Time

The UK Parliament sits for more days than many other legislatures around the world. MPs face multiple and competing demands on their time; with more time spent in Westminster offering greater opportunity for parliamentary activity, but less time spent in constituencies. And spending more time in Parliament does not necessarily mean that the scrutiny and debate conducted are of a higher quality. MPs may undertake a range of activities during their time in Parliament, from sitting on select committees, to participating in debates in the Chamber and being required to vote in divisions (formal votes). Although parliamentary rules set out the amount of time available for different types of business, the right to determine the scheduling of business is a key source of control – and in the Commons in particular it is largely exercised by government.

 

The need to get Brexit legislation into law led the Government to schedule a rare two-year parliamentary session Sitting days in the Commons and Lords per session, 2010/12–2017/19, as at 21 June 2018

A parliamentary session – the period during which a government seeks to pass a programme of legislation – normally lasts around a year. Historically, the length of parliamentary sessions has varied slightly. The first session following an election has often been longer, while the last session of a Parliament, prior to an election, has been shorter. The 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act set five years as the standard duration of a Parliament, and sought to equalise session lengths. At the same time, it shifted the parliamentary calendar, so that parliamentary sessions now usually run from spring to the following spring; rather than from autumn to autumn.[1] Under the terms of the Act, a Parliament may still be dissolved early if either two thirds of MPs agree (as was the case before the 2017 General Election) or if a government loses a vote of no confidence and no other government is formed and confirmed within 14 days. This change requires the more active involvement of the House of Commons in the early dissolution of Parliament, something which previously was largely the prerogative of the government of the day, subject to certain conventions.[2]

Early in a new session, a timetable is laid out for when Parliament will sit, and when ‘periodic adjournments’, commonly known as recesses, are expected to occur. Sometimes, this timetable may change. If an event of national significance occurs when the two Houses are in recess, the government may ask the Speaker of the Commons and the Lord Speaker to recall Parliament. It is up to the Speakers whether to grant the government’s request. The last occasion on which Parliament was recalled was following the murder of Jo Cox MP in June 2016. A government may also try to make other changes to the parliamentary timetable, with the consent of Parliament, as the current Government considered doing in July 2018 – though the strength of parliamentary sentiment led it to abandon its plan for the Commons to rise for the summer recess five calendar, or two sitting days early.[3]

Following the 2017 General Election, the Government announced that the first session of this Parliament would last for two years to “give MPs enough time to fully consider the laws required to make Britain ready for Brexit.”[4] This is only the second time since 1945 that Parliament has been asked to sit for a two-year session. The other was in 2010/12, following the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. That was the longest session in UK parliamentary history, lasting 295 days – providing a rough indication of how many days Parliament is likely to have sat by the end of the current session.

 

On average, the UK Parliament sits for more days a year than many other parliaments

In the calendar year following the State Opening of Parliament on 21 June 2017, both Houses of Parliament sat for 155 days.

Different legislatures around the world have different length working days, compile their statistics in different ways, and sit in different patterns, as determined by their structure and style of government. But by comparison, in the 2018 calendar year:

  • the Canadian House of Commons is scheduled to sit for 127 days

  • the German Bundestag is scheduled to sit for 104 days

  • the US House of Representatives is scheduled to sit for 124 days

  • based on precedent, the Japanese House of Representatives will meet for 150 days.

The number of sitting days determines how long Parliament has to get through its work – but for MPs, time spent in Westminster is time not spent in their constituencies.

