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What are statutory instruments?

Statutory instruments are the most common type of delegated legislation. Ministers use delegated legislation to make changes to the law under powers delegated to them in an Act of Parliament.

The Act that contains the power to make delegated legislation usually specifies what needs to happen to the statutory instrument for it to become law. Many statutory instruments are not subject to any parliamentary procedure.

Where parliamentary procedure applies, the statutory instrument must be formally presented to Parliament. When statutory instruments are formally presented to Parliament they are said to be ‘laid’ and when a minister has signed them into law they are said to be ‘made’.

Statutory instruments can be laid in draft or as a made instrument. Statutory instruments usually take one of two routes:

  • Negative procedure: Parliament is not required to approve the statutory instrument for it to become law. But either House can pass a motion within a specified period (usually 40 days) to annul a made statutory instrument, which stops it having legal effect. Some negative instruments are laid in draft, if these are opposed by either House of Parliament within a specified period, they cannot be made.
  • Affirmative procedure: Parliament must actively approve a draft affirmative statutory instrument before a minister can sign it into law. Some affirmative instruments are made before being laid before Parliament; these are usually made under urgent procedures. Parliament must actively approve these instruments within a specified period for them to remain law.
    Most statutory instruments are presented to the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Some -mainly those involving finance – are only presented to the House of Commons.

What are prayers?

A prayer motion can be used by Members of either House to object to a negative statutory instrument.

In the Commons, a prayer is usually a particular type of Early Day Motion tabled against a negative instrument. Prayers can be fatal or non-fatal.

A fatal prayer is a motion seeking to overturn a negative instrument and will commonly include the wording:

‘That a humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that [the instrument] be annulled’.

Fatal prayers tabled against a draft negative will commonly include the wording:

‘That the draft instrument be not made’.

A fatal prayer must be tabled within a 40-day objection period, which begins on the day the instrument is laid before Parliament. The objection period is known as praying time. For the prayer to successfully annul an instrument, it must also be agreed by the House within the 40-day period. A fatal prayer has not been successful in the Commons since 1979.

Fatal prayers are not often debated. While the Government will typically find time to debate a prayer if it has been signed by a member of the Opposition frontbench, it is not obliged to. And on occasions that it does, the instrument may be referred to a Delegated Legislation Committee for consideration rather than the motion being formally moved in the Commons Chamber. Prayers can also be considered on Opposition Days.

A non-fatal motion cannot stop an instrument being law but may be used by either House to indicate concern. In the Commons, a prayer motion tabled outside the 40-day objection period is non-fatal as it can only object to the instrument, rather than stop it. Sometimes an out of time prayer will mention the word revocation but such a motion being agreed will not lead to the instrument stopping being law.

The downloadable Excel file lists number of prayers made in the House of Commons since 1997. Source details are available in the Excel file.

Further information 

The Statutory Instrument Service provides a tracking service of all statutory instruments before the House. The service provides data since 2017. The service also has a query library which shows motions against statutory instruments tabled in both Houses.

Prayers can be viewed on Parliament’s Early Day Motions website.

Parliament: facts and figures 

The Parliament: facts and figures series covers topics including elections, government, legislation, Members and parliamentary business. 

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