Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Dr Sarah Childs, Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Bristol (P 51 (Session 2005-06))[1]

  Despite their reputation as "parliamentary graffiti", EDMs continue to represent a means by which MPs can voice, and garner support for, their concerns/interests. This is an important interest articulation role, not least in that tabling and signing EDMs are less constrained by party loyalty than other parliamentary activity. EDMs also offer an opportunity to transform the political agenda by raising concerns that otherwise might not be raised in the House. For example, the series of EDMs addressing Mike Tyson boxing in Scotland. Furthermore, an MP who garners a large number of signatures can be confident that the issue has wider support. This can be important psychologically for the MP who tabled the issue and symbolically and substantively in arguing for the point within parliament, government and in the public domain. Chris McCafferty was able, for example, when making the case for the reduction of VAT on sanitary products, to state that the EDMs were widely supported on the backbenches. She was also able to use the EDMs when she raised the issue in the media. Indeed, although it is hard to demonstrate systematically that particular EDMs directly influence policy, it is the case that some do, not least by placing an issue onto the mainstream agenda or signalling backbench dissent. EDMs can also raise public awareness of particular issues through press releases and subsequent media coverage.

  There are however a number of issues of concern as EDMs currently stand. First, there is a tendency for some EDMs to be light-hearted, "state the obvious" or congratulate one particular football team over another. Perhaps there could be stricter guidelines. Second, is the formal requirement over how EDMs must be constructed. This, at times, can place form over clarity. Third, is the issue of who actually signs the EDMs. It is often suggested that eager interns sign the EDMs that they think their MP would wish to sign. Electronic signing might improve this.

  The proposal to allow electronic signing might also have the effect of increasing the number of signatures per EDM. It is not clear whether this would equalize signatures between EDMs nor whether it would still be possible to distinguish between popular and less popular motions—although whether this is a valid concern would be contested. A trial period of electronic signing might be advisable in this respect. Electronic signing would also maximise MPs opportunities to sign EDMs and enable EDMs to be continuously "printed" on a website which would no longer cause some MPs to hold back their signing to ensure that the EDM is reprinted.

  The suggestion that EDMs, or at least some of them—perhaps the most popular or those that are selected by lot, but not those congratulating Arsenal or Man Utd—should be debated is a good one. However, it would be important to ensure that EDM debates were not at the expense of other means by which backbench MPs can raise issues—Westminster Hall, Private Members' Bills. MPs complain about an overburdened parliamentary timetable, as it is.

February 2006

1   Childs, Sarah and Withey, Julie (2006) "The Substantive Representation of Women: Reducing the VAT on Sanitary Products in the UK", Parliamentary Affairs, 2006, 59, 1. Childs, Sarah and Withey, Julie (2004) "Women Representatives Acting for Women: Sex and the Signing of Early Day Motions in the 1997 British Parliament", Political Studies, 2004, 52, 3: 552-564. Back

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