 

Members face competing demands on their time, and are often working when Parliament is not sitting

Parliament only sits on weekdays, except in exceptional circumstances. The last weekend sitting was in 1982, following the invasion of the Falkland Islands. The sitting patterns of the Commons and the Lords are not identical. Neither house sits regularly on a Friday. This allows MPs more time in their constituencies. On the ‘sitting Fridays’ in a session when the Commons does sit to discuss Private Members’ Bills (PMBs), attendance is normally low – limited to those members with a direct interest in the legislation under discussion. The Commons can also sit on additional Fridays to discuss government business if necessary; the last time this happened was in March 2015, for a third day of Budget debate as the end of the Parliament neared.Use of weekdays by Parliament, 21 June 2017–21 June 2018

When each House is not sitting, they adjourn periodically for recesses, which broadly align with school holidays in England and Wales. In the year following the State Opening of Parliament, the Commons spent 88 weekdays in recess, including 16 days in September for MPs to attend party conferences. The Lords spent 87 weekdays in recess. The current Speaker, John Bercow MP, has argued that while party conferences are valuable opportunities for discussion, they mean that parliamentarians leave Westminster just weeks after having returned following the summer recess. This can mean that Parliament sits for just two weeks between mid-July and mid-October – almost a quarter of a year. The Speaker has suggested that party conferences should be moved to weekends to increase the time available to Parliament.[5]

Parliamentary recesses are often portrayed by the media as a time when parliamentarians are on holiday. But sitting days are not the only days on which MPs and peers work.

During recesses, and on non-sitting Fridays, MPs tend to spend more time in their constituencies, holding surgeries where they meet constituents to discuss problems and offer advice, attending events, holding meetings and preparing for parliamentary business.[6] The more than 100 MPs who are also ministers continue their government work year-round.

Although it is up to each MP to decide how best to fulfil their role, all must balance a number of responsibilities, which the House of Commons Committee on Standards has identified as including but not limited to:

  • supporting their party in votes in Parliament

  • representing and furthering the interests of their constituency

  • representing individual constituents and taking up their problems and grievances

  • scrutinising, holding to account, monitoring and challenging the Government

  • initiating, reviewing and amending legislation

  • contributing to the development of policy and promoting public understanding of party policies.[7]

These responsibilities continue regardless of whether or not Parliament is sitting. MPs can fulfil these duties in Westminster or in their constituency, or even when making visits and attending events. Sitting days are therefore useful only as a measure of time spent at Westminster, rather than an indication of how MPs spend their total working time.

Peers (who cannot claim allowances for days when the Lords is not sitting) do not have constituencies to return to during recess, but they may either continue to develop their parliamentary interests or focus on personal business.

Individual MPs will balance their parliamentary and constituency responsibilities differently. But their choices are likely to be shaped by a range of factors, including broader trends which affect their work and pull them in different directions:

  • MPs with small majorities may feel the need to spend more time in their constituencies.

  • Expectations of constituents are changing: MPs receive considerably more correspondence each week from their constituents than 50 years ago, and social media also makes them more accessible.[8] Constituents increasingly expect MPs to conduct casework – helping individual constituents with specific issues, often on welfare and housing – rather than spending time representing them in Westminster.

  • For MPs with constituencies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the establishment of the devolved assemblies and a new class of elected representatives – some of whom have constituency responsibilities – may mean a lighter casework load.

  • The political make-up of Parliament can shift MPs’ focus towards or away from Westminster. Where governments hold only narrow majorities, or govern as a minority, party whips may require MPs to remain in Westminster to be available for votes; whereas at times of large government majorities, MPs can enjoy greater flexibility.

While there is often pressure for parliamentarians to spend more time in Westminster, decisions about numbers of sitting days and the scheduling of recesses have implications for the amount of time MPs will have to spend in their constituencies.

 

On average, the Commons sat for eight hours per day in the year since the Queen’s Speech, and the Lords sat for six hours and 22 minutes

Standing Orders – the body of rules by which the House of Commons governs its operation – set the parameters for the time that the Commons sits each day. The Commons is scheduled to sit for eight hours each day from Monday to Thursday, and for five and a half hours on the 13 sitting Fridays each session. The different start and finish times on different days reflect the need for MPs to be able to travel to and from their constituencies at the beginning and end of the week.

