Urgency Motions

U is for the Urgency Motion, a procedure that was introduced in 1882 as part of a series of responses to the campaign of obstruction by the Irish party against the Irish Coercion bill, which had its climax in the famous forty-one hour sitting of the House of Commons from Monday 31 January to Wednesday 2 February 1881. The concept has had a complicated life in the House of Commons, known since its introduction variously as ‘Motion for adjournment on a matter of urgent public importance’; ‘Adjournment on a definite matter of urgent public importance’; ‘Adjournment on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration’, and currently as ‘emergency debates’. It now lives among the Standing Orders as No. 24, not to be confused with Urgent Questions (the procedure formerly known as Private Notice Questions), nor with the Urgency procedure, a temporary set of rules introduced under the authority of Speaker Brand to deal with the crisis of Irish obstruction in 1881.

The new procedure was part of a package of responses to that obstruction tabled by the Prime Minister, Gladstone, at the beginning of the brief autumn 1882 session, a session devoted to the issue of procedural reform. There were twelve resolutions, of which the most prominent was the introduction of the closure – the power to curtail a debate that was being deliberately prolonged: to prevent, in other words, a filibuster. The new ‘urgency motions’ procedure was the second of the resolutions, and with most of the rest was agreed by the House on 27 November 1882 to be made into a Standing Order. It said:

That no motion for the adjournment of the house shall be made until all the questions on the notice paper have been disposed of, and no such motion shall be made before the orders of the day, or notices of motions have been entered upon, except by leave of the house, unless a member rising in his place shall propose to move the adjournment, for the purpose of discussing a matter of urgent public importance, and not less than forty members shall thereupon rise in their places to support the motion; or unless, if fewer than forty members and not less than ten shall thereupon rise in their places, the house shall, on a division, upon question put forthwith, determine whether such motion shall be made.

The ideas of ‘urgency’ and the device of adjourning the House are not obviously connected: indeed, they might be thought to contradict each other. The entanglement of the two arose because of a principle that a straightforward motion for the adjournment would always be entertained by the House in place of any motion that it was already discussing. John Hatsell in his late eighteenth century treatise on procedure quoted the mid-eighteenth-century Speaker Arthur Onslow as an authority for the practice, though he also cited a precedent of 1677 for it. Hatsell wrote that adjournment motions were most commonly used in order to terminate a debate – usually when, for some reason or another, it was preferred to avoid a vote on the motion that was being debated. But, like other bits of parliamentary procedure, they were frequently adapted for other purposes. Since Members were usually allowed to range quite widely when speaking on an adjournment motion (and not forced to limit their discussion to the merits of adjourning), such debates could be used by a Member keen to raise some matter of interest to himself or to his constituents which he was unable to raise in any other way. And since no notice was required for a motion to adjourn, it was often the easiest way to raise a matter of urgency. Use of adjournment motions in this way became increasingly common as the opportunities to make a substantive motion at any time became more and more limited, or else restricted to times – mainly notice days, when the government rarely bothered to ensure that its supporters turned up – when few other Members would be there. They became particularly frequent as Members tried to extend discussion on a Question one of them had posed to a Minister.

They could also be used to deliberately obstruct the proceedings of the House. They had featured, for example, numerous times in the campaign in March 1771 to prevent the Commons taking action over the publication of its proceedings in the newspapers. Those who wanted to use the tactic for the purposes of obstruction, however, had to get round the problem that it was only possible to move the adjournment once in each debate (since the question had already been decided). One dodge discovered originally in 1772 was to create a new debate by making another motion, in that case for the production of some paper allegedly relevant to the debate. The ease with which this could be done was well known: the Speaker in 1847 told a committee ‘that the whole machinery of government may be suspended by any two Members who may agree together to move alternately, “That The House do now adjourn,” and “That some paper be read”. Another way of doing it was to move alternatively for the adjournment of the House and the adjournment of the debate, a device seized on by Joseph Hume in 1819 (November 23).

