are now programmed, they have become unnecessary for this purpose and are much more rarely used.

Apart from this, there are no Standing Orders specifically controlling the procedure on Business of the House motions. There is no specific requirement for such motions to be moved by the government, except that non-government motions would have no priority on government days.

The Standing Order (No. 14) governing the arrangement of business of the House, including Backbench Business Days, specifically prohibits backbench motions from amending two standing orders (No. 14 itself and No. 152J on the Backbench Business Committee), but there is no restriction on amending or setting aside other Standing Orders.

Similarly, there is no specific ban on moving Business of the House motions on Opposition Days, although this has not been done.

In common with other motions in general, Business of the House motions are debatable and amendable. For example, an amendment to such a motion was proposed (and defeated) on 28 January 2008, and an amendment was agreed to on 4 December 2018. (The former was an amendment to the business motion governing debate on the European Union (Amendment) Bill. The latter was the amendment to the first business motion governing the 'meaningful vote' debate. The amendment was moved successfully by Dominic Grieve MP to make all motions under Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, thus including neutral motions, amendable. The Grieve amendment achieved this by setting aside, for Section 13 motions, Standing Order No. 24B; Standing Order No. 24B disallows amendments to neutral motions.)

It is possible, however, for the more complicated Business of the House motions to contain specific procedures for later motions to amend their provisions, such as saying that only ministers may move them and providing that the question on such an amending motion should be put either forthwith or after a certain amount of time. Such restrictions are therefore imposed by the original Business of the House motion, which is by then a Business of the House Order, as the House has agreed to it.

Patrick, S. (2019), What are Business of the House motions in the House of Commons and how do they work?, (Hansard Society: London)

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