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The spreadsheet shows Opposition Day debates under different governments since 1992:  

  • Table 1. 2017 – Present: Conservative administrations under Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak
  • Table 2. 2015 – 2017: Conservative administrations under David Cameron and Theresa May
  • Table 3. 2010 – 2015: Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition administration under David Cameron
  • Table 4. 1997 – 2010: Labour administrations under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
  • Table 5. 1992-1997: Conservative administrations under John Major

What are opposition days?

Opposition days are days where the main subject of business is chosen by the opposition parties. Under Commons Standing Order No.14, 20 days in each session are made available to the opposition, of which:

  • 17 days allocated to the leader of the official opposition
  • 3 days allocated to the leader of the second largest opposition party who shares the time with smaller parties in the House of Commons

The Government may also make additional days available; these are noted as unallotted days.

Debates on opposition motions

Dates for Opposition Day debates are announced by the Leader of the House in the weekly business statement on Thursdays. The subject of the debate and text of the motion appears in the Future Business section of the Order Paper once decided by the opposition party. Often the full text of the motion is not tabled until the day before the debate which means it is not available until the date of the debate when it appears in the Order Paper.

In an exception to the normal rules of debate, the main motion (the opposition motion) is debated and voted on first, rather than any amendment. This is to allow a decision on the opposition motion to be taken first, before any amendment is put.

Many opposition motions criticise Government policies and decisions and the Government often tables an amendment to remove most of the text, replacing it with text commending the Government instead. Government amendments are usually carried under majority Governments.

Unless specifically framed, motions tabled on Opposition Days are not seen as binding on the Government. See motion for a return below.

Divisions on opposition motions

The Government does not table an amendment to every motion, sometimes it simply votes against the motion. Not all motions are critical of the Government, in such cases opposition motions have been agreed without a vote. Amendments can be tabled by other opposition parties. The Speaker selects which amendment, if any, is taken.

The outcome of the motion and results of any division are provided in the spreadsheet.

Ministerial responses

The 2017 General Election returned a minority Conservative government. The Government did not generally contest opposition motions in the 2017-19 session and most opposition motions were agreed, but with the Government abstaining. In October 2017 the Leader of the House updated the House on the Government’s approach to Opposition Day debates:

When an Opposition Day motion is passed by this House, the relevant Minister will respond to the vote by making a statement to the House. This will be within a maximum time period of 12 weeks.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) held an inquiry into Status of Resolutions of the House of Commons in 2019. The Government agreed with the Committee’s recommendation that this period should be shortened to 8 weeks. The Leader of the House announced this change in April 2019.

In January 2021, the Leader of the House did not undertake to continue the 2017 commitment to respond to resolutions of the House agreed on opposition motions, stating that:

the Government’s position is set out from the Dispatch Box. 

Motion for a return (humble Address or Orders for paper)

Opposition motions usually highlight aspects of government policy for debate and are non-binding. In 2017 the Labour Party used an allotted opposition day to call for the Government to release papers by tabling a motion for a return, using a humble Address. The motion on the Opposition Day debate on 1 November 2017 was worded as follows:

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the list of sectors analysed under the instruction of Her Majesty’s Ministers, and referred to in the Answer of 26 June 2017 to Question 239, be laid before this House and that the impact assessments arising from those analyses be provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union.

The motion was agreed without a division. The Government agreed to comply with the resolution of the House and provided documents to the Committee on Exiting the European Union. See Commons Library briefing on exiting the EU: Sectoral assessments for more information.

Are motions for a return binding?

Responding to a point of order on a similar motion calling for the publication of the Government’s EU exit analysis in January 2018, the Speaker said:

First, yes, the motion is binding. I think that the Government are clear about that, and the Minister has indicated the intention of the Government to comply with it. Secondly, if memory serves me correctly, the motion refers to “a matter of urgency.” Therefore, the expectation must be that the report that is the subject of the debate will be released, published or made available to those persons mentioned in the motion as a matter of urgency.

PACAC’s report Status of Resolutions of the House of Commons recommended that this device should not be:

overused or used irresponsibly, particularly if there is a minority [government]

PACAC invited the Procedure Committee to consider “if and how contentious or confidential papers might be made available to the House via motions of return.” The Procedure Committee published its report, The House’s power to call for papers: procedure and practice on 15 May 2019.

Use of the motion for a return

Since 1 November 2017, the official opposition has used this procedural device on 20 Opposition Days. These are noted in the spreadsheet by HA/OfP (humble Address/Order for Papers) after the title of the debate.

Parliament: facts and figures

This series of publications contains data on various subjects relating to Parliament and Government. Topics include legislation, MPs, select committees, debates, divisions and Parliamentary procedure.

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