Accountability to the House of Commons of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords - Procedure Committee Contents

Accountability to the House of Commons of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords


1.  On 12 January 2010 the Speaker wrote to the Procedure Committee asking us to consider the matter of accountability to the House of Commons of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords. This matter had been the subject of debate since the then Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) select committee published on 25 November 2008 a report in which it expressed serious concern about the capacity of the House of Commons to hold to account the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, following the appointment to the post of Lord Mandelson. The Committee suggested that a mechanism should be found to enable parliamentary questions to be answered by Lord Mandelson in the Commons, and it recommended that the Procedure Committee should hold detailed discussions about the appropriate mechanism.[1]

2.  The Procedure Committee wrote to Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP, Leader of the House, on 10 December 2008, asking for the Government's view. The letter was answered by means of the Government Response to the BERR Committee in February 2009. The response was unequivocal that the Government "does not support the proposal for Ministers who are Members of one House to answer parliamentary questions in the other House".[2]

3.  This position changed later that year, when, on 24 September 2009, Mr Speaker expressed his view that Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis (who had become Secretary of State for Transport in the summer reshuffle) should answer questions in Westminster Hall.[3] The Prime Minister then wrote to the Speaker, reportedly proposing that the Lords Secretaries of State should be questioned in the Commons Chamber.[4] This new attitude on behalf of the Government was reflected by the Leader of the Lords when she commented on 7 January 2010 that the Government saw "no reason why Secretaries of State in the Lords should not appear before the House of Commons, if that were the will of the House".[5]

4.  The Speaker's letter to us of 12 January 2010 asked us to consider the matter and to address, in particular:

a)  whether any proposal should also apply to Lords holders of particular portfolios within departments.

b)  what forum would be appropriate.

c)  what form accountability should take.

d)  practicalities such as frequency and length, relationship to the existing Question Times for Business, Innovation and Skills and Transport, where Ministers might sit, how questioning should be organised, and chairing arrangements.

5.  On 11 March 2010 the Public Administration Select Committee published its report into ministerial appointments from outside Parliament. The Report also addressed the matter of the accountability to the House of Commons of senior Ministers in the House of Lords. The Committee concluded:

So long as there is an unelected second chamber, there is a strong argument of principle that senior ministers should be directly accountable to the democratically elected chamber as a whole. However, there is a debate to be had about how this can be achieved. [...] Such a move should not be used as a justification for appointing more senior ministers via the House of Lords. The purpose of such a change would be to assert the primacy of the Commons, not to undermine it.[6]

Precedents and Models

6.  There are several precedents for the attendance in the House of Commons of Ministers who are members of the House of Lords. Until the first part of the nineteenth century, important inquiries were entrusted to committees of the whole House. Witnesses were examined at the Bar. If a member of the House of Lords was so examined, chairs were placed for them within the Bar and they were introduced by the Serjeant. Peers sat down, but stood to answer questions.[7]

7.  There is also a long tradition of grand committees which as general committees broadly follow the procedure of the House and are frequently used to conduct business which, if time were available, would be conducted on the floor. The Scottish, Welsh, Northern Ireland and Regional Grand Committees allow statements to be made, and questions to be answered, by Ministers of the Crown 'whether or not a Member of the House'. In the first three cases such Ministers may not make their statements 'from the body of the Committee' and may not 'vote, make any motion or be counted in the quorum'.[8]

8.  Following recommendations from the Modernisation Committee, proposals were drawn up for a Parliamentary European Committee which would in effect have been a joint general committee.[9] Attendance was to be open to all members of both Houses; there would be no 'core' membership. Business would include statements from Ministers. No progress has been made with these proposals but they illustrate the potential for adapting current procedures for innovative ends.

9.  The most familiar precedent for Lords Ministers appearing in the Commons is giving evidence before select committees. This is a frequent occurrence. Members of the House of Lords may not be summoned to give evidence to select committees, but this has not presented difficulties to select committees and there is no suggestion that they would not appear willingly under any new arrangement to allow scrutiny by the whole House. House of Lords Standing Order No. 25 gives leave to any Lord requested by a committee of the Commons to attend as a witness before it to attend if he or she thinks fit.


10.  On 9 February 2010 we wrote to all Members of the House of Commons inviting their views on this subject. Of those Members who replied, a clear majority believed that Lords Ministers should be more accountable. Those against the proposal of greater accountability included those who opposed blurring the lines between the different institutions, as well as Members who were strongly of the opinion that ministers should not be drawn from the Lords.

11.  Members were also asked where such scrutiny should take place. A slight majority favoured Westminster Hall over the Chamber. A number of those responses favouring the Chamber suggested restrictions such as limiting attendance by Lords Ministers to the bar of the House or to exceptional occasions.

12.  Members were also asked whether they would rather see Lords Ministers responding to questions only, or to both questions and debates. A small majority supported the 'questions only' option, and of those who supported questions and debates, several expressed a stronger preference for questions.[10]


13.  We recognise the concerns expressed by several Members regarding the potential consequences of changing procedures in this way. On a constitutional level, it may be argued that agreeing to allow a non-Member to be questioned on the floor of the House or even in Westminster Hall might set a precedent which was later felt to be undesirable. We recognise that any proposal to change the status quo must take into account not only procedural practicalities, but also potential constitutional implications.

