Parliament in the UK is dominated by the Executive. A combination of the fusion of powers and the First Past The Post electoral system mean that the government is able to control the agenda. In fact, this is written into the Standing Orders of Parliament. Standing Order 14 says:
“Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting”
The same standing order then outlines the number of days that are put at the disposal of opposition parties. It says that “twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business”. Of these twenty days, seventeen are assigned to the Official Opposition (currently Labour) and three are assigned to the second largest opposition party (currently the SNP).
So, the time given to opposition parties to control the parliamentary agenda is extremely limited.
Every so often, however, the business for a day will be decided upon by the Opposition. On these days the Opposition will hold debates on issues that they prioritize and will often seek to hold them on issues where they feel the government is weakest. An Opposition Day took place on Wednesday this week. The Labour Government chose to base their opposition day agenda around:
Protection of Jobs and Businesses – The Labour Opposition put forward a motion that called on the government to continue its COVID-19 Furlough Scheme. The motion read:
” I beg to move,
That this House calls for the Government to abandon its one-size-fits-all withdrawal of the Coronavirus Job Retention and Self-Employment Income Support Schemes, and instead offer targeted income support to businesses and self-employed people in those sectors of the economy that have been hardest hit by the virus and are most in need of continuing assistance, and in those areas of the country which have been placed under local restrictions due to rising rates of infection. “
A debate then followed with contributions from all sides of the house. At the end of debate, the House voted on the motion, the results were as below:
Ayes – 249
Noes – 329
Awarding of Qualifications: Role of Ministers – Shadow Labour Education Secretary, Kate Green, then put forward a motion that said:
” I beg to move,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give a direction to Her Ministers to provide all correspondence, including meeting notes, minutes, submissions and electronic communications, involving Ministers and Special Advisers pertaining to the process of awarding qualifications in GCSE, A-Level and NVQs in 2020 and 2021 by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education to the Education Select Committee. “
The debate that followed considered the exams fiasco that took place this Summer and the potential changes that might be made to exams in the future. During the debate, Gavin Williamson made a statement and responded to interventions from other Members of Parliament. A division followed the debate and the result was:
Ayes – 237
Noes – 329
Notably, nearly same number of Conservatives voted against both the Opposition motions. As the above examples show, on the Opposition Days Government MPs are heavily whipped. They are expected to be available in the chamber to vote on any opposition motion. Most of these MPs will not have sat through the debate. Instead, they will have been based in their office and only walked to the chamber when the division bells rang out around the parliamentary estate.
At times, this process can lead to results which are used to create bad headlines for the government. These are often spread quickly on social media where only those who study parliament at its proceedings know the reality of the situation.
A good example of this occurred in June 2020. An Opposition Day vote called for NHS workers to be given daily COVID-19 tests. This, as is always the case with Opposition Day votes, was unbinding. Had the vote passed, NHS workers would not have then been given daily COVID-19 tests without legislation or executive action. When the division came, 331 Conservative MPs dutifully voted against the motion. Of course, at this time, NHS workers were widely being heralded as heroes. Conservative MPs, including the Prime Minister, were standing outside on Thursday Evenings and clapping for them. How on earth could they vote against giving them daily tests? The answer is simple. It was an Opposition Day vote. The government does not support the opposition on Opposition Day.
Other recent motions voted against (‘negatived’) include:
29/01/20 – A motion calling for an increase in police numbers: 224/330
(It is worth noting increasing Police Officers was part of the Conservative Election Manifesto in 2019)!
29/01/20 – A motion recognising the problems of homelessness: 215-311
25/02/20 – A motion to reduce Tax Avoidance and Evasion: 236-322
Importantly, the same happens under both major parties. For example, the last Labour Government, on its last Opposition Day, voted against a motion calling for extra university places and apprenticeships (156-321).
So, given it is unbinding, what is the point of these votes? Firstly, it allows Opposition to set the agenda in Parliament for a limited time and therefore have an impact on setting the media agenda in the days that follow. The social media posts that followed the debate over NHS testing was predicted by Labour and their vote instigated a wider public debate over COVID-19 testing. Secondly, the votes are largely procedural and the Opposition know that they will lose. However, importantly they have spent a significant time debating business that matters to them and have often forced Senior Ministers to the house who can be scrutinised.
It is extremely unusual for the government to lose an opposition day debate. They are numerically stronger than the opposition and the divisions (votes) are a way to show their party unity. In fact, the last time that a government lost an Opposition Day vote was in 2009 over the issue of resident rights for Gurkhas. In this case, the motion passed by 267 to 326 after 28 Labour MPs rebelled against their party (then the government). Following this vote, the Labour Government revisited this policy – indicating that this particular Opposition Day had served a clear purpose and had been successful. However, prior to this, the last time they lost an Opposition Day vote was in 1978. Opposition Days are, therefore, of relative insignificance in the parliamentary system.