FAQ for new delegates

This FAQ are designed to help if this is your first annual conference or if you’ve been before but didn’t understand how everything worked. The list of questions isn’t exhaustive, but it should at least help to demystify the basics.

Most members of conference are elected by their districts. Each district is allocated a maximum number of conference members based on its total membership number. No district is allocated fewer than 2, the largest districts are entitled to more than 30.

Additionally, the following sector and equalities groups elect up to six members each to represent their members specifically:

  • Disabled
  • LGBT+
  • Independent sector
  • Support staff
  • Post-16

Members holding these positions attend, ex-officio:

  • Members of the executive
  • Former presidents of the union
  • The general secretary
  • The elected deputy general secretary
  • Trustees of the union
  • Honorary members
  • The members of the conference committee 
  • The chair of conference (usually the president) sits in the middle
  • The vice president
  • The past-president (last year’s chair)
  • The treasurer
  • Member and equalities officer
  • The general secretary
  • The two deputy general secretaries
  • The assistant general secretary (business services)
  • Journalists.
  • Union guests (officials from other unions, both UK and international).
  • Observers – districts can request spaces for members and non-members to come and observe conference without the option to speak or vote in debates
  • Union staff

The conference committee is a group of members who help to run conference. The vice president of the union is always the chair. Some of its members are elected from the executive. Others are elected by members of conference following submissions of candidates from districts. Members serve for two years but can be re-elected for more terms of office. You will be invited to vote for members of the conference committee. Please use your vote, their role is very important.

As well as the work outlined in the sections above, the conference committee allocate which districts propose and second motions and amendments. If one district has submitted a motion and it isn’t composited (see below), they will propose and second. When more than one district submits a motion, or when the motions of more than one district are composited, conference committee will usually divide the proposing and seconding across more than one district.

Conference committee also meet during conference to discuss urgent motions (see below).

Guests, including the media, are invited to observe conference.  This helps to create a buzz around what we do, but there are some things we discuss that we don’t want reported in the media, for example, sensitive items such as the union’s accounts and any contentious motions.  These can be held in private (or closed) session. Only members of conference, district observers who are union members and staff are allowed to be present. Everyone else is asked to leave.

Each district is invited to submit up to 6 motions in the run up to conference. The executive can also submit motions. All motions are checked by the union’s officers and the conference committee for accuracy, to ensure they don’t exceed the maximum word count and to make sure they wouldn’t commit the union to do something that was impossible to achieve, against its rules or illegal.

Where motions from more than one district are on the same topic, the conference committee will sometimes amalgamate them to form a ‘composite’ motion.

The conference committee additionally sort motions into sections; these are ones used recently:

  • Assessment, curriculum and accountability
  • International
  • Bargaining and negotiations
  • Education policy for schools and colleges
  • Equalities and social justice
  • General purposes
  • Member defence
  • Union strength

There are always more approved and composited motions than conference will have time to debate, so a full list is sent to all districts for them to vote on the 6 they most want to see on the final list (called the conference agenda). The votes from each district are multiplied by its total membership number and added together to give a final tally for each motion. The motions from each section with the highest vote tally make it onto the agenda.

In addition, equality and sector groups are entitled to each send a motion to conference. These motions do not go through the priority process. They are guaranteed to be on the final agenda.

The final list of prioritised motions (including those from equality and sector groups) is sent to districts before the agenda is printed. If they feel they could improve on motions by adding to them, changing the wording etc, they can submit up to 6 amendments.

Amendments go through the same process of checking and compositing as motions before being added to the agenda.

  • The rules under which conference is run are called standing orders, these must be approved before conference can function
  • The report of the conference committee sets out how much time has been given to each section of the conference agenda and the order motions are debated. Conference needs to approve this too
  • Finally, the report from the previous year’s conference showing which motions were passed, and the report of the executive, showing the progress of instructions given to them, are both presented to conference for its approval

First to speak is always the member proposing the motion (sometimes called the ‘mover’ of the motion). The proposer is given up to four minutes to speak. The seconder, also speaking in favour of the motion, is given three minutes, as are all other speakers, for or against.

After this other members of conference can speak for or against the motion. To get a spot on the list of speakers, you must complete a speakers’ card, either through the speakers’ cards app, or by completing a physical card.

