This List notes opposition day debates in the House of Commons since 1917. Opposition day debates under previous administrations are listed in the spreadsheet which is uploaded as a supporting document. The five tables cover:Jump to full report >>
Opposition days are days where the main subject of business is chosen by the opposition parties. Under Commons Standing Order No.14, 20 days in each session are made available to the opposition, of which:
17 days are allocated to the Leader of the official opposition, and
3 days to the Leader of the second largest opposition party who shares the time with smaller parties in the House of Commons.
The Government may also make additional days available; these are noted as unallotted days.
Dates for opposition day debates are announced by the Leader of the House in the weekly business statement on Thursdays. The subject of the debate and text of the motion appears in the Future Business section of the House Business Papers once decided by the opposition party. Sometimes the full text of the motion is not tabled until the day before the debate which means it is not available until the date of the debate when it appears in the Order Paper.
In an exception to the normal rules of debate, the main motion - the opposition motion - is debated and voted on first, rather than any amendment. This is to allow the decision on the opposition motion to be taken first, before any amendment is put.
Many opposition motions criticise Government policies and decisions and the Government often tables an amendment to the motion to take out most of the text and replace it with text commending the Government policy or decision instead. Government amendments are usually carried under majority Governments.
Unless specifically framed, motions tabled on opposition days are not seen as binding on the Government. See Motion for a return, below.
The Government does not table an amendment to every motion; sometimes it simply votes against the motion. Not all motions are critical of the Government, in such cases opposition motions have been agreed without a vote. Amendments can be tabled by other opposition parties. The Speaker selects which amendment, if any, is taken.
Box 1: Are opposition motions ever agreed to?
The spreadsheet notes opposition motions that have been agreed by the House without a division with an asterisk. Those that have been agreed following a division are footnoted with the result of the division.
The 2017 election returned a minority Conservative Government. Following a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, the Government has a working majority whereby the DUP will back the Government in key divisions on the budget and finance bills, Brexit legislation and on national security.
The Government has not generally contested opposition motions in the current 2017-19 session and most opposition motions have been agreed without a division or on division but with the Government abstaining.
In October 2017 the Leader of the House updated the House on the Government’s approach to Opposition day debates:
In January 2019 the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) held an inquiry into the status of Resolutions of the House of Commons. In response, the Government agreed with the Committee’s recommendation that this period should be shortened to 8 weeks. The Leader of the House announced this change in April 2019. [HC Deb 25 Apr 2019 c916]
As noted above, opposition motions usually highlight aspects of government policy for debate and are non-binding. On 1 November 2017 the Labour Party used an allotted opposition day to call for the Government to release papers by tabling a motion for a return, using a humble Address.
A humble Address is the device by which Parliament formally communicates with the Monarch and is used in this instance because, if passed, the motion requires her Majesty’s ministers to make the requested papers available to the House
Box 2: Power to call for papers
Erskine May explains that:
Each House has the power to call for the production of papers by means of a motion for a return. A return from the Privy Council or from Departments headed by a Secretary of State is called for by means of an humble Address to the Sovereign. [Erskine May, Parliamentary Practice, 24th Ed, p133]
A request to the Privy Council or Departmental Secretaries of State for papers refers to the Monarch because government departments are created by Royal Prerogative.
The motion on the opposition day debate on 1 November 2017 was worded as follows:
The motion was agreed without a division. The Government agreed to comply with the resolution of the House and provided documents to the Committee on Exiting the European Union. See the Commons Library briefing on exiting the EU: Sectoral assessments for more detail and background to requests for the sectoral assessments.
Box 3: Are motions for a return binding?
Responding to a point of order on a similar motion calling for the publication of the Government’s EU exit analysis in January 2018 the Speaker said:
First, yes, the motion is binding. I think that the Government are clear about that, and the Minister has indicated the intention of the Government to comply with it. Secondly, if memory serves me correctly, the motion refers to “a matter of urgency.” Therefore, the expectation must be that the report that is the subject of the debate will be released, published or made available to those persons mentioned in the motion as a matter of urgency. [HC Deb 31 Jan 2018 c876]
In September 2018 the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into status of Resolutions of the House of Commons and the use of the motion for a return using the humble Address. PACAC recommended that this device should not be “overused or used irresponsibly” and invited the Procedure Committee to consider “if and how contentious or confidential papers might be made available to the House via motions of return.” The Procedure Committee published its report, The House’s power to call for papers: procedure and practice [HC 1904 2017-19] on 15 May 2019.
Since 1 November 2017, the opposition party have used the same procedural device on another nine opposition days to call for papers. These are noted in the list and spreadsheet by ‘humble address’ after the title of the debate.
Five of the ten motions for a return were agreed without a division; the motions were negatived on division on the other five occasions.
This series of publications contains data on various subjects relating to Parliament and Government. Topics include legislation, MPs, select committees, debates, divisions and Parliamentary procedure.
Please send any comments or corrections to the Parliament & Constitution Centre. Suggestions for new lists welcomed.
Commons Briefing papers SN06315
Authors: Sarah Priddy; Jean Fessey