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Call for submissions on the status of resolutions in the House of Commons

13 September 2018

As part of its Parliament and the Constitution series of inquiries, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is launching a short inquiry into the status of resolutions of the House of Commons.

Resolutions of the House

When a question is agreed to in the House of Commons it is either an 'order of the House' by which the House directs its committees, Members, officers, the order of its own proceedings and the acts of those whom they concern; or it is a ‘resolution of the House', by which the House declares its own opinions and purposes. Resolutions of the House are not legally binding, except where specified in statute, but resolutions on immediate questions of political controversy have historically had substantial political force, often compelling Governments to change policy.

The status of resolutions of the House was called into question by the decision of the 2010-15 Coalition Government to treat the resolutions passed in the newly-created backbench time as no more than expressions of opinion against which they did not vote, even if they contradicted government policy. Their status has recently become the subject of yet more discussion as a result of the current Government's approach to resolutions following debates in Opposition time. In the early months of the current Parliament, Members on the Government side were ordered by the Government Whips not to take part in divisions at the conclusion of Opposition day debates. As a consequence, the House passed a series of resolutions critical of Government policy. The Government declined to act on the basis of these resolutions of the House, instead committing to making written statement within 12 weeks of each occurrence. This has led to concern that the Government is unilaterally rewriting the previous understanding of the constitutional conventions relating to the status of resolutions of the House.

In response to the Government's decision to disregard these resolutions of the House, the Opposition has sought out procedural devices that would force the Government to respond. This included using the mechanism of a motion for an opposed return of papers such as the "Brexit impact assessments", which had not been used for over a century, to assert the House's inherent power to summon people, papers and records from the Government.

Confidence motions

The effect of 'confidence motions' in the House of Commons has been affected by the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011. The Act sets out a statutory mechanism for a confidence motion to trigger an early general election. Before the Act, if a Government lost a vote of confidence, by convention, it would resign and an alternative Government would be formed or a general election would be called. Now there is a question over the effect of other motions (i.e. not motions under the Act), which the Government of the day might choose to treat as a matter of confidence. The Government could resign and alternative administration be formed, but it could only trigger a general election in accordance with the Act.

The questions surrounding the status of resolutions of the House opened by these events remain open, and there are concerns about what precedents may have been established.

Call for written submissions

The Committee calls for evidence on the following questions:

  1. What has traditionally been the common understanding of the constitutional status of a resolution of the House expressing the opinions or purposes of the House?
  2. How has this understanding been affected by the Government's decision not to vote on opposition and backbench motions expressing criticism of its policies or actions?
  3. Is there any constitutional basis for the Government's recent practice of distinguishing between a critical resolution of the House on which Government Members did not vote and one on which they did?
  4. What should be our shared understanding of the constitutional force of resolutions of the House?
    a. How can their status be assured?
    b. Are any changes to the procedures or practices of the House needed to give effect to any renewed understanding of the constitutional status of its resolutions?
  5. What status do motions of no confidence have if they do not conform to the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 (the “Act”)?
    a. What relationship might such motions have to a motion under the Act calling for a General Election?
    b. What implications does this have for our understanding of the Act, its effectiveness and how it works?

The deadline for written submissions is 15 October 2018.

Further information

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