Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor the Lord Norton of Louth



  What is the purpose of Question Time? In practice, it fulfils several functions. Those functions are not necessarily compatible and their significance has changed over time. Question Time serves as a means of information gathering, of partisan point scoring, of self-promotion, of promoting external interests, and of forcing government to justify itself. These functions have been detailed before[1] and will, I have little doubt, be borne out by the responses to the Committee's questionnaire. Question Time used to be an opportunity for back-benchers to seek information from ministers[2]. It has in recent decades become more an opportunity for front-benchers to intervene and for Opposition members to try to catch out ministers, as well as for government back-benchers to support ministers and put questions about Opposition policy. This change in nature has been a feature especially of Prime Minister's Question Time. The growth of the career politician appears to have encouraged a growth in the tabling of as many questions as permissible and pressure to get through as many questions as possible. The emphasis is on breadth rather than depth[3]. Since the introduction of the television cameras, references to "constituency" in Prime Minister's Question Time have shown a marked increase. [4]

  It is important to be clear as to what Question Time is for in order to identify what changes, if any, should be made to it. The political reality is such that it will be difficult if not impossible to remove the party element, especially from Prime Minister's Question Time, and to prevent MPs wanting to get their share of the action. However, that should not detract from making changes that may help promote a particular function not facilitated by these particular political imperatives. My starting point is that Question Time, primarily, is or should be a principal means of enabling the House of Commons to force ministers to explain and justify their policies and their actions. I say "primarily" because it can, and clearly does, fulfil other purposes, but the focus of reform should be to enable it to fulfil more effectively this primary function.

  Question Time is not as effective as it could be as a means of forcing ministers to explain and justify their actions. The reasons are partly procedural and partly political as well as a combination of the two. There is no minimum or maximum limit on the number of questions to be taken in Question Time. The pressure is to maintain a fair pace in getting through the questions on the Order Paper. Party whips are active in ensuring that particular questions are tabled. Members are keen to be seen to be asking questions. The result is a tendency to rush through as many questions as possible, the minister at the dispatch box knowing that shortly the House will move to another question. Difficult questions may be deflected by helpful ("Will my right hon Friend agree with me that . . .?") supplementaries. Excessive partisanship at Question Time undermines the popular standing of the House as well as interest in what it is doing. These various features are rational—ministers and back-benchers acting out of perceived immediate self-interest—but undermine the principal purpose of Question Time and, ultimately, the standing of the House.


  Can Question Time be strengthened in forcing government to justify and explain itself? I believe that it can. I chaired the Conservative Party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which reported in July 2000. In our report, Strengthening Parliament, we recommended four changes to Question Time[5]. More generally, we made a recommendation that also has relevance for Question Time.

  [1]   Limit the number of questions to be answered in Question Time. Drawing on the experience of the House of Lords, where no more than four questions are permitted to appear on the Order Paper for each 30-minute Question Time, we recommended that no more than 10 appear on the Order Paper in the Commons. This would allow approximately six minutes per question. In the House of Lords, allowing seven to eight minutes per question permits questioning in some depth. It ensures that ministers are well briefed and there is a greater likelihood that weaknesses in the Government's position will be identified and probed than is the case in the time presently given over to each question in the Commons. On rare occasions, only three questions appear on the Lords Order Paper (as recently, for example, on 28 March), thus allowing an average of 10 minutes per question; this can work especially well in allowing a real discourse to develop between ministers and members. Limiting the number of questions on the Commons Order Paper to 10 will, in effect, shift the emphasis from breadth to depth. Rather than rushing through as many questions as possible, the emphasis is on pursuing a few questions in some detail. The House will benefit in that it will enable it to probe the Government more effectively than is possible at the moment, Private Members will not necessarily miss out in that the number of times back-benchers can get to their feet is not affected (albeit more dependent on the Speaker than the daily shuffle), and it may discourage "Will the minister agree with me . . .?" supplementaries, government back-benchers engaging more with the substance of the question.

  [2]   No duplicate questions to appear on the Order Paper. We recommend this in order to undermine attempts to monopolise the Order Paper with a particular question. It would mean that a greater range of issues is likely to be covered than at present. It would, we felt, also encourage Members to draft their own questions, rather than relying on standard questions from whips and PPSs, in order to maximise their chance of putting down a question not likely to be duplicated. The Member would also benefit in that, if successful in the shuffle, the question would be unlikely to be grouped with others for answer.

