Debates in Parliament

One of the most significant functions of Parliament is to debate the government’s legislative programme. This not only enables MPs to weigh up the likely impact of Public Bills, but also confers  legitimacy on the subsequent legislation.

MPs also debate Private Members’ Bills.

There are several further ways in which MPs can scrutinise the executive and debate issues of public concern. 

The parliamentary Backbench Business Committee

The Backbench Business Committee was established in 2010 and provides backbench MPs with 35 days a year in which they can control parliamentary business. MPs can ask to raise any issue with the committee, which is an opportunity to generate debate on areas that might otherwise be neglected by government. In 2021–22, some of the debates the committee arranged included the Black History Month, gender-specific religious persecution and on St Patrick’s Day 2022, the role of the Irish in Britain.

The Petitions Committee

In 2015, the Petitions Committee was created to schedule debates on petitions that had reached 100,000 signatures. In March 2022, for example, the committee arranged an important debate on waiving visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees.

Adjournment debates

Adjournment debates take place at the end of each day’s sitting. MPs can apply to the speaker to ask a minister a question. When the MP has asked their question and the minister has responded, other MPs may ask questions if the minister and backbencher agree. Adjournment debates are limited to 30 minutes and are rarely attended by many MPs, but they can raise issues of significant public interest. For example, in 2020, Neil Parish MP’s adjournment debate called on the BBC to protect regional news programmes.

Early day motions

Early day motions are motions introduced by MPs urging debate on a specific issue. Most do not reach the floor of the House of Commons. However, they can demonstrate parliamentary support for a particular issue, especially if a significant number of MPs lend their support to the motion.

Emergency debates

Under House of Commons standing order 24, an MP may request an emergency debate. If the speaker allows, an MP has three minutes to make the case in the chamber for an emergency debate. If the speaker allows it, the House of Commons can decide whether the emergency debate will take place. On 3 September 2019, Oliver Letwin’s case for an emergency debate on the House of Commons blocking a no deal Brexit was approved by the then speaker John Bercow. When it passed (328–301) this enabled the Commons to successfully demand that the government extend its Brexit negotiations by a margin of 329–300.

Urgent questions

If an MP believes that an issue needs a minister to address it at once, they can apply to the speaker to ask an urgent question. If the speaker decides that this will serve the public interest, the minister is required to explain to the House of Commons ‘what the government is doing on the issue raised’. In January 2022, speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle granted Angela Rayner an urgent question to the prime minister on whether he had knowingly broken lockdown restrictions by attending Downing Street parties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny and debate is disputed. 

Party Discipline and Elective Dictatorship 

Parliament's effectiveness at Scrutiny 

On a three- line whip, MPs can be just as much swayed by their whips as by arguments, and adjournment debates can often be in front of an almost empty chamber. Many debates, for example on e-petitions and on opposition day motions, also lack the force to change the law.

However, MPs can be independent-minded, and strong arguments can determine the result of a vote with profound consequences. In December 2021, the House of Commons debate on the introduction of Covid-19 passes in England generated powerful arguments on both sides over the extent to which the government can intrude in people’s private lives.

December 2023 . Rishi Sunak suffers his FIRST Commons defeat as PM over the infected blood scandal 246 to 242 in favour of a new body to help compensate - government majority wiped out  Win for Labour, forcing him into a £20 billion spending commitment this year Link Role of backbenchers, power of PM