Memorandum from the Clerk of the Parliaments,
House of Lords
I am happy to respond to the request for a memorandum
setting out the system for tabling questions for written answer
and oral questions in the House of Lords. This response takes
the form of extracts from the Companion to the Standing Orders
with additional notes of explanation.
1. The Companion gives the following general
advice on Tabling of questions which applies to Questions
for Written Answer and oral questions (Starred Questions) and
is amplified below.
3.23 Motions or questions may be handed in
at the Table or, after question time, in the Minute Room, while
the House is sitting. At other times they may be handed to a clerk,
addressed by post to the Clerk of the Parliaments or faxed to
the Minute Room (020 7219 3887).
4.93 Starred questions, marked * on the Order
Paper, are asked for information only, and not with a view to
stating an opinion, making a speech or raising a debate;
starred questions may be tabled up
to one calendar month in advance of the date on which they are
to be asked (eg a question to be asked on 12 April may not be
tabled before 12 March);
no starred question may be tabled
less than twenty-four hours before the start of the sitting at
which it is due to be asked (or after 2.30 pm on Fridays);
the number of starred questions for
any one day is limited to four;
no Member of the House may have more
than one starred question on the Order Paper at any one time,
but topical questions are excluded from this rule;
starred questions are asked by leave
of the House, and so may be disallowed by the House.
2. The House of Lords has no Table Office.
The Clerk Assistant has day-to-day responsibility for compilation
of the Minutes of Proceedings and the Order Paper (the Minute)
and he is assisted in this by junior clerks who take it in turns
to staff the Minute Room in addition to their other duties. There
is a full-time Minute Secretary who prepares the text of the Minute
in electronic form for printing.
3. Questions may be tabled by delivery:
(b) to the Clerk Assistant or his secretary;
(c ) at the Table of the House;
(e) by post to the Clerk of the Parliaments,
the Minute Room, the Clerk Assistant or the Duty Clerk;
(f) by fax to the Minute Room or the Clerk
Assistant's Office; and
(g) by e-mail to the Minute Room or Clerk
4. Starred Questions are entered in an electronic
diary and are published in the next print of the Minutes of Proceedings,
marked with a dagger to show that they are new. This is usually
the following day, except during recesses.
5. Questions have to be submitted either
in person or with the Member's signature. An exception to this
rule has been made for e-mailed questions which are accepted by
arrangement with the Member concerned who agrees that the Minute
Room may accept as authentic any e-mail purporting to come from
his/her e-mail address.
4.98 The fourth space for a starred question
each Wednesday and Thursday is reserved for "topical"
questions. These may not be submitted before the previous Thursday
(in the case of a question to be asked on the following Wednesday)
or Monday (in the case of a question to be asked on the Thursday
of that week). The questions are chosen by ballot.
4.99 Members may enter the ballot even if
they already have one starred question on the Order Paper; but
they may not enter the ballot if they already have a starred question
on the Order Paper for the Wednesday or Thursday concerned. No
member may ask more than two topical starred questions in one
4.100 The timetable for the ballot for topical
questions during any sitting week is:
|Day on which balloted starred question is to be asked
|| Ballot drawn|| Question appears on Order Paper
|Wednesday||Previous Thursday after starred questions
||Monday 2 pm||Tuesday morning
|Thursday||Monday of the week in which the question is to be asked, at 2 pm
||Tuesday 2 pm||Wednesday morning
All questions for the ballot should be delivered to the Clerk
6. The Clerk Assistant conducts the ballot.
Private Notice Questions
4.101 A private notice question (PNQ) gives Members of
the House the opportunity to raise urgent matters on any sitting
day. A PNQ should be submitted in writing to the Leader of the
House by 12 noon on the day on which it is proposed to ask it,
or by 10 am on days when the House sits before 1 pm. The decision
whether the question is of sufficient urgency to justify an immediate
reply rests in the first place with the Leader of the House and
ultimately with the general sense of the House.
Questions for Written Answer
The practice for tabling Questions for Written Answer is
as set out in (a) to (g) above. A member may table up to a maximum
of six written questions per day. Questions received before 6.00
pm, are published in the next print of the Minute of Proceedings.
Questions received after 6.00 pm are held over until the following
Rules of Admissibility
4.84 Questions and motions are expected to be worded in
accordance with the practice of the House. The Clerks at the Table
are available to give help to any Member of the House in the drafting
of a question or motion, and the advice tendered by the clerks
should be accepted. However, there is no officer who has the authority
to refuse questions or motions on the ground of irregularity:
and the form in which they appear on the Order Paper is the responsibility
of the Member who hands them in, subject to the sense of the House
which is the final arbiter.
