Question for Short Debate
To ask the Leader of the House what plans she has to change the arrangements for the tabling of parliamentary questions to give priority to those who ask few questions, so that more members of the House can ask questions.
Parliamentary Questions are an essential and valuable part of parliamentary procedure. They probe the Government and hold them to account. However, what is not in the official version is that these Questions have a much broader role in this House and in the other place. They also enable the Government to respond by querying the possible policies of the Opposition, as we have been seeing recently, although this is generally done politely and discreetly. I have also found that parliamentary Questions enable Peers to learn about the concerns, experiences and knowledge of other noble Lords. It is not clear whether they can be asked about constitutional or procedural issues. I was not allowed to ask one for clarification on the Pepper v Hart rule, which is an arcane but important part of our procedure. However, Questions are part of the glue which binds our Chamber together.
This is now a topical issue: with the House expanding as rapidly as it is, we need to think about PQs. If we accept this broader point of view, we could look at the procedures of the House for selecting Questions. We should review our procedures to encourage more noble Lords to ask Oral and Written Questions. I am grateful to the House of Lords Library research services for some statistics. During 2014-15, the 444 lead oral Questions were asked by only 181 noble Lords, who asked at least one each. Given that there are 760 to 790 eligible Members, nearly 600 therefore did not ask a Question. However, about 314 asked Written Questions, so some 100 asked Written Questions but not oral ones. The media criticism of the House of Lords, which is justified only to a limited extent, is that many Members are not sufficiently visible. Since it is a great honour to be in this House, the view from the outside is that people should be seen. When I joined this House, some people said they looked forward to watching television and seeing a person they knew perform. Even my colleagues in the United States asked what I was doing and why I was not performing more often. That is a slightly trivial remark but it is part of what is being discussed.
The procedure for Oral Questions is that they are tabled up to four weeks before they are asked. They have to be accepted by the Table Office and improved. I do not make any criticism of the Table Office—it is helpful and often makes good suggestions about how Questions should be written—but we need to find a way in which more Questions can be asked by the non-askers. One way, perhaps, is that the non-askers and the people who ask very seldom, should be given priority. That is not the case at the moment.
Members, of course, can ask one Oral PQ and a Topical Question if chosen. The staff of the Opposition and the Government offices help their Members to promote questions. This facility is not as available to Peers from other parts of the House. The maximum number of questions is up to seven Oral Questions/PQs per year. It is a theoretical maximum because few people get up to that level. When Questions are asked, priority is given to Members who apply in person, which is reasonable, but they can also be asked by phone and email. That needs to be well understood.
Topical Questions are an important part of our procedures and are normally the fourth Question asked on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. From my experience, the Table Office operates some selectivity in suggesting what constitutes a Topical Question. There is a tendency to see Topical Questions as the kind liked by the more popular parts of the media—questions not necessarily about boring, serious events such as critical meetings of international bodies, which may well be rather more important.
What is the result of the procedure that we have? I will not go through the whole list, but 85 Peers asked one question per year; 21 asked three questions; and five asked seven questions.
It is interesting to note whether there is any correlation with the number of years that someone has been in the House. The total number of lead Parliamentary Questions from people who have been here from nought to 10 years, and 10 to 20 years, is about the same, so there is no dropping off. That is rather encouraging. However, beyond 20 years and up to 50 years, the statistics, not surprisingly, show some falling away. Nevertheless, there are finite numbers even after so many years.
The few points I have made need to be considered. I suggest that the arrangements be reviewed in order to enable greater involvement of Peers and more issues to be covered. One way to perhaps do that is to have a survey of Peers, something I have not seen since I have been here.
My Lords, as this is last business, each Back-Bench Peer has up to 10 minutes to speak rather than seven—except for the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who is speaking in the gap, who has only four minutes.
My Lords, I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for raising the issue this evening.
I come to this topic with a degree of expertise—or a degree of experience, at least, if not expertise—as I think I am entitled to say that I am still the Minister who has answered more Questions from the Dispatch Box than any other. I answered more than 1,000 between 1979 and 1990. Since then, of course, I have not been able to ask anything like as many.
I want first to touch on Private Notice Questions, which are very rare. This is unfortunate because there are often issues which ought to be—and could be—raised by Private Notice Questions. We are allowed one additional Question by private notice each day but the criteria under which Private Notice Questions are allowed are very strict and often when they are submitted to the Lord Speaker they are disallowed—no doubt entirely correctly—because they do not meet the criteria. I understand that the Lord Speaker inquires of officials in the House, including the Government Whips, as to whether she should allow the question. It is unfortunate that the Government Whips should have a say on whether a Private Notice Question is allowed because they would say no, would they not, given the circumstances that often prevail if the question is of a sensitive nature. The criteria by which Private Notice Questions are allowed or disallowed ought to be reviewed. I have made that proposition to the Lord Chairman of Committees and I hope he will take it to the appropriate committee when he has an opportunity to do so.
