Backbench procedures

MPs are asking more questions of ministers. The number of ‘urgent questions’ asked of ministers – those requiring an immediate response – has increased substantially over recent years.

During the 2007–08 parliamentary session, only four ‘urgent questions’ (UQs) were asked; equivalent to just 0.02 per sitting day. During the 2009–10 session – when the current Speaker, John Bercow, was first elected to the role – this increased to 12 (0.2 per sitting day). In the 2017–19 session, 287 UQs were asked up to the beginning of the 2019 summer recess (0.86 per sitting day), triple the number asked in the last two-year session, that of 2010–12.

As might be expected, the vast majority of UQs in the 2017–19 session have been asked by MPs from the official opposition; Conservative MPs were responsible for just over 11% of UQs. This is slightly fewer than asked by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs (representing the coalition) during the 2010–12 session, suggesting that despite clear divisions in the Conservative Party over Brexit there has not been a surge in the proportion of UQs asked by government backbenchers.

The rise in UQs is only partly driven by Brexit

The chart above shows that only a small proportion of UQs relate to Brexit, with just 13% in the 2017–19 session (compared to 4% in the 2016–17 session, during which the EU referendum was held). This may reflect the typically reactive nature of UQs: there have been many other high-profile issues such as the Windrush scandal and Grenfell tragedy that have demanded MPs’ attention. The proportion of UQs related to Brexit in the current session compares to 9% related to health and social care and 6% related to welfare (including Universal Credit).

Brexit-related UQs have not been evenly spread throughout the session; instead they have broadly tracked the ebb and flow of the Brexit negotiations. For instance, Brexit accounted for 25% or more of total UQs asked in December 2017 – when the joint report on the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations was published – and each month between December 2018 and March 2019, the period in which the government’s Brexit deal was scrutinised by Parliament.

Even excluding Brexit, however, a record number of UQs have been asked during the 2017–19 session, meaning that the dramatic increase has not been driven by Brexit alone. The rise could be the result of MPs requesting a higher number of UQs;[1] alternatively, the Speaker may be granting more requests. This latter view holds water: while data on UQ requests is not released by the Speaker’s office, the current Speaker, John Bercow, has spoken of the “renaissance of the urgent question” – suggesting he is willing to grant more questions than his predecessors.[2]

Almost half of urgent questions were asked by frontbench MPs

The current Speaker has been a vocal supporter of the rights of backbench MPs and it is often suggested that the increase in the number of UQs he has granted has empowered backbenchers.[3] But almost half of all UQs in the 2017–19 session have been asked by members of the official opposition frontbench.* This illustrates that UQs are not only a way for backbenchers to scrutinise the government but can also be a useful political tool for the opposition.

However, the proportion of UQs asked by members of the opposition frontbench during the 2017–19 session was smaller than in the 2010–12 session – when nearly 60% of questions originated from the opposition frontbench – indicating that backbenchers are still benefiting from the general growth in the total number of UQs.

* The official opposition frontbench includes shadow ministers who are not part of the shadow cabinet.