Joint committee on Conventions Report

5  Exchange of amendments between the Houses - 'ping-pong'


167. The exchange of amendments to public legislation between the two Houses of Parliament, colloquially known as 'ping-pong', is based on the premise that both Houses must agree on every word of a Bill before it can receive Royal Assent and become an Act of Parliament.

168. Once a Bill has passed through both Houses a list of Amendments made in the second House is compiled and the Bill is returned to the first House seeking its agreement to the Amendments. If the first House does not agree to the Amendments made by the second House it returns the Bill to the second House indicating its disagreement, or setting out alternative propositions. Exchanges between the two Houses continue until agreement is reached or a stalemate occurs. The point at which stalemate is deemed to have been reached is referred to as "double insistence". This is described in the House of Lords Companion as "if one House insists on an amendment to which the other has disagreed, and the other insists on its disagreement, and neither has offered alternatives, the bill is lost."[244] However, as Erskine May acknowledges, "…there is no binding rule of order which governs these proceedings in either House, and, if there is a desire to save a bill, some variation in proceedings may be devised in order to effect this object."[245]


169. As the Clerk of the Parliaments pointed out, "Although this concept is simple, the procedures by which the Houses reach agreement (or not) can be extremely complex."[246] The Clerk of the House of Commons noted that "Commons procedure in respect of 'ping-pong' is based on custom and practice, but practice has evolved in significant respects in the last decade or so… Although the underlying options - whether to agree, disagree, amend or propose amendments in lieu - appear straightforward, in practice the exchanges between the Houses can soon become exceedingly complex as the process of sending Amendments back and forth continues."[247]

170. The Clerk of the House of Commons suggested that two modern practices have added to the complexity. The first is that Lords Amendments are now routinely considered at the same sitting at which they are received from the House of Lords. The second "has been the consideration of Lords Amendments in 'packages',[248] rather than individually, so that exchanges may contain subtle variations in the packages of alternative suggestions (amendments in lieu) sent back to the House of Lords."[249]


171. For at least 40 years it has been the practice in the Commons to group Amendments for the purposes of debate. "Packaging, which only applies at a relatively advanced stage of ping-pong, is simply a way of formalising that and wrapping up as one motion a group of Lords amendments, a motion to disagree, an amendment in lieu or whatever it is."[250]

172. Packaging was first used by the Commons in the 1990s and has since been adopted by the Lords. Following a procedural difficulty which arose in the House of Lords in May 2004 in relation to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill the Clerks of both Houses and parliamentary counsel were asked to look at the practice of considering Amendments in the other House in groups or packages and the procedural consequences which could follow. An agreed statement of position was issued on 21 July 2004.[251] It acknowledged that "Packaging and grouping are useful ways of signalling perceived connections between amendments. But these are techniques for organising debate within each House; neither House can be expected either to discover, or to feel bound to follow, arrangements made by the other for the consideration of amendments."[252]

173. In the opinion of the Opposition packaging "enables a government to avoid the need for compromise by insisting, while offering an Amendment in lieu on an unrelated matter. We think this can operate in a highly unsatisfactory way and is a breach of the convention that respect is paid to the other House's amendments by each House." [253]

174. The Liberal Democrats "welcome the packaging of amendments on closely related issues, as a way to improve the efficiency of exchanges between the two Houses." They consider, however, "that packaging should be a matter for the House on a case-by-case basis and endorse the recommendation of the House of Lords Procedure Committee that 'Packages from the Commons should be considered by the House only if they are confined to single or closely related issues, not disparate issues joined together simply for reasons of convenience.'"[254]

175. One of the main difficulties associated with 'ping-pong' is that it often occurs at the end of a Session. Lord Cope of Berkeley, Opposition Chief Whip in the House of Lords, explained that it therefore "has to occur very quickly if it is going to occur at all; and that piles on the pressure but it also means there is less thinking time."[255] He thought that the double insistence rule was very subtle "because it means that each House has got to think about compromises each time it passes backwards and forwards if it is not going to lose the bill, and that means the Houses do move nearer to one another gradually."[256] In Lord Strathclyde's opinion, however, the Commons "have come up with a ploy to get round double insistence, which is by packaging amendments, making a very minor change to a part of the Bill which has no relevance to the bit we are disagreeing about and, therefore, drawing out the process."[257]

