Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Scheduling of Business at Westminster

Included in the excellent report by the House of Commons Reform Committee (Chairman, Tony Wright (pictured)) - "Rebuilding the House" is a description of the process by which business is scheduled. My post last Wednesday described the work of the Legislation Committee of the Cabinet. Chapter Four of the Report goes into detail about the processes of scheduling and timetabling. It is worth reading the whole chapter (though I'd say the whole report merits consideration and reflection upon!).

The following are particularly useful extracts.

120. The gradual takeover by the Government of House time began in the first half of the 19th century, in response to the growth in Government financial business and Ministerial legislation. In 1811 Mondays and Fridays were reserved for Orders of the Day as opposed to Notices of Motions: these Orders were principally Government Orders. In 1835 Mondays and Fridays were reserved for “Government Orders”, a category of business recognised for the first time in that way. Ministers could no longer tolerate waiting in a disorderly queue behind a mass of backbench business, and constantly liable to procedural devices of delay or diversion. The public had growing expectations that a Ministry would bring its own detailed legislation to the House, discussed and agreed in outline in Cabinet, announced in a Royal Speech and drafted by professional draftsmen working for the Crown. By the 1880s legislation was seen not only as largely the preserve of Ministers, but their principal function. In 1896 Balfour first limited by temporary and annually renewed Orders the business of Supply—the principal opportunity to raise debate by moving amendments to a formal Question or by seeking to amend the actual Supply motions—to a fixed number of days each session, with the Opposition given the freedom to choose the subjects. On 11 April 1902 the House agreed to what was first Standing Order No 4, and in a revised form is Standing Order No 14, giving “government business” precedence at every sitting unless otherwise provided.

121. SO No 14 (1) provides that “Save as provided in this order, government business shall
have precedence at every sitting”. The specific savings in SO No 14 are for:
• 20 Opposition days each session, allotted on days determined by the Government: and
• 13 Private Members’ Bill Fridays each session, fixed by the House at the outset of each session on the basis of a Motion moved by a Minister.

Protected time
122. Time in the Chamber is also set aside by other Standing Orders for:
• oral questions for an hour on Mondays to Thursdays and Urgent Questions
• motions for leave to bring in Bills under the “ten-minute rule”, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
• emergency debates
• end of day 30 minute adjournment backbench debates every sitting day
• three Estimates days each year, for debates under the auspices of the Liaison Committee
• opposed private business, to be distributed between “the sittings on which
government business has precedence and other sittings”.


150. The business programme is managed at official level by the Private Secretary to the Government Chief Whip and his staff in conjunction with his opposite numbers in the House of Lords. At the outset of a session, or shortly before it begins, the business managers look at the Government’s proposed legislative programme. Decisions have to be taken on which House each Bill is to start. Some Bills may require Royal Assent faster than others. A few may be introduced later in the session and be carried over. For each Bill, estimated dates are needed by when they should reach the second House. From these considerations spring the dates by which committee proceedings in the Commons must end—the “committee out-date”—which appears in the programme motion now usually applied to Government Bills in the Commons immediately after Second Reading. The date by which the managers wish to conclude Commons proceedings, at Third Reading, is not published. The business managers also have to allow for scheduling of the 20 Opposition days and the scatter of “default” debates through the year, as well as the Queen’s Speech and Budget debates.

Business Statement

151. The business for the next fortnight is agreed internally by the Government business managers at a weekly meeting. Before and after this meeting there are some consultations
through the usual channels with the Official Opposition Whips. The Leader of the House then announces future business to the House each week on Thursday as a rolling two-week programme, with the second week avowedly less firmly determined than the first. Business in Westminster Hall is often announced more than two weeks in advance. The announcement of future business is akin to a Ministerial statement but preserves the facade
of being an Urgent Question from the Shadow Leader.