  [3]   Reduction in the period of notice. The existing 10 working days is both a minimum and a maximum. It militates against topicality. We recommended that the period should be reduced from 10 working days to five. We recognise the need for Departments to have time to assemble material and brief ministers, but we felt that this was possible with five working days' notice. It may be possible to have an even shorter period, as recommended by some Members. This will especially be so if our other recommendation is accepted for only a maximum of 10 questions to appear on the Order Paper. The briefing will be on fewer topics than would be the case if existing arrangements are maintained.

  [4]   The last supplementary on a question should be given to the MP asking the question. The MP who asks the question thus gets the last as well as the first bite of a cherry. This we believe will make the exercise more relevant to Members asking questions. It will also prevent the final supplementary being a friendly or distracting supplementary by a supportive government back-bencher, except in cases where such a Member has tabled the question, Ministers will thus frequently need to be on their toes, figuratively as well as literally, until the end of each question.


  [5]   Training of Members. The Committee's questionnaire to Members asks if there should be some training for Members' staff in the system of tabling questions. In our report, we recommended training for new Members. Though there is now some induction for new Members, new and sometimes long-serving Members are not that well versed in parliamentary practices and procedures and, without training, rely heavily on their party whips and colleagues. There is a case especially for training in forensic questioning for select committee members, but there is a case to be made for new Members, and for Members' staff, to receive some training in the system of tabling questions. It would also be a considerable advantage if there were a normative dimension to the training, encouraging an emphasis on quality rather than quantity, though reducing the number of questions to be answered is designed also to achieve that end.

  These changes have the potential to change the nature of Question Time, making it a more probing exercise and at the same time being more rewarding for those Members taking part. Not all ministers may welcome such changes, but Ministers who believe that their policies are right and can be justified should welcome the opportunity to answer questions in some depth. The net effect, we believe, will be to change the culture of the House.

  The Commission did not address whether questions could or should be tabled by electronic means. Reform of procedures can be undertaken for several reasons: to expedite government business, for the convenience of Members, to remove archaic or inefficient practices, and to strengthen the House in calling government to account. Our purpose was to make recommendations designed to strengthen Parliament in calling government to account. Allowing Members to table questions electronically appears designed principally for the convenience of Members. It could be argued that enabling them to table questions electronically will increase their efficiency in calling government to account. There is, though, no shortage in the number of questions tabled by Members. Keen Members appear to have no difficulty in tabling them. One of the reasons for the Procedure Committee recommending in 1990 that Members should table questions in person was in order to reduce the extent of syndication[6]. Tabling questions electronically should be feasible. Questions tabled via the parliamentary Intranet should be perfectly acceptable. It is now possible to generate electronic signatures and, at a more basic level, Table Office staff could, if in doubt, always telephone Members to verify that they are the originators of a particular e-mail. I note that some Members who have given evidence already are keen to see the practice introduced. It may not be undesirable, at least from the perspective of the efficiency of Members. I would regard it, though, as less central than the other proposals outlined for ensuring that Question Time is an effective mechanism for forcing government to explain and justify itself.

  These are all issues that fall within the remit of the House. However, I end this section by drawing attention to one aspect of parliamentary questions that the Committee may wish to consider, but where action is required on the part of government rather than the House. I refer to questions that fall in categories subject to a ministerial refusal to answer questions. Some of the categories are clearly justifiable, where national security is concerned for example, or where commercially sensitive information is involved. However, the list is a long one, and one that Members such as Brian Sedgemore have variously railed against. [7]It has already come up in evidence to the Committee. My purpose here is not to identify what may be removed from the list, or even to make a case that items should be removed, but I believe that there may be merit in looking specifically at the issue and requiring the Government at least to justify why certain topics remain subject to a ministerial block.




  Prime Minister's Question Time is the most watched as well as probably the most criticised part of the parliamentary week. What started in 1961 as an opportunity for back-benchers to ask specific questions of the Prime Minister has become an opportunity for partisan point-scoring, the "open" question, and gladiatorial combat between party leaders. With the televising of proceedings, it has become the central point of television coverage of parliamentary proceedings, contributing towards a negative perception of the House of Commons by viewers. I drew attention to the problems in my evidence to the Procedure Committee in 1995 in its inquiry into Prime Minister's Questions. [8]

  Can Prime Minister's Question Time be improved as a means of calling the head of government to account? In Strengthening Parliament, we made three specific recommendations.

