175 not out: the new edition of Erskine May and eight years of constitutional change

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new edition in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons. 

The years since the last edition of Erskine May in 2011 have been pretty turbulent by any standards. We have had three types – coalition, majority and minority – of government, two general elections, three national referendums and numerous constitutional statutes of real significance. So it was plainly time for a new edition of this timeless work, which is often referred to but rarely read.

The new Erskine May is exciting to me because, as its co-editor, I had the happy task of reading through the chapters as they emerged from the efforts of many of my former colleagues. We all had to ask ourselves: is this a clear and honest account of parliamentary procedure and practice, and if not, how far can we go in recasting it? It is not a new book; but nor is it merely a historical text with minor amendments for the benefit of a modern audience. New content has been added, but nothing has been asserted without due authority, and we also recognise that some assertions of the past are too precious to be excised. Paragraph 21.4 on the rule against reading of speeches is as good an example as any: the principle remains valued by some MPs but it would be idle to pretend that it is rigorously observed in practice. There has to be some wishful thinking.

Who is this edition of Erskine May for? Plainly for practitioners, meaning the occupants of the Chair (such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers), those who advise them, MPs and officials. But it is not just for them. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker on procedural issues related to Brexit and threats of early or extended prorogation by some candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party have served to remind all of us that parliamentary procedures are not some sort of secret masonic ritual to be understood only by a priestly caste of clerks and a handful of others, but are as integral to a parliamentary democracy as electoral rules. And it is not just for Westminster: one of my great pleasures as Clerk was to receive emails from colleagues around the Commonwealth seeking elucidation of a procedural – and usually political – issue where their knowledge of what was said in Erskine May was far in advance of my own!

Fortunately this edition has been preceded by two very different works which help set it in context. In 2018 the Commons authorities published a Guide to Procedure which is intended to help those involved in its day to day work, set out in plain English. It is of course available online. And secondly, at the end of 2017 Hart Publishing produced a book of essays – edited by current Clerk of Committees Paul Evans, entitled Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May, to mark the great man’s 200th birthday in 2015. Continue reading

“A good place to work?” What Commons staff think of House governance

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Barry K Winetrobe examines one aspect of the current committee inquiry into House of Commons governance following the Clerk appointment fiasco. Evidence submitted by House staff reveals much which may be unsettling for House managers and MPs, but is ultimately good for the House itself.

‘We seek to ensure that the House of Commons is a good place to work’ (House of Commons Staff Handbook, para 3.2, Core Values of the House of Commons Service)

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for this Blog on the botched efforts of the House of Commons in appointing a new Clerk/Chief Executive, and the harmful impact this would have on the House and its public reputation. On 1 September the Speaker announced ‘a modest pause in the recruitment process’, and, following a Backbench debate on 10 September, a Select Committee on House Governance chaired by Jack Straw was appointed. Its terms of reference are ‘to consider the governance of the House of Commons, including the future allocation of the responsibilities for House services currently exercised by the Clerk of the House and Chief Executive.’

The Committee is due to report to the House by 12 January. Given this tight deadline, it has been active since its full membership was agreed on 16 October. It has received and published on its website a large amount written and oral evidence, and on 20 November it helpfully produced an update on its work to date.

Continue reading