Erskine May Opens Up

by Camilla de Coverly Veale | 4th July 2019

The closest thing Parliament has to an instruction manual, Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, has gone digital. Better yet, and unlike the dense hard copies (£329.99 on Amazon, free delivery for Prime members), the online version is free, indexed and instantly searchable.

Parliament is almost entirely directed by conventions rather than laws. First compiled and codified by then-Commons clerk, Thomas Erskine May, in 1844, “A Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament” sets out parliamentary practice and procedure, powers, jurisdictions and process of debate.

Wielded effectively, procedure can be powerful – especially in our current hung Parliament. Last year Times columnist, Philip Collins, wrote “Erskine May is going to count for more than Theresa May” and it is clear that the Brexit process has put parliamentary procedure under a great deal of stress testing. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker, as well as suggestions that Boris Johnson, should he become Prime Minister, could consider proroguing Parliament, shows that Parliament’s procedures are not preserved in aspic.

Uploading Erskine May is arguably a significant step towards ever greater transparency around political decision making. Campaigners for a more open democracy have long complained that the expense of Erskine May has served to make Parliament’s rules the preserve of the elite. In November 2011, a group of pro-transparency hackers published an electronic copy of Erskine May – back when it only cost £267. At the time, the hackers commented that Parliament was the “kernel of democracy, and that kernel must be open source.” However, this version is difficult to read and search through. The copy uploaded this week will continue to “live” as Parliament’s conventions evolve. The 25th edition, published this week, updates the 2011 edition. It includes new sections covering the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (2011) and the Recall of MPs Act (2015), as well as proxy voting for MPs on parental leave, introduced in January 2019. It is as yet unclear how parliamentary machinations over Brexit will leave their mark on future editions of Erskine May.

Erskine May forms a major component of the UK’s uncodified constitution. While the Speaker, as the “highest authority in the House of Commons”, retains a considerable amount of power over interpreting Erskine May, the digital publication means interested parties will now be able to gain greater and clearer insight into the inner workings of Westminster. That and any Minister hoping to get out of answering a tricky procedural question by pleading the need to access a copy of Erskine May may have to try again…

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You can find a digital copy of Erskine May here: https://erskinemay.parliament.uk/

 

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About the Author

Camilla de Coverly Veale

ccveale@maitland.co.uk

Camilla joined Maitland Political/AMO in 2016 from two contrasting research and public relations roles, one with a crossbench peer in the House of Lords and the other with a tech start-up

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