Select Committee on Procedure of the House First Report



Starred Questions

  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.

    (c)  Timing.

    (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 following rules:

    (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 This means that many Questions are no longer current by the time they come up; and it can produce an unseemly contest to secure the few slots available, which is too often won by the small group of Lords who know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 Order 41.

    (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 a try.

Conduct at Question Time

  16. The Companion gives helpful guidance on the content and delivery of supplementary questions (page 85),[9] 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.[10]

    (b)  Lords should not seek simply to score party-political points.

    (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.

Timing

  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 for everyone.

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 two debates.


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

 
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