In the run up to the 31 October Brexit deadline, MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit may try again to pass legislation which prevents the UK leaving the EU without a deal. Given there are few opportunities for backbench and opposition MPs to introduce legislation, those opposed to no deal may take the unprecedented step of attempting to use an emergency debate as a hook to take control of the Commons’ agenda and introduce legislation.
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 March, the Speaker told Labour backbencher Helen Goodman that the ‘”opportunities [were] fuller” for emergency debates than MPs usually realised, and the latest version of Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice – the guidebook on UK parliamentary practice – says that emergency debate motions are “normally” expressed in a way that means they are unamendable. This suggests they may be used to express a point of view.
In the run up to the 31 October Brexit deadline, it is likely that MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit may try again to pass legislation which prevents the UK leaving the EU without a deal – as MPs did in April 2019. However, as the government controls the parliamentary order paper, there are few opportunities for backbench MPs and opposition parties to introduce bills to Parliament – particularly against the government’s wishes.
Opponents to no deal have indicated they may try and hold an emergency debate on a substantive motion. This could enable MPs to take control of the Commons’ agenda to introduce a business motion (effectively a timetable for business in the Commons) which, if successful, would allow MPs to fast-track legislation to stop a no-deal Brexit. However, this plan would require the Speaker to first accept an application for an emergency debate to take control of the order paper.
Allowing an emergency debate on a substantive motion in this way would be unprecedented, and a significant departure from current convention.