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Government Policy on Proceedings of the House of Commons

Published Tuesday, October 10, 2017

On Monday 9 October 2017, Alistair Carmichael made a successful application for an emergency debate (under Standing Order No 24) on Government Policy on Proceedings of the House of Commons. The debate will be the first item of public business on 10 October (today) and may last for up to three hours.

Opposition Day debates

The first Opposition Day debates of this Parliament, took place on 13 September 2017, two debates were held on:

  • NHS Pay – calling on the Government to lift the public sector pay cap in the NHS; and  
  • Higher Education (England) Regulations – to revoke two sets of regulations that increased the higher amount and the basic amount of university fees.[1] The statutory praying time for these regulations had passed so a motion to annul, which if passed would have led to the regulations being annulled could not be debated.

In his application for today’s debate, Alistair Carmichael said that at the conclusion of those debates, when the questions were put, the Government “remained silent, and each motion was passed without Division”.[2]

At Business Questions, on 14 September 2017, Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, was questioned about the Government’s policy on voting on Opposition Days, as there had been press reports indicating that the Government intended not to vote on future Opposition Day motions. Paul Waugh of HuffPost reported that “Tory sources told me they have decided not to oppose any future Opposition Day motions”.[3]

In response to the Shadow Leader of the House, Valerie Vaz, Andrea Leadsom said that:

The hon. Lady talked about yesterday’s Opposition day debates. Let me say to all Members that we take incredibly seriously the issues underlying tuition fees and pay for public sector workers. As Members will know, there have been many statements, many briefings to the House—both written and oral—and many discussions about those subjects in recent months, during, for instance, urgent debates initiated by the Opposition, and business questions.

Yesterday there was an equal number of speakers on both sides of the House, and some excellent contributions were made. There is no doubt that we have engaged at every level. I should point out, however, that the Opposition’s intention yesterday was purely political. They will be well aware that the vote on their tuition fees proposal has no statutory effect. The regulations concerned are determined under the negative procedure. There is a 40-day period in which such a statutory instrument can be annulled, and that period expired. As the Opposition know, a debate was scheduled for 18 April, but the general election interrupted that, so for the hon. Lady to suggest that yesterday’s vote would have had a statutory effect is simply not correct.[4]

Pete Wishart (SNP) commented, describing “the downgrading of Opposition day debates to little more than Adjournment debates”.[5]

In response to Alistair Carmichael, who drew attention to the press reports that the government intended to not vote on Opposition Day motions, Andrea Leadsom said that:

The right hon. Gentleman should not believe everything he reads in the press. As I said to the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), the subjects of yesterday’s two debates, public sector pay and tuition fees, are very serious issues that the Government have been looking at. We have provided information to the House, and we have had debates and comprehensive statements in this Chamber. The policies are very clear. These are very serious issues, and Government Members participated fully, matching the number of Opposition speakers—there were as many speakers as were permitted. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) was not even called because there was not enough time for his contribution to be heard. There is no question but that this Government continue to fully engage in Opposition day debates.[6]

Have previous governments amended Opposition motions?

There are a number of occasions when the motion on an Opposition Day has not been divided upon and an Opposition motion has been approved by the House.

The editors of Griffith and Ryle (2nd edition), a 2003 text on parliamentary practice, observed that, on Opposition Days, usually an Opposition motion is defeated and a Government amendment then agreed to.  However, they gave some examples (generally one-offs) of this not being the case:

There can be two votes at the end of each debate. The outcome is almost always that the opposition words are first negatived, and then the government amendment is agreed to. The resolution thus agreed by the House is in the terms proposed by the government. Very rarely there are other outcomes. On February 2, 2000, the government failed to table an orderly amendment, so a Liberal Democrat amendment to the opposition motion on asylum and immigration was moved and voted down before the main opposition motion was itself voted down, so the House came to no resolution. [HC Deb 2 February 2000 cc1048-1103] On February 28, 2001, there was no government amendment moved to an opposition motion on foot and mouth and the motion was agreed to without a vote. [HC Deb 28 February 2001 cc912-959, 973-1004] On March 19, 2002, a government amendment was moved to an opposition motion on the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre but (following agreement between the parties) it was not pressed to a vote and the debate stood adjourned without the House reaching an agreement at ten o’clock. [HC Deb 19 March 2002 cc235-273][7]

The Library Briefing Paper on Opposition Day Debates since 1997 identifies other occasions on which a Government amendment to an Opposition motion has not been moved.  During the course of the 2015 Parliament, five such debates were reported in the Briefing Paper.

Table:  Opposition Day debates when the Opposition motion was agreed to without a division (2015 Parliament)

Date

Party

Subject

Hansard ref

Parliamentary Session 2015-16

 

 

10 June 2015

Lab

Climate Change

Vol 596 cc1264-1303

 

 

 

 

Parliamentary Session 2015-16

 

 

29 June 2016

Lab

UK Economy

Vol 612 cc345-394

6 July 2016

Lab

NHS Spending

Vol 612 cc978-1009

7 Sept 2016

Lab

Paris Agreement and Climate Change

Vol 614 cc367-429

26 Oct 2016

Lab

Concentrix

Vol 616 cc285-337

Previous debate on the Government’s approach to Opposition Days

In an emergency debate on the Scheduling of Parliamentary Business, on 17 July 2017, the Government was criticised for not having scheduled any Opposition Day debates since the Queen’s Speech on 21 June. [HC Deb 17 July 2017 cc589-635

 

[1] HC Deb 13 September 2017 cc849-904; 905-946

[2] HC Deb 9 October 2017 c75

[3] Paul Waugh, “Black Opps”, The Waugh Zone, 14 September 2017

[4] HC Deb 14 September 2017 c991

[5] HC Deb 14 September 2017 c993

[6] HC Deb 14 September 2017 c997

[7] Robert Blackburn and Andrew Kennon (eds), Griffith and Ryle on Parliament – Functions, Practice and Procedure, Second Edition, 2003, para 9-009

Commons Debate packs CDP-2017-0177

Author: Richard Kelly

Topics: Parliament, Parliamentary procedure

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