  [1]   Prime Minister's Question Time should revert to being held twice a week. This, we felt, would bring the Prime Minister back into Parliament. There is a clear historical trend of the Prime Minister spending less time in the House. [9]Holding PMQs twice a week would force the Prime Minister to give more attention to parliamentary concerns. It would also help ensure that topical issues can be raised quickly, ensuring a response from the Prime Minister. We also took the view that there was a case for each Prime Minister's Question Time to occupy 30 minutes. This would allow for some in-depth questioning. This recommendation needs to be seen in conjunction with the others.

  [2]   The number of questions to the Prime Minister should be limited to five and the questions should be "closed" rather than "open", with the last one on each occasion being a topical question. By limiting the number on each occasion to five "closed" questions will, we believe, encourage more detailed questioning on a particular subject—for about six minutes on each question—and discourage the disparate use of "soft" and discursive questioning which lets the Prime Minister off the hook on a difficult issue. "Open" questions developed in the 1960s and 1970s (the "engagements" question is a product of the 1970s) [10]and have been favoured by back-benchers because of the belief that it enables them to catch the Prime Minister unawares on a particular issue. In practice, back-benchers hardly ever catch the Prime Minister out and the basis underlying the retention of open question is therefore fundamentally flawed. We recommended that questions be tabled five days in advance, rather than 10 (though a shorter period, as with other questions, may be possible), [11]and that the last question on each occasion be a "topical" question, submitted up to 12 noon on the day preceding the Question Time. [12]This will engender a more focused Question Time and force the Prime Minister to address specific issues in some depth.


  [3]   Procedures governing Prime Minister's Question Time should be embodied in Standing Orders. This will help institutionalise procedures and, more especially, enable the House to have ownership of them. Though the introduction of a dedicated Prime Minister's Question Time in 1961 followed the acceptance by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, of a recommendation from the Procedure Committee, the change to Prime Minister's Question Time in 1997 was the product of an arbitrary and precipitate decision by the Prime Minister.

  I recognise some of the counter-arguments to these proposals. I discussed them in my evidence to the Procedure Committee in 1995[13]. The Prime Minister will not necessarily be briefed on all aspects of government policy. Closed questions may allow important issues to slip through the net. These, though, are not insuperable problems. The Prime Minister will be briefed, in depth, on a range of issues. If necessary, the final "topical" question need not necessarily be closed but could be an "engagements" question, perhaps asked by the Leader of the Opposition. The Procedure Committee in 1995 came up with its own proposal, in effect for closed topical questions on a Thursday (the questioners chosen 10 days in advance but their closed questions submitted the day before), [14]but its recommendations were not pursued.


  Written questions are a valuable means of eliciting information. On the whole, they seem to have fulfilled their purpose effectively and they are a popular means of seeking information. The danger is that they may have become too popular. The more that are tabled the less impact each one has. The ease of tabling them may encourage laziness on the part of Members, putting down questions to seek information that is already in the public domain. It may also encourage laziness on the part of officials, the more they have to process the less seriously they take them. The fact that there is no limit on the number that a Member can table can enable Members keen to attract attention (especially in the local media, the most regular recipients of copies of MPs' PQs) to put down lots of questions, not necessarily drafted by themselves.

  Given the use made by some MPs of written questions, there may be a case for limiting the number tabled by each Member. This is a possibility raised already by some of the Members who have given evidence to the Committee. A limit of four per day for each Member would help reduce the volume. In the Lords, far fewer written questions are tabled and, resembling earlier decades in the Commons, are usually tabled when members actually want an answer to a question. I utilise them very sparingly and am prone to write to a minister as much as I am to table a written question. However, I can appreciate the counter-argument, that is, that imposing a limit necessarily restricts the freedom on an MP to pursue a particular case. Written questions can be asked at any time and enable material to be put on the public record. In mounting a campaign, it is sometimes important to table several questions, as well as utilise other procedures. Written questions, like EDMs, remain unrestricted mechanisms open to Private Members to pursue particular issues. I think that therefore there should be a presumption against imposing limits, but nonetheless I accept that there may be a case for some limit.


  I have discussed so far the established means of asking questions and the proposals for reform have been framed in the context of those established mechanisms. I close by raising the possibility of devising and utilising new mechanisms and by raising one possibility of radical change to established procedures.


