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In Parliament, what is a Previous Question?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2016
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In Parliament, previous question is an action allowed under parliamentary procedure that allows the body to bring a matter to an immediate vote with no further debate. In addition to being used in Parliaments all over the world, previous question can also be used by other bodies that have adopted parliamentary procedure. This includes many legislatures, as well as city councils and other organizations.

This procedure is initiated by someone who rises to say that he or she is calling the previous question. The body must vote on the matter. If two thirds agree, debate is ended and an immediate vote is called on the matter as it stands. If the previous question is voted down, debate continues as though it was never called. In some procedural rules, debate and amendments can only continue for a set period of time after someone has called the question.

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There are a number of reasons why someone may choose to call the previous question. Sometimes, the body is ready to vote and calling the question allows everyone to move forward with a vote on the matter instead of continuing debate. In other cases, it may be an attempt to force a vote in order to kill a matter or put it through, depending on the interests of the person calling the question. Lawmakers may wait for a strategic advantage, such as a time when many people are not present, to call a question and force a matter through before opponents or supporters return.

Calling the question is not itself debatable; when someone rises to call a question, the only action that can be taken is voting yes or no on the matter. In some bodies, “previous question” is deemed to be confusing, and people are instead obliged to move to close debate or to close debate and vote immediately, depending on the terminology in use. The process is generally very quick, as people do not need to have a discussion about the matter.

Members of Parliament and other organizations that use parliamentary procedure can benefit from understanding the complex ins and outs of procedure. It is important to know how to respond when a situation like a previous question arises. In addition, it can be helpful to know about tricks that can be used to move matters through efficiently and rapidly. It is not uncommon for people new to a body to be offered tips by more experienced mentors who provide valuable lessons about using parliamentary procedure to achieve goals.

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