As for Oral Questions, I suggest that we have five instead of four a day. We tried that experiment in the past but it did not work out then. The problem is that when asking their supplementary questions, noble Lords and noble Baronesses go on for too long; and, I am sorry to say, Ministers sometimes go on for too long, not only with the original Answer but with their supplementary answers too. If all noble Lords and noble Baronesses could be persuaded to keep their answers shorter, there might be more scope to have a fifth Question, which would be a good innovation.
I also suggest that when we sit on Fridays we could perhaps allow two Oral Questions—at present we have none on Fridays—which would provide a few more spaces in the year for that purpose.
On Questions for Short Debate, we now have Grand Committees in which those questions can be asked. This is an excellent innovation because more Questions for Short Debate can now be asked in the Grand Committee, although I am told that the list is not full. There are still plenty of gaps in that arrangement and not enough such questions are tabled. Again casting back on my memory, I recall answering what we used to call Unstarred Questions, which are now Questions for Short Debate. I remember having the privilege of answering one in white tie and tails many years ago before we went off to a diplomatic reception or some such event. I have not seen that recently from noble Lords and noble Baronesses speaking from the Government Front Bench, but perhaps that will happen in the future.
Finally, I do not have too much to say about Questions for Written Answer. They work well. Ministers might try to answer them more quickly occasionally but the arrangement is basically sound. I hope that it will continue and that noble Lords will continue to use that facility.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, for the opportunity to speak in this debate.
The beauty of the system as it stands is that if you have a burning question you know you will get to ask it if you are willing to put in a little effort. People say, “I do not have time to queue”, but it is a privilege to ask Oral Questions in this House. It is a service we perform on behalf of the public. If we feel the question we wish to ask is important, then, quite honestly, we should make time to queue. All of us should be humble enough to do that.
The current system is simple and open. Those first in the queue get their questions asked. The problem with the method of the ballot, if it were adopted for regular Oral Questions, is that it could introduce the temptation to game the system because it would become less transparent and more complicated. What worries me particularly is the possibility that Peers might get together to submit the same Question or a variation on it to increase its chance of winning the ballot. I am not saying that Members would do that but it is a temptation that would then exist which was not there before. Would we be getting a daily list of every entry into every ballot for every Question to ensure that this could not happen? Frankly, that sounds like an administrative nightmare and a waste of public money, if the ballot system were to be introduced. In the end, the system would be frustrating for those who continually have to resubmit their Question and might never get to ask it or have any control over the day on which they do get to ask it.
The same problems do not exist for the excellent balloted topical Questions element, because at any one time there is a limit to the number of topical Questions, and there is a small window of time in which to ask them. The Table Office, as we know from experience, takes seriously the decision of whether a Question is topical or not, so with topicals you either win or lose without the worry of continually having to resubmit your Question more than perhaps once or twice. There is of course a way of dealing with the problem, as the noble Lord sees it, without changing the system. If we feel that too many of the same people are asking Oral Questions, we should limit further the number of regular Questions an individual can ask from the current seven to perhaps five a year. It might be helpful if that would significantly increase the number of questioners. From the stats kindly provided by the Table Office for last year, by my calculation that would have freed up 25 regular Questions—a week and a half’s-worth, so not that many—but perhaps having some taken up by new questioners. The fact remains, however, that there will always be some people who want to ask Oral Questions more than others. Although Oral Questions are important, they are still only one way to participate in the business of the House.
If there is some tweaking to be done, it is regarding supplementary questions. I think that the House is correctly tolerant about the use of notes for asking supplementaries. The ability to ask a good Question is not the same as the ability to learn lines, and if there is one thing that would markedly reduce the number of people participating at Question Time, it would be to enforce the non-reading guidance. The House is also correctly intolerant of overly long supplementaries, of which we have too many, and often asked by those without notes in hand. Many of us have on occasion pushed it to the limit, but there is some unspoken boundary that does get crossed, and it sometimes feels as though we could have got in another two or even more speakers during a Question if we had not had those especially long supplementaries. Does the Minister think that enough guidance, either formal or informal, is given on this, particularly to new Members?
