How the place works – Parliamentary Procedure

Thoroughly revised and updated: 22 September 2010

You get a job working for an MP and suddenly you are immersed in an alien world, where the rules are different and no one clearly explains them. This is one of the few areas where asking a colleague might not be the best way forwards. Very simply, only the true anoraks know their way comfortably around parliamentary procedures but everyone else likes to think they do. You can’t really work here for three years and then admit that you don’t know the precise wording necessary to top and tail a Petition to the House.

So here are some sources that may help you when feeling your way blindfolded around the maze of parliamentary procedures.  A few of the website addresses below are accessible for those of you who don’t have access to the parliamentary intranet. Some resources can be seen only by those with access to the parliamentary intranet.

Thanks, as ever, are due to our friends in the Library for checking this update for us.


Who can help me to understand?

1.  The Library is always the first port of call. As we have said before, and are happy to repeat, the Commons Library is your very best friend and will save your life more than once in your parliamentary career. Their main Enquiry Point is 020 7219 3666 or email the enquiry desk on The Library website – a massive resource – is accessible via the Parliamentary Intranet here:

2.  The Library’s training courses in parliamentary procedure and documentation are open to Members staff.  Ring x3666 for information or check out courses available at the Library’s web-pages on the Parliamentary Intranet:

3.  The Department of Chamber and Committee Services covers a number of offices responsible for stuff you need to know about: Broadcasting Unit, Commissioner for Standards, Committee Office, Delegated Legislation Office, Journal Office, Legal Services Office, Official Report, Overseas Office, Private Bill Office, Public Bill Office, Serjeant at Arms, Table Office, Vote Office. Their intranet pages include lots of guides for you to browse; start here:


Where can I find quick definitions?

4.  The Glossary on Parliament’s education website explains dozens of terms commonly used in both Houses. The best link to it is:   So, check there if you want to peep into the Royal Robing Room, are desperate for Dissolution, are tickled by Test Rolls or demand to know “Who goes home?”  While you’re at it, have a good look round the rest of the Parliamentary Education Unit’s website which can be found at:  This site is primarily aimed at school students and teachers and has three main sections: ‘Visiting Parliament’, ‘Online resources’ and ‘In your school’. Loads of good stuff in there.

5.  The BBC’s A-Z OF PARLIAMENT list dozens of definitions on their website at   Keen to learn about Dilatory Motions, Retreads and Nodding Through? Not to mention Catching the Speaker’s Eye, Bisque system and Unstarred Questions? Then this is the place for you!


What can I read?

6.  Factsheets explaining many aspects of Parliament are produced by the House of Commons Information Office:  The Factsheets are divided into four series: Procedure, Legislation, Members/Elections and General. All titles are available for downloading in pdf format. These are produced for public consumption and so are ideal for the Rookie Staffer. The word is that the Factsheets are due to be redesigned some time soon. There will be about 15, instead of about 65, and they will be supplemented by a new range of PEPs (“People, Events, Places”).  Research Papers are impartial briefings on major bills and other topical issues and can be found at Notes cover frequently asked questions on a wide range of topics, as well as regularly updated statistics and lists, and are listed here:

7.  Business of the House and its Committees: a short guide, issued by the Department of the Clerk of the House is an invaluable resource – the one you will use most regularly.  It is here that you will find the rules on how to word questions, EDMs, petitions and prepare other matters for your employer. Full information here:

8.  The Handbook of House of Commons Procedure is Vacher Dod’s invaluable reference book.   It takes full account of the many detailed and sometimes profound procedural and constitutional changes made since 1997.  At £59, the latest edition is “expensive but worth it!” we are reliably informed. In any case, take a look at their page

9.  Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, a.k.a. the Parliamentary Bible, is the definitive guide to Parliamentary Procedure. The 24th Edition (2011) is available for a rather hefty £381.00 – see: or the Parliamentary Bookshop on the corner of Bridge Street and Parliament Street – but it’s worth having a shop around if you really want it!  By the way, Vachers and Erskine May are available in the Library, so you might prefer that option rather than paying!

10.  The Members’ Handbook has information, aimed particularly at new MPs, on Speaking in the Chamber and Committees.  Look at the online version of the Handbook under letter M on the Intranet Index or get hold of the May 2010 hardcopy edition. More information here.

11.  If you want a readable, layman’s guide to how the place works, we recommend How Parliament Works by Robert Rogers & Rhodri Walters (Pearson, 6th edition, 2006). Written by clerks in both the Commons and the Lords. Find it online or you can pop round to the Parliamentary Bookshop on the corner of Bridge Street and Parliament Street, and pick it up there. Of course, the Library has copies, too.

AH/May 2004
DR/June 2005
KG/DR/September 2010