Backbench activity

Government controls much parliamentary time and the scheduling of most business in the Commons, but there are formal ways in which backbenchers can influence proceedings. in this session backbenchers have been more assertive in their use of these procedures, asking more questions and requesting more emergency debates and urgent questions than in previous parliamentary sessions. The current Speaker’s willingness to grant more of these requests than his predecessors has renewed many of these procedures. Reforms to other mechanisms, such as petitions, have also offered greater scope for backbench involvement. Many of these changes have made Parliament appear more accessible, and relevant, to the public.

In theory, backbenchers can use these tools – and others – to scrutinise government, air their concerns, and even legislate. But in practice, there is little evidence that procedures such as Early Day Motions and Private Members’ Bills exert much influence on the government. And while some time is allotted to backbenchers through mechanisms such as the Backbench Business Committee, government retains control over when this time is scheduled. Events since the 2017 General Election have brought renewed concern about some of these procedures – in particular Private Members’ Bills – but Government is yet to find time for Parliament to debate proposals for reform.*

* Some of the procedures discussed in this chapter, such as parliamentary questions and Private Members’ Bills, exist in the Lords as well as the Commons. However, this chapter focuses its analysis on the Commons.

 

MPs are asking more questions of ministers  Number of written and oral questions tabled in the Commons, by answering government department, 21 June 2017–21 June 2018

Parliamentary questions (PQs) are the primary mechanism for backbenchers to scrutinise the work of ministers. PQs take two main forms:

  • Written questions, through which backbenchers can request information from government in writing. Backbenchers in the Commons can ask ‘named day’ questions, in which they specify the date on which they want an answer (though they must give at least two days’ notice of such questions, and can only ask five named day questions per day). They can also ask ordinary day questions, which are dated two days after they are tabled, and by convention answered within seven days – though there is no requirement for the government to do so.

  • Oral questions are asked during Question Time in the House. In the Commons, questions are asked for one hour each day (excluding sitting Fridays), with the answering department changing according to a rota. The Prime Minister also answers oral questions for 30 minutes every Wednesday. In the Commons, MPs must table their questions three days in advance, and these are then asked during the relevant Question Time, with the questioner allowed to follow up with one supplementary question.

MPs tabled a total of 55,524 PQs in the year since the 2017 Queen’s Speech; the vast majority of which (50,714) were written questions. The departments receiving the highest volume of written PQs tended to be those responsible for running major public services, such as the Department of Health and Social Care (7,264 written questions); the Home Office (4,605 written questions); and the Department for Education (4,376 written questions).

These numbers represented an increase of 42% on the 39,133 PQs tabled by MPs in the 2016/17 session.[1] The increase may reflect the keenness of MPs to scrutinise government in the first session of a new Parliament.* It is also likely to have been driven by a tense political atmosphere, and Brexit – a topic affecting numerous areas of government’s work, which members have been keen to explore.

Numbers of oral questions asked remain more constant between sessions, because of the finite time allotted to them. MPs apply to ask oral questions of a department on the day it is scheduled, by rota, to answer questions. Their applications are ‘shuffled’ through a ballot, with a number drawn according to a quota (usually 25 substantive questions and 10 topical questions). The number of oral questions therefore reflects the number asked, rather than the number of questions actually submitted by MPs. Between the State Opening of the 2017 Parliament and the beginning of the summer recess in July 2018, over 55,000 oral questions were submitted by MPs – of these, just 4,810 were actually asked.[2]

Answering PQs costs the government money – meaning that it costs the taxpayer. According to Parliament, based on a 2012 Treasury estimate, it costs an average of £164 to answer a written question, and £450 to answer an oral question.[3] Where a department believes that answering a question will cost above a certain threshold, it may refuse to answer it. There is clearly value in MPs’ ability to ask questions of ministers. But this must be weighed against the costs incurred by government in answering backbenchers’ questions.

One measure of the PQ process is the timeliness with which government responds to written questions. Measuring this mid-session, however, is difficult. Data on government response times is published at the end of each parliamentary session, and monitored by the Commons Procedure Committee. Data is not available for the current session, but in 2016/17, the Committee found that overall, government had maintained its own standards for timeliness, despite an upward trend in the number of questions.[4] Based on data for questions tabled in the year since the 2017 General Election, the upward trend in numbers of questions has continued. This may mean that departments find it difficult to sustain timeliness standards.

