Want a copy of Parliament’s rules? That’ll be £268.40

Erskine May is the House of Commons rulebook – but if you want to get a copy, it’ll cost you £268.40 from a commercial publisher, and Parliament has said no to a request for a free electronic copy from a member of the public.

The origins are typical of the British constitution. Erskine May started off as a unofficial guide written by an assistant librarian in the House of Commons. Over time it established itself as the reference work and is now treated just like an official rule book. But unlike Hansard – another Parliamentary publication which originated with an unofficial version that evolved into an official record – the Commons has not looked to make its contents available for free.

Imagine if a new set of Parliamentary rules were written this year (for, perhaps, a reformed and elected Upper House) and Parliament proposed not only that the rules must not be published online, but could only be available in book form for £268.40. There would be outrage. Why shouldn’t people be able to read the rules online? Why should people who want a hard copy be forced to pay out so much money?

Yet that’s the situation with Erskine May.

History explains why we’re in that situation, but it doesn’t excuse it continuing.

So how about cracking this one, Mr Bercow?

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21 Comments

  • There should be outrage? There is. When Mr Bercow has finished cracking this he must sack the jobsworth responsible.

  • Not sure I agree with you there, Alec. Access to the rules by which the Commons operates strikes me as something to which a citizen should be entitled, especially as things can be stuck on websites simply enough nowadays.

  • Stuart Fanning 14th Jan '11 - 2:09pm

    The new edition coming in June, will be £1.40 cheaper. Guess we can all get one now!

    Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice 24th edition
    The eponymous guide to parliamentary practice and procedure, Erskine May provides accurate and detailed information on the constituent parts of Parliament.
    £267.00 Standard Price
    Publication Date: 30/06/2011
    ISBN/ISSN: 9781405751063

  • @Alec Macph

    “but the expectation that it should be available for free reminds me of those militant ramblers who demanded access through a home-owner’s garden.”

    Except that, of course, the homowner may well own the land their garden is on, and may well own the right to prevent ramblers crossing it (although they don’t always have the right…many seem to be ignorant of the terms on which they buy their houses) in any case the homowner privately owns their house.

    On the other hand the government is publically funded, and their publishing is publically funded… so it would seem reasonable to expect that books published with taxpayer’s money should be freely available to taxpayers.

  • I once called the parliamentary legal office to enquire as to how long transitional orders had to sit by. In the end, they just seemed to take my word for it [with a copy of Erskine May in front of me] that it was 40 days… How reassuring.

    The reason, Alec, that people should have access to it is that a) it is not difficult to do and b) it forms the basic constitution of parliamentary process. Plus it is a riveting read… 🙂

  • John Parker 14th Jan '11 - 3:19pm

    Bringing down to a local level, the same is true about the bible for parish councils…Local Council Administration – Charles Arnold-Baker Current (eighth edition) £73.50.

  • “The idea that all information should be free of charge is one of the malign influences of the Internet and Wiki.”

    Perhaps – but I think the constitutional basis for the rules which govern the lawmakers who can coerce you might be of a different category here…

  • David Boothroyd 14th Jan '11 - 6:43pm

    Erskine May is available for free in public libraries, unless the Coalition government that you’re part of has forced your council to close them all. But given the fact that Butterworths have the copyright for Erskine May, making it free would mean paying them compensation for losing a source of income. If you think that’s a reasonable use of public money, then I have to say I don’t agree with you.

  • The commons is run in accordance with standing orders and tradition, not Erskine May. Erskine May is simply an explanation of how those standing orders and regulations and traditions work, minus a lot of the legalese.

    The standing orders of the House of Commons are available freely online.

  • I’m intrigued by the implications of Alec’s comments – the dull but worthy nature of governance and open access would change dramatically if sexual attraction became one of the criteria for online services. Surely online dating is already catered to quite extensively, though?

    I’m with David Boothroyd, although before simply agreeing that Butterworth’s deserve compensation for lost income, there are questions to be asked about the copyright of a work written over 150 years ago, with new editions written by public servants. The book is only relevant today because of its use in Parliament.

    Given the significant and long standing subsidy the publisher has therefore received, should compensation extend any further than, say, a decade or two of exclusive rights to commercial, hardcopy publishing?

  • Better Anon ! 15th Jan '11 - 10:01am

    Wished the recently appointed Lords – Labour ex M.Ps- would have a read ! .

  • David Boothroyd 15th Jan '11 - 3:26pm

    If you want to know how the Lords operates, don’t read Erskine May because you’ll be looking for a needle in a haystack and some of the more important agreements between the parties are not included. Read instead the Companion to the Standing Orders and Proceedings of the House of Lords: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldcomp/compso2010/compso.pdf

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