Report of the Leader's Group on Working Practices - Leader's Group on Working Practices Contents

Chapter 2: Holding the Executive to Account


17.  Parliament holds the executive to account by questioning and challenging the executive's policies and actions, and requiring ministers and senior officials, in person, to account publicly for their decisions.

18.  Primary responsibility for scrutiny of the executive rests with the House of Commons, as the elected chamber. In certain areas, notably public expenditure, the special responsibility of the Commons for scrutiny of the executive is a long-standing constitutional convention. While Erskine May states that "the Lords also express their opinion upon public expenditure",[4] the House's exercise of such scrutiny functions is limited and, where it occurs, likely to be controversial. More generally, the authority of the Government of the day depends on its ability to command a majority in the elected chamber: only the House of Commons can bring down the Government by passing a motion of no confidence. Nevertheless, while accepting that the role of the House of Lords in scrutinising the executive is secondary to that of the Commons, we believe that the House can add considerable value to Parliament's fulfilment of this task.

19.  Such scrutiny should, we believe, be—

  • Transparent: parliamentary questions and debates ensure that government does not happen behind closed doors.
  • Thorough and evidence-based: scrutiny should encourage and push the Government to consider all the options and, at times, to think again.
  • Political, but not to the exclusion of non-partisan, constructive exchange of views.
  • Focused, addressing key areas of government action and policy, whether these are topical or of long-term importance.
  • A two-way process, encouraging dialogue between Members and the executive.
  • Continuous—good scrutiny is not a matter of one-off set-piece displays, but of on-going debate and argument.

20.  The House of Lords can make a valuable contribution to achieving these high standards by using its particular strengths: the expertise and experience of its Members, its less partisan character, and the time that its Members, without constituencies to attend to, can devote to probing the detail of policy using the House's less constrained procedures.

21.  The principal means of scrutinising the executive available to the House are:

  • Oral questions (including balloted topical questions and urgent Private Notice Questions);
  • Written questions;
  • Consideration of oral statements in the Chamber;
  • Publication of written statements in Hansard;
  • The holding of debates (though sometimes serving an important scrutiny function, debates are considered in the chapter 4);
  • Scrutiny by select committees;
  • The laying by the Government of papers before Parliament.

22.  There is a distinction between what might be called "active" scrutiny (involving question and answer, taking place in the Chamber, committee rooms, or, in the case of written questions, in the pages of Hansard) and "passive" scrutiny—the publication of written statements, and the laying of papers, as required by statute, before Parliament. We have concentrated on the first, and more visible, aspect of scrutiny, with particular emphasis, in this chapter, on oral questions and statements.

23.  A balance also has to be struck between the House's responsibility to hold the executive to account, and a further core function, namely to provide a forum for public debate and inquiry. Some debates may contribute to scrutiny of the executive—the debate on the Queen's Speech, for example, is an opportunity to interrogate and challenge the Government on its legislative programme. Other debates are less focused on scrutiny, and instead allow Members to discuss matters of general importance with relatively little direct challenge to or exchange of views with the executive. Similar considerations apply to much committee work. The question of whether the House has currently got the balance between its scrutiny and debating functions right is addressed in chapter 4.

Oral questions

24.  The most prominent way in which the Government is held to account is through oral questions, which occupy the first thirty minutes of all sitting days except sitting Fridays. Four such questions are taken each day, but whereas oral questions may normally be tabled up to one month[5] in advance, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays the fourth slot is given to a topical question drawn from a ballot two working days beforehand.

25.  In addition to regular oral questions, Private Notice Questions, which are an "opportunity to raise urgent matters on any sitting day",[6] are allowed by the Lord Speaker if they meet narrowly defined criteria. Up to 10 minutes is allowed.

26.  Finally, Members can also table up to six Questions for Written Answer every sitting day: the Government's reply is expected within 10 working days and is printed in Hansard.