* Anecdotal evidence suggests that similar increases have also been seen in the first sessions of previous parliaments.

 

The current Speaker has encouraged the use of urgent questions

As well as tabling written and oral PQs, MPs can ask urgent questions (UQs) – known as Urgent Notice Questions until 2002 – where they believe an issue requires an immediate government response. MPs must apply to the Speaker each morning for leave to ask an UQ that day, and requests are granted at his or her discretion. If a UQ is granted, it is asked by the tabling MP in the Chamber immediately after Question Time. A response must be given in the House by the relevant minister, who will then face around an hour of questions from other MPs.Urgent questions granted per sitting day, per session since 2001/02, as at 21 June 2018

In the year following the 2017 Queen’s Speech, the Speaker granted 114 UQs. Topics covered a broad range of domestic and international issues, from the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen jailed in Iran, to the publication of the Government’s white paper on immigration, and the cost of policing the visit of US President Donald Trump in July 2018.

The number of UQs asked in a session will vary according to the number of sitting days – so to make comparisons, it is best to look at rates of UQs granted per sitting day. Over the period covered in this report, 0.7 UQs were asked per sitting day, equating to one UQ every 1.4 days that the Commons was in session. This marks a significant increase on all recent sessions. Since 2013/14, there has been a steady increase in the number of UQs each session, with the rate of UQs more than tripling. This has helped to make Parliament appear more responsive to events.

The increasing rate of UQs may be driven by various factors: it may be that there are more events that MPs feel require urgent government comment and that this has driven a higher volume of requests; or it may be that the Speaker is granting a higher proportion of requests. Because data on requests for UQs is not publicly available, the reasons for the increase are not clear. But the current Speaker, John Bercow MP, has been clear that he views UQs as an important means of encouraging ministers to go to the House.[5] Subsequent Speakers may find that backbenchers continue to expect rates of UQs granted to remain high.

 

More emergency debates are being granted to MPs

As well as asking UQs, backbenchers can request emergency debates if they feel the Commons needs to ‘debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration’.[6] On sitting days (except sitting Fridays) MPs may, at the beginning of the day’s business in the Chamber, request an emergency debate – and they have three minutes following Question Time and any urgent statements, to make their case. If the Speaker agrees, the MP can then seek the agreement of the House. Debates are held on the motion that the Commons has considered the matter at hand, and the Speaker determines when the debate will take place and its duration – a maximum of three hours.Emergency debates granted, per sitting day, 2001/05–2015/17 Parliaments; and 2017/19 session, as at 21 June 2018

Thirteen emergency debates were granted in the year following the 2017 Queen’s Speech. Topics ranged from the roll out of Universal Credit, to the conflict in Yemen. Emergency debates can also stem from how other time is used in the House: for example, one debate granted to the SNP, on the Sewel Convention, resulted from the party’s anger about the lack of time available to debate devolution-related provisions of the EU Withdrawal Bill, an issue discussed in Chapter 2.[7]

As with UQs, the number of sitting days in a session or Parliament can affect the number of emergency debates over the period, making it necessary to compare the number of emergency debates per sitting day. As emergency debates are generally rare, rates are low. There were 0.08 emergency debates per sitting day over the period, compared to 0.03 per sitting day in the previous Parliament.

In the year since the State Opening of Parliament in 2017, only four of 17 requests for emergency debates were rejected – giving an acceptance rate of over 75%. It is difficult to tell, however, whether the rate at which emergency debates are granted has changed over time, as rates are determined largely by the number of debates requested: in 2014/15, for example, there was a 100% acceptance rate, but there was only one debate requested. What is clear is that the number of emergency debates requested in the year since the 2017 State Opening of Parliament is higher than the number requested in the four previous Parliaments put together. This may be a sign of a more febrile politics, where there are more events which backbenchers wish to discuss quickly. But, especially when considered alongside the growth in UQs, it is also an indication of more assertive backbenchers, who are perhaps encouraged by the current Speaker, and his desire to ‘champion the right of backbenchers to question, to probe, to scrutinise and to hold to account the government of the day.'[8]

 

The Backbench Business Committee encourages cross-party working

As well as procedures that enable backbenchers to hold ministers to account, there are also mechanisms in the Commons which give MPs the opportunity to air their concerns and debate issues they are particularly interested in.

