On Saturday 19 October, MPs amended a ‘meaningful vote’ motion on Boris Johnson’s revised Brexit deal. The government is expected to try and ask MPs to consider another meaningful vote motion on the deal – although this may be considered out of order by the Speaker for falling foul of the parliamentary rule which prevents MPs being asked to consider the same issue twice in one session.

The government is also expected to introduce the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to implement its deal. It is expected to ask MPs to approve a programme motion setting out a short timetable for the bill’s passage through the Commons.

What is a motion?

Motions are statements that outline a topic for Parliament to discuss or a question for it to decide. They help to structure parliamentary debate.

What does it mean to ‘table a motion’?

Tabling a motion means formally submitting it to be considered by Parliament. Once tabled, the motion will appear on the Order Paper (the day-by-day parliamentary timetable). However, this does not necessarily mean it will be debated. Whether a motion is debated depends on parliamentary time being found for it.

Who can table motions?

In the Commons, any MP may table a motion, but whether it will be debated will depend on their position.

Most motions that are ‘moved’ are tabled by the government. The opposition parties also move motions as part of Opposition Day debates, while backbenchers may move amendments if they are selected as part of a Backbench Business Committee debate. 

Motions can also provide an opportunity for MPs to express their views and question the government on issues requiring urgent attention. Emergency Debates and Urgent Questions are most commonly used to facilitate this.

Emergency Debates (sometimes referred to as ‘Standing Order 24 debates’, after the parliamentary rule that governs their use), provide a means for MPs to propose a debate at short notice on a ‘specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration’. If the Speaker believes that the application has merit, they allow the MP proposing the debate three minutes to pitch the topic to the House. The Speaker then decides whether to put the application to the House for approval. If the Speaker does so, and the House agrees, the debate will usually be scheduled for the following sitting day – although can take place sooner. Emergency Debates are usually held on motions in neutral terms – which state that Parliament has considered an issue, but do not ask MPs to take a position. Motions in neutral terms are not usually subject to amendment.

While Emergency Debates do not bind the government, they can impose significant political pressure. Emergency Debates can be up to three hours long, although the Speaker may impose a shorter timeframe.  

Urgent Questions allow MPs to put questions to Ministers at short notice. Whether an Urgent Question is granted depends on whether, in the Speaker’s view, it is ‘of an urgent character and relates either to matters of public importance or to the arrangements of business’. If permission is granted, the appropriate government minister is expected to attend Parliament to answer it.

There has been an increase in both Emergency Debates and Urgent Questions in recent years, reflecting the emphasis that the current Speaker has placed on them as a way of giving backbench MPs a stronger voice in Parliament, and the political circumstances of Brexit.

MPs may show their support for an amendment by putting their name to it, known as ‘becoming a signatory’.

An MP or Peer can also withdraw their motion before it is moved. 

What does it mean to move a motion (or an amendment to a motion)?

Moving a motion means introducing it for debate. This will only occur if parliamentary time has been found to consider the motion. Motions are usually moved by the MP or Peer who tabled them. Once moved, the debate will be opened out to other MPs or peers. In the House of Commons, the Speaker plays a significant role in deciding who to call to speak in debates.

What types of motion are there?

There are various types of motions, including:

  • Motions under an Act of Parliament: Some Acts of Parliament specify that a motion must be put to Parliament in specific circumstances, allowing MPs and/or peers to debate an issue and express a view.  The motion to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration (the Brexit ‘deal’) is such a motion, under Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018.
  • Business motions: These are used to organise parliamentary debate on a case by case basis. They are put forward by the government and can propose changes to the Standing Orders (the parliamentary rules). The government used this motion in order to allow for the meaningful vote debate. MPs can amend business motions, in order to alter the terms of parliamentary debate (such as to allow more time for debate, or for more amendments to be debated and voted on).
  • Programme motions: These allow the government to timetable a bill’s progress through the House of Commons. They specify the time available for each parliamentary stage. For government bills, programme motions are usually introduced immediately after second reading. Programme motions for government bills introduced immediately after second reading cannot usually be amended by MPs, but can be amended if introduced later in the bill’s passage. They are not used in the House of Lords, making it more difficult for the government to timetable legislation (and pass it quickly).
  • Motions for a return (a ‘humble address’): This is an archaic form of motion used by Parliament to demand papers from the government.
  • Confidence and censure motions: Confidence motions allow MPs to test whether the government continues to command the support of the Commons. A formal vote on no confidence in the government under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act can lead to an election.
  • Early Day Motions (EDMs): A type of motion used in the Commons to allow MPs to express their view on, or raise awareness of, a particular issue. Most are not usually debated.

