Companion to the Standing Orders and guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords


5.14  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, and the Chairman of Committees concerning any matters within the duties of his office and matters relating to the House Committee and other domestic committees.

5.15  A parliamentary question is not a "request for information" under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

What makes a question inadmissible?

5.16  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.[178] 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;[179]

    (d)  relate to matters which are devolved 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.

5.17  The principles embodied in SO 33 (asperity of speech) also apply.

Public utilities, nationalised and privatised industries

5.18  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.[180] Such matters include broad issues of general policy and matters of overall financial control, matters which raise issues of urgent public importance or requests for statistical information on a national basis. In the case of privatised industries, ministers may retain power, for instance, to give directions either directly or indirectly through a regulatory body or to exercise rights conferred by a special share-holding. Questions on the day-to-day administration of public utilities, nationalised and privatised concerns which do not fall within the government's responsibility are out of order.

Executive agencies

5.19  Where government functions are delegated to an executive agency, accountability to Parliament remains through ministers.[181] When a minister answers a parliamentary question, orally or in writing, by reference to a letter from the chief executive of an agency, the minister remains accountable for the answer, which attracts parliamentary privilege, and criticism of the answer in the House should be directed at the minister, not the chief executive.

Question time

5.20  Question time in the House of Lords takes place at the start of business on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.[182] Question time may not exceed 30 minutes.


5.21  Oral questions, marked * in House of Lords Business, are asked for information only, and not with a view to stating an opinion, making a speech or raising a debate;[183]

  • oral questions may be tabled up to one month, including recesses, in advance of the date on which they are to be asked (e.g. a question to be asked on 12 April may not be tabled before 12 March);
  • no oral 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 p.m. on Friday for Monday);
  • the number of oral questions is limited to four;
  • no member of the House may have more than one oral question on the order paper at any one time,[184] but topical questions are excluded from this rule;
  • oral questions are asked by leave of the House, and so may be disallowed by the House.


5.22  The form of words to be used in asking a question is:

    "My Lords, I beg leave to ask the question standing in my name on the order paper."[185]

5.23  If a member of the House is not present to ask a question standing in his name the question may be asked by another member on his behalf with his permission.[186] On such occasions, the member who is in fact to ask the question should inform the Table, who will inform the government. The unanimous leave of the House is required for one member's question to be asked by another when the authority of the member named on the order paper has not been given.[187] If the Clerk of the Parliaments knows that an oral question is not going to be asked, he informs the House before he calls the first question;[188] the full 30 minutes is available for the remaining questions.


5.24  Ministers' initial answers should not generally exceed 75 words. Supplementary questions may be asked but they should be short and confined to not more than two points.[189] If a supplementary question exceeds these guidelines, the minister need only answer the two main points. Supplementary questions should be confined to the subject of the original question, and ministers should not answer irrelevant questions.[190] The essential purpose of supplementaries is to elicit information, and they should not incorporate statements of opinion. They should not be read. The member who tabled the question has no automatic right to ask a final supplementary question.

5.25  Where a minister's answer contains material that is too lengthy or too complicated to be given orally in the House, it may be published in Hansard.[191]

Topical questions (balloted oral questions)

5.26  The fourth space for an oral question each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is reserved for a question which is topical. The questions are chosen by ballot.[192]

5.27  Members may enter the ballot even if they already have one oral question on the order paper; but they may not enter the ballot if they already have an oral question on the order paper for the day concerned. No member may ask more than four[193] topical oral questions in one session. The Clerks discourage members from tabling questions which are clearly not topical and indicate to members which questions have already been tabled for ballot. No more than one question on a subject may be accepted for inclusion in the ballot and priority is given to the first which is tabled.


5.28  The timetable for the ballot for topical questions during any sitting week is:

Day question is to be asked
Ballot opens
Ballot drawn
Questions appear in Lords Business
Previous Wednesday, after oral questions
Friday 2 p.m.
Monday or Tuesday morning
Previous Thursday, 3 p.m.
Monday 2 p.m.
Tuesday morning
Previous Friday, 3 p.m.
Tuesday 2 p.m.
Wednesday morning

All questions for the ballot should be delivered to the Table Office.

Private notice questions[194]

5.29  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 Lord Speaker by 12 noon on the day on which it is proposed to ask it, or by 10 a.m. on days when the House sits before 1 p.m. The decision whether the question is of sufficient urgency and importance to justify an immediate reply rests in the first place with the Speaker, after consultation, and ultimately with the general sense of the House.[195]

5.30  If a member of the House challenges the preliminary decision of the Lord Speaker on the question of urgency, they should:

(a)  give as much notice as possible to the Speaker that they propose to challenge the preliminary decision in the House; and

(b)  make clear to the House, when rising to ask for leave to ask the question, that they are appealing to the House for support against the preliminary decision of the Speaker.[196]

5.31  PNQs are taken immediately after oral questions, or on Friday as first business. They should not be made the occasion for immediate debate.[197] Proceedings on PNQs follow the rules for oral questions. In particular, supplementary questions should be short and confined to not more than two points. Comment should be avoided. Proceedings on a PNQ are expected to take not more than 10 minutes. For these reasons it may at times be more convenient for the House if the PNQ procedure is not used but instead the government makes a statement on the matter which the PNQ is intended to raise. Circumstances in which statements may be more appropriate than PNQs include: when a long answer is required; when the responsible minister is a member of the House of Lords; when the House of Commons is not sitting.[198]

5.32  When the answer to an Urgent Question tabled in the Commons is, by agreement between the usual channels, to be repeated in the Lords, it is usually repeated in the form of a statement, synchronised with the answer in the Commons, and not taken by way of a PNQ in the Lords.

