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Rules: Statements, Debates, and Papers


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Ministerial Statements

What are ministerial statements? Oral statements are made by ministers to the House of Commons to address major incidents, announce government policies, or present statutory instruments (or other forms of secondary legislation). In general, it is common for a ministerial statement to occur:

  • In response to a scenario - often providing updates or summarising the actions that the government took during the course of a live event.
  • In announcing new policies - government ministers have a wide degree of latitude in what they can do using executive authority and ministerial statements are often used to announce how they are using that authority (for example, setting up a new office or a new programme that does not require statutory approval, or making secondary legislation).
  • In launching a review - from time to time the Government will commission an independent review of a policy or programme, which are generally announced as ministerial statements.

The latter two would be government business as part of the weekly round, while the first would be outside of that allocation.

Debate on statements: Once a ministerial statement is published, it will be open for debate for up to four days. Debate is open to all MPs. If the statement is in response to a scenario or simply an update, then the Speaker will call a close to debate without a vote.

If it is a substantive policy debate, then the Speaker will call for division on the question "that the House notes the Minister's statement". By convention, such a vote is on the substance of the proposed change, even though its form is not: though it is not technically legally binding.

White and Command Papers

What are command papers? Formally, command papers are documents presented to Parliament "at the Command of Her Majesty". Practically, they are significant policy documents that outline broad government strategies. Typically they are presented alongside a ministerial statement or a general debate. Some examples of white and command papers include the Integrated Review, the Strategic Defence and Security Review, and the Levelling Up White Paper.

For our purposes, white and command papers are written documents that contain the following key elements: a description of the problem, an outline of the governments approach to the problem, and some specific details of the governments approach to the problem. As an example, the Government might put forward a command paper on foreign and defence policy in Asia and the rise of China. It might include:

  • A description of the problem: "China's rise poses a challenge to UK interests in Asia because..."
  • The governments broad approach: "To address this challenge, the United Kingdom is leveraging its diplomatic, military, and economic might in a coordinated way to..."
  • And a summary of specific details, which could include: increasing development assistance to Pacific Island nations, selling naval vessels (indicate what kind) to South East Asian nations with claims on the South China Sea, pursuing increased defence coordination with Australia by doing X, Y, and Z."

In general, as these are significant documents, we expect them to be around 1-2 pages in length (though you can to more depending on the magnitude of the problem you are confronting). Some things, like defence reviews, should be conducted in the form of command papers. If you are unsure as to whether you should use a command paper or a plain old ministerial statement, please consult an admin.

What are the benefits of a command paper? Command papers get the Civil Service moving in a way that ministerial statements do not. They get broad strategies moving forward - especially those that require cross-government buy in. And they allow for confronting more complex challenges. Typically, if you approach things in a more joined up manner, you will get better results. Also, if something is particularly complex, you should assume you will be writing a command paper.

  • An example of "better results" from a joined-up approach might be launching a drug strategy that incorporates health and eduction versus just punishment.
  • An example of "complex" is setting out the strategy for achieving a 24/7 NHS and the policy changes that will be forced on the NHS to do so.

That said, not all topics require a command paper. Some things that are the responsibility of a single department are best handled as a ministerial statement. For example, announcing new fiscal rules can be a statement, as can announcing the government's negotiating strategy on Brexit. Once again, if you're not sure - ask an admin.

How does a command paper get introduced? Command papers should be introduced via a Ministerial Statement.

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