Emergency debates (sometimes referred to as ‘Standing Order No.24 debates’, after the parliamentary rule that governs their use), provide a means for MPs to propose a debate at short notice on a “specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration.”
MPs usually inform the Speaker that they wish to apply for an emergency debate the night before, or on the day. If the Speaker believes that the application for an emergency debate has merit, he or she will allow the MP proposing the debate three minutes to pitch the topic to the House.
The Speaker then decides whether to put the application to the House for approval. If the Speaker does so, and the House agrees, the debate will usually be scheduled for the same or following sitting day.
Under the current Standing Orders, emergency debates can be up to three hours long, although the Speaker may impose a shorter timeframe.
Emergency debates are normally held on motions in neutral terms. Such motions say that the House has ‘considered an issue’, without asking MPs to take a position on it. They are not substantive motions that allow the House to make a decision, so while they can impose significant political pressure they do not bind the government.
However, in September 2019, the former Commons Speaker, John Bercow, allowed an emergency debate on a ‘substantive motion’, which ultimately allowed MPs to take control of the Commons’ order paper (timetable). This decision was a controversial break with convention and allowed an emergency debate to be used to make a binding decision.
John Bercow’s replacement as Speaker in the Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has indicated he is unlikely to adopt such a broad reading of parliamentary rules. This may indicate the events of September 2019 were confined to the specific political circumstances and parliamentary arithmetic of the 2017–19 parliament.