The popularity of Oral Questions for Members is one valid measure of their success. At four, we have the right number of Questions, and here I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. There is a good balance between regular and topical and they last for the right length of time. Only a minority of Members leave before the end, but if they lasted for more than 30 minutes, that would not be the case.
My suggestion was that we keep Question Time to 30 minutes, but have five Questions instead of four.
That may be slightly different, but we have tried five Questions in the past and I do not think it worked. I believe that, as it stands, we have the right system for generating questions. We should not tamper with a system unless we are confident that it can be improved.
First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for initiating this debate. I am grateful to him because Question Time is clearly one of the most important events in the House. The Chamber is always packed and it is one of the best ways of holding the Government to account. It also gives people a chance to jump in with questions, and there is much more opportunity for spontaneity than is perhaps the case in other debates, so it is important that a debate is taking place on the issue of Question Time.
I come to the debate with an initial thought. Many odd things struck me when I came into this House two years ago, but I have got used to most of them. However, the oddest thing I found was the fact that to table an Oral Question, you have to queue for two or sometimes three hours in a very dark corridor. Initially I was attracted to the idea of having a ballot. People should table Questions, put them into a ballot and have them picked out. But the more I looked into this, the less persuaded I became. It is true that the present system disadvantages those Peers who are not full time in the House. Many of the Cross-Benchers, for example, have important outside interests and therefore they do not have the chance to queue. That is a problem.
I think that a ballot was tried out for a short time in the past, but the danger is that the ballot will be flooded with lots of Questions, and it may just be that the business managers encourage their colleagues to do exactly that. But the most important reason I am opposed to a ballot is this. When one tables a Question in the present system, whereby you have to write it out and take it to the Table Office, you take some care over the Question. You make sure that it is reasonably drafted and the clerk will also look at it carefully. With a ballot, people will become much more casual about their Questions and the quality would not be as good. I have a suggestion which perhaps the Minister could respond to favourably by saying that it could go up before the Procedure Committee at some stage. Could there be a ballot, at least for the first three Questions under the present system, which would give a noble Lord the right to table a Question? You would not have to queue because you would not be submitting a Question at that point. The system would work like this: you would put your name in to ask a Question on a particular date, and you are then told by the Table Office that you have won the right to table one. You would then take the Question in person to the Table Office, as you do now, perhaps up to two weeks in advance of the Question being answered. I think that that could be a way of dealing with the problem of having to queue.
I have two other thoughts which take the subject a little wider, one of which I am not sure will meet with the approval of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. It is whether there should be a self-denying ordinance that supplementaries should not come from the Front Benches, thereby giving all Back-Benchers more opportunity to speak. That is a thought which I put forward in a very tentative way indeed.
My other thought about keeping Questions and indeed Ministers’ responses crisper is this. I suggest that the digital clocks in the Chamber should run down rather than run up. I would like to move to a policy of having eight minutes for each Question, so we do not have any query about when the time has come to an end. A Question would start at eight and you would see the clock running down to zero. When people who are asking questions, and indeed Ministers, see the clock reaching four or three minutes, they would realise that they have to be a bit crisper. Indeed, I would have the same system for people making speeches in debates so that they know that their time is running down.
I have looked at some of the debates on Questions that we have had in the past. There are a million opinions about them, so I will end by saying simply that any thoughts which are taken forward to the Procedure Committee would also involve, I hope, a great deal of consultation with noble Lords.
My Lords, just on that last point, if we had a count-down, noble Lords might be like football match attenders counting down, “Five! Four! Three! Two! One!”. I am not sure that we want to go down that path.
I must make a confession before I say anything else. When I saw that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, had tabled this Question, for which I am very grateful, I thought to myself, “I must be here this evening because I might at last begin to learn about one or two things I have totally failed to comprehend”. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, I am completely inexperienced in this field, having been a Member of your Lordships’ House for only a couple of years, but having managed to speak in debates for which I am deeply grateful. I agree with my noble friend Lord Clancarty that it is a great privilege.
However, I am confused. The Companion, which often is very companionable, is very uncompanionable on this subject of Oral Questions. Let me give an example. A few months ago I wanted to ask a Question and went into the Table Office. As usual the clerks were incredibly helpful. I gave them my Question which they put down, and a week or so later I asked it. Last week I went to the Table Office—I know this shows my ignorance—and said, “I have a Question, but I am not sure whether I can just give it to you”. She said, “No, you will have to join the queue on Monday”. That had not happened last time—hence my failure to understand. Fair enough I went along. She then asked, “Is it a topical question?”. This is probably a good example, especially for the noble Earl, Lord Howe, who is very well versed in this subject. I wanted to ask whether the Government had any opinion on the recent national health statistics about female genital mutilation, which over a three-month period had been rather shocking. However, these figures came out during the recess, so was this topical or not? We had quite a long debate about it.
