By Jack Madden - 27th July 2012
Parliamentary researcher Jack Madden argues otherwise.
The MP I work for recently tabled and delivered an adjournment debate on violence against NHS workers. This type of debate happens all the time in Parliament, and is a short debate of thirty minutes that takes place at the end of the day's business, usually late at night, just before the motion to adjourn is passed. The topic is selected by ballot, except on a Wednesday when the Speaker chooses the topic for debate from the list submitted. The debate can be on any topic, but is usually on a niche issue that the MP wants to pursue.
But, what does an adjournment debate actually do? In our case, there weren't many MPs in the chamber, as you can see in this videoof the debate. So, you could be forgiven for thinking "no, it was an empty chamber, no one heard it thus you didn't achieve anything". Except you would be wrong. Adjournment debates may happen late at night, and they often have low numbers of MPs in attendance, but they are a valuable tool that MPs can use in their work. They do serve a purpose, and are useful in a number of ways.
Firstly, adjournment debates allow the topic to be brought to the attention of a wider audience, and they help put issues in the public sphere. The debate was reported on by Politics Home, and by the BBC, and there is now a permanent record of this debate on violence against NHS staff on Hansard. Our office also had a number of charities contact us offering help with preparing for the debate once they saw that we had raised the topic, and various trade unions contact us thanking us for raising the issue after the debate. Members of the public also saw that we were discussing the issue and got in touch to say thank you for the work that we had done, and appreciated the support we offered. The debate clearly made an impact, and we managed to increase awareness of the topic both in and outside Parliament.
More importantly, the debate meant that the government had to outline its position on violence against NHS workers. Our debate secured an unequivocal statement from the government who, at length, laid out their stance and took questions from the floor of the House. We now know what steps the government is taking already to combat the problem, and what they intend to do in the future. The government spokesperson also provided further information and statistics on the topic and the measurements of current effectiveness of government programmes that we did not already have. Therefore as well as explaining the government's stance on the subject, it also made new information on the topic available.
The new information the debate generated can now be used by various groups for any number of reasons. For example, the opposition can use the information to develop their own policies and to identify weaknesses in government policy that can be built on to better protect NHS staff in the future. Campaigners can also now hold the government to account on the promises outlined in the debate by measuring whether or not they are meeting their targets or providing the resources that they said they would. All interested parties now have more leverage and another tool with which to pressure the government. The adjournment debate created new ways to hold the government to account.
So, it seems that adjournment debates do achieve something, and so did my MP. He got the public talking about the issue, he got ministers talking, he got trade unions talking, and he generated new information for campaigners and for the opposition to use in campaigns and policy work. He pushed the debate on the issue of violence against NHS workers a little further forward. Politics after all is a discourse, it is a conversation, and adjournment debates help make that conversation a little bit more interesting.