House of CommonsShort guide to procedure and practice

Debates and rules of debate

A typical debate takes the following form:

  • A Member moves a motion;

  • The Speaker proposes the question, repeating the terms of the motion;

  • The motion is debated;

  • Unless the motion is withdrawn, the question is put by the Speaker and the House comes to a decision (if necessary by means of a division).

Sometimes there is a subsidiary motion (e.g. an amendment to the motion), and sometimes proceedings are formal, without an opportunity for debate (i.e. a Member moves the motion formally and the Speaker immediately puts the question). Debate ends when no-one else wishes to speak, the closure is moved (see Closure) or the time available expires; in the latter case the debate is adjourned unless standing orders or a programme or other order require that the question be put.

There is no seconding of motions (except for the election of a Speaker and the address replying to the Queen's Speech).

Members speaking should address their remarks to the Chair. They should refer to other Members not as 'you' ('you' can refer only to the occupant of the Chair) but as 'the honourable Member for [constituency]'. To avoid having to refer to the constituency, Members can be described as 'my honourable friend' or 'the honourable Member opposite'. Privy Counsellors are 'Right Honourable'. Ministers can be referred to by their office, e.g. as 'the Secretary of State' or 'the Minister'. The Speaker and Deputy Speakers are referred to as 'Mr Speaker' and 'Mr [or Madam] Deputy Speaker'.

Members wishing to speak in a debate should normally give their names in advance to the Speaker's Office, preferably indicating the reason they wish to speak.

Members may intervene briefly in each other's speeches, but only if the Member who has the floor chooses to give way.

Members may not normally speak more than once in any particular debate, except in committee or in the limited circumstances when there is a right of reply.

The Speaker may announce at or before the beginning of a debate that during the debate, or between specified hours, there will be a time limit on speeches. The digital clocks begin to flash 30 seconds before the expiry of that time. They also flash 30 seconds before the expiry of the time available for a particular debate.

Speeches should not be read (except opening speeches or when there is special reason for precision), but it is accepted that Members make extensive use of notes, especially at the beginning of a Parliament, when greater latitude is given to new Members. Unless appealed to, the Chair does not usually intervene to enforce the rule about reading. Quotations from documents must be reasonably short.

After speaking, Members should, as a matter of courtesy, remain in the Chamber at least for the next two speeches. It is also normal courtesy to be present for the front-bench winding-up speeches. A Member who is unable to observe these courtesies should explain the reason both to the occupant of the Chair and to the Members concerned. Members intending to refer in debate to another Member should inform that Member in advance.

Members may not: accuse other Members of deliberate misrepresentation or lying; use abusive or insulting language likely to create disorder; criticise the conduct of individual Peers (other than on a substantive motion to that effect); refer to the alleged views of members of the royal family; refer to matters awaiting adjudication by a court of law (except when discussing legislation); use electronic devices as an aide memoire or to receive messages while addressing the House.

When the Speaker rises to speak, all other Members, including the Member who has the floor, must resume their seats immediately. The Speaker may order a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition to discontinue his or her speech, and in cases of grossly disorderly conduct may direct a Member to withdraw for the rest of the sitting. The Speaker has power to 'name' a Member for disregarding the authority of the Chair or other abusive conduct, upon which a motion is made suspending the Member from the service of the House (for five sitting days in the case of a first offence in a session).


© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 14 February 2001