The sitting hours of the Lords are governed by convention. The Upper House does not have scheduled adjournment times each day – in practice, it usually sits for around six to seven hours each day, though on some occasions it may sit into the early hours of the morning.[9]

In recent decades, the average length of sitting days in the Commons and the number of late-night sittings have fallen. Reforms in 2005 and 2012 intended to make the Commons’ sitting hours more ‘family friendly’ mean that business now starts in the morning on all days except Mondays, and therefore finishes in the early evening.[10] But the sitting hours of Parliament do not affect all members equally: many MPs who represent the most distant constituencies would prefer to compress sitting hours into fewer, longer days, to extend the proportion of the week they can spend in their constituency, while MPs whose constituencies are closer to Westminster may prefer a greater number of shorter days.Scheduled sitting hours in the Commons and Lords

Whether Parliament makes use of all the time available to it is one possible indication of whether it has enough time to get through its business. In the calendar year since the State Opening of Parliament in June 2017, the Commons sat on average for eight hours and one minute on each sitting day – a total of 1,242 hours and 43 minutes. This was slightly more than the scheduled time available (1,218 hours). The Lords sat for a total of 988 hours and 31 minutes – an average of six hours and 22 minutes a day.*

The Commons rose early (adjourned before its scheduled time) on 94 of the 155 days it sat, though on the majority of those occasions (60) it went up early by fewer than 10 minutes. On 13 occasions, the House rose early by more than an hour, including one day when it went up three hours before its scheduled adjournment time.

The House sat late on around a third (54 of the 155) of the days it sat, by an average of an hour and five minutes. On six occasions, the Commons sat for more than three hours beyond its scheduled time – with several of these days occurring when the House was considering the EU Withdrawal Bill at its committee stage.

In the year since the State Opening of Parliament, the Commons has only sat past midnight on three occasions.[11] This is a marked difference to the 1980s and 1990s, when with most sittings starting later in the day, over a quarter of sittings finished after midnight.[12] The Lords sat beyond 11pm on 10 occasions in the year since the 2017 State Opening of Parliament, including one sitting ending at 1.17am, and another at 2.36am. On both these days, the House was considering the EU Withdrawal Bill.

The Commons has increased the debating time available to it by establishing Westminster Hall as an additional debating chamber in 1999, following a recommendation by the Modernisation Committee.[13] Westminster Hall is an additional space (actually in the Grand Committee Room) where MPs can hold debates which occur at the same time as those in the main Chamber. Westminster Hall debates are usually held between Monday and Thursday, with subjects chosen in different ways:

  • Monday: Three hours of debate on subjects raised in e-petitions, selected by the Petitions Committee.

  • Tuesday and Wednesday: Five hours of debate on subjects chosen by ballot according to a rota or by the Backbench Business Committee.

  • Thursday: Three hours of debate on subjects chosen by the Backbench Business Committee, based on bids from MPs, or on select committee reports chosen by the Liaison Committee.[14]

Debates may be briefly suspended if MPs need to go and vote in the Chamber – if so, the time for which Westminster Hall is suspended is added on at the end of the day, a form of ‘injury time’.[15]

In the year following the Queen’s Speech, a maximum of 529 hours were available for Westminster Hall debates, in addition to the 1,218 available in the Chamber; effectively increasing the time available to the Commons by around 43%. However, time in Westminster Hall can only be used for certain purposes. Debates are generally on less controversial subjects than those in the main Chamber, in part as they are only held on neutral motions (that a matter has been considered) and because decisions must be unanimous.

There is also additional debate time available to the Lords through the use of the Grand Committee, which any peer can attend. Initially, the Grand Committee (introduced in 1995) was designed to be a place outside the main Chamber where bills could receive their committee stage. But over time, the Grand Committee has increasingly been used as a parallel chamber, which can sit at the same time as the main Chamber, and where a wide range of Lords business is taken. Unlike Westminster Hall, the days and sitting times of the Lords Grand Committee are not prescribed. In the year from the 2017 Queen’s Speech, the Grand Committee sat on 20 days for a total of nearly 69 hours; effectively increasing the time available to the Lords by around 7%. This has helped the Lords to absorb the effects of higher activity by peers without having to make major changes to the operation of the main Chamber.[16]

* The figures for the Lords sitting take into account brief suspensions of sittings during the day, for example, when the House may be waiting for something to move to it from the Commons.