  Some Members favour open questions to departmental ministers. This is apparent from some of the comments made in evidence to the Committee. There are dangers if open questions are employed in Question Time, since they introduce the tendency, so evident in Prime Minister's Question Time, for disparate, point-scoring and supportive questioning. These tendencies are exacerbated by the presence of the television cameras. However, one possibility would be to explore the possibility of some form of "open" questioning in sessions in Westminster Hall. These might take the form of 30-minute sessions on one particular departmental responsibility: the Minister for Higher Education, for example, answering questions on her portfolio, the Minister for Sport answering questions on his. Holding such sessions in Westminster Hall, where proceedings receive little or no media coverage, may serve to deflate the tendency to partisanship to be found in the chamber. There is little point in playing to the cameras if no one is watching.

  Another possibility would be to explore the use of the unstarred question as employed in the House of Lords. The unstarred question, like much of Lords procedure, is not well understood in the Commons. It is more akin to the daily half-hour adjournment debate in the Commons than it is to any aspect of Question Time. It enables a question to be asked and, in effect, debated, for up to an hour (if taken in the dinner break) or 90-minutes (if taken as the last business). It is, in effect, an extended version of the Commons daily adjournment debate, the length enabling more members to take part. In Strengthening Parliament, we recommended that short debates, equivalent to unstarred questions, be utilised as a means of making the chamber more interesting and relevant to Members. [15]

  I end by drawing attention to one other aspect of procedure in the Lords that may help provoke and concentrate thought. I am not necessarily recommending it, but as it is in marked contrast to procedure in the Commons it does help force one to question why present procedure is as it is. One thing largely taken for granted in the Commons is the rota for Question Time, departmental ministers answering questions when they come up on the rota. Much is geared to the rota. In the House of Lords, there is no rota. Peers table starred questions and the House takes a maximum of four a day. They are addressed to Her Majesty's Government and are not confined to one particular department on a particular day. One question may be answered by a Home Office Minister, the next by a Foreign Office Minister, and the next by a DEFRA Minister. This works well and it means the House does not have to wait for a month before a particular department is questioned. Emulating such a practice in the Commons would be highly inconvenient for ministers, since it would have the potential to require them to be in the Commons more often than at present. That might be thought no bad thing from the perspective of the House. However, it may be a problem if questions are tabled at short notice (which, with the exception of the topical questions, they are not in the Lords) and ministers are not going to be available to answer them. Again, the problem may not be insuperable, not least given the number of ministers in each Department. I reiterate that I am not necessarily advocating such a radical change, which doubtless would encounter strong opposition from government, but I draw it to the Committee's attention as a way of stimulating fresh ideas.

April 2002


1   See M Franklin and P Norton (eds), Parliamentary Questions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993). Back

2   See D N Chester and N Bowring, Questions in Parliament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). For an earlier study, see P Howarth, Questions in the House: The History of a Unique British Institution (London: The Bodley Head, 1956). The institution, though, is not that unique. The facility to ask oral questions exists in most parliamentary assemblies. Back

3   See P Norton, "Questions and the Role of Parliament", in Franklin and P Norton, Parliamentary Questions, pp 194-207. Back

4   M Shephard, "Prime Minister's Question Time. Functions, Flux, Causes and Consequence: A Behavioural Analysis", Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Houston, 1999. Back

5   The Commission to Strengthen Parliament, Strengthening Parliament (London: The Conservative Party, 2000), p 27. Back

6   Oral Questions. First Report form the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1989-90, HC 379 p vii. Back

7   B Sedgemore, The Secret Constitution (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980); see especially Appendix 3. Back

8   Prime Minister's Questions, Seventh Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1994-95, HC 555, pp 1-7. Back

9   See P Dunleavy and G W Jones, "Leaders, Politics and Institutional Change: The Decline of Prime Ministerial Accountability to the House of Commons, 1868-90", British Journal of Political Science, vol 23, 1993, pp 267-98. Back

10   H Irwin, A Kennon, D Natzler and R Rogers, "Evolving Rules", in Franklin and Norton, Parliamentary Questions, pp 54-56. Back

11   See my evidence to the Procedure Committee, Prime Minister's Questions, p 5. Back

12   Strengthening Parliament, pp 26-27. This follows a similar practice in the Lords where the last question in Question Time on two days a week is a topical question. Back

13   Prime Minister's Questions, pp 4-5. Back

14   Prime Minister's Questions, p xvi. Back

15   Strengthening Parliament, p 28. Back

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