14.  Although we recognise that the exceptionally high profile of the current Secretaries of State in the Lords may not be a feature of all Cabinets, we believe that these questions are likely to recur in future years and need to be properly addressed. In the light of this, and the representations received from Members of the House and the Speaker himself, we consider that it would be appropriate at this time to conduct an experiment of procedures for Lords Ministers being questioned in the Commons.

15.  In considering the conditions under which such an experiment would take place, we were guided by the following principles. First, any experiment should not impinge upon the constitutional primacy of the House of Commons. Secondly, any experiment should take place as far as possible within the existing procedures of the House. It is for this reason, in line with the preferences expressed by the Members who responded to our consultation, that we believe the experiment should consist solely of questions and should take place in Westminster Hall. At present business in Westminster Hall on a Thursday afternoon is the responsibility of the Chairman of Ways and Means under Standing Order No. 10(3).[11] Recent proposals from the House of Commons Reform Committee recommend that this becomes time available for Backbench Business. However, we anticipate that the House would be prepared to pass a motion to allow questioning of Secretaries of State from the Lords to take forty-five minutes out of this time on an experimental basis.

16.  If the experiment were considered successful and if it were felt necessary to further develop and strengthen the scrutiny it permitted, there might then be a case for considering more radical options including, perhaps, questions on the floor of the House. Until that point we would consider it prudent to take a measured approach. The experiment in Westminster Hall may reveal new issues, be they constitutional or practical in nature, which could be valuable in deciding whether and how such scrutiny should continue.

17.  We consider that an experiment of oral questions in Westminster Hall should take place under the following conditions:

a)  the experiment should last for one Parliamentary Session,

b)  the experiment should apply only to departmental Secretaries of State in the House of Lords,

c)  subject to the length of the Parliamentary Session, each Secretary of State should be subject to two question sessions,

d)  each session should consist of a thirty minute period of 'normal' questions, followed by a fifteen minute period of topical questions,

e)  the session should complement rather than replace the regular departmental Question Time on the floor of the House, which should continue to take place as normal,

f)  Secretaries of State should not be able to delegate questions to junior ministerial colleagues from either House,

g)  the question session should be chaired by a Deputy Speaker,

h)  supplementary questions should be permitted,

i)  opposition frontbench spokesmen should be accorded the same priority as at question time in the Chamber,

j)  tabling and shuffling arrangements, and notice periods, should be the same as for question time in the Chamber,

k)  the session should take place as the first item of business on Thursday afternoons.

One question that must be answered is that of where the Secretary of State would sit during the session. The Standing Orders provide for instances where a Minister of the Crown who is not a Member of the Commons makes a statement to a Grand Committee, and prevents the Minister from doing so 'from the body of the committee'. Arrangements are instead made for the Lords Minister to sit at the dais, immediately to the right of the Chair, at a seat which would otherwise be occupied by an official. We acknowledge the importance of maintaining a measure of 'otherness' so that Lords Ministers are not seen to be taking a conventional part in proceedings. A Lords Minister participating in a question session from the dais is not being accorded a special status; rather his position outside the body of the room is underlining precisely that he does not possess the special status of a Member of the House of Commons. However, we accept that using the dais in this way for this experiment may give a misleading impression that the Secretary of State is occupying a privileged position, not least because he would then be sitting alongside the person chairing the session. We therefore believe that it would be more appropriate to follow the Select Committee model, where the witness is on the same level as the Members of the Committee but at a separate table.

18.  We have proposed this experiment on the basis of concerns regarding the accountability of the House of Lords as currently constituted. In the event that a future Government introduced legislation to alter the composition of the House of Lords, we would expect the matter to be revisited.

19.  We recommend that the House be given the opportunity in this Parliament to approve a motion enabling Lords Secretaries of State to appear in Westminster Hall under the conditions listed above in the first Session of the next Parliament.

1   Business and Enterprise Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2007-08, Departmental Annual Report and Scrutiny of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, HC 1116, paragraph 15. Back

2   Government Response to the Fourteenth Report of the Business and Enterprise Select Committee of 2007-08, Cm. 7559.  Back

3   Speech to the Hansard Society, 24 September 2009. Back

4   Daily Telegraph, 25 October 2009 Back

5   HL Debates, 7 January 2010, c199 Back

6   Public Administration Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2009-10, Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament, HC 330, paragraph 58. Back

7   Erskine May, 10th edition, 1893, p 362-3 and 409 (chairs were also place for judges and the Lord Mayor of London, but they were only permitted to 'rest with their hands upon the chair backs.') Back

8   Standing Orders Nos. 96(4), 105(4), and 112(4). Back

9   Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Second Report of Session 2004-05, Scrutiny of European Business, HC 461-I and -II, paragraphs 55-64. Back

10   See Annex 1 for analysis of responses and Ev pp 1-6 for the responses in full. Back

11   Standing Order No. 10(3) states: "Subject to paragraph (13) below [debates on Select Committee Reports], the business taken at any sitting in Westminster Hall shall be such as the Chairman of Ways and Means shall appoint and may include oral answers to questions under arrangements to be made by him." Back

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