† The lack of scheduled end times in the Lords means it is not possible to carry out the same analysis.

 

The system of in-person voting can limit time available for debate

The restrictions placed on sitting time in the Commons create trade-offs: if time is spent on one type of activity, it limits the time available for other things. Divisions – formal votes taken when it is clear that a decision on a question cannot be clearly decided ‘on the voices’ in the Chamber – can limit the time available for debate. When a division is called, MPs have eight minutes to reach the division lobbies. They must then pass through the lobby, have their vote recorded by parliamentary staff and be counted by the tellers. This process takes time. Divisions can vary in duration, but the process usually takes a minimum of 15 minutes.[17]Proportion of actual sitting time in the Commons and Lords chambers spent on divisions, 21 June 2017–21 June 2018

As there were 191 divisions in the year from the State Opening of Parliament, this means divisions in the Commons took up a minimum of almost 48 hours, or 4% of all actual sitting time in the House: the equivalent of six sitting days. This may be an understatement – some divisions can take more than 20 minutes. In the Lords, there were 48 divisions over the same period, totalling around 12 hours (assuming 15 minutes per division), or 1% of all the time for which the Lords sat.*

The division process can limit the time available for specific debates. This can happen when business is scheduled in such a way that votes can take place during the middle of debate time, rather than at the end of business (known as the ‘moment of interruption’). No provision is made for ‘injury time’ to extend debating time taken up by votes on earlier business. For example, in June 2018 during consideration in the Commons of Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, the time available to debate some amendments, including a number relating to devolution, was reduced to just 15 minutes, after almost three hours of scheduled debate time was taken up with divisions on previously debated amendments. This led to protests by the Scottish National Party (SNP) the following day.[18]

The time taken up by divisions has prompted calls for the introduction of electronic voting, as used in numerous other legislatures, including the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, although some MPs argue that the process of going through the division lobbies provides them with important opportunities to meet and talk.

There are also questions around how voting in person affects MPs wishing to take baby leave, or who are unable to attend the House for reasons such as family emergencies or ill health.[19] There is no formal process for enabling members to be absent from divisions. Currently, MPs wishing to be absent may request to be ‘paired’ with an MP on the opposing side who also cannot vote, in effect cancelling out each other’s absence. But this practical system is merely a convention: requests do not have to be granted, and there is no sanction if pairing arrangements are not honoured. The problem with this informal system was highlighted in July 2018, when a pairing arrangement for an MP on baby leave, Jo Swinson, was broken.[20]

Prior to this incident, in February 2018, the Commons had resolved that it would be beneficial to introduce a voluntary system of proxy voting for MPs who had recently had or adopted a baby.[21] In May 2018, the Procedure Committee set out three options for the introduction of a voluntary system,[22] but a general debate on the principle of proxy voting scheduled for early July did not go ahead. The Government has announced that a debate on the issue will now be held in the second week of the September sitting.[23] 

*These figures are for the main Chambers of the Commons and Lords only.

 

The scheduling of business in the Commons is dominated by the Government Estimated breakdown of Commons sitting time (hours), 21 June 2017–21 June 2018

Control of parliamentary time and the scheduling of business are key sources of influence and power in Parliament – though each House divides up its time and schedules its work differently, making direct comparison difficult.

In the Commons, where the use of time is more prescribed, the largest single block of time usually goes on government business – the consideration of government legislation and debates scheduled by government. This is the result of a historical trend beginning in the late nineteenth century. As governments were increasingly expected to bring forward their own legislation, greater amounts of Commons time were given over to them.[24] The House’s rulebook, the Standing Orders, states that ‘government business shall have precedence at every sitting’ except in specific circumstances.[25]

This was the case in the year following the 2017 Queen’s Speech, where an estimated 470 hours of Commons time (or 38%) was spent on government business – the largest block of time spent in the Chamber.

The Standing Orders also set out certain amounts of time to be spent on other forms of business:

  • 20 opposition days (17 for the official Opposition and three for the second largest opposition party) on which opposition parties decide the subjects for debate.