How to prevent repeated adjournment motions was frequently chewed over during the nineteenth century (alongside other similar ‘dilatory’ devices, including motions for the adjournment of a debate, or for reporting progress in committee, or for the Chairman of the committee of the whole House to leave the chair) in a succession of committees on public business. Initially the focus was on the relatively innocent use of the adjournment by Members to raise matters of interest to them, rather than deliberate obstruction. Various solutions were suggested, particularly by the clerk of the House, Thomas Erskine May, and by the Speaker, to restrict the ability to move the adjournment. But the House was deeply reluctant to address the problem by limiting one of the principal opportunities, as was said in one of them in 1878, of putting before the House a ‘question that was urgent, and of public importance’. The problem got worse in the 1870s and 1880s, though, as Irish Members in particular, started to use the device in their campaigns of obstruction, increasingly wasting the time of the House by forcing a vote on it. The result was, eventually, the new standing orders of 1882.

In its early years, the new procedure of 1882 was used on average around seven times each session on subjects such as the position of the British Army on the Red Sea Coast (Labouchere, 25 Feb. 1884), the conduct of the Speaker (Mr Sexton, 3 March 1885 – the Speaker declared the motion to be out of order and refused to submit it to the House), proceedings on the Government of Ireland bill (Sir Michael Hicks Beach, 28 May 1886), and so on. One of the more famous was on 5 July 1887, when Llewellyn Atherley Jones raised a notorious case of police misconduct, the arrest and trial of Elizabeth Cass, a seamstress, for prostitution, and succeeded in defeating the government by five votes. Although the consequence was no greater than to adjourn the House, the incident illustrated the potential for the government to be caught out in such unpredictable votes, and in 1902 Arthur Balfour sought to pull some of its teeth in his comprehensive package of reforms. Balfour’s reforms hung in part on the division of each day’s Commons proceedings into two, an afternoon and an evening sitting. In the remodelled Standing Order, a Member could make a motion for the adjournment on the grounds that he was raising a ‘definite matter of urgent public importance’ after questions and before the commencement of public business. But if he secured the agreement of the House for his motion (which he did through the same mechanism as introduced in 1882), his motion would only be taken during the evening sitting of the same day – in practice at 9pm. After a few years, the two-sitting experiment was abandoned, but the delay before the motion was debated with was retained. In 1927 the debate was moved to the following day, and limited to three hours.

Though welcomed at first, the urgency procedure came to be seen as frustratingly difficult to use. The number of motions accepted peaked in 1920 with 20 debated. Thereafter the number of motions accepted shrank, to none at all in many sessions. Members came to have a shrewd suspicion that the Government was doing as much as it could to prevent them by using the so-called ‘rule of anticipation’ – the doctrine that where notice had already been given of a motion on a subject, it would prevent another motion being moved on the same subject. ‘Blocking motions’ were in existence before 1882. The clerk of the House, Sir Courtney Ilbert, mentioned to a committee looking into the issue in 1907 that Charles Dickens had referred in Little Dorrit, published in 1857, to the practice: ‘they put dummy motions on the paper in the way of other men’s motions, and they stalled disagreeable subjects off until late in the night and late in the session, and then with virtuous patriotism cried out that it was too late’ (Little Dorrit, ch. xxxiv).

