Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 17:17 UK

Westminster's perpetual Motions

By Terry Stiastny
The World At One, BBC Radio 4

Houses of Parliament

What do the future of the steel industry, domestic sprinklers, and the provision of public lavatories have in common? They are the latest additions to the list of early day motions - or EDMs - tabled by MPs.

They range from the serious to the trivial; from motions that can spark backbench rebellions on issues like tax, to those that congratulate the local football team on their most recent victory.

I asked some students from Letchworth, who had just been on a tour of Parliament, what they made of a motion mourning the death of Michael Jackson (that one, admittedly, only found the support of two MPs).

They were dismissive: "The idea of any politician being in Parliament and considering Michael Jackson an important enough issue to be discussing is actually quite scary."

Praise for Luton Town FC's victory got equally short shrift: "You may be a bit upset if someone loses a match, but it doesn't affect their life, and that's what politics should be about."

Politics, the students Sam and Ryan thought, was a serious business, and should concern itself with the economic climate and international development.

Staunch defenders

Jonathan Sheppard, a former Conservative candidate, has set up a website,, and argues that EDMs are a waste of Parliamentary time and money.

He said that by going online, the system would be far cheaper. "If backbench MPs can't use modern communications tools" he suggested, "perhaps they're not doing their job properly".

But some MPs are staunch defenders of the Early Day Motion, despite the fact that they are rarely debated.


Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, Bob Russell, regularly queues up all night to table the first EDM of the parliamentary year.

One such was the motion to give residency rights to Gurkha soldiers. Mr Russell says the EDM was one aspect of a campaign that proved to be successful.

When I asked him whether they were just an outlet for the disgruntled, he said: "There's nothing wrong with being disgruntled."

Nor did he think there was anything wrong with congratulating local scouts or footballers on their achievements. "We mustn't be aloof and distant from what is going on in our country", he added.

'Parliamentary graffiti'

By tradition, ministers do not usually sign EDMs.

But among backbenchers, there are different views as to whether they are useful.

Some sign almost everything they agree with: the Portsmouth Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock currently has his name on 1,424.

Others resolutely sign nothing, despite requests from campaigners and constituents.

Conservative MP Roger Gale believes they have become little more than "parliamentary graffiti".

He also thinks the argument that they are a way to express backbench dissent is overstated; he points to the recent example of the 10p tax rebellion, where he says MPs "weren't prepared to put their votes where their pens were". He believes the sooner EDMs are got rid of, the better.

And there are MPs who take a third way on all this, suggesting that EDMs should only be tabled if they can get a minimum level of support - say 30 or 50 willing to sign on the dotted line.

And while over 300 MPs have expressed their concern about Equitable Life, is it really the best use of their time and our money to send condolences over the death of Chalky, TV chef Rick Stein's dog?

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