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House of Lords: Oral Questions

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 21 March 2013


Asked By

To ask the Leader of the House what steps he is taking to encourage Members of the House to ask short and relevant supplementary Oral Questions.

My Lords, the guidance in the Companion on supplementary questions is crystal clear. We all of us in this House have a shared responsibility to follow it. I have written to the Leader of the Opposition, the Convenor and my noble friend the Deputy Leader to ask for their support in reminding Members of that guidance. I have also encouraged Members on my Front Bench to provide succinct answers so that more supplementary questions can be asked.

My Lords, exhortations by the Front Bench to be brief simply do not work. Members ignore them. Some thoughtless people hog Question Time, bully the House and ego-trip with long, garrulous statements—all in breach of the Companion. If both Front Benches are unable, due to wishing to be courteous, actually to enforce the Companion, why cannot someone else take on that responsibility? I suggest the Lord Speaker.

I have a number of points, my Lords. First, on the question of having a Lord Speaker, I know that the House looked at it in the previous Session and concluded by a considerable margin that it would prefer to keep things as they were. As for regulating the House, it is the responsibility of all those on the Front Benches not to speak too long and not to hog questions and take them away from the Back Benches, but it is also the responsibility of the whole House to make its views known if it thinks that Members are going on for too long or are asking too many questions.

Does my noble friend agree that a single supplementary question is much better than a double-barrelled question, because the Minister does not have time to think?

As is often the case, my Lords, I do think that less is more. The Companion is extremely clear. It says that supplementary questions should be,

“short and confined to not more than two points … they should not incorporate statements of opinion. They should not be read”.

I think all of us will want to remember that.

Does the Leader also recall that the Companion says—I must not point—that initial Answers by Ministers should be no more than 75 words long? It is in his power to regulate that. What is he doing about it?

If the noble Lord had been able to count the number of words that I gave in my Answer, he would see that it was spot on 75. The noble Lord has just forgotten his own self-injunction about pointing. I have spoken to my Front Bench, and I agree very much about the need for those initial Answers to be succinct. I also think that the shorter the questions, the tendency will be the shorter the answers. Long questions tend to lead to long answers.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it becomes an embarrassment for people like me and the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, when we try to correct Members of the House, to be criticised by other Members for what we are doing when we are supposed to be self-regulating? It would be much easier if the Front Benches did a bit more.

I am sure that all the Front Benches will have heard that point, but I very much agree with the noble Countess that all Members of this House have the responsibility to make their views known and hold the rest of us to account.

Is my noble friend saying to the House that short and relevant questions will automatically be rewarded with short and relevant ministerial answers? Yes or no?

Er. I contend that short questions tend to lead to shorter answers. As for giving a guarantee on behalf of the entire Front Bench that they will always be able to provide the clarity that my noble friend seeks, I cannot go quite that far.

My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that supplementary questions often occur because the Minister has answered the question that they wish had been asked rather than the one that was asked?

My Lords, I think there are a number of reasons why supplementary questions are asked. I looked at some figures that took a snapshot of the first six weeks of this year. They showed, somewhat to my surprise, that nearly 230 Members of your Lordships’ House had either asked Questions or supplementary questions in that period, which I thought was rather an encouraging figure and higher than I expected. There is, however, a point which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, raised: not all those 230 Members asked one question.

My Lords, I welcome all that the Leader has said. I just wish to place on record that I think that all Members would wish to ensure that those of us who feel a little nervous about asking supplementary questions should be encouraged to do so, and that we should have a much more accepting view in this House of those who feel somewhat reluctant to ask questions.

I agree with the noble Baroness entirely. One thing that Members of this House can do, particularly those who contribute more frequently in Oral Questions, is to observe our courtesies and give way to some Members who perhaps do not ask questions so often. I urge all Members to do so.

Does the Leader subscribe to the basic rule of Oral Questions that you should never ask a question unless you know the answer?

Does my noble friend agree that there are occasions when certain Members of this House who find some difficulty in standing up quickly should be shown a little more patience by the rest of the House?

I do agree with that, my Lords. I think that all the Front Benches and the Convenor try extremely hard to look around and see which Members might need that little bit of latitude.