  • 35 backbench business days, on which the Backbench Business Committee decides how time will be spent, which are split between the House and Westminster Hall (at least 27 being in the House).

  • 13 Private Members’ Bill days on which backbench legislation can be considered.

In the year since the opening of the 2017 Parliament, an estimated 107 hours were spent on opposition time; 114 hours on debates in the Chamber scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee; and 50 hours on backbench legislative time (or Private Members’ Bill days).

But allocation of time, and how that time is scheduled, are two very different things. While only around 38% of time in the Commons was spent on the Government’s business, the scheduling of much of time spent on other kinds of activity was still determined by government. Government chose when opposition days and backbench days took place. This is particularly significant given the double length of the current session. There is no established convention for how these allocations are affected by a two-year session. Although the Opposition has made it clear that it believes the usual 20 opposition days and 35 backbench business days ought to be doubled for the double session,[26] the Government has not yet given any public indication of whether this will happen.

Backbenchers can take control of some parliamentary time by asking urgent questions (UQs) of ministers, and requesting emergency debates. In recent years, under the current Speaker, the volume of this activity has increased – something discussed in greater detail in Chapter 6. In the year since the 2017 Queen’s Speech, an estimated 114 hours were spent on UQs in the Chamber; around 9% of all sitting time in the House.

Other time was spent on regularly scheduled events, such as the daily half-hour adjournment debate which allows the House to debate an issue without having to decide a question. These took up an estimated 77.5 hours. Oral questions to ministers accounted for 145 hours of Commons time. Some time was used by the Government to make policy announcements or react to events: 126 hours were spent on ministerial statements, which give ministers the chance to discuss major events – for example, the Salisbury poisoning – in the House.[27]

In November 2009, the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (known as the Wright Committee) recommended that from the 2010 Parliament, backbench business should be organised by a Backbench Business Committee, responsible for all business which was not strictly ministerial. Representatives of the Government and the Opposition would then join with the Backbench Business Committee in a House Business Committee that would ‘assemble a draft agenda to put to the House in a weekly motion’. This proposal drew on the practice in other legislatures where parliamentary time is agreed between the government and opposition parties. It was endorsed by the House in March 2010.

The coalition agreement reached following the 2010 General Election committed the Government to ‘bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full’ and committed that ‘a House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament’.[28] Although the Backbench Business Committee was established, the Coalition Government’s commitment to the idea of a House Business Committee waned and no subsequent government has seen fit to bring forward proposals.

 

Time is used flexibly in the Lords, with government legislation taking up the largest proportion of time

Sitting hours in the Lords Chamber, and in Grand Committee, are less prescribed than in the Commons. While some forms of business exist in both the Commons and Lords – for example, urgent questions and ministerial statements made in the Commons may be repeated in the Lords – the two Houses also engage in some kinds of activity that are different.

Unlike in the Commons, there is no assumption that government business takes precedence in the Lords. This means that the time allotted to different kinds of business, and its scheduling, is subject to agreement by the whips. While in the Commons, the government can ‘programme’ its legislation – draw up a timetable for its passage through the House – it cannot do the same when bills reach the Lords. This means that the government exerts less control over the progress of business in the Lords than in the Commons.

In terms of quantity of time, however, the passage of government legislation still dominates Lords business. In the year since the 2017 State Opening of Parliament – in both the Chamber and Grand Committee together – approximately 375 hours were spent debating government legislation.[29]

 

Looking forward

  • Parliament is a reactive institution – the extent of its workload is largely determined by the business government initiates. Whether government allows Parliament sufficient opportunity to perform its role of passing and scrutinising legislation will be a live question during the remainder of the Brexit process.

  • Changing trends and expectations of what MPs individually, and Parliament as a whole, are expected to do will continue to affect how they work – and therefore determine the appropriate balance between sitting days spent in Westminster and recess days spent in constituencies.

  • Parliament’s use of time will continue to be a contentious issue. Subjects such as proxy voting for MPs unable to attend the House will inevitably play into broader debates about the modernisation of Parliament.