In 2010, the Backbench Business Committee was established. Stemming from a recommendation of the Wright Review into the workings of the House, the Committee’s role is to schedule non-ministerial business in the Commons on the equivalent of 35 sitting days over the course of a session. Of this time, the equivalent of 27 days must be held in the Commons Chamber, with the remainder held in Westminster Hall, an additional debating chamber.

Backbench MPs make applications to the committee for debates, addressing meetings of the committee in support of their application. They can suggest how much time their debate should take and whether it ought to occur in the Chamber, or in Westminster Hall. Backbenchers must collect support for their application, including the names of other MPs who may wish to speak in the debate.*

In the year since the General Election, 61 debates scheduled by the Committee were held in the Chamber, and over 40 further debates were held in Westminster Hall.

These debates offer members the opportunity to raise issues of concern, but they can also amplify issues raised through other parliamentary mechanisms. Select committees may request a debate on a report they have written; for example, in December 2017, a debate was held to consider two reports by the Justice Committee, and the Government’s response to them.[9] In addition to the debates detailed above, the Liaison Committee selected a debate on customs and borders, which drew on work by seven different committees.[10]

Additionally, the committee may also choose to schedule debates on e-petitions or public petitions, such as a debate on pension equality for women held in December 2017, which drew on an e-petition.[11] And many of the MPs appearing before the committee to apply for debates draw on the support of the 683 All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs); more than one APPG per MP.[12]

As well as helping to join up different sources of parliamentary scrutiny and debate, the Backbench Business Committee plays an important role in encouraging joint working across parties. The committee is keen for applications to demonstrate cross-party support, and for backbenchers to show that colleagues from across the House will participate in debates. At a time when there are divisions both within and between major political parties, the committee offers an important mechanism for encouraging cross-party activity, and for MPs to debate and discuss issues which matter to them.

But while debates granted and scheduled by the committee offer greater opportunity for backbenchers to raise issues, the amount of time available is still limited – and it is up to government when the committee’s time is actually scheduled. As yet, it is not clear whether, given the current two-year session, the committee will see a pro-rata increase in the time available to it.

* Ministers, parliamentary private secretaries and principal members of the opposition frontbench are not able to make applications to the committee.

 

MPs tabled over 1,400 Early Day Motions, but few are ever debated

Another means by which backbenchers may make their views known are Early Day Motions (EDMs). A total of 1,454 EDMs were tabled in the year since the Queen’s Speech in June 2017. EDMs are motions for debate in the Commons that are usually only tabled by backbenchers or, in some cases, opposition frontbenchers. By convention, ministers, whips, parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs), and Speakers and Deputy Speakers do not table or sign EDMs, making them a largely backbench enterprise.[13]

Tabling and signing EDMs allows backbenchers to make clear their views on a broad range of topics, allowing the government to get a sense of sentiment in the House. They also allow MPs to raise issues of direct concern to their constituents, for example, the closure of a local sports centre[14], or the anniversary of a community organisation.[15] EDMs can also attract media attention and put the spotlight on an issue.

But the vast majority of EDMs are not brought forward for debate in the House – no specific parliamentary time is allotted to them, and there is no obligation on the government to find time for debate. In some circumstances, for example EDMs ‘praying’ against pieces of secondary legislation, the Government may be more likely to find time for debate, though it is not required to do so (as detailed in Chapter 4). Of the 14 EDMs praying against secondary legislation in the period, the Government only found time to debate half.

 

Only a handful of the 236 Private Members’ Bills introduced are likely to become law

Most of the time spent by Parliament scrutinising primary legislation focuses on legislation initiated by government. But there are means through which backbench MPs and peers can also bring their own bills before Parliament and attempt to legislate. The main mechanism for this is a Private Members’ Bill (PMB) – a bill introduced by a backbencher, which like other primary legislation, must pass through both Houses in order to become law.Private Members’ Bills introduced, by type, 21 June 2017–21 June 2018

In the calendar year since the State Opening of Parliament, backbenchers introduced 236 PMBs. Just over a quarter of these (62) began in the Lords. These bills are introduced through a ballot that is held following the Queen’s Speech at the beginning of a new session, and that determines the order in which peers’ bills are introduced to the House. Usually, one Friday a month in the Lords is spent on PMBs.[16] A Lords PMB may then move to the Commons if it passes all stages in the Lords, and progress through the Commons if there is an MP who will support it.