I suppose where I would love a bit of clarity as a new boy is: what exactly is the procedure on putting a Question down and when you have to queue and when you do not? While I accept my noble friend’s strictures about being prepared to queue because it is an honour, I cannot help feeling slightly that, with today’s technology, it is a rather archaic way of doing it. I found it slightly awkward. I was sent away by a noble Lord who was at the back of the queue, but just in the right place. He had a slightly soured, wistful air about him but also a note of triumphalism because in fact his Question would get in.
I ask these questions because I would like to learn a bit more about this process. The Companion could be a little clearer. After all, what we want, and what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, wishes to achieve, is to tap the wider experience of the House. I am not sure, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, has just said, that getting into the queue is necessarily the best way of doing that.
My Lords, I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute in the gap, very briefly, and particularly to at least half support the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. I hope that this will not surprise him. The real demand in the House is not for more Questions but more opportunities to contribute to Question Time. That is what we should be thinking about. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will regard it as a compliment if I regard him as a traditional Tory. I hope that the noble Earl may take the same view. That is where it seems to me the demand is. It is a traditional Tory approach that supply should meet and reflect demand.
I am in favour of five tabled Questions, whether it is within 40 minutes, 30 minutes or 45 minutes. That can be a matter of discussion. Clearly, the real demand in the House is to contribute to those very useful mini-debates that we have. I am probably the only Member in your Lordships’ House this evening who has experienced Questions at the other end of the building, where there are no real discussions, no dialogue and no proper debate. There is a bit of a row from behind the Minister to egg him on, like a football crowd, and there is the opposite from the Opposition Benches. It is not the same quality of real discussion or real exchange and follow-up that we have in your Lordships’ House. The original Question is often followed by a question that is absolutely spot on because the Minister’s reply has not developed the discussion in any positive way.
An interesting point was made earlier tonight. I think that reading the Question often means a shorter supplementary rather than a rather wordy one from some of our more experienced Members who tend to be more loquacious. I also think that it would be useful if we got away from this absurdity of referring to this lucky dip, this raffle, as a ballot. In my view, a ballot is something you vote in. Every time I am asked, “How did you manage to get that Question?” I say, “It was a lucky dip, you know”. They say, “But it was a ballot”. The origins of the word ballot as I understand it from the Oxford English Dictionary is that people actually express a preference for something. That is what a ballot is for. It would be helpful if we got away from that.
The contrast with the Commons means that we have something rather special in those 30—or 35, or 40, or even 50—minutes. We have an opportunity for a real exchange across the House. That is what I am in favour of. That is where people seem to want to be. I did not read the brief from the Lords Library in quite the same way as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who made an excellent opening speech. I thought that he was underrating the extent to which Members are involved. When we had a big Division in your Lordships’ House a fortnight ago, about 500 people voted. If a third to a half of our Members are regularly putting down an Oral Question each Session, that is not bad. That does not seem to be the issue. The issue is that we do not have enough time for that exchange across the House. That is why I think there should be more attention to the time that is given to those supplementary questions.
It is time for a more comprehensive review. Everything that has been said in your Lordships’ House this evening, and which I suspect may well be said by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt Kings Heath, in a moment suggests that the increasingly active participation of Members—it is not so much the total number but the fact that we have more active Members on all sides of the House—means that they want to contribute in a meaningful, positive way. I hope, therefore, that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will be able to say that it will be the policy of those who have influence in the usual channels to look again at this issue.
My Lords, I agree that we have a problem. About 10 years ago, if I had got fed up with a Minister regarding his Written Answers, I would roll into the Minute Room and say: “Starred Question—next available slot to ask Her Majesty’s Government about it”. We cannot do that now, so we have a problem.
I think that the Opposition Front Bench should be able to ask supplementary questions at Question Time on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but not necessarily all the time. We did try five Questions in 35 minutes a few years ago but it was a failure because your Lordships got bored with it. I think that four Questions in 30 minutes is right. It is long enough to expose the Minister’s difficulty, or for the Minister to convince the House.
I have two observations. The first one is that asking an Oral Question is perhaps the most challenging procedure in your Lordships’ House, especially when you are on the opposition Benches, because the Minister holds all the cards. The Minister knows what his response will be but the person asking the Question does not know what he will say and has only milliseconds to decide which supplementary to use. It is a very difficult procedure. That may be why some noble Lords are reluctant to table Oral Questions.
