Urgent questions are a method backbench MPs can use to scrutinise the Government at short notice on a topical issue. They give the Commons the power to summon a minister and hold them to account.

This Insight looks at how Urgent Questions (UQs) are granted, how the number has changed over time and whether the trend will continue.

How are Urgent Questions granted?

MPs can apply to the Speaker to require a minister to attend the Chamber and answer questions that same day to answer approximately 45 minutes of UQs. These types of questions happen just after Ministerial Question Time.

Once the relevant government department has been notified and had the opportunity to provide a background briefing to the Speakers office, the Speaker decides whether to allow the UQ.

To be judged as ‘urgent’, a question should relate to a very recent or imminent event or development, on which a minister may reasonably be expected to provide an answer that day. Until 2002, UQs were called ‘private notice questions’.

UQs granted over time

There has been a sharp rise in the number of UQs allowed per sitting day since 2009. The highest average came in the 2017-19 session, when 0.88 UQs were granted per sitting day. In comparison, the average from the 1990-91 to the 2008-09 session was consistently under or around 0.1.

As the decision to grant UQs rests with the Speaker, there is a correlation between the number granted and the holder of that office. Speakers can have differing interpretations of parliamentary mechanisms.

Increase in Urgent Questions

It is well documented that the number of UQs granted during the tenure of John Bercow MP (beginning on 22 June 2009), increased. In a speech at the University of Birmingham on 2 February 2012, entitled, The House of Commons – On the Road to Recovery, he made the following comments on urgent questions:

“…I do not apologise for restoring this instrument of scrutiny. I believe the evidence demonstrates that it has helped revive the standing of the House by demonstrating its relevance.”

Is this trend continuing?

Despite a large increase during John Bercow’s tenure, data available up to the October recess 2020 (after the new Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle was elected) shows that UQs in the Commons continue to be granted at a similar rate in the 2019-21 session.

The chart below shows the number of UQs granted by each speaker from Bernard Weatherill onwards. Lindsay Hoyle does not appear in the chart below, as he was elected as Speaker just one day before the end of the 2019 parliamentary session. The following day, the House of Commons dissolved for the general election.

Despite being lower than the previous two sessions, the average (0.5) for the current session is the third highest (if it continues at this level for its duration). There have been 66 UQs in 126 sitting days so far (up to 22 October).

A chart to show average urgent / private notice questions per sitting day by parliamentary session

There is no data publicly available on the number of UQs applied for but not granted.

This is part of a series on House of Commons trends to mark Parliament Week 2020. You can find more analysis and data in our full briefing.

Read the rest of the series.

About the author: Chris Watson is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in parliamentary data.

Image: ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor under CC BY 2.0, cropped

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