Minimum notice

176. Another difficulty relates to the period of minimum notice. As the Clerk of the House of Commons pointed out the new modes of proceeding "have gone a long way to undermine what would have been regarded, 15 years or so ago, as the conventions governing exchanges between the Houses. For example, it is still stated in Erskine May…that the procedure for considering Lords Amendments without notice is 'generally reserved for amendments which are not material'; but that convention is now honoured more in the breach than the observance."[258] He described the underlying problem as being that "we have these procedures …which have developed over a very long time, and are based, I suppose, on the rationale that the two Houses are genuinely trying to reach a compromise. The fact is that now the habit has grown up in recent years that we immediately get into something which is not an attempt to find a genuine compromise but it is political arm-wrestling, no more or less than that."[259]

177. The Clerk of the Parliaments agreed. The convention that business should be considered only with due notice "is not applied to ping-pong at the moment, and there lies some of the root of the trouble that we have with ping-pong."[260] He added that "If the business managers knew that they had to leave longer for ping-pong, that would be an irritation but I think it would actually be to everybody's benefit in the long run."[261]

178. A recent example of several episodes of 'ping-pong' occurred in relation to the Prevention of Terrorism Bill 2004 when there were five exchanges in the middle of the night with the solution only being achieved when the Leader of the Conservative Party saw the Home Secretary giving an interview on television. As the Clerk of the House of Commons asked, "That may be a success in some people's eyes, but is it a parliamentary success?"[262] He thought that there were two ways at looking at the way things have developed: they could be seen as "a procedure responding very flexibly to political demands and pressures" or as "a total distortion of the underlying rationale and conventions that govern what is going on when the Houses exchange reasons and amendments at that stage."[263]

179. The Government argue that "each House is entitled to expect the other to give due consideration to the amendments sent up to it. The Lords can therefore reasonably expect the Commons to provide time for consideration of Lords Amendments and subsequent proposals, and the Commons can expect the same. But, in both cases, this must be in the context of the right of each House to govern its own procedures."[264]

180. The Opposition recognised that 'ping-pong' often occurs at the end of a Session and therefore has to occur very quickly if it is to happen at all. But they agreed "that sometimes more time taken would reach a more desirable conclusion".[265] Lord Strathclyde added that "during the ping-pong period, you need a certain amount of time to see whether or not a compromise is achievable."[266]

181. David Heath, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader in the House of Commons, thought that "the idea that an amendment can come from the House of Lords and within an hour or so be considered by the House of Commons, Opposition parties having no opportunity whatsoever to amend whatever the Government chooses to put down as an amendment in lieu at that stage, with almost no debate in the Commons… . is not a process that would suggest respect between the two Houses from their points of view."[267]

182. The Liberal Democrats also note that "Officers of both Houses have most trouble facilitating the ping-pong process when the Government introduces amendments at short notice." They therefore recommend that "a minimum notice period of 24 hours for any government amendments should be considered."[268]

Convention or practice?

183. The Government point out that the exchange of Amendments between the two Houses is subject to rules and practices which have developed over time. "The practices are broadly symmetrical, with the two Houses operating in a similar way, and the arrangements in place - subject to the rules relating to financial privilege - give neither House any priority over the other. The rules and practices are set down, and are from time to time the subject of examination. They are not in this sense, subject to conventions of the same kind as those discussed earlier…, save that each House may be expected to have due respect for the other."[269] The Government later reiterate that "these are not strictly matters of convention" and state that they "would not want the flexibility of the present arrangements, which broadly works to the advantage of all sides, to be lost."[270]