My second observation is in answer to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, and I would like to boast a little bit, because I am told that I hold the record for the number of supplementary questions answered by a Minister—I think it is at least 12 and may even be 13. I told my officials that I would answer very briefly because noble Lords want to be able to say at a dinner party, “I asked the supplementary question about that”; they do not want to say, “I listened to a long Answer from the Minister”.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure for me to congratulate my noble friend on initiating this debate. Although I do not agree with everything that he said, I very much agree with his final words when he asked for a general review of Oral Questions. I think that there is a general view in your Lordships’ House that that would be a very good thing. I hope that the noble Earl, and indeed the Chairman of Committees, will be sympathetic. Certainly from the Opposition’s point of view, we would be very sympathetic to a more general discussion which allows Members of the House to give their views.
I think that this is the first opportunity I have had to welcome the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to his new role as Deputy Leader of the House. I very much look forward to our further debates.
My noble friend was absolutely right to talk about the importance of Oral Questions. We start the day with them and the House is full, unlike the other place. At their best, Oral Questions are excellent, with very sharp questions posed to Ministers on key issues of the day. We are not always at our best at Oral Questions, but when we are, we should be very proud of them. We should do everything we can to protect the best aspects of them and try to eradicate the worst.
I must confess to being a serial offender as regards the number of Oral Questions that I try to table. However, I say to the noble Earl that I think my role as an opposition spokesman on health is to try to put the Opposition’s point of view across, and Oral Questions are one of the best ways I can do it. Although I think we should come in on supplementaries, we should not come in on every supplementary. As I have discussed with my noble friend, in the main we try to wait, allow noble Lords to ask questions and come in later on. I think that is the best way of doing it. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, was a role model in that regard in that he did not come in on every Question when in opposition. It was all the more telling when he did come in because of that, so we have some good role models in this respect.
I know some noble Lords feel that queuing is not the best way to tackle this issue. But the fact is you know that if you want to table an Oral Question, you turn up early and that if three noble Lords are there, you go away. It seems to me that is a rough and ready system but at least it is fair, except in recesses. I will come back to that point. One can also have the most delightful conversations. On such an occasion, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and I talked about the merits of Birmingham Opera, which is having a reception here tonight at this very time. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, would also be at that reception if we were not debating this issue.
The problem with a ballot is essentially that it can be manipulated. Not only would it be a lottery but we would risk getting either Questions that are not very topical or such a system would be manipulated one way or another through slates or the usual channels. We need to avoid that at all costs.
However, other issues around this are very relevant. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, about Private Notice Questions. The Companion is pretty ambiguous about the advice that the Lord Speaker is given on whether or not to accept a Private Notice Question. It is clear that the advice is very conservative, if I can use that word to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. Essentially, the Lord Speaker rarely allows Private Notice Questions. We are much more dependent on Mr Speaker in the other place, who is much more generous in allowing Urgent Questions, which are then repeated as 10-minute Questions here. I do not think that is right. Surely, if we really want to make Oral Statements here as effective as possible, we should be anxious to allow topical Questions to be tabled. I hope that any review will look at what the Companion says about issuing advice to the Lord Speaker.
As regards the clock running down, I think what has been proposed is a good idea but the risk is that Ministers will play to the clock and, if they simply look at the clock, will spin out their remarks so that another supplementary cannot be asked. That brings me to the big question of long-winded questions and answers. I was a Minister for 10 years and what I most enjoyed were long-winded supplementaries. First, it gave you time to think of an answer or to find it in your file. Secondly, you could choose which bit of that long-winded question to answer. However, I dreaded the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, getting up because she asked questions that lasted about 10 seconds. Usually, they were factual questions and there was no time to find out the answer. My noble friend Lady Farrington has developed her own capacity to do that and it is very telling. Why on earth do noble Lords feel the need to ask such long-winded questions? I just do not understand it. It is as if they have come here, seen what goes on, then almost ignore it as, willy-nilly, they are going to make a speech. I say to the noble Lords on the Government Front Bench that they are also somewhat guilty of this. Instead of giving a 70-word first Answer, why not make it 30 words? That would get the House in a better frame of mind. Of course, the reason why government Ministers do not do that is because they know that if they gave a short Answer, it would encourage a lot more questions. I am afraid I have to inform the House that Ministers do not like lots of questions. They love long-winded questions but if we were to sharpen up our practice we would sort this out.