There are three main mechanisms for introducing PMBs in the Commons, and such bills are more numerous in the lower house:

  • Presentation bills. Any MP may give notice of their intention to introduce a PMB, and then do so. They are able to read the title of the bill in the House, but may not speak in support of it. Not all backbenchers introduce presentation bills, but some MPs will introduce multiple bills.

  • Ten Minute Rule bills. If allocated one of a limited number of slots by the whips an MP can introduce a PMB by making a speech no longer than 10 minutes. Another MP can, if they wish, make a short speech in opposition to the bill. Ten Minute Rule Bills represented a quarter of all PMBs in the year following State Opening.

  • Ballot bills. This is the smallest category of PMBs, with just 20 allowed during each session. A ballot is held early on in a new session, determining which backbenchers have the opportunity to introduce a bill and the order in which they can be introduced. Most backbench MPs – over 450 each session – enter the ballot.[17] All ballot bills are first introduced to the House on the fifth sitting Wednesday of the session.

In the year following the Queen’s Speech, backbenchers in both Houses introduced almost seven times as many bills as the Government. But despite numbers of PMBs usually heavily outweighing government-introduced bills, they are far less likely to become law. In the 2016/17 session, just eight of 117 PMBs introduced (7%) became law, compared with 24 of 27 government bills (89%). According to one estimate, in the last 19 years, just 5% of PMBs have made it into law.[18]

In large part, this reflects the Government’s much greater control of parliamentary time. In the Lords, one sitting Friday each month is usually given over to PMBs, while in the Commons the Standing Orders require 13 sitting Fridays in a session to be given over to PMBs, with the first seven Fridays devoted to giving second reading to bills introduced through the ballot. Beyond this, any additional time is at the discretion of the business managers in both Houses. The lack of allocated time, and the high number of bills, means that few PMBs will be able to pass through all their stages. It also means that the first seven ballot bills are the PMBs with the greatest chance of becoming law.

As well as time, there are other practical and procedural issues that make PMBs less likely to reach the statute book. When MPs draft their bills, they are able to call upon far less support than the government, which has its own professional drafters – the Parliamentary Counsel. In addition, the government of the day is likely, in theory, to command a majority in the House, while an MP needs to secure the support (or, at least, no opposition) from colleagues across the House. In fact, some PMBs are actually ‘hand-out’ bills written by the government and given to backbench MPs.

But the numbers do not tell the full story. This is partly because, as hand-out bills show, the distinction between government and private members’ business can be blurry. But not all backbenchers who introduce PMBs want them to actually become law. For many, a PMB is instead a means to air an issue – often a social issue – and encourage debate. The number of PMBs reaching the statute books does not necessarily capture all of the impact that PMBs might have. Historically, many legal changes relating to major social issues, such as the abolition of capital punishment, have stemmed from PMBs, where individual backbenches have introduced and encouraged debate around issues before the government has done so.[19]

A recent controversy surrounding a PMB illustrates both the degree to which government can affect the PMB process, and the problems within the current PMB system. In June 2018, a PMB designed to criminalise ‘upskirting’ was blocked in the Commons by Sir Christopher Chope MP. The bill, which was introduced by a Liberal Democrat MP and for which the Government had indicated its support, was being given its second reading. The limited time available meant that only the title of the bill was read out, and it would have progressed as long as no MP shouted an objection. However, Sir Christopher Chope’s objection meant the bill was unable to proceed.

The resulting controversy led the Government to introduce its own legislation to outlaw upskirting, the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill.

