UK Parliament: Useful Definitions

Aka WTF are those things in there?

I don’t write as much about tech as I used to. As I spend an inordinate amount of time saving the UK from the colossal mess it got itself into in 2016.

As I was providing a commentary on the latest round of… well… farce, it occurred to me that it would be useful to explain what the heck goes on in those antiquated seats in the main chamber, so famously presented to the public via TV and newspapers. Specifically, to explain 4 key definitions that affect our every day lives.

Acts of Parliament

This is the biggy. This is law. No civil law can be made without progressing a Bill through Parliament and into an Act of Parliament. Case law, or common law, can modify civil law, but not the other way round. Otherwise MPs could simply change law at will, indicating a lack of respect for the rule of law overall.

In the case of Brexit, an example of an Act would be the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 which was enacted in June 2018. You’ll note that laws that have received royal ascent carry the royal coat of arms, which indicates they’re able to come into force, because the Queen has given her proverbial seal of approval.

European Union Withdrawal Act 2018 (with Royal Coat of Arms is visible at the top)

[Parliamentary] Bills

Before an Act of Parliament becomes law, but after it has been submitted for its first “reading” (a reading is when it’s presented to Parliament for debate) a Bill. Bills are sponsored (they have someone bring it forward), can be signed by one or more others who may act as co-sponsors.

Bills go through a series of stages before becoming law (aka becoming an act).

The vast majority of bills follow the below process. Firstly in the House of Commons (green) and then in the House of Lords (Red). They’re mostly Government Bills, which Parliament gets to debate. This is the Parliamentary mechanism that governments use to make their manifesto promises a reality.

It’s not the only way to get legislation through though. There is also what is known as “Private Member’s Bill”, which is a bill brought forward by a non-Government minister. Sometimes under what is called as a “Ten Minute Rule”. If the bill is accepted during that, it goes into the second reading.

A snippet of Parliament’s website, showing the pipeline (and progress) of a Bill from beginning to end

1. First reading

The bill is put on a timetable in Parliament for a first debate on the content. Things get changed and it’s rescheduled for a second reading.

2. Second Reading

Once the first reading’s changes have been applied, it’s brought back for a second debate. Passing that,it’s on to committee.

3. Committee Stage

This is the most detailed part that takes place in the Commons phase. Motions and amendments to the Bill can be made (see the definition of “Amendments” later)

4. Reporting Stage

Where the inspected bill returns to the house, to potentially be amended some more.

At the Consideration of Amendments stage, both the Houses of Lords and Commons go through a ding-dong battle of Lords amendments to the Commons Bills.

In the event it passes both houses, it becomes an Act of Parliament, received Royal Ascent and becomes law.


Motions are put forward, mostly by the Government for debate in the House of Commons. Parliament is sovereign and they instruct the Government to do something and can amend the motion to instruct. The motions must be proposed (called “moved”) by someone and this then enters the house for debate. They must be entered no later than 10:30pm the day before their debate.

By default, Motions are not legally binding. The Government could simply ignore it. However, this could result in either a contempt of Parliament charge or in the event the Government has used what’s called a “Humble Address”, breaks the law.

A Humble Address is a special type of motion that appeals to the crown (Queen). In such a case, it is understood to be legally binding and is the only type legally binding Parliamentary process which can be conducted without an associated Bill or Act.

Note, the same motion cannot be brought back 3 to 4 times. Erskine May, a well known rule-book of Parliamentary process from the 1700s, makes it clear that a Government can’t bring back the same motion during a session (aka a year). If they do, the speaker can simply reject the motion outright.


This is pretty much the only meaningful action that doesn’t stand alone. You can’t just randomly bring about an amendment. It needs to amend something. Like editing a Word document. An amendment can apply to either Bills or Motions, and can even apply to other amendments. However, they only exist as a concept for the lifetime of the debate. Not the whole Parliamentary “session” (i.e. a year). So once the amendment has been voted on, it is either accepted or rejected in the context of a motion or a bill and then does (or does not) forms part of that motion or bill.

When an amendment is tabled, it’s given a letter of the alphabet. It’s then selected by the speaker and placed in order that they should appear against the motion.

Now, amendments are a really political topic. The wording is essential. A bad amendment, can gift your opponents something. In addition, Parliament may vote against something good, because the wording of an amendment may not be right, not because the motion itself is in any way bad!

Case Study: Motions and Amendments

The interplay between motions and amendments can seem quite complicated to anyone who isn’t used to reading legal text. So it is useful to understand how this process works.

For example, on the night of the 13th March 2019, after the Government motion on No Deal was defeated, the motion the Government put forwards was:

May motion to ask for an extension to Article 50

Parliament only debates the text of the motion. Nothing else. Essentially, amendments determine whether both the action and the text of the motion are acceptable.

There were a number of amendments tabled to May’s motion (Source: the Guardian). Where they were selected, I’ve included the exact amendment text.

A. Plaid Cymru amendment

Plaid’s Cymru’s 4 MPs, wanted to extend Brexit until 2021, with a second referendum at the end of it.

B. Rule out a second referendum

Signed by more than 100 Conservative MPs, Labour’s Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell. It stated “the result of the 2016 EU referendum should be respected and that a second EU referendum would be divisive and expensive, and therefore should not take place”

C. Revoke Article 50

Put forward by the SNP’s Angus Brendan MacNeil and Ken Clarke, and co-signed by around 30 other MPs, this called for the revocation of Article 50 and the UK to Remain in the European Union.

