What’s going on with opposition debates and how can charities use them?

If you haven’t been following parliament that closely you may be surprised to know that in recent weeks the opposition has won votes on social care funding, the roll out of universal credit, and NHS pay, among other things. In each of these cases the government chose not to contest a vote on an opposition motion – what’s going on, and can charities use this opportunity to their advantage?

What are opposition day debates?

Parliamentary time is largely controlled by the government whips (though since the Wright reforms, backbenchers have more opportunities to initiate debates), but time is set aside in each session for debates initiated by opposition parties, and in particular the official opposition.

The motions that are debated are non-binding, but have previously led to changes in government policy where it is felt they represent what MPs like to call the ‘will of the house’, most famously when the government was defeated on a contested vote on Gurkha rights – you may remember Joanna Lumley dragging the suitably chastened minister Phil Woolas in front of the press to agree to make the necessary changes.

How are they used?

One of the challenges for charities seeking to use opposition day debates to influence is that they have, perhaps unsurprisingly, traditionally been very partisan. They are largely used by the opposition to make life difficult for the government on a notable area of weakness.

As a result, government backbenchers have tended to be reluctant to support such motions, even when they are sympathetic. That in turn has led to opposition parties calling votes with the specific intention of highlighting MPs’ voting records in future election leaflets. All of these are legitimate political tactics, but they don’t tend to lead to productive debates on substantive issues.

Why do the government keep losing votes on them?

So given all these problems, the Conservative minority government, which would otherwise be facing a regular struggle to get enough numbers to win votes, have instead taken the option to refuse to vote on each motion. As these are not binding the only problem this creates is embarrassment, and realistically for most of the public, opposition days are not at the forefront of their minds. The government has agreed to provide a written response within 12 weeks when they have lost a vote on an opposition motion, a concession which predictably did little to meet the concerns of parliamentary traditionalists.

Developing new parliamentary tactics

However, this approach might lead to the development of newer tactics, to force the government into acting. For example, could the government really not oppose a motion of no confidence in a cabinet minister? Some have even speculated about whether they could be used to fine ministers.

And in recent weeks Labour hit upon an obscure tactic which allowed them to make a difference, by using a now rarely used power, requesting ministers to release government papers to parliament, in this case the 58 sectoral analyses of Brexit the government has reportedly compiled. This caused confusion and saw members reaching for their copies of Erskine May (the parliamentary rulebook), with the speaker eventually agreeing that such a motion would normally be seen as binding.

Expect to see more obscure procedures used in an attempt to use opposition day debates to force the government’s hand.

How can charities influence these debates?

The fiercely partisan nature of these debates means that charities should tread carefully. If an issue of importance to you is raised in this way, then by all means provide cross-party briefing and look to provide more understanding of the debate. But I would be cautious about encouraging your allies in parliament to attempt to initiate one – often a less well-attended debate in Westminster Hall can give ministers the space to give a more considered view, though clearly if more opposition motions are seen to be binding then there will be big opportunities for change if something that matters to you gets on the opposition’s radar.

You may find that opposition day debates are not the right opportunity for your organisation, but it’s worth being aware of the various ways in which MPs are trying to force the government’s hand in a tightly balanced parliament. If charities use the right tools, there are huge opportunities for parliamentary influence.

If you need any advice or support on parliamentary procedure or campaigning, feel free to drop me a line at chris.walker@ncvo.org.uk, or have a look at our upcoming training.


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Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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