9. As every active member of the House knows,
it is during Question Time that the House is fullest and most
lively, and that its capacity to regulate itself without control
by the Speaker comes under most strain. At best, Starred Questions
enable Lords to seek information on issues of current concern
before a full House, and give Ministers a chance to show their
mettle against sharp questioning from all quarters of the Chamber.
At worst, Question Time can become dominated by the front benches
and a small group of "regulars", and can degenerate
into bad manners, posturing or frivolity. Four issues can be distinguished,
and we make recommendations on each of them:
(a) The rules for tabling of Questions.
(b) Conduct at Question Time.
(d) The end of Question Time.
Rules for tabling of Questions
10. At present, Starred Questions are allocated
on a "first come first served" basis, subject to the
(a) No Lord may ask more than one per day.
(b) No Lord may have more than two on the
Order Paper at once.
(c) Questions may not be tabled more than
a calendar month ahead.
11. Since 1993, the fourth Question on each
Thursday has been a "Topical Question", tabled on the
previous Tuesday morning and if necessary drawn by lot by the
Clerks at 2 pm. In addition to the normal restrictions on tabling
Starred Questions, no Lord may have more than two Topical Questions
per Session. When appropriate the Clerks apply a test of topicality,
discouraging questions which are not particularly topical.
12. Topical Questions have been a success: but
otherwise the system is not working satisfactorily, because demand
for Questions has outstripped supply. Apart from the Topical Question,
it is rare nowadays for space to be available less than three
or four weeks ahead. This means that many Questions are no longer
current by the time they come up; and it can produce an unseemly
contest to secure the few slots available, which is too often
won by the small group of Lords who know the system best.
13. We therefore propose the following changes:
(a) In order to make all Questions more topical,
the maximum notice period for a Starred Question should be reduced
from one month to two weeks. This will require amendment of Standing
(b) In order to prevent the reduced number
of spaces for Questions available at any one time from being monopolised,
the number of Questions per Lord allowed on the Order Paper at
once should be reduced from two to one. In addition, no Lord should
be allowed to ask more than two Starred Questions (including Topical
Questions) in the same calendar month. For example, a Lord who
asked Questions on 1st and 15th February could not table another
for a date earlier than 1st March.
(c) The fourth Question on Wednesdays should
become an additional Topical Question, to be tabled on the previous
Monday morning. The current limit of two Topical Questions per
Lord per Session should be maintained.
14. Rule changes can only achieve so much. All
Lords should be encouraged to exercise restraint in tabling Starred
Questions, and to do so only when they feel that their Question
really deserves seven minutes of prime parliamentary time. If
a particular Question would be more suitable for Written Answer,
the Clerks should advise accordingly.
15. We suggest that these new rules should be
reviewed by the Procedure Committee soon after coming into force.
It may be that the new two-week notice period will prove too short,
and might have to revert to a month; but we think it is worth
Conduct at Question Time
16. The Companion gives helpful guidance
on the content and delivery of supplementary questions (page 85),
but nothing more. We believe that the following additional guidance
represents the sense of the House:
(a) Ministers' answers should be short. Their
initial answer should not generally exceed 75 words.
(b) Lords should not seek simply to score
(c) The problem of how supplementary questions
should circulate around the different parts of the House cannot
be resolved by a rigid rule. The Government side should not expect
to have every alternate supplementary. In giving guidance, the
Leader should be mindful of the interests of all back-benchers,
including the Liberal Democrats and the cross-benchers.
(d) If two Lords rise at once, both should
be ready to give way immediately, rather than provoke a shouting-match,
which is undignified and wastes time. If the Leader rises, other
Lords should sit down at once.
(e) Question Time is primarily back-bench
time. The Opposition front benches should exercise restraint,
and should not feel obliged to intervene. Their interventions,
like those of other Lords, should consist of genuine questions.
17. At present, Question Time is limited to
half an hour. Within that limit, it is up to the Leader to intervene
if a Question goes on too long; and this happens with increasing
regularity. We recommend an expectation that (if there are four
Questions on the Order Paper) the Clerk will be ready to call
the next Question no later than when the clocks show 7 or 8, 14
or 15 and 21, 22 or 23 minutes respectively. When the Clerk rises,
the House should be ready to move on. Of course, if all Lords
exercise restraint as recommended above, there will be more time
Procedure at the end of Question Time
18. Several Lords have commented on the disturbance
caused by large numbers of Lords leaving the Chamber at the end
of Question Time, often conversing as they do so. This drowns
the opening words of the first speaker on the main business of
the day; and confusion is compounded by cries of "Order!"
if Questions are being put from the Woolsack.
19. We recommend that Lords who are in the Chamber
at the end of Questions should stay seated for any brief formal
business, and should then leave quickly and quietly. The Clerk
should rise; but he should pause before calling on the next business
until most Lords who wish to leave the Chamber at that point have
done so. This procedure could also be used at other points where
large numbers of Lords wish to leave the Chamber, e.g. between
8 The number was reduced from two to one in 1992. Back
9 Supplementaries should be short, and confined to no more than
two points. They should keep to the subject of the Question, and
should seek information rather than state opinion. They should
not be read. Back
10 According to the Leader of the Opposition, this was the last Government's
guideline. The Leader of the House tells us that the current guideline
is 100 words. Back