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Last Updated: Friday, 13 April 2007, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
Going through the motions
By Emma Griffiths
Political reporter, BBC News

They are very rarely debated, cost hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to process and create much overtime for House of Commons clerks.

Is there any point to Early Day Motions (EDM)?

Houses of Parliament
Critics have described EDMs as "parliamentary graffiti"

EDMs have been described as the Parliamentary equivalent of Post-it notes or round-robin letters pinned to a notice board.

Among all the many methods available to MPs for raising a subject in the Commons, they are probably at the bottom of the food chain.

Backbench MPs use them to gain publicity for a pet cause or to draw attention to an otherwise neglected or controversial issue - from handrolled tobacco taxation to calls to impeach the prime minister.

Football teams

Several EDMs are tabled each year congratulating football teams on winning important games. MPs have found this an easy way to gain coverage in their local newspapers - but such apparently trivial subjects have raised questions about whether EDMs are a waste of Parliamentary time and resources.

Every Parliamentary session thousands of EDM forms are collected from the Commons' Table Office, motions drafted, then circulated to friendly MPs to sign, before being printed up on the Order paper.

Abolition of bread weights
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EDMs are, officially, a motion calling for a Commons debate, but they are rarely, if ever, debated by MPs.

They have been a feature of life in the Commons since the 1930s.

But there has been a marked increase in their use since 2005, and the cost of publishing them - reckoned at 627,000 in 2005-6, compared to 338,000 in 2001.

MPs might not spend time debating them, but motions arriving late on cause major headaches for the Commons clerks, who sometimes spend hours trying to decipher masses of scrawled signatures.

Impeachment call

And gripes about "sponsored" motions, promoted by outside organisations, and those on more trivial issues have prompted a Parliamentary inquiry into whether the system is in need of reform.

Former Conservative minister Douglas Hogg, who used an EDM to call for the impeachment of Tony Blair over the Iraq war, was among those questioned as part of the Commons Procedure Committee's inquiry.

I won't sign EDMs ... unless I have drafted them myself or been intimately involved in drafting them
Douglas Hogg MP
He told the BBC News website it was good that some issues which otherwise would not get any Parliamentary time were allowed some publicity.

But he said very often MPs would sign up to someone else's EDM for "wholly trivial reasons".

Some would sign motions "simply to get constituents off their back" while others might "do it simply to appear to be doing something about something".

"I have an explicit rule that I won't sign EDMs as a general proposition, unless I have drafted them myself or been intimately involved in drafting them," he said.

Pigeon bombs

There are few rules on the content of the motions, which do not have to be linked to any ministerial responsibilities - although irony and slang are banned.

Labour MP Tony Banks tabled one of the most colourful EDMs in 2004, following the news that, during World War II, MI5 had proposed using pigeons as flying bombs.

The animal rights enthusiast's motion condemned human beings as "cruel, uncivilised and lethal," which also "looked forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the Earth and wipes them out, thus giving nature the opportunity to start again".

Tony Banks used an EDM to raise the plight of the humble pigeon
Among the more eye-catching EDMs in recent months have been those tabled by Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell.

His motions include two highlighting the plights of dogs and bears in China and another recognising the 250th anniversary of the Lord Mayor's Golden Coach.

The Romford MP is an unrepentant supporter of EDMs which he says are all worthwhile in their own way and were of "enormous value" to charities and voluntary groups championed by them.

He told the BBC News website: "It's a very good way, I think, of highlighting issues that otherwise are not ones that would ever get time to be debated properly in the chamber.

'Parliamentary graffiti'

He added that there was always the chance EDMs could influence policy: "Who knows, it may catch their eye of a minister who may decide to act upon the matter."

And while there are those who are quick to dismiss them as "Parliamentary graffiti", it appears that, for now at least, early day motions - including those congratulating local football teams on their success - will remain.

"I think my committee are of the view that we should be fairly generous in what's allowed because otherwise you are, in effect, stifling opinion," says Commons Procedure Committee chairman Greg Knight.

I think my committee are of the view that we should be fairly generous in what's allowed because otherwise you are, in effect, stifling opinion
Greg Knight
He argues that, in a democracy, it would be difficult to restrict what an MP can raise - particularly as old procedures allowing backbenchers to put forward motions for debate had been abolished.

So suggestions that EDMs should gather a minimum amount of signatures before being published, may prove difficult to agree.

He is also not in favour of reducing printing costs of EDMs by switching to a computerised system as he believes they would get little publicity - as journalists tend to read the paper versions over a cup of tea.

He added: "As our examination of EDMs has progressed, MPs who were keen to make a big change at the beginning are probably now recognising that the system, warts and all, actually does the job it was designed to do - which is to give publicity to an issue without taking up too much time in the House."

Call to reform Early Day Motions
30 Mar 06 |  UK Politics
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Writing on the wall
26 Feb 06 |  The Westminster Hour
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23 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
Early Day Motion
14 Jul 05 |  UK Politics

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