Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates – 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 and Emergency Debates were rarely used parliamentary devices. However, in recent years, their use has grown dramatically, largely as the former 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 and Emergency Debates 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?

Under Standing Order 14 the vast majority of the time in the House of Commons is controlled by the Government:

Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting. Twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business, seventeen of which shall be at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party

Standing Order 14

Apart from the 27 days allocated to the Opposition and 1 hour for Question Time from Mondays to Thursdays (Standing Order 21) it is therefore the Government that decide which legislation will be tabled and which debates will take place. This helps the government to dominate the parliamentary agenda and potentially limits the scrutiny under which they can be placed.

However, under Standing Order 21 a backbench MP can apply for an Urgent Question:

No question shall be taken more than one hour after the House sits, except questions which have not appeared on the order paper but which are in the Speaker’s opinion of an urgent character and relate either to matters of public importance or to the arrangement of business.

Standing Order 21a

Whilst they may take advice from the parliamentary clerks it is entirely the decision of the Speaker as to whether an Urgent Question will be granted. If they do decide to grant the question the Speaker can demand that a Government Minister attend the House of Commons to answer it. Importantly, not only will the Minister have to respond to questions from the MP who tabled the Urgent Question, they will also have to field follow up questions from other backbench or Opposition MPs on the same topic. However, significantly, the Speaker cannot compel a certain Minister to answer 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 clerks may advise the Speaker, but it is entirely at his discretion whether to grant an Urgent Question or not.

When coming to a judgement on whether to grant an Urgent Question the Speaker will consider a number of factors:

  1. How Urgent is the issue in question? Could it wait until normal Departmental or Prime Ministerial Questions? For example, if the question was about a controversial new education policy but Education Questions or Prime Minister’s Questions is the next day the Speaker will be less likely to see the question as urgent.
  2. How relevant is the question to the government’s purview? Is the question likely to address the issue in question in a way that makes it worthwhile? This means that if the issue is about something largely beyond the government’s control the Speaker is unlikely to grant the question. For example, despite the dramatic scenes seen in Washington DC, there was no Urgent Question in Parliament about the Capitol Riots in January 2021 as it was not something the government could do much about.
    3. Is the question a reasonable use of parliamentary time or is it a deliberate attempt to score political points? If the Speaker believes the question is designed not to garner information but simply to embarrass the government then they are unlikely to grant the question.

How have Urgent Questions developed?

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

Source: Institute for Government

During the 2007-08 parliamentary session under Speaker Michael Martin just four Urgent Questions were asked, equivalent to just 0.02 per sitting day. In contrast, under Speaker John Bercow, MPs asked 307 Urgent Questions during the 2017–19 session, almost 0.88 per sitting day. In total, between 2017-2019 Ministers spent 196 hours answering Urgent Questions. Notably, whilst Urgent Questions are often associated with backbench MPs, almost half of Urgent Questions between 2017-2019 were posed by Opposition frontbenches.

This increase is put down to two reasons:

  1. The political climate created by Brexit is often said to have exacerbated the need for Urgent Questions. The period between 2017 and 2019 significant polarisation in the make-up of the House of Commons. It is clear from the graphic above that the number of Urgent Questions due after the 2016 EU Referendum. However, it is also worth noting that only 14% of Urgent Questions between 2017-2019 were Brexit related and this figure only rose to 30% in the 2019-2019 session. Therefore, Brexit does not fully explain the rise in Urgent Questions.

2. Instead, most 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 speakership, but his impact in increasing the amount time MPs could spend in the chamber questioning Ministers 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 wrong 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

To illustrate this, in total Bercow granted 0.4 Urgent Questions per sitting day on average over this tenure as Speaker whilst Michael Martin granted just 0.07. Further to this, Lindsay Hoyle has largely carried on since 2019 when John Bercow left off. In his first 317 sitting days in the chair Lindsay Hoyle granted 195 Urgent Questions and through his Speakership he has averaged 0.6 per day.

Is there a House of Lords equivalent of Urgent Questions?

The Lords has an equivalent mechanism to Urgent Questions which is called a Private Notice Question. Requests for these are made to the Lords Speaker. Like Urgent Questions in the Commons, this has developed in recent years. For example, in 2014-2015 there were just 9 per parliamentary session but by 2019-21 that number had risen to 112. Just like with Urgent Questions in the House of Commons it is likely that this number will remain higher than previously in the future.

What are some recent examples of Urgent Questions?

26th April 2022 – An Urgent Question was granted to SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford over the failure of the PM to give a statement following his visit to India. It is the convention that PM report to the House of Commons on foreign trips and there were suggestions that Johnson was trying to avoid the House of Commons over the remarks made by a Conservative MP regarding Angela Rayner.

