Parliamentary practice and procedure does not exist in a vacuum: it is intimately bound up with the political environment of Parliament. The eight politically turbulent years since the publication in 2011 of the 24th edition of Thomas Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice have seen a number of significant developments in parliamentary practice and procedure. Some of these have had their origin in the particular context of government programmes of constitutional change, notably the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the Recall of MPs Act 2015, and the introduction of English votes for English laws in the wake of the outcome of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, reflected in a wholly new chapter (Chapter 27).
Other changes have come about following initiatives from within Parliament: notably the implementation of parts of the 2009 Report of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons – the Wright Committee – dealing with the new right of initiative of backbench business and the direct election of select committee Chairs which are now a settled feature of parliamentary life, and a late flowering of an ancient procedure with the establishment of an e-petition system which has engaged unprecedented numbers of members of the public and had a direct impact on the business of Parliament. Reports from the Procedure Committee continue to bring about small but important changes, including for example a revised system for notification of arrests of Members, changes in the handling of Estimates Days debates, and most recently proxy voting for those Members taking parental leave. The report of the Select Committee on Governance of the House of Commons – the Straw Committee – has led to significant adaptation of governance structures, described in Chapter 6. And of course the implementation of the outcome of the June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has dominated and continues to dominate parliamentary business and has required adaptation of scrutiny procedures and practices in both Houses of the process of transposition into UK law of EU law, through an unprecedented volume of statutory instruments. The process has also led to procedural inventiveness, notably the rediscovery of the House’s power to call for papers by a Humble Address, still under consideration by the Procedure Committee at the time of writing, and the proposition that an effective Order could be made to re-arrange the business of the House for a particular day by way of an amendment to a relevant motion. It has always been that troubled times give rise to such potentially troubling innovations. Many of these developments took place as the final text of the book was being prepared. Where possible they have been noted and referenced, but a more rounded assessment of them will have to await the first update of this edition (see below).
Nor does or should the law of Parliament stand still. The regime of parliamentary privilege continues to evolve, in response to specific cases which raise fresh issues as well as evoking slightly amended responses to old issues. The 2013 Report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege added another layer of comment and interpretation.
In recent months, the behaviour of Members and staff and Members’ staff of both Houses has been under the spotlight and in July 2018 led to the agreement of a Code of Behaviour, formally enforceable through an Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. These important developments are also reflected in the text.
In this edition the attempt has been made not only to reflect the developments of the past eight years but, of at least equal importance, to re-organise the text to reduce the vice of repetition and the evil of internal contradiction, so that a reader has a clear idea of what is being said and on what authority. Wilful or inadvertent obscurities and ambiguities have been addressed. Material has been moved within and between chapters, and in many cases re-written, in the quest for limpidity. Wherever possible gender-neutral drafting has been employed: readers are invited to draw to the attention of the Journal Office where a `he’ or `his’ has slipped through the net. And all this has been done with an eye on the publication alongside the book itself of a freely accessible searchable electronic version, and on the prospect of regular updates both in hard copy and online, so that it will not be necessary to wait until 2027 to know what has changed in 2019. The expertly compiled index remains a vital tool and will be complemented by its digital equivalent of search. The footnotes, scrupulously checked over many editions, are gradually going to surrender their content through selective linking to the text that lies behind them.
To my mind the introduction of systematically numbered paragraphs represents a major improvement in usability – although I acknowledge not to everyone’s taste. Mere page references have long frustrated regular users of May, and the need to allow for a digital version, where page references cannot apply, has been a boon. Thomas Erskine May’s original work of 1844 was unmistakeably a book, albeit one which would have challenged any reader to peruse from start to finish. But this 25th edition is the moment to recognise that it has developed in successive editions into something quite different, an authoritative work of reference as well as a critical work of scholarship. Recent events have demonstrated with renewed force how important, in a nation without a single written constitution, are the established but mutable practices and procedures of its Parliament; the story of May through each of its 25 editions is very much the story of the evolution of those practices and procedures.1
The changes described above have constituted a major piece of work for many parliamentary colleagues over the past 18 months. I will not delve into the past history of the Erskine May Memorial Trust which still holds the copyright, but suffice it to say that for the first time this work has not been separately rewarded. Readers – and I – are all the more indebted to the efforts of those volunteers, who carried out the initial revisions of each chapter and then incorporated changes suggested by the assistant editors and editors. They have demonstrated their interest in and commitment to the Parliament they serve in various capacities. The assistant editors named on the title page have worked with dedication, determination and patience, producing drafts and reacting to my scribbled comments and queries. We have been supported by Jess Mulley in sorting out how to make a reality of digital May; by Ben Williams as the editorial board’s secretary and conscience; and by Sara Howe who has compiled the index. The whole enterprise has been drawn together, as was the case in 2011, by Mark Hutton, now the Clerk of the Journals, whose unremitting focus and determination has been instrumental in producing the 25th edition.
I am very grateful to all of these colleagues and to those many others who have contributed and continue to contribute to the knowledge and understanding of the wonderful world of parliamentary procedure at Westminster, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth and beyond. It is not an exact science, nor simply a branch of the law, nor of good administrative practice, but the principled framework on which any parliamentary democracy depends to be able to function properly. Now more than ever parliamentary procedure really matters, as Thomas Erskine May would surely recognise.