Opposition days have become a source of controversy in the early months of the 2017 parliament, with government MPs repeatedly abstaining on Labour motions. Such motions are usually non-binding. However, last week Labour attempted a different approach, tabling what is called a ‘motion for a return’. Andrew Defty explains what happened.
An opposition day debate last Wednesday saw the Labour Party deploy an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure which may force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies. By means of a little-known procedure called a motion for a return, Labour transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House. Labour’s approach caused some confusion in the House of Commons and had parliamentary observers reaching for a copy of Erskine May in order to determine what exactly had happened and what it meant. This post examines the background to Labour’s parliamentary trap and the implications for the government.
The government’s approach to opposition days
The background to what happened on Wednesday lies in the government’s approach to opposition day debates in this parliament. Opposition days provide a rare opportunity for opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. There are 20 opposition days in each parliamentary session. These are usually divided between opposition parties, in the last session Labour had 17 of these while three were allocated to the SNP. Each day is then often divided in two to allow for more subjects to be debated. On Wednesday last week, Labour tabled two motions for discussion, one dealing with armed forces pay and the other on the release of the Brexit impact studies.
Opposition days provide an opportunity for opposition parties to table a motion on a subject they consider to be important. Government ministers must come to the House and respond to the motion, speaking at the beginning and end of the debate. The government may also table an amendment in an attempt to overturn the motion, usually by changing its meaning. There is usually then a vote. Governments with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition day motion, but even if a government is defeated, opposition day motions are non-binding and the government is not required to respond or make any policy changes as a result.
In the current parliamentary session the government has decided to adopt a strategy of not contesting opposition day motions. Although ministers come to the chamber to respond and Conservative MPs participate in opposition day debates, Conservative MPs, presumably under instruction from the Whips, have not been voting against the opposition motion. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but are almost certainly a consequence of governing without a majority. It certainly saves the government from going to the trouble of marshalling its MPs into the chamber for a non-binding vote which they are likely to lose anyway. It may also be designed to ensure that Labour’s victory in such votes is somewhat pyrrhic. This point was made by the Conservative MP, Peter Bone, following a government defeat on a recent opposition day motion in which Conservative MPs abstained, when he claimed that although the opposition had won the vote, the Conservatives could not be said to have lost.
This strategy of abstaining in votes on opposition day motions has, however, caused some consternation in the chamber of the House of Commons. Following a government defeat on an opposition day motion on universal credit on 18 October, there was criticism from both sides of the House at the government’s decision not to contest the vote in order to enable it to ignore the outcome. The Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, complained that the government’s approach risked reducing the chamber to the level of a ‘university debating society’, adding, ‘what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it? Surely when we vote, it should have some effect.’ The Speaker was also particularly exercised by the government’s apparent neglect of Parliament, noting that, ‘it is blindingly obvious that this is an unusual situation about which there is strong opinion’ and that it would be ‘respectful to the House’ if a minister were to come to the House and explain the government’s thinking.