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Proroguing parliament

Prorogation signals the end of a parliamentary session and brings nearly all parliamentary business to a close.

A street light across the river from the Houses of Parliament. In the background you can see the Houses of Parliament.
Prorogation signals the end of a parliamentary session.

What is prorogation?

Prorogation signals the end of a parliamentary session and brings nearly all parliamentary business – including most bills and all motions and parliamentary questions – to a close.

MPs will only usually reconvene when a new parliamentary session, marked by the state opening of parliament and the King's Speech, begins.

How is prorogation different from adjournment, recess and dissolution?

Prorogation signals the end of the parliamentary session and brings to an end nearly all parliamentary business – including most bills and all motions and parliamentary questions – to a close. Parliament reconvenes when a new session starts – marked by a King's Speech, which outlines a new programme of legislation.

Adjournments are routine breaks in parliamentary activity. Parliament usually adjourns every night and over weekends. They do not affect the usual business of parliament.

Recesses are breaks during the year when a House of Parliament does not meet. These are are technically a form of adjournment. In the Commons, MPs must vote to approve recess dates. While MPs and peers will not meet in the main chambers during recesses, other parliamentary business, such as select committee work and parliamentary questions, continue.

Dissolution brings a parliament to a close. Parliament is dissolved 25 working days before a general election. When parliament is dissolved, every seat in the House of Commons become vacant (although government ministers and members of the House of Lords retain their posts) and all parliamentary business comes to a close. No parliamentary business can be carried over to the next parliament. Dissolution also marks the start of the purdah period.  

As noted by the Supreme Court,  the difference between these has significant implications for parliament’s ability to fulfil its functions, including holding the government to account.

When does prorogation happen?

Parliament is usually prorogued during late April or early May, between each yearly parliamentary ‘session’ (unusually, however, the 2017 parliamentary session spanned more than two years to allow time to pass the necessary legislation to prepare for leaving the EU).

Parliament may also be prorogued before it is ‘dissolved’ prior a general election, to wrap up parliamentary business early and allow MPs to focus on the election campaign.

What happens to MPs during prorogation?

MPs continue to hold their seats during prorogation – unlike dissolution – and continue to undertake constituency work.

What happens to the government?

Government ministers remain in place during prorogation, and civil servants are not subject to ‘purdah’ restrictions. Purdah is the period during which civil servants must exercise discretion about announcing any new or controversial government initiatives which could be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election. It is only when parliament is dissolved that the purdah rules apply.

Who can prorogue parliament?

Proroguing parliament is a royal prerogative power exercisable by the King, (who, by convention, follows the advice of the prime minister). It does not require the consent of MPs.

What happens to legislation and motions in parliament?

Once parliament is prorogued, most parliamentary business comes to an end and any unfinished business falls. However, since the 1998–99 parliamentary session, it has been possible to carry over some government bills into the next session. This prevents the need to re-introduce bills from scratch in the next session, saving parliamentary time.

The decision to carry over bills is taken by the government and must be approved by MPs. In practice, agreement is reached through the ‘usual channels’ (representatives of the main parties) before MPs are asked to carry over bills. Bills carried over to the next session continue from the same stage reached in the preceding session. The government currently has several bills before parliament. It appears to want to pass some of these, such as the Restoration and Renewal Bill, by the end of the session. But it has not indicated that it will carry over any of the remaining legislation into the next session, meaning that those bills will be lost.

Any bills that have completed all their parliamentary stages at the point parliament is prorogued, but have not yet been given royal assent (needed for a bill to become an Act of parliament), receive royal assent as part of the prorogation ceremony. During the ceremony, the clerk of the crown announces each bill to receive royal assent. As each bill is announced, the clerk of the parliament then declares "Le Roy le veult" (the King wishes it in Norman French), signifying assent has been given.

Motions fall when parliament is prorogued and, unlike public bills, cannot be carried over to the next session. No new bills or motions can be introduced once parliament is prorogued.

When did a government last prorogue parliament to break a legislative logjam?

Parliament has not been prorogued by a government as a means of circumventing parliamentary opposition to government policy since 1948, when it was suspended following the Lords' opposition to the Parliament Bill. The government could only bypass the Lords after a delay of three sessions. By proroguing parliament, the government could hold a special short parliamentary session, thereby speeding up the process for overriding the Lords.

The Canadian prime minister prorogued the Canadian parliament in 2008 13 BBC News, Canada halts parliament amid row, 4 December 2008,  in order to delay a vote of no confidence in the government.

Why was prorogation relevant to the Brexit process?

Prime minister Boris Johnson wrote to Conservative MPs in August 2019 confirming he had asked Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue parliament in the second sitting week in September and deliver a Queen’s Speech on 14 October. The letter argued that a new session was needed to allow a fresh legislative agenda. 

Parliament was prorogued on 9 September 2019. However, on 24 September, the Supreme Court found this prorogation unlawful, meaning the previous parliamentary session continued and there was no Queen’s Speech until parliament was (lawfully) prorogued.

Aside from allowing a fresh legislative agenda, proroguing parliament and starting a new parliamentary session would have also allowed the government to ask MPs to approve the current Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration – which the Speaker had refused to allow MPs to consider again without fundamental changes. However, there would have been very little time to agree a revised legal text with the EU and implement a deal in domestic law before the 31 October deadline.

The prime minister’s decision to prorogue parliament attracted significant criticism from some, who argued that it constrained parliament’s ability to shape the Brexit process through debate, scrutiny or legislation. This point was also highlighted by the Supreme Court.

Earlier in the Brexit process, some – including candidates who ran in the 2019 Conservative Party leadership race – had argued that the government should prorogue parliament in the run-up to, and over, exit day, to allow it to proceed with a no-deal Brexit without the threat of MPs passing legislation to prevent it. Such a move would have been even more controversial than the prorogation announced by the government in August. At the time, a number of cabinet ministers argued that prorogation in these circumstances would be undemocratic. 14 Heffer G, 'Mad!' - What cabinet ministers previously said about suspending parliament, Sky News, 31 August 2019,

Can parliament be recalled from prorogation?

Parliament can only be recalled when prorogued in very limited circumstances. These include the death of the monarch, 15 'Demise of the Crown', Erskine May,  if reserve service personnel are called out on permanent service, 16 'Meeting of parliament accelerated during prorogation, Erskine May,  or if certain powers in the Civil Contingencies’ Act 2004 are exercised. Parliament recently legislated to add to this list. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act requires parliament to be recalled from prorogation in order to debate reports on progress made to restore the Northern Ireland executive. 

It also possible for parliament to pass legislation to prevent it being prorogued, and it is possible MPs and peers may attempt to do so when parliament returns from summer recess.

When does prorogation end?

Parliament ceases to be prorogued when parliament reconvenes – either for the King's Speech, or if has been recalled due to specific circumstances. MPs and peers return to Westminster and attend the state opening of parliament, of which the King's Speech is the centrepiece.

The date of the King's Speech is chosen by the government, and must be announced when the government indicates that parliament will be prorogued. However, it is subsequently possible for the government to see to change the date of the King's Speech, which it could do through an Order in Council.

MPs are not able to start debating other parliamentary business until after the King's Speech has been delivered. On the day of the King's Speech, they are not able to ask urgent questions of ministers, nor request an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24 – but they can do these things during the subsequent days of debate on the King's Speech.

During the handful of days which the King's Speech is usually debated for, other parliamentary business can also take place.

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