Sir Christopher Chope claimed that his reason for objecting to the bill related to process rather than content. That once again raised the question of whether the current PMB process needs reform – something for which the Commons Procedure Committee has previously argued.[20]

In 2016, the Procedure Committee argued that the current PMB process was ‘misleading and opaque’ to the public, who think that bills have a higher chance of becoming law than they do in reality.[21] In October 2016, the Committee proposed a package of reforms to the system, which would see the Backbench Business Committee prioritising four PMBs per session on the basis of cross-party support, with other slots taken up by PMBs from the ballot. Under the Committee’s proposals, fewer PMBs would be debated on sitting Fridays: guaranteeing a vote at the end of a second reading debate for the bills chosen by the Backbench Business Committee would allow time limits to be imposed on speeches to prevent those bills being talked out.[22] So far no government has found the time for the Commons to debate the changes to the Standing Orders which would put proposals for reform into effect.

 

E-petitions have increased Parliament’s engagement with the public

In recent years reforms have been made to parliamentary procedures – most visibly to the petitions system. At the beginning of the 2015 Parliament, a new online petitioning system was launched, jointly administered by government and Parliament. The system allows members of the public to launch e-petitions to Parliament, calling for action by the government on a specific matter. It is separate from the public petitions system, through which paper-based petitions are presented to Parliament via an MP or, more rarely, a peer.

Members of the public may start an e-petition, which must be supported by six other people before it can be published online. Petitions can then be accepted or rejected by the Petitions Committee, based on whether they meet the standards required – for example, that they relate to something for which the government or the Commons is responsible. Petitions may also be rejected if, for example, they are libellous, or refer to somebody being given (or losing) a job. Rejected petitions are generally published, with some exceptions.[23]

Number of e-petitions in the 2017/19 session, by stage reached, as at 21 June 2018

 

From the beginning of the 2017 Parliament until 21 June 2018, 8,388 petitions were initiated, or attempted, on the system. Of these, 3,043 were opened, or published on the e-petitions website for others to sign. These petitions received almost 7.4 million signatures – significant public engagement for a system only established three years ago.*

The Petitions Committee can decide to ask a petitioner for more information, in writing or in person, and it can also ask the government or other relevant groups to submit evidence on the subject for its consideration – or call on the government to act. In addition, the Committee may recommend that another committee in Parliament look at the matter, or decide to schedule a debate on a petition. Once a petition receives 100,000 signatures it is usually debated – though some petitions with fewer signatures may also be debated. In the year following the State Opening of Parliament, a total of 19 petitions were debated in Westminster Hall, on issues ranging from banning the sale of animal fur to imposing sanctions on Myanmar, with a further debate on pension inequality held through the Backbench Business Committee.On average, 12 MPs participated in these debates, which lasted a combined total of over 42 hours.

The Government responded to 146 of the opened (accepted for publication) e-petitions over the period, and is committed to responding to e-petitions that receive 10,000 or more signatures. There are some examples of e-petitions with clear impact on government policy. For example, a petition calling on the Government to boost public confidence in the Grenfell Tower inquiry by appointing additional panellists, signed by over 100,000 people, was followed by a response from the Government that the Petitions Committee deemed ‘below the standards we expect’. In a letter to the minister, the Chair of the Committee called for clarification of the Government’s position and noted that as the petition was started by survivors of the tragedy, ‘appropriate sensitivity’ was required.[24] A further government response indicated that it would make no further change to its position. The Petitions Committee scheduled a debate in May 2018, which lasted three hours and saw some 23 MPs contribute. Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister announced her intention to add new panellists to the inquiry.[25] However, not all e-petitions have such apparently clear impact.

While the impact of the e-petitions system is difficult to trace, it is clear that it is an innovation which engages the public: data from the Petitions Committee shows, on average, that in the Monday to Sunday following each debate, there were over 8,000 unique page views for the Hansard transcripts of petitions debates.[26]

* The number of signatures validated by email links being clicked.

† Not included in this figure are six petitions that were debated during the current session, but which stemmed from petitions in the previous Parliament.

 

Looking forward

  • The increased assertiveness of backbenchers – as shown through the increase in parliamentary questions, urgent questions and emergency debates – is likely to persist as the process of the UK leaving the EU continues.

  • Parliament needs to take account of how processes such as Private Members’ Bills and Early Day Motions are perceived and understood by the public; as well as how effectively they work for parliamentarians.

  • Recent innovations, including reform to the petitions system, demonstrate that reforms to Parliament’s procedures can make them more useful and engaging for both parliamentarians and the public.