D. Liberal Democrat second referendum plan

Lib Dems’ 11 MPs called for a Brexit delay and a second referendum.

E. Labour amendment —SELECTED

Jeremy Corbyn, this stated the government should “provide parliamentary time for this house to find a majority for a different approach”.

F. SNP/Plaid second referendum plan

A combined motion from the SNP and Plaid Cymru, it was a Second referendum amendment that called for remain to be an option in the referendum, and while waiting, to revoke article 50.

G. The Chope amendment

The amendment from controversial [read, abhorrent] filibuster Christopher Chope tabled and signed (only by him) said Brexit should be delayed for two months “for the specific purpose of replacing the UK negotiating team” (Yes, you can’t take Chope seriously. Dangerously stupid is how I’d put it)

J. Bryant amendment — SELECTED, NOT MOVED

Citing Erskine May, Chris Bryant south to amend and insert a reference to the guide to parliamentary procedure, stating a motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided in the affirmative or negative during the current session may not be brought forward again during that session. If this amendment was passed it could give the Speaker the power to block another vote on May’s deal as it has been voted down twice by parliament already.

H. Cross-party request for second referendum — SELECTED

Line 1, leave out from “House” to end and add “instructs the Prime Minister to request an extension to the Article 50 period at the European Council in March 2019 sufficient for the purposes of legislating for and conducting a public vote in which the people of the United Kingdom may give their consent for either leaving the European Union on terms to be determined by Parliament or retaining the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.”.

Tabled by former Tory Sarah Wollaston, now of the Independent Group, and signed by around 30 MPs, this seeks a delay for a new referendum, which would have remain as an option. If it had passed, amendments I and E would not have been voted on.

I. Benn amendment — SELECTED

Line 4 (of May’s motion), leave out from “Article 50(3)” to end and add:

“to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support;”

Senior backbenchers submitted an amendment that, if passed, would allow the Commons to debate next steps on Brexit on Wednesday next week. The motion, handed in a few minutes before the 10.30am deadline, is signed by Labour’s Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper and Conservatives Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve, as well SNP, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru MPs. The amendment says it is designed “to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support” by effectively allowing MPs to wrest control of parliamentary time from Theresa May’s government.

Extra Amendment (Powell) to Amendment I — SELECTED

As an amendment to Hilary Benn’s amendment (i)

In line 2, at beginning insert “for a period ending on 30 June 2019”.

An amendment to amendment I, from Labour’s Lucy Powell, changing the timing to limit the process so it cannot be used beyond the end of June.

Order of Events

The first thing speaker John Bercow had to do, was select the motions and decide on the ordering. I’ll return to Wollaston’s amendment after dealing with Benn and Powell.

After selecting Benn’s amendment (amendment I) the Speaker had to select Powell’s and do that one first.

Why ?

Because Powell’s amendment did not modify the main motion. It modified an amendment. In the event the Speaker did amendment I first, then Powell’s would not fit. Especially in the case that MPs rejected amendment I (Benn), but would have backed it if Powell was in it. So he must select Powell first.

Starting with Benn, this changes amendment I from this

“to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support;”

to this:

for a period ending on 30 June 2019, to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support;”

Parliament voted and Powell’s Amendment to Benn’s amendment was rejected 310 v 314 (still with me). So Benn’s amendment remained at:

“to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support;”

Next in this journey, came Benn’s amendment. Amendment I. Which read as above, because Powell didn’t make it through. It would have changed May’s motion to read like this (note what it struck out):

What the May motion would have looked like if Benn (amendment I) had passed

If Powell had passed, it would have looked like this:

The May motion if both the Powell amendment to the Ben amendment, and the Benn amendment had passed

That demonstrates how Powell was returning a short extension to the table. You’ll also note a common thing with amendments. in the rush to get them tabled, the resulting grammar is awful! (and extraneous ‘in’). On a personal note, I would argue Powell did this is for political gain. In no small part to keep the extension short, to try to force through her Common Market 2.0 (Norway+) proposals. The amendment was also co-signed by Powell’s CM2 co-chair Robert Halfon.

In the end, both these amendments were rejected by Parliament. Together with the Wollaston and Corbyn amendments. The other amendment selected, the Bryant Amendment, was not moved by the sponsor (yes, he chose not to present it). Meaning the final motion was the same as the one submitted by the government at the start. Round the houses to get back to where it started :)

The final motion voted on. Which gained a majority of 210 (412 v 202)

That illustrates how Motions are Amended. Note that amendments are just edits. They apply only for the life of the motion’s debate. Similar amendment can apply across multiple motions, in different contexts and because they are not themselves, motions, amendments are not subject to the same constraints as motions. Meaning they can be brought back time and time again. If a new motion covers similar ground or applies in a different context, they invariably are brought back. As Cooper-Letwin demonstrated.

(Disclosure: I’m not a politician. I actually hate politics. I’m apolitical and resent politics more than pretty much anything, second only to those with the word “agent” in their job title. However, in order to navigate the confusing mess, you have to learn quick! The material has been simplified for a mainstream audience)



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Ethar Alali

Ethar Alali

EA, Stats, Math & Code into a fizz of a biz or two. Founder: Automedi & Axelisys. Proud Manc. Citizen of the World. I’ve been busy