31st March 2022 – An Urgent Question was granted to Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper on the issues relating to issuing visas to Ukrainian Refugees.

25th January 2022 – An Urgent Question was granted to Angela Rayner after the issue of partygate began to be investigated by the Metropolitan Police. The question was answered by Michael Ellis the Paymaster-General.

7th December 2021 – An Urgent Question on the situation in Ukraine was requests by Conservative backbencher Bob Seely. This question was prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but the question related to the Russian military build up that was already taking place.

What is an Emergency Debate?

Just like under Urgent Questions an MP can apply for an Emergency Debate. This is done under Standing Order 24 and is often called a ‘Standing Order 24’ Debate:

…a Member rising in his place at the commencement of public business may propose, in an application lasting not more than three minutes, that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration. If the Speaker is satisfied that the matter is proper to be so debated, the Member shall either obtain the leave of the House, or, if such leave be refused, the assent of not fewer than forty Members who shall thereupon rise in their places to support the motion, or, if fewer than forty Members and not fewer than ten shall thereupon rise in their places, the House shall, on a division, upon question put forthwith, determine whether such motion shall be made.

Standing Order 24

Under this mechanism the Speaker can allow an MP to apply for an Emergency Debate, to do this, an MP will make a three minute speech to the Speaker after which the Speaker will decide whether or not to submit the application to the House. If he does so, MPs will vote on whether a debate should take place. This means that often Emergency Debates are on issues of cross-party support, unlike UQs. The debate that takes place will usually be three hours. However, under exceptional circumstances the Speaker may relax this timeframe.

There has been a growth of Emergency Debates in recent years:

Such Emergency Debates are not binding on the government, meaning they cannot be forced to act upon them. In addition, they are traditionally not amendable, meaning that only the original motion can be discussed and voted on. However, one of the most controversial moments of John Bercow’s speakership came when he allowed an emergency debate to be amended so that it was a ‘substantive motion’ – meaning something that could be binding on the Government. This was a break from convention and ultimately allowed MPs to take over the parliamentary order paper. They used this control to pass a the Benn Act that would prevent Parliament from leaving the EU with No-Deal. Bercow’s actions were extremely controversial and he spent hours defending his decision during points of order from angry Conservative MPs:

The new Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has indicated quite clearly that he will not make such a broad interpretation in the future and, in doing so, as implied he did not agree with the Bercow’s decision.

What are some examples of recent Emergency Debates?

8th November 2021 – An Emergency Debate took place over the Owen Paterson Lobbying Scandal. This debate was requested by the Liberal Democrats.

7th June 2021 – An Emergency Debate took place over the amount that Britain was giving in international aid which had dropped below 0.7% of GDP. The debate was requested by Conservative backbencher Andrew Mitchell.

9th September 2021 – An Emergency Debate took place over the failure of the government to produce documents relating to the prorogation of Parliament. The debate was requested by Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve.

How significant are Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates?

The provision of Urgent Questions and Emergency Debates, and their recent proliferation, transfers more 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 the media. For example, in May 2020 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.
  • Emergency Questions are less significant than Urgent Questions as they must be agreed by the House before being debate. However, their growth still allows more scrutiny that existed before they became prominent. It does mean that if a majority of MPs want something debated they can force that debate to happen. However, unlike the motion that John Bercow controversially allowed in September 2019, such debates are not binding.

Urgent Questions have clearly now become cemented as a usual practice in the House of Commons with Lindsay Hoyle averaging 0.6 per sitting day. The same is true of Private Notice Questions in the House of Lords. This means that the ability of Parliament to scrutinise the Executive has grown significantly.

Article Summary

The growth of Urgent Questions and Private Notice Questions has increased the ability of the Parliament to hold the government to account. Whilst Question Times cannot force binding decisions, they allow issues to be bought to attention of the House and subsequently this will be reported by the media. This means that the Government is less able to hide away from scrutiny as they were able to in the past.

Key Terms

Urgent Questions – A question that may be asked of a Government Minister if the Speaker agrees that it is urgent and is required.

Private Notice Question – The equivalent of an Urgent Question in the House of Lords. Whether a Private Notice Question is appropriate

Parliamentary Clerks – The individuals who advise the Speaker on constitutional issues. They are led by the Clerk of the House and sit in front of the Speakers Chair in the House of Commons.

Emergency Debates – A debate that can be granted under Standing Order 21. Whilst the Speaker has to agree to put it to the house, ultimately the House of Commons itself decides whether to hold the emergency debate.

Standing Order 14 – This is the standing order of the House of Commons under which the Government normally control the agenda.

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