Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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).

Starred Questions

    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:

    (a)  to the Minute Room;

    (b)  to the Clerk Assistant or his secretary;

    (c )  at the Table of the House;

    (d)  to any Clerk;

    (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 Assistant's Office.

  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.

Topical Questions

    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 session.

The Ballot

    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 opens Ballot drawn Question appears on Order Paper
WednesdayPrevious Thursday after starred questions Monday 2 pmTuesday morning
ThursdayMonday of the week in which the question is to be asked, at 2 pm Tuesday 2 pmWednesday morning

  All questions for the ballot should be delivered to the Clerk Assistant.

  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 day.

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 is responsible:

    (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 (see below);

    (f)  contain an expression or statement of opinion;

    (g)  are phrased offensively.

    4.89  The principles embodied in SO32 (asperity of speech) also apply.

    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

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