Rules and customs

The origins of Parliament go back to the 13th century, and there are many rules and customs that affect how it runs. Some of these are written down and are called 'Standing Orders'. Other rules are set out in resolutions of the House. However, much of how Parliament carries out its business is not determined by rules but has become established through continued use over the centuries - this is sometimes known as 'custom and practice'

Standing Orders

Standing Orders are written rules formulated by each House to regulate its own proceedings. They cover, for example, how business is arranged and conducted, the behaviour of MPs and members of the House or Lords during debates, and rules relating to committees. Some Standing Orders are temporary and only last until the end of a session or a parliament. There are around 150 Standing Orders relating to parliamentary business and public bills, and about 250 relating to private business.

Custom and practice

Much of parliamentary procedure has developed over time and is not written in the Standing Orders. The practice of bills being 'read' three times in both Houses is not in the Standing Orders for example. Some procedures have developed through precedent, including through rulings made by the Speaker, and resolutions of the House.

Erskine May

Erskine May was the Clerk of the House of Commons between 1871 and 1886. He wrote a book called ‘Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament’. This is now in its 24th edition. It is considered the authoritative source on parliamentary procedure.

It provides details of observed 'rules' within the House, whether they relate to Standing Orders (and are therefore regulated by the House), traditional practice or whether they derive from 'Speaker's Rulings'. It is not available on the internet but will be in public libraries.

Erskine May's Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament. Edited by Sir Malcolm Jack. Twenty-fourth edition. 2011. Butterworths LexisNexis. ISBN 9781405751063.

Codes of Conduct

The Codes of Conduct provide guidance to MPs and members of the House of Lords on the standards of conduct expected during the course of their parliamentary duties.

Naming conventions

In the House of Commons MPs refer to each other by their constituency name or official title, not by their given name. MPs call each other either ‘the honourable Member for ...’, or if the MP is a member of the Privy Council 'the right honourable Member for…’ . Members of the Cabinet and leaders of the main opposition parties (among other senior figures in public life) are made members of the Privy Council and are addressed as ‘Right Honourable’ (Rt Hon). Membership of the Privy Council is retained for life.

Naming of a Member

'Naming of a Member' is the term used to describe the disciplining of an MP for breaking the rules of the House of Commons. The term comes from the fact that during a debate in the House of Commons, MPs refer to each other only by the name of their constituencies or by their official position, not their actual names. The only time names are used are when the Speaker calls MPs to speak or disciplines them. If an MP disregards the authority of the Chair or persistently obstructs the House in its duties then he or she can be 'named'. The Speaker says "I name the Honourable Member for ..... Mr/s.., for disregarding the authority of the Chair." A first offence brings suspension for five days. The second offence in the same parliamentary sitting carries 20 days' suspension and a third offence a period the House itself decides. Should an MP refuse to withdraw and resists removal, the punishment is suspension for the rest of the session.

Language in the House of Commons

Speeches must be made in English, but quotation in another language has been allowed.

The House resolved on 5 June 1996 that, 'whilst English is and should remain the language of this House, the use of Welsh be permitted in parliamentary proceedings held in Wales, subject to the conditions set out in the Third Report from the Select Committee on Procedure (HC 96, 1995-96).

In 2001 the House agreed to the Procedure Committee's further recommendation that witnesses before select committees at Westminster should be able to give evidence in Welsh (HC 47, 2000-01). The Welsh Affairs Committee took evidence in Welsh at Westminster for the first time on 9 April 2003 (HC 433-vi 2002-03).

Related information

Resolutions of the House: A decision of either House that expresses a collective opinion.

Erskine May

The authoritative guide to parliamentary procedure is Sir Thomas Erskine May's 'Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament'. May was Clerk of the House of Commons between 1871 and 1886. His guide is regularly updated and commonly known as "Erskine May".