But the main reason for the growing difficulty in securing a debate under the procedure was the way in which successive Speakers interpreted the rules. In 1930 the already veteran Member, Lord Winterton, complained of ‘the tendency of various occupants of Mr Speaker’s chair during the past 12 years, to allow it to fall into desuetude’. Seventeen years later Winterton was still pursuing the subject, pointing out in a debate on the standing orders in 1947 that ‘I have seen a Speaker between 1906 and 1920 allow Motions for the Adjournment on the very ground on which subsequent occupants of the Chair between 1920 and 1930 have refused them… The subsequent occupants of the Chair have said that such a Motion was not urgent or important or that the House would have an opportunity of doing this or that’ (4 Nov. 1947, c.1614). In a memorandum to a 1967 committee on procedure, the then clerk of the House (Barnett Cocks) admitted that ‘the rulings of successive Speakers have resulted in an increasingly strict interpretation of the Standing Order, and a successful application is now rare’. It isn’t completely clear how Speakers came to have such a significant gatekeeper role, as it was not mentioned in the original Standing Order; but there was clearly a prejudice among the House authorities against the practice: clerk of the House Courtney Ilbert, in his memorandum to the committee of 1907 on anticipatory motions, referred to the abuse of the power of moving the adjournment; and the memorandum prepared by Barnett Cocks sixty years later to another procedure committee argued against changes to the current practice in a way that suggests a distaste for such an unusual and unpredictable proceedings – ‘the efficiency of the House and its debates are of equal value to both sides; and this efficiency can best be maintained by not departing from a daily programme of business except on very rare occasions’. A brief glance at the subjects proposed for debate under the urgency procedure suggests that there was indeed a risk that the procedure would become used (as so many other procedures had been used previously) simply to provide additional opportunities for private members to raise matters of interest, rather than matters that were genuinely urgent; but that concern was well on its way to killing off the procedure altogether.

Another grievance was the delay before the supposedly ‘urgent’ debate came on. The Leader of the Opposition, Campbell-Bannerman, opposing in 1902 the idea of moving an urgent debate to the evening, argued that ‘if an answer is unsatisfactory, the power of the House of Commons rests in the fact of being able to demand from the Ministry an explanation and a full statement of their policy. But to put that off to the evening is no use. It is wanted immediately, perhaps to satisfy public anxiety. It loses its effect, its whole character, if put off to the evening.’ The Liberal Radical Thomas Lough complained to the select committee on procedure in 1914 that the time allotted for debates of this kind – then 8.15 pm – had ‘obviously been selected because it is the very worst time’.

Some of these issues were eventually addressed. Changes made in 1967 on the basis of procedure committee recommendations changed ‘a definite matter of urgent public importance’ to ‘a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration’, to enable the Speaker to jettison ‘the corpus of restrictive rulings which had accumulated around the former phrase’, and thus to encourage more debates. At the same time, the debate itself was shifted to the following day at 3.30, and while this was even more at odds with the purportedly urgent nature of the business, it nevertheless provided it with a slot at a time when the House was well-attended, and when the debate had a chance of catching the evening news. The result was a big increase in applications, although only a small increase in applications that were accepted by the Speaker. A second procedure committee report in 1976-7 drew attention to a tendency for Members to use the process of making an application on the floor of the House to gain attention without necessarily having any expectation of being successful in gaining a debate – a tendency to use any opportunity to speak regardless of its procedural significance that is deeply familiar from the story of nineteenth century procedure. It proposed to give the Speaker an initial sifting role for applications to prevent this, though the House itself voted against the change. A third Procedure Committee report in 1985 proposed an alternative solution, a limit of three minutes on speeches to support an application. By the early 1990s the number of applications was growing, and the Speaker again made it clear that he would take a restrictive view on the procedure, and the House was, in effect, back at square one. The most recent changes stem from the recommendations of a Modernisation Committee report of 2007, guided by a concern that the House had too few opportunities to respond to issues of immediate importance The result was to give the Speaker power to vary the period allowed for a debate under the Standing Order, and also to make such debates into ‘general debates’ (i.e. on a motion that the House has considered the matter concerned. This, associated no doubt with the more liberal attitude of Speaker Bercow, has resulted in a significant increase in the number of debates, particularly over the last session.

Further reading:

Ivor Jennings, Parliament (2nd edn., 1957)

Paul Evans (ed.) Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure (2017)

S.A. Walkland, The House of Commons in the Twentieth Century (1978)

Simon Patrick, Hansard Society Blog ‘What are Business of the House Motions?’

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