Debates
"in the House"






These pages cover the cover the following issues
Debates - typology
Substantive Motions
Adjournment Motions
Westminster Hall
Assessment


Debates - typology

The following remarks concern debates on matters other than legislation which are held in the Commons (mostly in the Commons Chamber itself, but see also the description of debates in Westminster Hall below). In form, the debates are either on a substantial motion or on adjournment motions.
 

Types of Debates

A. Substantive motions
  • debate on Queen's Speech 
  • motions of censure 
  • Opposition days 
  • on public expenditure 
B Adjournment motions
  • daily adjournment 
  • holiday adjournment 
  • expenditure bill adjournment 
  • government adjournment 
  • emergency adjournment 

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Substantive Motions

Substantive Motions express a definite view. E.g. "This House supports the Governments policy on defence". Debates on these kinds of motions arise as follows:

a) The first substantive debate in each session is the debate on the Queens' Speech which, sets out the Government programme for that session. The Government must win approval for it - if it does not, it must resign and either a new Government is formed or there is another election.

b) Equally as vital to the Government are Motions of Censure. These are Opposition motions expressing no confidence in the Government or a specific Minister. By convention, the Government always allots its own time to debate such a motion - though these motions are relatively rare. Nonetheless, when they do arise, the Government or Minister must defect the motion or otherwise resign.

c) Under SO No.13(2) 20 Opposition Days are allowed for debates chosen by the Opposition. (These debates will cover a wide range of topics - often related to some aspect of Government policy but not always). These debates are not treated as matters of confidence. The Leader of the Opposition decides how 17 days are used. The leader of the next largest party has three days.

d) Next, there are Private Members' (backbenchers) motions under SO13(7)+(8). There is a great demand to use this limited time, so selection is by a weekly ballot - 6(9). However, the debates are often ill-attended and publicised.

e) The final type of substantive debates are those concerning the expenditure of public money. This is a complicated subject which has recently experienced considerable overhaul (see: Public Accounts Committee, Financial Reporting to Parliament (1988-89 H.C. 354 and Government Reply at Cm. 918, 1990). It might best be explained by following the annual financial cycle observed by Parliament.

- The first step is the Autumn Statement (possibly in late November) by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the "Minister for Finance") setting out plans for the next three years of expenditure. He will at same time publish key data on expenditure. This statement is debated. It is followed up by more definite estimates, allocating precise funds to each Government department, and published in January. These estimates are now accompanied by departmental annual reports explaining objectives, achievements and indicates of efficiency - in other words some explanations of why the sums of money are needed and what they are being used for.

- As same time as the Autumn Statement, the plans for raising public money are announced in the Chancellors' Financial Statement and Budget Report, the main points of which are delivered in a long speech in the Commons chamber. This is one of the most publicised event in the whole Parliamentary year. The Statement and Report cover short and medium term financial and expenditure strategy. The consequence of this in regard to taxes is the annual Finance Bill, which implements the taxes proposed by the Chancellor. Parliamentary approval for taxation is strictly required by the Bill of Rights, article 4, but the legislation may in fact be rather imprecise in terms of what is allowed. Main vehicle for short term public expenditure is the annual Appropriation Act passesin July. But spending estimates rarely turn them out to be wholly accurate, therefore there have to be two forms of supplement. Firstly, supplementary estimates can be introduced between July and November. These allow money to be taken from the Contingencies Fund to a ceiling of 2% of the previous year's supply - see Contingencies Fund Act 1974. Approval of spending of it is ex post facto, by a later Consolidated Fund Act in January or February. Secondly, the Contingency Reserve is an unallocated grant voted in advance, which can be spent then regularised by a Consolidated Fund Act.

Scrutiny of these financial matters is rather poor.

- the Commons only attempts to relate taxation to spending and to be sure that each is properly authorised. But there is very little scrutiny of borrowing.

- and details of spending are only now becoming trasparent through the system of departmental annual reports, though even they are often general (and with an emphasis on the glossy success stories) in their nature.

See further:

Auckland Harbour Board v R [1924] A.C. 318

Harden, I. "Money and the constitution" (1993) 13 Legal Studies 16

Jowell, J., and Oliver, D., (eds.) - The Changing Constitution (3rd ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994), Chap. 7;

McEldowney, J.F., "The Contingencies Fund and Public Finance" [1988] P.L. 232

Procedure Committee, Procedure for Debate on the Government's Expenditure Plans (1998-98 H.C. 295)

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Adjournment Motions

The other type of debates are based on adjournment motions. These do not express an opinion but simply propose that the House adjourns. There is a wide variety, but all are limited by SO29 - debate must be about matters of administration rather than calling legislation.

a) The first type in this category is the daily adjournment debate - half an hour at end of day Mon-Thurs at 10pm SO 9(3). By convention, backbenchers raise topics and win a place by ballot except the Speaker chooses on one day per month. However, these debates are often badly attended.

b) The motion for a holiday adjournment (which will set out the dates when the recess begins and ends) must be brought by a Minister under SO No.22 and is usually debated a couple of days before the recess is proposed to begin. Three hours is allowed for debate on this, and this time is by convention again used by backbenchers with a reply by the Leader of the House (the Cabinet Minister who co-ordinates Government business in the Commons).