How motions are expressed can be important. Motions expressed in neutral terms simply ask Parliament to consider a topic and allow MPs or peers to talk about a specific issue. Motions expressed in non-neutral terms, or ‘substantive’ motions, ask Parliament to take a view on an issue or take a decision. The meaningful vote is a substantive motion.

Are motions legally binding?

The government is not legally bound to comply with most types of motions. However, some types of motion have historically been considered binding, such as motions for return. Motions under an Act of Parliament can be binding, depending on the terms of the Act.

What are amendments to motions?

Like bills, parliamentarians may table amendments to some motions.

In the House of Commons, the Standing Orders (the parliamentary rules) allow amendments to be made to motions expressed in ‘non-neutral’ terms, also known as ‘substantive motions’.

In the House of Lords, the Standing Orders allow all types of motion to be amended. This includes resolutions, which are a type of motion used by the Lords to express a definite opinion or take a decision on an issue.

Who can table amendments to motions?

Amendments to motions can only be proposed by a member of the House the motion is tabled in. This means MPs cannot amend a motion in the Lords, or vice versa.

In the Commons, any MP can table amendments to a substantive motion. As with amendments to bills, it is possible for MPs to show their support for an amendment by adding their name to it.

In the Lords, any Peer, other than the individual tabling the motion, may propose an amendment.

How are amendments selected for debate?

In the Commons, the Speaker decides which, if any, amendments will be debated and voted on. In some cases, the Speaker may decide how many amendments they will select before any have been tabled. This gives the Speaker significant influence in shaping the debate, which can be controversial. The Speaker does not give reasons for their choice, and their decision cannot be challenged.

In the Lords, all amendments will be debated unless they are withdrawn. They will usually be considered in the order in which they relate to the motion, unless they relate to the same part of the motion, when they will be debated in the order in which they were tabled.

The government can also choose to accept amendments to motions it tables, in which case they are incorporated into the motion without a vote.

The Speaker’s ability to select amendments for debate, and the government’s freedom to accept amendments without a vote, can have important ramifications for parliamentary debate, and may play a key role in the parliamentary course of Brexit.

When can amendments be made?

In the Commons, amendments must be tabled before the House finishes business the day before the debate. In exceptional circumstances, amendments made after this deadline, referred to as ‘manuscript’ amendments, may be accepted. This could be the case where new information has come to light after the usual deadline, justifying a late amendment. However, as with manuscript amendments to bills, they are unlikely to be accepted by the Speaker without good reason.

In the Lords, any motion can be amended with or without notice.

How is the debate over a motion organised?

In the Commons, if an amendment is selected for debate, the MP who tabled it is usually called upon to move it. The Speaker will then formally propose it and call other MPs to contribute.  In theory, there is no time limit for such speeches, but the Speaker will often introduce one if there are many MPs wishing to contribute.

The time available to debate substantive motions in the Commons (and amendments to them) is usually fixed, with the length of the debate decided by a business motion, or being drawn to a close at the end of the day’s business in the House.

In the Lords, all amendments can be debated and voted upon. The Peer proposing the first amendment will move their amendment, and other peers will then join the debate and vote on the amendment.

The time available to debate and vote on motions in the Lords may be limited by a business motion. To take part in a debate, including to move an amendment, peers are usually expected to add their name to the Speakers’ list by 6:00pm the previous weekday (or 4:00pm on a Friday).

What happens if an amendment passes?

If an amendment passes, it is incorporated into the text of the motion (or replaces part, or all, of the original motion, depending on the wording of the motion).

As amendments are voted on before the motion as a whole, MPs and peers may never get to vote on the original wording of the motion, if it is amended. This could be important for the government’s meaningful vote on a Brexit deal – as if an amendment is passed, MPs will not have a straightforward yes/no vote on the government’s deal.

What are the current controversies over motions?

  • As part of the process to approve a Brexit deal, MPs must pass a motion approving a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. Theresa May attempted to secure parliamentary support for her Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on two occasions, and on her Withdrawal Agreement alone on one occasion. MPs refused to approve the deal on all three occasions.
  • On 4 December 2019 the government was found in contempt of Parliament, following a vote on a contempt motion, due to its refusal to publish the Attorney General’s advice on the legal implications of the Northern Ireland backstop.
  • Criticism has also been levelled at the government’s handling of Opposition Day debates. Historically, losing a vote on an Opposition Day debate was politically embarrassing and MPs of the governing party were whipped to attend these debates and vote against the Opposition’s motion. However, in recent years the government has sought to avoid defeats by telling their MPs not to vote, leading some to claim it is showing insufficient respect to Parliament.
  • The government has also been chastised for its response to a ‘motion for a return’ or ‘humble address’ calling on the government to release information related to no deal planning.
Update date: 
Monday, October 21, 2019