Often there are a lot of members wanting to speak in the same debate, so there are some rules to ensure fairness. The speakers’ card system does all the sorting automatically:

  • The list is sorted into those wanting to speak for and those against
  • Those who’ve spoken two or more times already are always put to the bottom of the list
  • The remaining list is randomised; the first to request to speak is not guaranteed to be first on the list
  • Women members are given priority and speakers ordered alternately by gender

As the proposer and seconder always speak in favour of the motion, the next two speakers are usually members who oppose it. After this we alternate for, against, for, against etc.

The first time you speak in a debate you’re going to be nervous! Many first timers break the ice by telling Conference they’ve not spoken before. That always guarantees a warm reception.

If an amendment appears under a motion in the agenda, it will be debated after the motion has been proposed and seconded, but before any further speakers are taken. If it is voted on and approved, the now amended motion will then be debated. If there is more than one amendment, this process will continue until all amendments are heard or conference stops the process (see the section below on points of order).

Amendments are debated in the same way as motions; the proposer has up to four minutes to speak, everyone else has three, speakers’ cards are used etc, etc… 

If there are any speakers against a motion, the original proposer has a ‘right of reply’, this gives them an additional three minutes to respond.

If amendments are passed, the proposer of the last carried amendment becomes the new ‘owner’ of the motion and it is them that has the right of reply.

If there are no speakers against, the right of the reply is not given.

The right of reply is always the last speech before the vote.

If conference runs out of time or out of speakers (or if there are lots of speakers for the motion, but no more against (or vice-versa)), the chair will usually call for a vote. There are other ways conference can request debates be finished; these are covered in the points of order section later.

Voting is done by a show of hands. Members of conference can vote for the motion (or amendment), they can vote against it, or they can abstain.

Usually, a show of hands is clear and the chair declares the result. When it is hard to tell, the chair can call a digital vote. Conference can also demand a digital vote. 200 or more members of conference need to agree for a digital vote to be called.

A show of hands vote gives each member who votes one vote, but this doesn’t represent the actual number of votes everyone carries.

Members of conference who attend as a member of executive or conference committee and those representing sector or equality conferences do have one vote each.

But members of conference who are representing their district carry a share of the total vote of their district. For example, if a district has 3000 members and there are 10 members of that district representing them at conference, each will have 300 votes. When a digital vote is called, this larger number is counted and the vote is more accurate.

This way of voting is ‘weighted’, as not all members’ votes are equal.

You’ll be given a voting device and asked to use it when a digital (weighted) vote is called. It’s very simple to use. 

It’s quicker and simpler to use a show of hands. All votes are weighted in theory, but when the show of hands result isn’t close, a digital vote wouldn’t give a different answer.

The deadline for districts to submit motions is 3 December, some four months before the start of conference. If something that should be debated by conference occurs after this date, it can still be added to the list of motions debated if an urgent motion is submitted, just before or during conference.

For an urgent motion to be heard it must clear two hurdles:

  • Firstly, at least 200 members of conference need to indicate they agree it should be heard.
  • Next, conference debates if time should be made in the programme for the motion to be heard. This is described as a ‘suspension of standing orders’ (standing orders are simply the rules for running conference, they need to be ‘suspended’ for an addition to be made to the agenda). The suspension is debated and voted on as other motions.

If conference agrees to suspend standing orders, the conference committee will make space for the urgent motion in the programme. It always allows time for amendments and speakers’ cards to be submitted.

Urgent motions will fall if they aren’t submitted early enough in the conference programme for all the above to happen.

Points of order (more properly called procedural motions) allow conference to exert its control on debate.

They need to be proposed (this can be done from the floor by someone shouting!), seconded and debated, but the process is much quicker than normal motions.

The most used procedural motions are:

  • That conference now votes – this can end debate on the current motion/amendment and move straight to the vote
  • That conference now returns to the substantive motion – this stops debates on amendments and moves back to the main motion.

Any decision made by the chair can be challenged by conference. The way this works is covered in Standing Orders.

As previously mentioned, standing orders are the rules by which conference is run. Many of them are covered above, but a full list is always available, and is printed at the start of the conference agenda.

Standing orders must be agreed before they can be implemented. This is always the first item on the agenda. The adoption of standing orders is treated as a motion, and like other motions, are provided in advance of conference for districts to amend if they want to make a change. Any amendments to standing orders are debated and voted on in the normal way, before being adopted for conference (in theory the standing orders from the previous conference apply until the new ones are agreed and voted in).

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