5.33  When an oral question in the House of Commons is deferred by a minister in that House to be answered at 3.30 p.m.,[199] the PNQ procedure is used to deal with the deferred question in the Lords. The deferred question follows the normal rules for PNQs and is expected to take not more than 10 minutes.

Questions for written answer

5.34  A member of the House who wishes to ask a question but does not want an oral reply may enter it in House of Lords Business under the heading "Questions for Written Answer".[200] Questions may generally be tabled only on sitting days.[201] Guidance for the wording of written questions is given at paragraphs 5.11-5.12. Answers to written questions are sent directly to the member by a Lords minister in the relevant department and are published in Hansard. Answers are issued to the Press Gallery from 4.30 p.m., with no embargo on use and publication.

5.35  When a minister undertakes in the House to write to a member on a matter of general interest to the House, it is open to that member or any other member to ensure that the minister's reply is available to the House by putting down a question for written answer.[202]


5.36  Written questions are expected to be answered within a fortnight. Answers are sent to members by post. Members may register with the office of the Leader of the House to receive answers by e-mail. When the House is in recess, answers should be sent to the member concerned within a fortnight, and printed in Hansard for the next sitting day, with a reference to the date of the answer. Where appropriate, written questions may be answered on the day on which they are tabled. The normal practice is for very long answers to written questions to be placed in the Library of the House rather than printed in Hansard.[203] The Leader of the House advises on individual cases of difficulty.[204]


5.37  Members of the House of Lords are not entitled to table more than six written questions on any one day.[205] The tabling of a series of different requests for information in the form of a single question is deprecated.[206]

Questions for short debate

5.38  A question for short debate is distinguishable from a motion in that there is no right of reply.[207] Such a question may be tabled for any day on which the House is sitting. Members should table such questions in House of Lords Business without a date, and then consult the Government Whips' Office to agree upon a suitable date.[208] Questions for short debate are taken as last business or during the lunch or dinner break.[209] A second question for short debate should be put down only on a day when business appears to be light.

5.39  Questions for short debate may be taken in a Grand Committee with the concurrence of those concerned. No business of the House motion is required. Such questions are time-limited to 1½ hours.[210]


5.40   If taken as last business, a question for short debate is subject to a time limit of 1½ hours. Questions for short debate taken in the lunch or dinner break last for a maximum of one hour and should therefore be limited in scope. In each case the questioner is guaranteed 10 minutes and the Minister 12 minutes. The remaining time is divided equally between all speakers on the list; there is no guaranteed time for opposition spokesmen. If the list of speakers is small, the maximum allocation for all speeches is 10 minutes, except for the Minister, who is still guaranteed 12 minutes. See the following table.

1½ hrs
1 hr
10 mins
10 mins
Speakers including Opposition spokesmen
10 mins maximum
10 mins maximum
Minister replying
12 mins
12 mins


5.41  No member may speak more than once except with the leave of the House. If a member does speak more than once it should be only for the purpose of explaining a material point in his speech and not to introduce new subjects for debate.[211]

  • The member who asks the question has no right of reply since no motion has been moved.
  • It is not in order for members to continue the debate after the government's reply has been given, except for questions to the minister before the minister sits down.

178   Procedure 2nd Rpt 1966-67. Back

179   Procedure 2nd Rpt 1989-90. Back

180   Procedure 1st Rpt 1976-77. Back

181   Procedure 3rd & 4th Rpts 1992-93. Back

182   Procedure 1st Rpt 1990-91. Back

183   SO 35. Back

184   Procedure 1st Rpt 1998-99. Back

185   Procedure 1st Rpt 1967-68. Back

186   Procedure 2nd Rpt 1984-85. Back

187   SO 43(2). Back

188   Procedure 1st Rpt 1999-2000. Back

189   Procedure 1st Rpt 1984-85; 1st Rpt 1987-88. Back

190   Restated in Procedure 1st Rpt 2002-03. Back

191   Procedure 1st Rpt 1984-85; 1st Rpt 1987-88. Back

192   Procedure 5th Rpt 2001-02; 3rd Rpt 2003-04. Back

193   Procedure 5th Rpt 2001-02; 3rd Rpt 2003-04. Back

194   SO 36; Procedure 1st Rpt 1959-60; 5th Rpt 1971-72. Back

195   Procedure 3rd Rpt 2005-06. Back

196   HL Deb. 17 February 1966 col. 1148. Back

197   SO 36. Back

198   Procedure 2nd Rpt 1990-91. Back

199   The purpose is to defer to the end of question time a question that would otherwise come higher up the list in order to prevent the question from taking up a disproportionate amount of question time and to allow it some extra time on the floor of the House. Back

200   SO 45; Procedure 1st Rpt 1990-91. Back

201   Texts may be submitted to the Table Office in advance. In the summer recess 2006 the Government announced two days on which Questions could be tabled without the House sitting. Back

202   Procedure 7th Rpt 1971-72. Back

203   Procedure 4th Rpt 1998-99. Back

204   Procedure Committee minutes, 4 April 2000.  Back

205   Procedure 2nd Rpt 1988-89. Back

206   Procedure 1st Rpt 1977-78. Back

207   SO 37. Back

208   Procedure 6th Rpt 2005-06. Back

209   SO 41(9). Back

210   Resolution of the House 31 January 2005. Back

211   SO 31(2). Back

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