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Meetings etiquette - To stand or not to stand?

Many local authorities require members and officers to stand to speak at meetings and will have this as a provision in their constitutions. Indeed, the modular constitution for English local authorities published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister at the time of the implementation of the Local Government Act 2000 and which the majority of authorities used as the basis of their constitutions, included the following:

21.       Members' conduct

21.1     Standing to speak

When a member speaks at full Council they must stand and address the meeting through the chairman. If more than one member stands, the chairman will ask one to speak and the others must sit. Other members must remain seated whilst a member is speaking unless they wish to make a point of order or a point of personal explanation.

21.2     Chairman standing

When the chairman stands during a debate, any member speaking at the time must stop and sit down. The meeting must be silent.

Alongside the modular constitution, procedures for ensuring orderly and fair control of the business of the meeting by the Chair, will often have been developed through custom and practice and influenced by the culture within the local authority. However, placing a requirement on the procedure to be followed, that excludes an individual or group sharing a protected characteristic, creates a risk of discrimination.

Some members do like to stand, especially at the more formal meetings and/or when there is an audience, and this can often be the best way of drawing the Chair's attention to the member who wishes to speak. Doing so is also considered to be a sign of respect to the Chair. However, it should not be assumed that everyone can stand or indeed raise a hand, and as such, local authorities do need to consider creative ways of making sure that members who wish to speak can be easily identified and heard. One thing is clear: there should be no hard and fast rule. Procedures that work in a modern council chamber, equipped with microphones, visual aids and similar, will not be easily replicated for example at a parish meeting in a village hall.

Clearly conventions to allow ordered debate are not intended as cast iron rules but if there is something set out in standing orders in language that is mandatory i.e. "must", it might just be worth reviewing it, for the sake of consistency, especially as there will be other parts of the constitution where having an implied discretion would not be an option. It is often the seemingly minor things which can catch out the unawares, so time to check those constitutions, just in case.

Unsurprisingly, local authority conventions follow the example of the House of Commons where members must stand to speak (unless they are physically unable to do so). Selection of speakers in debate is at the discretion of the Speaker who receives applications in advance from MPs who wish to be heard whilst the practice of half-rising from one's seat in order "to catch the Speaker's eye" and make a comment is a much less certain way for an MP to get a hearing.

In making his selection, the Speaker and Deputy Speakers will take account of relevant experience and expertise and constituency involvement as well as the number of times that members have previously had the opportunity to speak. It is expected that an MP who has requested a hearing will turn up for the start of the debate and remain in the House for the following two speeches and return for the winding-up speeches. A breach of etiquette here may harm one's chances of being called to speak in the future.

Whilst other MPs may, by rising from their seat, indicate that they wish to interrupt a speaker, interruptions are at the discretion of the MP who is speaking and such interventions must be brief. The House is required to maintain a respectful silence for the MP who is speaking at any time although the Speaker is often obliged to police that rule in more controversial and rowdy debate.

For more information, please get in touch with Caroline Eaton

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