Early day motions

Every sitting day, about ten motions are tabled ‘for an early day’ - that is, for debate on an unspecified day. Almost all these ‘early day motions’ (EDMs) are tabled by backbenchers (although ‘prayers’ - see page 226 - first make their appearance as EDMs), so the chances of their being debated are negligible. Very occasionally, as in the case of the 1989 EDM on war crimes, a really significant EDM will be given debating time by the government or may figure in an opposition day debate. In addition, a motion critical of the Speaker will first appear as an EDM but, by convention, the government will quickly find time to debate it.

An EDM is simply an expression of a view that could be debated by the House (they all begin ‘That this House’). They may be tabled by any MP, must not be longer than 250 words and must conform to other rules of order (for example, no unparliamentary language, and no reference to matters sub judice). An EDM appears in the Vote bundle, printed on blue pages, the day after it is tabled, and is reprinted for the rest of that week and the following week if any other MPs add their names to it or if an amendment is tabled. Thereafter, an up-to-date list of signatories is available only electronically. All EDMs fall at the end of the session.

EDMs are used for a wide variety of purposes: an MP may want to put on record the success of his local football team (perhaps attracting only the signatures of his constituency neighbours - and perhaps a hostile amendment from supporters of a rival team), or criticise somebody’s opinion or action - almost like writing a letter to a national newspaper. EDMs are also used by MPs to defuse pressure from constituents and others by being seen to be doing something about an issue, or to put material on the parliamentary record under the protection of parliamentary privilege. EDMs are also used to test and gather support on major issues (recently, on reducing the tax on bingo, the future of the BBC Three television channel, the live export of horses and the use of animals in scientific research), and they are a useful source of political intelligence for the whips.

A random selection of EDMs tabled in April 2014 condemned human rights violations in Colombia, called for consultation on proposals to close ticket offices at London Underground stations, commemorated the author Sue Townsend following her death, called for the reversal of an EU ban on the importation of Alphonso mangoes, and celebrated Scout Community Week.

Over 1,000 EDMs are tabled each session and may attract a total of 600 or 700 signatures from MPs on a single sitting day. The number of EDMs, and the fact that many are on relatively trivial matters, have led to criticism of them as ‘parliamentary graffiti’. On the other hand, it can be argued that they act as a safety valve, and that MPs (and people outside the House) value them as a means of expressing and testing views - although their increasing numbers are devaluing the currency. Apart from the ‘prayers’ referred to, none is ever likely to be debated, although it is sometimes suggested that time should be found for those with substantial numbers of signatures. This may be a superficially attractive suggestion, but a good debate needs opposition, and the prospect of a debate on a matter on which all agree does not appeal.

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