The government and backbench MPs have fought to determine Parliament’s agenda. Control of the House of Commons’ agenda has been a contentious issue throughout the 2017–19 session.
The Commons standing orders (rules) usually give precedence to government business, ensuring the government can control the order paper. But as tensions over Brexit have escalated, the scheduling of business in the Commons has become highly politicised, with the government unwilling to allow parliamentary activity that could be used by opponents to try and tie its hands over Brexit – as recently happened during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill 2019.
The government routinely delegates the ability to schedule issues for debate in the Commons to backbenchers; at least 27 days a session are given over to debates in the main chamber chosen by the Backbench Business Committee. But it is the government that determines when these debates are held.
It is highly unusual for backbenchers to take over time in the chamber against the government’s will, much less to use it to pass legislation that does not have the support of the government. On three occasions in the session to date, backbench MPs have successfully managed to take control of the order paper – most notably to pass the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019 (also known as the Cooper–Letwin Bill), which would have imposed a legal obligation on the prime minister to seek an extension to the Article 50 period if MPs had not explicitly approved leaving the
EU without a deal on 29 March 2019. Backbenchers were expected to attempt a similar move in the days before the end of the session.
These moves were controversial, and revived long-standing questions about who should be able to control the Commons’ order paper. The government’s decision to prorogue Parliament in mid-September – for a much longer period than is usual – has also been widely viewed as a means of constraining MPs’ ability to debate Brexit in the run up to 31 October deadline. This further emphasises the ways in which the government can use its control of parliamentary time for political ends.
The number of opposition days – selected days on which opposition parties choose topics for debate – provides a striking illustration of how the government has retained significant control over the parliamentary timetable. It has used this control to limit opportunities for opposition-led debates at key moments in the Brexit process.
At least 20 days must be given over to opposition parties in a session, but the government is able to determine when these are scheduled, and there is no requirement for a pro-rata increase in the allocation during a longer session.
As the figure above shows, the government did not provide opportunities for opposition day debates evenly throughout the 2017–19 session, as happened during the 2010–12 session. The government chose not to schedule any opposition days at all in the five-month period between 13 November 2018 and 24 April 2019 – during which period Parliament debated and voted on the draft Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.* The government then scheduled nine debates between late April and the end of June, when the political risk of relinquishing control of Parliament’s agenda had subsided during cross-party Brexit talks.
The allocation of opposition days stands in contrast to ‘urgent questions’ (UQs), the scheduling of which is controlled by the Speaker of the House, rather than the government; these have been more evenly spread throughout the session.
Given the ongoing disagreement over the timing and form of the UK’s departure from the EU – and risk that opposition days could be used to try and limit the government’s room for manoeuvre on Brexit – the government is unlikely to schedule further opposition days at any point before 31 October, either before prorogation or at the beginning of the next parliamentary session.
*This period included two parliamentary recesses during which opposition days could not be scheduled. However, even excluding recesses, no opposition days were scheduled for a period of 86 Commons sitting days.