How concerned should we be about government control of parliamentary time?

100s of new Members of Parliament (MPs) will enter the UK House of Commons in July. I’ve read, in a couple of places, that one problem they will inevitably encounter is the way that the timetable for day-to-day business is set in their new workplace. This would seem to be important - what changes in the country, and what doesn’t, surely depends on this timetable to an extent. I was curious, so I looked into timetabling a little further.

A parliamentary session normally lasts about a year, with some holidays (”recesses”) planned in advance. When Parliament opens for the year, the government presents its legislative priorities for the session ahead through the King’s Speech. For every week within the session, Thursday sees the Leader of the House of Commons present a Business Statement, which details the agenda of activity for the week ahead. So there’s this complementary mix in planning frequency: week-to-week agenda setting, to work towards the annual priorities.

Government business (i.e. what the government want to talk about) takes precedence. Legislation (passing or amending bills) is a big part of this - but the government of the day may also schedule debates, statements, Q&A sessions, budgets and other business.

However, there are instances where the government are forced to cede control, as laid out in the some of the Standing Orders, which dictate how the House of Commons should operate:

  • Opposition days: 20 days per session are allocated to opposition parties - 17 to the Leader of the Opposition and 3 to the second largest opposition party. On these days, the opposition sets the topics of discussion.
  • Backbench business: 35 days per session can be set by the Backbench Business Committee. Backbenchers are those not in government or shadow government positions.
  • Private Member Bill: On 13 Fridays per session, these Private Member Bills take precedence over government business. Private Members’ are MPs not part of the government. This is their opportunity to introduce legislation to the House, though other MPs vote on which ones to allow time to.
  • Adjournment Debates: At the end of every day of a session (Monday to Thursday, sometimes Friday), MPs can put their name into a ballot to have half an hour to raise a topic of their choice. One is picked at random, or sometimes the Speaker of the House can consider an application for an urgent topic. The successful MP tends to talk for about 15 minutes, and then a government minister responds.
  • Emergency Debates: A similar opportunity for any MP to request an urgent, ad-hoc debate on something, but it can last up to three hours.

On paper, given 150-160 working days in a year-long parliamentary session, it would seem that government control and non-government control of House of Commons time is about 50:50. But, if you’re one of the 550+ MPs who are not part of the government, I don’t think it will quite feel that way. For one thing, that’s a lot of people to compete with for relatively few opportunities to raise the issue you care about.

For another, MPs don’t get to vote on or amend the weekly schedule which government lays out. They can comment on it, but can’t change it. The government remains in charge of when opposition days, backbench business and the like take place. In theory, they can delay talking about an issue that they don’t want to talk about, or give the opposition little time to prepare. The government also controls the length of a parliamentary session, the unit upon which these rules are built. So, if you drag out a session beyond a year (like Theresa May’s government did in Brexit times), opposition and backbench MPs don’t have their allowance of time renewed.

However, I think the core issue has to be most MPs’ ability to get the government to do anything. Votes usually follow opposition days, backbench business and emergency debates; but the governing party’s majority normally wins the vote. Private Member Bills don’t tend to go through. Adjournment debates achieve little other than grandstanding. This is all less to do with timetabling, though I agree the balance of power being so tipped in the government’s favour can’t help. The problems here are surely more a reflection of the bluntness of any instrument of scrutiny available to MPs who aren’t part of the government.

What comes out of a parliamentary session will, therefore, be mostly the work of the 90-100 MPs who make up government (and to be cynical, their work comes from an even smaller network of advisors around the Prime Minister). This is just one feature of parliamentary design which reveals how strongly majority rules in the UK system.

I don’t know yet how I think this should work. On the one hand, I would like the government to be given the power to deliver on their priorities, and the ability to control time in Parliament to do so. However, I imagine better, more representative outcomes would be possible with proper scrutiny, exacted by good MPs.

For now, I can’t see that changing timetabling rules would necessarily improve outcomes from government. In situations of majority government with little rebellion (which is most of the time?), making sensible tweaks to timetabling rules would not get away from the fact that MPs outside government can do little to shape what government outputs for the country. But that’s just for now - and I have much more to understand about all of this before I’m sure of what I’m saying. Next, I plan to re-read the section of Ian Dunt’s book on this very topic, and a 2021 UCL Constitution Unit report which recommends changes for MPs to take back control’. I’ll report back.

June 15, 2024