It's all to do with the training: You can do a lot if you're properly trained.

-- Queen Elizabeth II


Commonwealth Module - Unit 4: Introduction to Parliamentary Procedure and Aspects of Debate


Learning Objectives:
Why Procedure Matters in Parliament

After studying this unit you should be able to:

  • Understand the broad approaches to the work of a typical parliamentary session or day;

  • Appreciate the reasons for the use of various parliamentary procedures;

  • Describe some of the important aspects of the conduct of debates in parliament.
Evolution and Sources of Parliamentary Procedure

Democratic parliamentary procedure has evolved towards a system in which a legislature can fulfill its mandates while respecting the rights of the various groups within it. For instance, democratic parliamentary procedure will allow the government to initiate procedures to attempt to get its legislative program through the House and provide a forum so that the opposition and private Members of Parliament (that is, those who do not hold office) may criticize proposed legislation or initiate counter-measures. Parliament attempts to ensure that, like the laws it passes, its procedures are fair and protect minority groups in the House.

The first and most important sources of parliamentary procedure are found in the constitution of the country. This document spells out the powers of the parliament to exercise the legislative power it derives from the people and the limitations placed on it and other entities, including the head of state. The constitution will also always specify the manner in which it may be amended by parliament.

Secondly, legislation passed by the parliament itself may be a source of parliamentary procedure.

By far the fullest source of parliamentary procedure is the legislature’s own Standing Orders, which are created for the orderly functioning of the parliamentary process, generally with constitutional authority. Standing Orders are statements describing the manner in which parliament should proceed under various circumstances. These statements can be amended by parliament by a simple majority vote.

However well drafted Standing Orders may be, they cannot attempt to meet every situation and may occasionally become obstacles to the consideration of some special item of business. The Standing Orders can never be ignored or violated, but the House can amend them or vote to suspend one or more of them for a particular, relevant occasion. The most common instances of suspension deal with extended sittings of the House or alteration of sitting days, or a day when the House or Parliament meets.

Parliament may also adopt Sessional Orders that have the same force as Standing Orders but that automatically lapse at the end of that session of parliament. They are, among other things, a useful means for testing out a new procedure during a set period before a decision is taken whether or not to include it in the Standing Orders.

Because Standing Orders cannot ever be complete enough to cover every contingency, Commonwealth parliaments rely also on two other sources of parliamentary procedure: conventions that are derived from consistent practice, and rulings given by Speakers. Not all parliaments accept that a Speaker’s ruling is a precedent for the future. While Speakers will take into account existing rules and practices in giving rulings, and while proceedings in parliament including Speakers’ rulings cannot be questioned in the courts, it is only the continued and consistent adherence to a ruling that will allow it to be regarded as a precedent in such parliaments.


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