As regards whether we should have more Oral Questions, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, very much supported the move to five Oral Questions, which I think lasted 40 minutes. However, that did not work and lots of noble Lords left after 30 minutes. There was a feeling that somehow we had lost the sharpness, so we went back to having four Oral Questions. I like the idea of having five Oral Questions in 30 minutes, but the deal has to be that we completely rule out long-winded questions and answers. It would be interesting to try that out for a few weeks to see whether we could make it work.
There is a problem as regards what happens during Oral Questions. Apart from the issue of Front Bench opposition interventions, I am concerned by some noble Lords’ behaviour during Oral Questions. When noble Lords who may not be very experienced attempt to get up and ask a supplementary question, they can be drowned out by more experienced and assertive noble Lords. When I first came to your Lordships’ House in 1997, noble Lords rather quaintly tended to give way to other noble Lords. I am afraid that that does not happen very often now. It also counts against female Members of this House. There are, of course, some feisty Members who do not have any problems at all but, frankly, some of the behaviour is tantamount to bullying. We have not been able to agree to give authority to the Lord Speaker to intervene. We rely on the Leader and the Deputy Leader to do so. I held that role for two years and know that is not always an easy one. If we will not give the Lord Speaker the authority to intervene, as a self-regulating House we are entitled to ask noble Lords to behave rather more appropriately. I encourage the Leader and the Deputy Leader to be somewhat more assertive in intervening on bad behaviour and long-winded questions and answers. I think they would find that the House would generally support them.
Overall, this has been an absolutely splendid debate. I hope the noble Earl will say that, like us, he is sympathetic to a more general review. I am sure that many noble Lords would be willing to take part in discussions.
My Lords, I am very pleased to be the Minister responding to what has undoubtedly been an extremely worthwhile short debate on a topic that we all care about very much. I think all noble Lords will agree that Question Time is a valued opportunity for noble Lords from across the House to hold the Government to account, often in a very immediate way when we think of topical Questions in particular. That is why I begin by saying that I am right behind the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, in wanting to encourage a broad range of contributions at Question Time, and indeed in our work more generally.
I think, too, that this House sets itself apart from other legislative Chambers with its range of expertise and range of experience in numerous fields. It is through that expertise and experience that we best complement the work of the other place. It is undoubtedly important that we should always encourage as broad a range of contributions as we can to inform and guide our business. I think that is common ground.
Certainly, that is something that the previous coalition Government and we as the current Government have sought to do over the past few years. For example, we have expanded the opportunities available for Peers to ask Questions for Short Debate by introducing a slot for topical QSDs, which provides a fresh opportunity for a timely debate on the Floor of the House each Thursday, and by committing to set aside regularly a day in the Moses Room for five Back-Bench Members to ask QSDs. I am pleased to say that from where we sit that has been a success: no fewer than 104 Members of the House were able to ask QSDs in the last Session. We have also increased opportunities to serve on Select Committees, having supported the establishment of two net additional units of committee activity since 2012, four of which are devoted to ad hoc committees.
Turning to Question Time itself, I should perhaps start by making the point that we already hear from a broad range of contributors. Indeed, in the last Session more than 430 Members asked one or more Questions or supplementary questions. That is nearly 90% of our average daily attendance. Limiting Members to no more than seven Questions in a calendar year is another way in which we have sought to foster even greater diversity; indeed, 10 Members were caught by that limit last year.
Naturally, that does not mean that we should not look at what more might be done and I well appreciate the concerns that have been raised this evening. In particular, there is no doubt that we hear from some voices around the House considerably more often than others. There has been unanimity this evening that we should try to do something about that, and I will say more on that topic in a moment. Looking at the last Session, for instance, 16 Members made more than 25 contributions each at Question Time. Of the total number of questions asked, one in five were asked by the 20 most frequent contributors. I would just add that with three-quarters of the 20 most frequent contributors coming from the opposition side, there is certainly no danger that the Government are not being held to account. We certainly feel that we are. I also know, as we have heard in this debate, not least from my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, that some Members find it hard to succeed in tabling an Oral Question; others find it hard to intervene with supplementaries.
Some speakers this evening, including my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, were concerned that Front-Benchers tend to dominate at Question Time. I sympathise with that point—after all, 30% of the 25 most frequent contributors in the last Session sat on the Opposition Front Bench, and more than 10% of all questions were asked by the Opposition Front Bench. If we are to continue the practice of the Opposition Front Bench having a supplementary on nearly every Question—and I welcomed the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, on that point—it is worth considering whether Questions themselves should only or usually be tabled by Back-Bench Members. For what it is worth, that was generally the rule when my party was last in opposition. The Front Bench was under standing instructions to defer to Back-Benchers other than in the most burning circumstances.