27.  First we consider oral questions. The problems currently being encountered in respect of oral questions, including topical questions, fall under two headings: the conduct of question time itself, and the process whereby questions are tabled. The recent large increase in the size of the House, and increasingly active membership, has added to the difficulties being experienced in both areas.


28.  The conduct of oral questions is the topic which, to judge by the responses to our invitation for views, concerns Members of the House more than any other at present. The procedure is, in outline, that when an oral question has been asked and answered, the questioner and then any other Member can put supplementary questions. There is no selection of these questions. Members wishing to raise a supplementary question stand and begin putting their question. If more than one Member stands, they give way to each other; if there is a dispute about who should give way, the sense of the House determines which Member should speak, interpreted through the Government front bench if necessary.


Question Time: History
The procedure for oral (formerly "starred") questions began in 1919, following a Committee recommendation that "it shall be in the power of any Peer who asks a question for the purpose of information only, and not with a view to making a speech or to raising a debate, to indicate his intention by prefixing an asterisk to his question when he hands it in".[7] At this stage it was envisaged that proceedings on a starred question would be broadly equivalent to those on a written question: no supplementary questions would be asked, and certainly no debate would ensue. Nor did such questions have a fixed place on the Order Paper (business being tabled in the order in which it was sent in to the Table); nor was there any limit on numbers or time taken.

However, by the 1940s there was pressure to give precedence on the Order Paper to starred questions and to limit their numbers, both to avoid keeping ministers waiting for hours while other business was being conducted, and to prevent possible abuse. These led to a recommendation by the Procedure Committee, in April 1943, that starred questions be limited to Tuesdays and to one per Member; that they take precedence over other business; and that they be time-limited to 15 minutes in total.[8]

Though this particular recommendation was not adopted by the House, from the 1940s onwards the House's procedures for asking oral questions were gradually formalised. Oral questions in their current form date from as recently as 1991, when a firm time-limit of 30 minutes, for four questions, was established; other rules, for instance limiting Members to one oral question on the Order Paper at any one time, were adopted as recently as 1998, following a recommendation from the Leader's Group chaired by Baroness Hilton of Eggardon.[9]

Thus for almost a century the House has struggled with the need, during question time, to strike a balance between the freedoms enjoyed by Members, the orderly conduct of business, and the principles of self-regulation.

29.  The outcome is widely regarded as unsatisfactory. As the brief history of oral questions in Box 1 shows, the House has for almost a century sought to balance self-regulation with the need for orderly conduct of business. But the adoption of a rigid allocation of time to each question, combined with the increasing size and level of activity of the House, militates against effective self-regulation. With an average of only seven and a half minutes available for the question, answer and supplementary questions and answers, there is, instead of self-regulation, regulation by clock. Time is short; opportunities to intervene are few. The convention that supplementary questions come from the different parties/groups in a rough rotation adds to the difficulty, meaning that a Member who thinks it likely that his or her party/group will not have time to come in again has no incentive to give way in the hope of intervening later. When the political character of question time is combined with the larger size of the House, the result is an increasingly fractious and at times aggressive atmosphere at question time.

30.  The result is that many Members, from whom the House might wish to hear, and whose knowledge and experience would be particularly valuable in contributing to informed scrutiny of the Government, are discouraged from participating in question time. The unique contribution of the Lords—the breadth of knowledge and experience of its Members—is wasted, and the Government is less effectively held to account.

31.  There will always be a political component to question time. But it should not be exclusively political or partisan. In an environment where only members willing to seize the floor are able to ask questions, less partisan, evidence-based and constructive questions are likely to be lost. This in turns militates against the establishment of a productive dialogue, which might prompt ministers to give more considered, informative and helpful replies.

32.  As the Companion states, "the role of assisting the House at question time rests with the Leader of the House".[10] In practice this means that when the House reaches a stalemate, with two or more Members competing to ask a supplementary question, and none of them being willing to give way, it is for the Leader (or another Government minister) to rise and seek to give expression to the sense of the House. This may be by indicating that it is the turn of one particular party or group, or that the House may wish to hear from the Lords Spiritual (bishops), or, where two or more Members from the same party are in competition, by suggesting which should be heard.

