Oral questions in the Lords: finally, some movement

A new report was published yesterday by the Lords’ Procedure Committee. Its flagship measure was to change the ability of peers to ask oral questions in the Lords. But first:

A little history

The first recorded question in the Lords was in 1721. Typically, if a peer wished to put a question down on the order paper, it would be a question that was before the House and as many members as wished could speak to it as in a normal debate – IE, without a time limit on each peer nor on the debate as a whole. A peer could ask a question that the minister could give an answer to in less than thirty seconds, and might have to sit through a debate of several hours as various speeches were made by others; at the end, the minister could reply. This state of affairs lasted centuries, mainly because they were relatively few and far between. Their position on the order paper was tied to when the member put the question down, and that has continued to the present day.

In 1919, the Lords adopted a new method of questioning – a member could put a star next to their question on the order paper and the idea was that it would be a simple exchange of a question from the member and an answer from the minister. But the House of Lords, reluctant to create formal rules, didn’t actually require that it was only that. Although starred questions were still rare until about 1940, it didn’t stop members asking supplementary questions and indeed it became much more common. While there were no rules about the questions it is probable that peers were expected to follow similar courtesies as Speakers had given to ministers in the Commons: get your facts straight and don’t repeat a question someone else already has asked.

Abortive attempts were made to restrict starred questions during the second world war, but it wasn’t until 1946 that the House of Lords decided to restrict them to Tuesdays and Wednesdays and limit them to three per day. This was a temporary measure while the legislation-heavy Attlee government was in office, but one which (like many of its kind in both Houses) lasted beyond its original intent. In 1954, the Lords finally extended starred questions to all sitting days though it was still limited to three per day. It was five years later that the limit was raised to four per day.

From then onwards, an important part of the story is of reducing the freedom of members to put questions down for answer in the interest of keeping the process fair and free from manipulation or domination by canny members: the number of questions a peer can have on the order paper has reduced (from a new limit of 3 in 1982 to 1 today) and the number of questions a peer can have per day has been reduced (from a new limit of 2 in 1959 to 1 today). Supplementaries were also reduced; in 1976, the procedure committee advised that questions should take a maximum of 20 minutes, though this has since been increased to half an hour today. Notably, these time limits are in theory purely advisory, though are enforced by a combination of the House as a whole shouting members down and the clerks knowing when to call the next item on the order paper.

The other big trend has been increasing the topicality of questions. Throughout the decades since the Second World War, the propensity of peers to clog up the order paper for upwards of a month in advance meant that questions could often be old hat when they were actually asked. After playing about with limiting the notice period for questions so that questions had to be asked closer to the time*, the Lords finally created topical questions tabled two working days in advance, and in the case of two peers applying a ballot was held to select which one to ask. Of course, these had to be limited so that no peers could dominate them and a limit per peer, per session was introduced. This increased from one per week at introduction in 1993 to three per week today (one on each day bar Mondays and Fridays).

From 2002 to 2004, the House experimented with having five questions on certain days (with an additional ten minutes for these new topical questions), but this was abandoned due to complaints it was too long and that not all slots were always used.

As an aside, it was in 2006 that the Lords finally changed ‘starred questions’ to ‘oral questions’. Very few outside the House and even some inside had any idea what the word meant or its origins and hence it made little sense to keep it.

In the 2009-10 session a quirk of the Brown government meant that two Secretaries of State were in the Lords and the House decided to set aside a monthly fifteen-minute departmental question session of three questions (determined by ballot three days before) for each ennobled Secretary of State. These provisions were made permanent for those rare occasions when this situation arises.

The report

But the fundamentals remain: the system is too easily dominated by organised attempts to game it. Peers line up outside the Table Office for hours waiting for it to open so that they can table their questions because of the first-come-first-served system. Any long-time watcher of the Lords can identify the canny peers that table many more questions than their fellows, and it’s much easier for the Opposition to organise itself to take up many of the questions on the order paper. Sometimes it has had half the questions on a given day, which is contrary to the spirit of the House of Lords as a chamber where the consensus of individual peers rather than organised parties is meant to control proceedings.

Finally the Procedure Committee has advocated a change, albeit only to trial the new procedure till the end of the session. All questions handed in to the table office will be balloted to decide the ones to add to the order paper and if less than four are proposed by the time of the ballot, the rest will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. This is a much better system which hopefully will reduce the power of the opposition to choose the topics for questions. At the very least, it will be fairer. Hopefully this goes through.

*The last change to the notice period was to change the maximum length of time questions could be tabled for from a month ahead… to four weeks ahead. No one could ever accuse their Lordships of not being radical!
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