What changes might ensue from this? If we can make changes for the better, of course it is worth finding a way to consider those ideas. Several ideas have been raised today, which I will come on to. Before I do, I emphasise one thing, which is that noble Lords who want to change the way that things are done should feel empowered to propose it, and indeed it is open to any Member with a proposal to write to the Chairman of Committees, as chairman of the Procedure Committee, to look to take it forward, whatever it may be. I know that my noble friend Lord Trefgarne would welcome that process.
My Lords, I have already written to the Lord Chairman, and he has referred me to the noble Earl, Lord Howe.
Well, clearly a conversation needs to ensue from that. I am grateful to my noble friend. I can tell him and other noble Lords that my noble friend the Leader of the House is always keen to facilitate the consideration of any new ideas. Some noble Lords this evening raised the idea of a ballot for Oral Question slots. If I understood him correctly, my noble friend Lord Sherbourne was against a ballot of Questions but in favour of a ballot of Peers. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, raised some cogent objections to the whole proposition.
The idea of a ballot has been raised frequently before, and my noble friend the Leader of the House facilitated a suggestion to this end from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, at a Procedure Committee meeting earlier this year. However, there was no consensus within the committee at that point, as there appeared not to be in 2013 when, despite the agreement of the Procedure Committee and government support, the Procedure Committee’s proposal to allocate Questions by ballot was withdrawn by the then Chairman of Committees when it became clear that there was no support on the Opposition Benches for the change.
We see merit in the idea of a ballot for the allocation of Oral Questions if we can avoid the pitfalls highlighted by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.
I welcome what the noble Earl has been saying. I have a suggestion to make. There is a problem in recess where clearly the queuing is always stacked in favour of people who live in London. If one wanted to pilot a different approach, why not pilot it during recess periods so that we could see how it worked and whether there were some more general lessons to be learned? It is just a suggestion.
I think that is a very creative idea. Worries have been expressed this evening about what rules apply during recess and what counts as a topical Question, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, pointed out. However, I do not think that we are likely to find total unanimity on the idea of a ballot—as the contributions this evening have demonstrated—but if there is one message that has come through it is that we should think through this idea rather more carefully, as there might be some underlying balloting system that would work.
The benefit of the present system is that it gives the House four weeks’ notice of upcoming Questions. The one thing we do not want to do is add complexity to the system or reduce the notice period to, say, two weeks, as I think my noble friend Lord Sherbourne suggested. However, I am in favour of the principle of what my noble friend wants to achieve and I would not wish to discourage him from putting his ideas to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, as chairman of the Procedure Committee.
The pros and cons of the queuing system have been referred to. For clarity, I say that if there is a slot available, noble Lords do not have to queue; they can take that slot on the spot. But if no slot is available and one is to become available, as they do four weeks ahead of the period being considered, it is allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, hence the queue that tends to form. I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, was lucky in the first instance that he referred to and slightly unlucky in the latter instance.
I thank the noble Earl as that has explained something which I have been trying to fathom. As I suggested, the Companion could be a little clearer about this, because if you are a new Member of this House, it is quite difficult to work these things out.
I am quite sure that that is a very good general point to make. I am not at all sure that new Members of the House receive enough guidance when they arrive—on a variety of issues, this being one of them.
My noble friend Lord Trefgarne favoured introducing a slot for a fifth Oral Question. As other noble Lords pointed out, that was trialled in the past—I think it was in 2002 to 2004—but not taken forward after that. It was also not supported in the Procedure Committee when its revival was proposed in the last Parliament. I agree with my noble friend Lord Attlee that, rather than adding to our proceedings, the perception was that a fifth Question tended to switch people off, and that the energy and momentum of Question Time, which I think we all appreciate, rather dwindled as a result.
Another point to be made here is that we now often have Urgent Question repeats taken in the slot immediately after Questions. I would be surprised if the House wanted effectively to take six Questions before starting on the day’s business. For similar reasons—and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, on this—I would not support extending Question Time to 40 minutes.
My noble friend Lord Trefgarne raised some issues about Private Notice Questions. As my noble friend knows, the system for PNQs has been considered several times without any changes being agreed. I certainly believe that there is a case for bringing forward the deadline by which decisions about PNQs are made. However, I am not sure that there is wide-ranging support for changing the decision-making approach as such, although I know that my noble friend is trying to put this forward for the Procedure Committee’s consideration. The key point here is that the decision on whether to grant a PNQ is one for the Lord Speaker. The Government provide the policy background to assist the Lord Speaker but do not have a say as to whether the PNQ is allowed—and that presupposes that the PNQ relates to a matter of government responsibility. The Companion states:
“The decision … rests with the Lord Speaker, after consultation”.