184. In oral evidence Lord Grocott said that "the issue of exchanges between the two Houses in a situation where there is no majority for any government in the Upper House, which is the situation which we all accept and will all live with, will inevitably become something which needs to be discussed. I am not looking for any suggestion of a convention or a rule but it is clearly an issue which needs to be addressed."[271] In supplementary evidence the Government state that "So long as there is real dialogue in place, the Government accepts that this is a legitimate operation of ping-pong. But the Government does not accept that it would be right for the Lords repeatedly to reject a Commons amendment without seeking to promote a compromise."[272]

185. The Opposition take a similar view: "Given that both Houses will almost invariably want to avoid loss of a Bill, the double-insistence rule forced each side to offer compromises to avoid it and to perpetuate conversation."[273] They argue that both Houses should offer more than 'cosmetic changes' and allow more time for consideration of each other's proposals to enable a search for compromise.[274]

186. The Liberal Democrats too regard 'ping-pong' as "more an integral part of the legislative process than it is a convention governing that process."[275] They describe three distinct situations in which 'ping-pong' procedures come into play: "(a) where controversial decisions are taken in the middle of a Session; (b) where amendments shuttle between the two Houses at the end of a Session and disagreement could mean the Bill is lost unless carry-over is invoked or where the provisions of the Parliament Acts apply; and (c) where amendments shuttle between the two Houses at the end of a Parliament and where a Bill will be lost in the 'wash-up' if agreement is not reached except where the provisions of the Parliament Act apply."[276] They consider that codification is "entirely unnecessary, and would risk setting in stone procedures and protocols which should be, as they are now, flexible in order that exchanges between the Houses can take account of the prevailing political circumstances."[277]

187. In written evidence the Clerk of the House of Commons noted that "it is difficult to see how it would at the moment be practical to codify any conventions relating to 'ping-pong'. Current practice is not based on any codifiable principles; and any codification that was so based would be bound to remove some of the speed and flexibility which have characterised the proceedings of the House of Commons on Lords Amendments in recent years and which the House and Government of the day evidently value."[278]


188. We agree that the exchange of Amendments between the Houses is an integral part of the legislative process that is carried on within the context of the primacy of the House of Commons and the complementary revising role of the House of Lords. It is not a convention, but a framework for political negotiation.

189. We also acknowledge the value of the convention, with which all parties agreed, that neither House will in general be asked to consider Amendments without notice. We believe that it would facilitate the exchange of Amendments between the two Houses if that convention was more rigorously observed, i.e. if reasonable notice was given of consideration of Amendments from the other House. We recognise that this convention may have to be breached at the end of a Session when pressure of time makes rapid exchanges of messages between the Houses inevitable; but this should be the exception, not the rule.

244   Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords, para 6.160. Back

245   Erskine May, 23rd edition, 2004, p 639. Back

246   Ev 89, para 54. Back

247   Ev 101, para 12. Back

248   Packaging refers to the practice in the final stages of a Bill's passage, where a number of related amendments may be grouped together for the purpose of both debate and decision. Back

249   Ev 101, para 13, Back

250   Q 240. Back

251   HC Hansard, 21 July 2004,Vol 424, cols 36-38WS;HL Hansard, 21 July 2004, Vol 664, cols WS 19-21. See also Appendix 5.  Back

252   IbidBack

253   Ev 37, para 4.6. Back

254   Ev 65. 1st Report of the House of Lords Procedure Committee, Session 2004-05, HL 48, p 4. Back

255   Q 107. Back

256   IbidBack

257   Q 104. Back

258   Ev 101, para 14. Back

259   Q 247. Back

260   Q237. Back

261   Q 239. Back

262   Q 247. Back

263   Q 248. Back

264   Ev 9, para 63. Back

265   Q 107. Back

266   Q 108. Back

267   Q 191. Back

268   Ev 64, Introduction. Back

269   Ev 9, para 62. Back

270   Ev 9, para 65. Back

271   Q 26. Back

272   Ev 30, para 16. Back

273   Ev 37, para 4.6. Back

274   Ev 3, para 4.6. Back

275   Ev 64. Back

276   Ev 64. Back

277   Ev 65, para 19.1. Back

278   Ev 101, para 16. Back

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