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House of Lords: Question Time

Volume 755: debated on Monday 7 July 2014


Asked by

To ask the Leader of the House what plans he has to improve the conduct of question time in the House of Lords.

My Lords, as a self-regulating House, we all have a responsibility to uphold our rules of conduct at question time. The rules on supplementary questions set out in the Companion could not be clearer: no reading and no statements of opinion. Supplementaries,

“should be short and confined to not more than two points”.

I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that Standing Orders should be compulsory reading for anybody who enters the House? If questions were briefer, would it not allow more people to enter the fray?

I agree very much with my noble friend that brief questions are to be encouraged: brief questions tend to elicit brief answers. I think that it is incumbent on everyone in the House to make sure that they understand the rules set out in the Companion. I think that over time behaviour sometimes slips. This is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of those principles to which we all say, “Hear, hear,” but which we need to put into action.

My Lords, I am sure that the Leader agrees that question time is both the best of this House and, sometimes, the worst. Does he also agree, as I think he does, that occasionally the transgressions come from the Dispatch Box? On statements of opinion, does he agree that from time to time opinion is expressed about the conduct of the Opposition, which is perhaps not always relevant to the Question being asked? Will he consider stressing to his colleagues how important these rules are?

Does the Minister agree that question time is primarily for Back-Benchers? Does he also agree that, unless it has become obvious that nobody else wants to ask a question, it is not appropriate to have two or even three consecutive questions from any Benches?

I agree that question time provides an important opportunity for Back-Benchers. Noble Lords may be interested to know that, so far this year, 370 Members of your Lordships’ House have asked an oral or a supplementary question. That is an encouragingly large number, although it sometimes feels as though certain Members of the House ask more than that number might suggest. The House at Oral Questions is generally pretty good at working out whose turn it is to ask a question, but I agree with my noble friend that none of us should make an assumption that we automatically have a right to ask a question or a flow of questions from one side of the House.

My Lords, does the Leader agree with me that it is a rule of this House that, if a question comes from the Government Benches, it should go around the House? That was certainly always the tradition when I first came here. When, as now, two parties are in government, there should be a question from the Government and then questions from around the other Benches—not a question from each bit of the Government.

I hope that noble Lords who are regular attenders would agree that the way in which questions move around the House works pretty well. It is worth pointing out that over 50% of noble Lords who are the most frequent askers of questions are from the Labour Benches.

My Lords, surely there is one other issue: the jostling and bullying to ask a supplementary question, which is very undignified. Noble Lords who do not like that simply do not take part. People on all sides of the House feel that.

I certainly do not think that we should have jostling and bullying. Most of the time the House operates pretty well and noble Lords give way to other noble Lords and give them a chance. The House wants to hear from a wide range of people. However, I take the point. Sometimes we hear from some noble Lords more frequently than from others—they might all like to reflect on that. I had a thought that might help with that, which I would be happy to discuss with the Clerk of the Parliaments to see whether it is possible. If we could publish more frequently information on the frequency with which some Members ask questions, that might help us to draw the conclusion that we ought to share them out more widely.

Does my noble friend agree that thus far the example set by the House on this Question is exemplary, in that not one word has been read?

Does the Minister share the concern that perhaps women Members of this House do not get their fair share of questions? However, I carried out a little survey in which I calculated the number of interventions by noble Baronesses and discovered that they asked proportionately rather more questions than one would expect from their number in the House.

My Lords, in the absence of a Speaker, we are told by the Government—indeed, by both Governments—from the Front Bench that it is for individual Members of the House to police the House and all its proceedings. However, does that not just create resentment and embarrassment between colleagues? The system does not work.

I disagree with the noble Lord very strongly. The principle of self-regulation that we have in this House is worth fighting for and preserving as strongly as we possibly can—all of us. I would not wish on this House the example provided by the other place. A few years back the House looked at the question of whether we would prefer to have a system here that mirrored more closely that of the other House, with a Speaker. It voted fairly clearly, concluding that it preferred to stick with our current arrangements. However, it is incumbent on all of us who care about self-regulation to make sure that we do it. I do not accept the noble Lord’s characterisation that most of the time it does not work. I think that most of the time it works extremely well.

Does my noble friend agree that some of the worst offenders in asking non-questions are those who have been here longest and should know better? It might be useful for him to write to some of those offenders and point out that they are breaking the rules, so that they do not repeat that.

It is incumbent on all the groups in the House to help to police this and, if they need to, to communicate to some of their members. The point that I make about publishing more information on the number of times people ask questions, and perhaps the number of words that they use, might help to shine a spotlight.