My noble friend Lord Trefgarne also raised the possibility of having Oral Questions on a Friday. We sit for only around five hours on a Friday if we are to rise at 3 pm, which is generally the time when noble Lords are keen to make tracks homeward. Fridays are a particularly valuable time for noble Lords to discuss Private Members’ Bills and, although it is worth a discussion, I am not convinced that people would want the time to be taken up by Oral Questions.
My noble friend Lord Sherbourne came up with the interesting idea of a countdown approach, with eight minutes per Question. Maybe it should be seven and a half minutes, if we are not to exceed the 30 minutes in total. I was very struck by that idea. The Clock already indicates the time taken during Oral Questions and the current system allows some flexibility in the lengths of those Questions, some of which run short of eight minutes as well as running over the seven minutes. My personal view is that there are some merit in the existing system over the one that my noble friend suggested, because it has flexibility built into it. We have to allow some measure of flexibility. It is always difficult for the Clerk of the Parliaments to judge this but in general he does it very well indeed.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, proposed a general review. I am not personally averse to that idea, although we have reviewed the whole system of Oral Questions in a series of forums, including the Leader’s Group at the start of the last Parliament and in the Procedure Committee on repeated occasions in the course of that Parliament. We have also had several votes on aspects of Questions: for example the issue around reading out Questions in full. I would very much welcome a general conversation about this. I am not sure we need to go as far as having a formal, full review. We have had a number of good ideas put forward this evening and we could encapsulate those in a general conversation of the kind that I am proposing.
My noble friend Lord Trefgarne, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, with whose points I very much agreed on this subject, bemoaned the tendency for supplementary questions to be over-lengthy. The Companion is very clear about this, stating:
“Supplementary questions … should be short and confined to not more than two points”,
and where they are not, the House should make its views heard. Again, I received with sympathy the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the Leader and Deputy Leader should perhaps be more proactive in the way that we guide the House on this issue. We can only urge noble Lords to respect the guidance in the Companion but, again, there may well be greater scope for new Peers to have this point impressed more firmly upon them. For that matter, Ministers’ replies to supplementaries should also be short and crisp.
Does the Minister not think that some survey of all the many tens of new Peers who have come would be a good idea? How else is he going to find out this information? There is a small group of people here. People may write in or read Hansard, but some signal needs to be given that we really want to hear what all the new people joining the House of Lords think about this.
Yes, I am sure that that idea deserves full consideration. I think we would all agree that it is getting to a stage where we must impress on all Members of the House, not just the new arrivals, that we have rules which are here for a purpose and have been carefully thought through over the years—and that it is in all our interests to adhere to them.
I wonder if I am alone in observing that the shouting at Members—and new Members, too—who are reading notes tends to lengthen the whole process rather than shorten it. If somebody has a good note and refers to it in a short, sharp question, that is surely preferable to those who waffle on without notes to guide them.
I totally agree with the point that the noble Lord makes.
What this useful debate has shown is that there are some changes which we could helpfully consider. But I would add that, regardless of what procedural changes we might wish to consider, we also need to look at how we can work together to enable more voices to be heard at Question Time. One of the concerns raised with me is that the Chamber of the House can feel an intimidating place in which to intervene at Question Time and that the louder voices are heard more often. That is something we all can change, if we are minded to do so.
Self-regulation is a cherished feature of this House and one that we should guard jealously. It means that we are in control of our own affairs and can work together to make our business work. That is a responsibility on us all. It is not just for the Leader, incidentally, or for that matter the party and group leaders; it is for each and every Member of the House. If we want to hear from a broader range of people—and from the debate today, I clearly sense that we all do—we need to encourage those who speak less to speak up. That means making sure that we allow those with particular expertise to get in when they seek to do so and look for ways of helping those from whom we hear less to take part.
One way would be to keep supplementary questions brief, to allow other noble Lords to get in, but more generally it is about making sure that being self-effacing does not mean not being heard. Fostering that culture could be the single biggest step that we could take to hear from more noble Lords and to make our Question Time an even better forum for us to showcase the contribution that this House can make to the world outside.
Although I welcome any further discussion with those who want to consider procedural changes, we should remember also that cultural change must follow in step if we are to really make the best use of the talent around the House. I look forward to working with those here today to make progress in that regard.