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29 October 2019

What does it mean when an amendment is not in scope?

There is a lot of controversy about amendments to the government's election bill, but only one of them is likely to be voted on.

By Stephen Bush

Why weren’t MPs given the opportunity to amend the bill seeking a 12 December election date to enfranchise 16- to 18-year-olds, or EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, or to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU?

Because the deputy speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, ruled that the amendments were outside the “the scope of the bill”.  

The only amendment to be declared in scope is the one to hold an election on 9 December 2019 not 12 December 2019.

How does this process work? Well, a good rule of thumb is to see British legislation as a lot like the titles of Friends episodes: The One Which Triggers Article 50, The One Which Creates Academy Schools, The One Which Halves The Take-home Pay of the Working Poor, and so on. An amendment that would radically change the title of the bill would not be in scope. You couldn’t amend the bill triggering Article 50 to ban private cars from London by 2025, for instance, because that would be quite a different bill.

This has a couple of important purposes: it makes it hard for the government or opposition to change a non-controversial bill, perhaps one that few MPs would feel the need to be in Westminster to debate, to something highly controversial. No amending The One That Makes More Money Available For Clean Energy Research into The One That Takes The UK Out Of The European Court of Human Rights.

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The government has purposely drawn this bill to be quite narrow – the One Which Moves The Next Election Date. It is very hard to see how any Speaker – and although John Bercow has looked for ways to maximise the power of parliament against the government, he has never bent the scope rule – would decide that amendments changing it to The One That Holds A Referendum or The One That Enfranchised Three And A Half Million People would be in scope.