4.85 It is not in order to incorporate statements of opinion
or the demonstration of a point of view in the text of questions
or motions for papers, or to italicise or underline words in the
text of motions or questions in order to give them emphasis. Two
Statements of fact should be inserted in the text of questions
only to the extent necessary to elicit the information sought.
4.86 It is open to any Member of the House to call attention
to a question or motion which has appeared on the Order Paper
and to move that leave be not given to ask the question or move
the motion, or to move that it be removed from the Order Paper.
Such a motion should be used only in the last resort. It is debatable
and is decided by the House.
4.87 Questions are addressed to Her Majesty's Government
and not to a particular minister. Questions may also be addressed
to certain Members as holders of official positions but not as
members of the government. Thus, for instance, the Leader of the
House has been questioned on matters concerning procedure, the
Lord Chancellor concerning the work of the Law Lords and the Chairman
of the Committees concerning any matters within the duties of
his office and matters relating to the House of Lords Offices
Committee and its sub-committees.
4.88 The decision whether or not a question is in order
and may properly be asked is in the last resort one for the House
itself. Although the House allows more latitude than the House
of Commons, there are certain categories of question which are
generally regarded as inadmissible. Such questions are those which:
(a) cast reflections on the Sovereign or Royal Family;
(b) relate to matters sub judice;
(c) relate to matters for which the Church of England
(d) relate to matters which are reserved to the Scottish
Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly;
(e) are not matters for which the government is responsible
(f) contain an expression or statement of opinion;
(g) are phrased offensively.
4.89 The principles embodied in SO32 (asperity of speech)
4.90 The tabling of questions on public utilities, nationalised
industries and privatised industries is restricted to those matters
for which the government are in practice responsible.
7. In addition to the above rules, no member is allowed
to table a Starred Question ahead of a similar question already
on the Order Paper, and they are advised not to table a question
which duplicates one already on the Order Paper unless a suitable
interval will have elapsed between the questions.
8. When the House is in recess, the Duty Clerk accepts
Starred Questions and Questions for Written Answer for tabling.
These are published in a reprint of the Order Paper, either shortly
before the House resumes at the end of a long recess, or as soon
as the House resumes after a short recess.
9. You ask for a view on how successfully the system
operates in practice.
10. I am unaware of any obvious failings in the system
for tabling questions. Members coming from the House of Commons
may be surprised by the absence of a Table Office in the House
of Lords. In time we may need to reconsider this, depending on
the number of questions tabled and the pressures on staff. For
the present, we economise on staff members by expecting all junior
clerks to work in the Minute Room on a rota basis; this also helps
with their training.
11. An important feature of the system for Starred Questions
is the electonic diary. There are four slots for Starred Questions
per sitting day (except Fridays). The diary allows questions to
be tabled at a variety of locations (including the Chamber where
there is a laptop at the Table), whilst retaining certainty about
what slots are available. Members can take a slot on a first come-first
served basis, without the need to refer back to some paper authority.
12. Members often need advice to ensure that their questions
are confined to matters within Her Majesty's Government's responsibility
and do not demonstrate a point of view. But they comply readily
with the statement in the Companion that the clerks' advice should
be accepted. Difficulties about departmental responsibility are
avoided because questions are addressed to Her Majesty's Government
as a whole, not to individual Ministers. The Government Whips
Office allocates questions to Departments the next day, once the
Order Paper is available.
13. Written Questions are a major growth area (up from
an average of 16 a day in 1996-97 to 34 a day now). The principal
weakness here is with the answers, not the questions. Her Majesty's
Government are supposed to answer questions within a fortnight,
whereas some questions have not been answered after three months.
In connection with tabling written questions, a great improvement
would be achieved if more of them were submitted electronically,
thus reducing the major burden of retyping them. This is related
to a current proposal to answer more questions electronically,
though one could go ahead without the other. (Following an initiative
from Lord Lucas in 1997, it is now possible for Members to receive
the Government's answer to a Written Question by e-mail, with
electronic copies to the Minute Room and Lords' Hansard). Cost
savings could be achieved if electronic text from Government departments
could be used to originate the answers printed in Hansard, instead
of their having to be rekeyed. The House authorities are doing
their utmost to achieve this.
14. Tabling questions by e-mail comes up against a difficulty
of authentication. The requirement that any question should be
signed by the Member or handed in personally cannot be met using
e-mail. However, the growing popularity of e-mail, coupled with
the labour-saving advantage of having the text available in electronic
form, means that a change of practice is called for. The Lords'
practice is as described above but if Public Key Infrastructure
were available we would probably want to adopt this security device.
J M Davies
4 January 2002