c) Backbenchers are also given time under SO No.54 following a stage of a public expenditure Bill. So once the votes have been taken, a Minister brings an adjournment motion which can be debated until 9am the following morning.

d) SO No.22 can also be used when the Government wants a debate on an adjournment rather than a specific motion. This is commonly used in connection with foreign affairs debates. (A famous example in the past was the adjournment debate on the conduct of the Norway Campaign in 1940 - after about 80 conservative MPs abstained, Chamberlain resigned and Churchill took over.) This procedure is felt to be more appropriate than a substantive motion, since it allows MPs to express their views without coercing the Government into a specific course of action or policy.

e) Finally, there are emergency adjournment motions under SO No.20. An MP contacts the Speaker and asks for permission to move an adjournment motion "for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration". Provided the Speaker is satisfied that matters fall within this definition, the MP is allowed to ask leave in Commons Chamber to move the adjournment at 3.30pm that day. (If any MP objects, the proposer must obtain the support of 40 MPs, rising in their places or, if only between 10 and 40, he must win a formal division of the House). If he passes that stage, the matter is debated at 3.30pm the following day or at 7pm the same day if the matter is very urgent. In fact, very few motions receive the permission of the Speaker.


APPLICATIONS FOR EMERGENCY DEBATES
 

 

SESSION

NUMBER OF APPLICATIONS (INCLUDING MULTIPLE APPLICATIONS ON THE SAME MATTER)

NUMBER GRANTED

1974-75

33

1

1975-76

58

3

1976-77

44

3

1977-78

38

2

1978-79(a)

66

3

1979-80(b)

89

2

1980-81

48

1

1981-82

61

2

1982-83(a)

50

2

1983-84(b)

84

3

1984-85

61

1

1985-86

87

1

1986-87(a)

48

2

1987-88(b)

88

1

f) Instead of a debate, an MP may try to publicise an issue and to test support by means of an Early Day Motion - a motion which specifies no date fixed for debate - SO 13A. The MP then goes round to speak with other MPs asking for their signature. This Motion is a way of publishing a cause or campaign.

See: House of Commons Factsheet on Early Day Motions.

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Westminster Hall

In December 1999, a new meeting place was opened up for debates - Westminster Hall. This is a parallel chamber, open to all MPs, who sit in a horseshoe arrangement which is meant to encourage constructive rather than confrontational debate. The meetings are presided over by a Deputy Speaker and there are no votes.

The sessions have been held three times a week. In session 1999-00, there were 263 debates based on Private Members' motions, 14 government initiated debates, and 19 debates on select committee reports (see: House of Commons Modernisation Committee, Sittings in Westminster Hall (1999-00 HC 906).

There is debate as to the worth of these debates. Though allowing greater opportunities for debate, they are not well publicised and may draw attention away from more important matters. But the experiment is continuing for the time being.

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Assessment

In theory, debates are vital to political life since the Government must retain the confidence of the Commons - ie it must show that it can win a majority for all of its important policies and actions. But modern Governments have rarely had to resign because they have lost a vote of confidence. The present convention is that the Government is expected to resign only in two cases.
 
 

1. One is if it is defeated on an express motion of confidence or on an important issue which the Government says it is treating as a matter of confidence. This has occurred only three times this century: in January 1924, Baldwin resigned after failing to win the confidence of the House following the General Election; in October 1924, MacDonald resigned when the Government lost a vote of censure concerning the Campbell case; and in March 1979 the Callaghan Government lost an explicit vote of confidence by one vote.

2. The other case where the Government will resign is where there is a defeat on a central issue of policy. This is not itself a matter for resignation, but the expectation is that it will be followed by an explicit motion of confidence which must be won. This is what happened following Government defects on its Public Expenditure White Papers in 1976 and 1977 - though the Government did win the subsequent confidence vote.
 

Defeats on all other issues are not matters for resignation. Governments suffered 50 defects on votes subject to a whip between April 1972 and February 1978 - and only tried to reverse a quarter of them. In any event, a Government with a strong majority is most unlikely to suffer a serious defect in the first place. This modern attitude of insoucience towards most defeats has, according to professor Philip Norton, encouraged backbench freedom to some extent. Backbench MPs from the Government party now know that they can vote against their Government without precipitating a crisis.

To conclude the Commons does have ultimate power to control the Government by withdrawing its confidence. But in practise, because of party discipline, this power is not a real threat. More important is the use of this direct power to give the Commons indirect control over policy and administration through scrutiny and criticism which influences Governments to some extent rather than changes the Government. Professor Ganz suggests one way of reducing party influence would be to hold secret ballots on divisions (votes in the Commons). MPs could then rebel secretly against their own party. But it is arguable that in the absence of proportional representation in the UK electoral system, this proposal would make Parliament less democratic since neither the majority nor minority would have their views consistently represented and maverick MPs (perhaps under the influence of lucrative consultancy contracts!) would flourish.

For further reading, see:

Commons Register of MPs declared interests



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I can be contacted via email at law6cw@leeds.ac.uk .
© Clive Walker
Last updated, 18 November 2001