Urgent Questions – What are they and how important are they as a mechanism of parliamentary scrutiny?

John Bercow is a major reason for the growth of Urgent Questions.

Until relatively recently Urgent Questions were a rarely used parliamentary device. However, in recent years, their use has grown dramatically, largely as the Speaker John Bercow was keen to consider ways in which, he could “champion the rights of backbenchers”. This article seeks to explain what Urgent Questions are, when they are granted and how big an impact they have on the ability of parliament to scrutinise the executive.

What are Urgent Questions?

The clerks may advise the Speaker, but it is entirely at his discretion whether to grant an Urgent Question or not.

Any Opposition or Backbench MP can request that the Speaker grant an Urgent Question. If the request is granted, the Speaker can require a responsible minister to attend the House of Commons to answer questions from Members of Parliament. The decisions as to whether to grant an Urgent Question is entirely at the discretion of the Speaker of the House of Commons, although they may take advice on the issue from the Commons Clerks.

If an Urgent Question is granted, the Speaker can require a Member of the Government to answer questions immediately in the House of Commons. Not only will the Minister have to answer questions from the proposer of the Urgent Question, they will also have to field supplementary questions from over interested MPs. However, importantly, the Speaker cannot compel a certain Minister from answering questions. The Minister who responds will largely depend on how serious the government views the issue making up the Urgent Question to be.

When are Urgent Questions granted?

The Speaker has to consider a wide range of factors when deciding whether or not to grant an Urgent Question. Some them might include:

  1. How Urgent is the issue in question? Could it wait until normal Departmental or Prime Ministerial Questions.
  2. How relevant is the question? Is the question likely to address the issue in question in a way that makes it worthwhile?
  3. Is the question a reasonable use of parliamentary time or is it a deliberate attempt to score political points?

In recent years the amount of Urgent Questions granted has grown significantly:

Source: Institute for Government

During the 2007-08 parliamentary session under Speaker Martin just four Urgent Questions were asked, equivalent to just 0.02 per sitting day. In contrast, under Speaker Bercow, MPs asked 307 Urgent Questionss during the 2017–19 session, almost 0.88 per sitting day.

(Source: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/parliamentary-monitor-2020/backbench-activity)

This increase is likely to be for two key reasons

  1. Much of the credit for the increase in Urgent Questions belongs to John Bercow. As Speaker, he was extremely controversial, particularly towards the end of his chairmanship, but his impact in this area cannot be doubted. Whereas previous Speaker’s may have found themselves in the thrall of the government (Michael Martin is perhaps an example), if there was any doubt over an issue he would always prioritise the rights of backbenchers and the rights of Parliament to have further debate on an issue. As he put it in his autobiography (reviewed here):

“I was determined to restore the basic and inviolable principle that government ministers – members of what we call the executive branch of our political system – must be accountable to the legislative branch, namely Parliament. By granting an Urgent Question, I was not saying that the government was Wong on an issue, though in some cases there was an implicitly criticism of them for not volunteering to account to the House by offering an oral statement. It is not for the Speaker to pronounce whether the government or Opposition is right or wrong on a policy issue. Rather I was simply ruling that the issue warranted the presence of a minister and the attention of the House that day.”

Unspeakable by John Bercow, Page 168

2. Recent years have seen a significant polarisation in the make-up of the House of Commons. It has also seen a rise in divisive issues of enormous national importance, with Brexit the most notable example. The sheer scope of the impact that Brexit has over UK Politics and the great many issues with passing the Withdrawal Act meant that Brexit itself helped to dramatically increase the number of Urgent Questions for consideration, as the graph above illustrates.

What are some examples of Urgent Questions?

The proliferation of Urgent Questions in recent years gives plenty of them to choose from. Some interesting ones and recent ones are:

23/01/17 – Urgent Question over the misfiring of a Trident Missile (Keven Jones, Labour)

upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/...
Labour MP Kevan Jones

In January 2017 there were reports that a Trident Missile test had gone wrong. Trident is Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent and Britain relies on its 24/7 availability to serve a deterrent to any would be aggressors. As such, reports of a failure represented a risk to national security. The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, attended the House to answer the urgent question. In this case, Fallon gave limited detail on reports but confirmed his believe that the Trident weapons system was secure:

“We do not comment on the detail of submarine operations, but I can assure the House that the safety of the crew and public is paramount during any test firing and is never compromised…I can assure the House that the capability and effectiveness of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is not in doubt. The Government have absolute confidence in our deterrent and in the Royal Navy crews who protect us and our NATO allies every hour of every day.”

Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon)

05/11/19 – Urgent Question over the Intelligence and Security Committee Report into Russia (Dominic Grieve, Conservative)

upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/...
Ex Conservative MP Dominic Grieve

Prior to the 2019 General Election it emerged that the Intelligence and Security Select Committee had completed their report into alleged Russian meddling into UK elections. The report was sent to the Prime Minister on the 17th October. Normally, after being given clearance by the government, the report would then be presented to Parliament. However, the government refused to do this. There were suggestions that the report was being covered up to prevent damaging revelations before the 2019 General Election. The Minister for Europe and the Americas, Christopher Pincher, attended the House to answer the Urgent Question:

“Because the ISC deals with matters of national security and intelligence, its reports always contain sensitive information, so it is entirely right that they go through an intensive security review before publication. This report is one of a number of ISC reports that the Government are currently considering. The current length of time that this report has been with the Government is not unusual, as this has averaged around six weeks for reports published in recent years, and three to four weeks for a response to be forthcoming from the Government.”

Minister for Europe and the Americas (Christoper Pincher)

25/09/19 – Urgent Question of the Legal Advice over Prorogation (Joanna Cherry, SNP)

Joanna Cherry - Wikipedia
SNP MP Joanna Cherry

In late 2019 a major crisis emerged in the UK politics. The Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, had prorogued Parliament. The government said that they did this because the parliament had been going on far too long and the government needed a Queen’s Speech to set out its legislative proposals. However, opposition parties believed that the prorogation was intended to prevent parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit and to prevent Parliament from passing legislation that would take no-deal off the table. The government were taken to court in Miller vs. Prime Minister and lost the case. Subsequently, Parliament resumed sitting after the Supreme Court had ruled that, in the eyes of the law, the prorogation had never happened.

The SNP MP Joanna Cherry put in an Urgent Question calling for the publication of the legal advice that had been given to the government over prorogation. The Attorney-General, Geoffrey Cox, responded for the government:

“Given the Supreme Court’s judgment, in legal terms the matter is settled, and, as the hon. and learned Lady will know, I am bound by the long-standing convention that the views of the Law Officers are not disclosed outside the Government without their consent. However, I will consider over the coming days whether the public interest might require a greater disclosure of the advice given to the Government on the subject. I am unable to give an undertaking or a promise to the hon. and learned Lady at this point, but the matter is under consideration.”

The Attorney-General (Geoffrey Cox)

How significant are Urgent Questions?

The provision of Urgent Questions, and their recent proliferation, transfers significant power of scrutiny to the Oppositions and to backbench MPs. Importantly:

  • Urgent Questions are a mechanism to try to ensure that Ministers make important public statements to the House of Commons first and not directly to Parliament. For example, in May the Chancellor Rishi Sunak planned to make his announcement extending the COVID-19 furlough scheme to the media. However, after the granting of an Urgent Question to Annelise Dodds (Shadow Chancellor) he was instead forced to do it in the House of Commons.
  • Urgent Questions ensure that a government minister can always be held directly accountable if an urgent issue arises. This increases Parliament’s ability to carry out its fundamental role of executive scrutiny.
  • Urgent Questions make sure that Parliament has some control over the political agenda. Without Urgent Questions, ministers may be able to avoid direct scrutiny over an issue until the next Departmental Question Time or Prime Minister’s Questions session. The provision or Urgent Questions ensure that the government cannot escape parliamentary scrutiny over controversial issues.
  • Urgent Questions give power to individual backbenchers. Anyone backbench MP can table an Urgent Question request and, if it meets the criteria, it can be granted.

It remains to be seen whether or not the large number of Urgent Questions allowed under John Bercow will continue under Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the new Speaker of the House of Commons. However, early signs have been that he is keen to continue to maintain the rights that backbenchers won under John Bercow’s speakership.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s