Overview: key themes at the close of the 2017–19 session

In September 2018, the Institute for Government launched Parliamentary Monitor, an annual data-driven analysis of Parliament’s activity. As the 2017–19 session comes to an end, following Prime Minister Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament, this short ‘snapshot’ paper draws on currently available data to highlight some of the most interesting aspects of Parliament’s work.

The 2017–19 parliamentary session has been the longest on record. By the time Parliament is prorogued in early September, the House of Commons will have sat for over 340 days – beating the previous 295-day record set by the 2010–12 session.

Sitting days at prorogation

The story of the 2017–19 session has been shaped by two principal factors: Brexit and minority government. As Parliament has sought to give effect to the result of the 2016 EU referendum, intense divisions over the nature and form of Brexit have cut across party lines. At the same time, the government has seen its already small working majority disappear. MPs have also operated in an increasingly fractious atmosphere, managing their own views in the context of competing demands from their constituents, colleagues and parties.

Estimated proportion of time in the House of Commons chamber spent on Brexit, 2017–19 session

Note on the figure above: for the purposes of this analysis, ‘Brexit business’ refers to any business that we judge would not have happened had Britain not voted to leave the EU. Of course, Brexit will have been discussed at other times: for example in budget statements, routine departmental questions and the statements given by the prime minister following European Council meetings. However, we do not categorise these forms of business as Brexit-related, as such activity would have occurred irrespective of the result of the 2016 EU referendum. This analysis also only covers time spent in the main chamber of the Commons, though we acknowledge that MPs will have discussed Brexit elsewhere, such as in select committee sessions, Westminster Hall debates and in public bill committees.

But while Brexit and minority government may have dominated the politics of the 2017–19 session, they have not been the only issues. Perhaps surprisingly, debates over Brexit took up only around a fifth of time in the main chamber of the House of Commons between the 2017 election and the start of Parliament’s summer recess in 2019. While MPs will have spent time debating Brexit away from the green benches of the chamber, much of their activity during the session has focused on other subjects, including routine business.

Looking across all aspects of parliamentary activity, this Parliamentary Monitor: Snapshot shows how some key areas have been affected by both Brexit and minority government:

  • At key moments in the Brexit process during late 2018 and early 2019, the government used its control of time in the Commons to avoid political difficulties – including by not scheduling time for debates chosen by opposition parties. The government’s control of parliamentary time was also reflected in its decision in late August 2019 to prorogue Parliament for much longer than is usual, limiting opportunities for MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
  • Parliament has passed a similar amount of primary legislation to most previous parliamentary sessions. But beyond key Brexit bills, the government has sought to avoid Commons defeats by limiting legislation to narrow and relatively uncontroversial matters.
  • MPs have had to scrutinise a high volume of secondary legislation necessary to prepare the statute book for Brexit, with the burden of legislating falling unevenly between government departments.
  • More members of the public than ever have been watching what has been going on in Parliament on Parliamentlive.tv – representing a key means of parliamentary engagement – particularly at moments of key Brexit drama.

This paper also shows how other areas of Parliament’s work have been insulated from the effects of Brexit and minority government:

  • Despite the fractious politics of the session, select committees have continued to offer a space for MPs to work across parties and achieve consensus on a broad range of issues – including Brexit.
  • The cost of MPs’ security has risen sharply since 2016, as they face an unprecedented level of threats to their safety. In the 2017/18 financial year, a total of £4.2 million (m) was spent on providing additional security assistance to MPs – over £4m above the £171,000 spent in 2015/16. While deep political divisions over Brexit have contributed to many of these threats, they also have their roots in the growth of social media.
  • The role of backbenchers has become more prominent; an increase in MPs’ use of backbench procedures such as ‘urgent questions’ (UQs) to hold the government to account pre-dates Brexit. In the 2017–19 session, which has seen a record number of UQs, most have been used to discuss non-Brexit subjects.

The next full edition of Parliamentary Monitor will comprehensively analyse how Parliament has responded to the challenges of the longest session in modern times and, for the first time, will also explore in depth how Parliament engages the public in its work. This will be published in the coming months.