Select Committee on Procedure Third Report

2 Sessional Orders and Resolutions: General

5. The paper from the Clerk of the House and the Serjeant at Arms outlines the history of the Sessional Orders and Resolutions.[2] All the current ones date from 1713 or earlier. Until November 1842, they were passed after the debate on the Queen's Speech had been adjourned on the first day, or on the following day; since then, they have been put to the House when it reassembles in the afternoon following the delivery of the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, but before the moving of a humble address in reply. On occasions, other motions such as writs for by-elections have been taken at this point, but the only other item of business regularly taken then is the first reading of the Outlawries Bill. This item embodies a principle mentioned in a minute of 1609, that when Parliament has been opened, the House should assert its freedom to consider matters of its choosing, before turning to the reason for its summons as expressed in the Queen's Speech.[3] This practice takes only a few seconds and we recommend that it should continue.

6. The Clerk pointed out that, in the absence of an Order of Business for the first day of a Session, the Orders and Resolutions are proposed to the House without notice and have to be read out in full: they have on occasion given rise to debate and even (in 1984) a division. During this time, Members are waiting to debate the Queen's Speech, and the reading out of the Orders and Resolutions sometimes proceeds against a level of background noise that does not add to the dignity of the occasion.[4]

7. The Orders and Resolutions are not immutable. The Clerk's paper lists several Sessional Orders that have been either converted into standing orders or abolished, in the light of changing circumstances,[5] and we therefore need to consider whether the remaining Orders and Resolutions perform any useful function. Even though—as suggested to the Clerk by one of our members[6]—there is an argument for the House to begin a new Session by reminding itself and others of matters which it considers important, the current procedure makes no distinction, for example, between the protection of witnesses (which the House can enforce) and taking action against those acting corruptly at elections (responsibility for which was transferred to the courts in 1868). It cannot improve the standing of the House for it to assert, year after year, that it "will proceed with the utmost severity" against persons involved in corrupt practices at elections when it has no intention of, or responsibility for, doing so. Nor do the current Orders and Resolutions encompass the full range of rights and privileges to which the House might wish periodically to draw attention.

8. Putting to one side for a moment the Order relating to the Metropolitan Police, with which we deal at length in the next section of our Report:

—  the Resolution about bribery and the provision for Members to withdraw during any debate on any dispute on their return are obsolete and misleading, as responsibility for election offences and disputes now belongs to the courts, not to the House;

—  the provision about double returns (two Members returned for the same seat) relates to an event which cannot now take place;

—  the provision about Members returned for more than one place (which last happened in 1910) is unlikely ever to be needed but could be dealt with once and for all (see below);

—  the Order for the printing of the Votes and Proceedings (the formal daily minutes of the House) is unnecessary (the Order of Business and the Journals are printed without such an Order) and the provision that the Speaker should peruse them before they are printed is not normally carried out;

—  the Resolutions against tampering with witnesses and giving false evidence have some value as statements of intent, but they do not add anything to the House's powers to deal with contempts or (in the case of tampering with witnesses or the giving of false evidence on oath) the statutory powers.[7]

9. We therefore recommend that—

a)  the passing of the Sessional Orders and Resolutions relating to elections, witnesses and the Votes and Proceedings be discontinued;

b)  the House should decide, by agreeing to this Report, that all Members who are returned for two or more places in any part of the United Kingdom should choose for which of the places they will serve, within one week after it appears that there is no question about their election for that place.

10. The survival of the Sessional Orders and Resolutions for so long may reflect a desire by the House to begin the Session with a reminder of matters which it considers important. As we have explained, the Sessional Orders and Resolutions are no longer appropriate for this purpose, but we recommend that they should be replaced by a statement of the duties and responsibilities of Members, possibly the seven principles of public life as set out in the Code of Conduct[8] together with historic claims to privilege including those of freedom of speech and freedom from legal challenge embodied in the Bill of Rights 1689; however, we believe that the details might be left to the Speaker's discretion, perhaps after taking such soundings as seemed appropriate.

2   See Ev 1-2, 4-5; Q 20 Back

3   See Ev 1, para 4 and footnote 3; also Q 20. The House of Lords gives the Select Vestries Bill a first reading before the debate on the Queen's Speech for the same reason. Back

4   Ev 1-2, Qq 1, 13, 20 Back

5   Ev 5-6 Back

6   Q 19 Back

7   Ev 4-5; see also Qq 40-4 about witnesses and Qq 46-7 about Members returned for more than one place in elections. Back

8   These are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership (HC 841 (2001-02)). Back

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