33.  Some Members suggested that it was inappropriate for the Leader of the House, as a member of the Government, to assist the House in this way; that it gives the impression that the Government's own front bench chooses the questions that the Government would best like to answer. Several Members also noted that, while trying to observe and interpret the mood of the House, the Leader has his back to almost half its Members. The Leader's role as a senior minister has to be combined with that of expressing the sense of the House and advising the House on matters of procedure and order, including at question time: statistics show that successive Leaders have acted in the latter role with complete impartiality. At the same time, performing this role has become increasingly difficult.

34.  How do we address the decline in standards of behaviour at question time? There are four main options, which could be pursued either singly or in combination:

  • To leave the procedure at question time unchanged, but to reinforce the House's tradition of self-regulation, for instance by encouraging senior members of the House (including the Leader and Chief Whip) to intervene more frequently, with what one Member called "a clear recital, reminder and underlining of the rule or rules".
  • To change the procedure by introducing a greater measure of self-regulation, for instance by removing time limits, and placing the responsibility for orderly conduct of question time firmly on the House as a whole.
  • To transfer the responsibility currently exercised by the Leader of the House to the Lord Speaker.
  • To limit self-regulation during question time, by conferring upon the Lord Speaker the power to "call" supplementary questions, and determine when the House should move on to the next question.

35.  We believe that in the current circumstances, and with a view to encouraging the greatest range of the House's Members to participate in question time, asking the greatest range of questions in an atmosphere more conducive to dialogue and to effective scrutiny of Government, it is time to consider adopting the third of these options, on a trial basis. We accept that simply transferring to the Lord Speaker the reactive role currently performed by the Leader may not, in itself, address the fundamental problem. However, it is worth an experiment—we trust that the force of interventions from the Woolsack, rather than from the Government front bench, may be such as to foster greater self-restraint across the House, so making such interventions less frequent. The Lord Speaker is also physically better placed to interpret the will of the House.

36.  If, on the other hand, there is no improvement in behaviour after a trial period, which we suggest should be set at one year, it would be for the Procedure Committee to review the options set out above, with a view either to abandoning the experiment and reverting to the status quo, or looking again at the more radical fourth option.

37.  Irrespective of whether the procedure at question time is changed, in a self-regulating House all Members—and particularly the front benches—remain responsible for good order, and in particular for calling to order those who transgress the rules of the House.

38.  We recommend that consideration be given to conferring upon the Lord Speaker the role currently performed during question time by the Leader of the House, for a one-year trial period in the first instance, beginning no sooner than 5 September 2011. In the event of the Lord Speaker's unavoidable absence from the House, we recommend that the same task be performed by the Chairman of Committees.


39.  At the end of the last Parliament, with a view to enhancing the House's scrutiny of the two Secretaries of State then sitting in the House of Lords, the Procedure Committee recommended, on a trial basis, that those Secretaries of State should, on one Thursday each month, answer three oral questions addressed to them in their ministerial capacity. Fifteen minutes were set aside for such questions.

40.  This experiment was, in our view, a success. Although it has been discontinued, as no Secretaries of State now sit in the Lords, we believe that the principle established, of oral questions directed to specific senior ministers, enhances the House's scrutiny of Government, and should be developed further, in particular by introducing a regular question time for the Leader of the House. Such questions should focus on matters for which the Leader is responsible as Leader.

41.  We recommend that the procedure adopted in early 2010, whereby Secretaries of State sitting in the Lords should answer three oral questions, on one Thursday each month, directed to them in their ministerial capacity, should be made permanent, with a view to its revival as appropriate.

42.  We further recommend that there should be a monthly question time dedicated to questions on House of Lords matters addressed to the Leader of the House.


43.  A member wishing to ask a Private Notice Question submits it in writing to the Lord Speaker by noon (or 10am if the House is sitting in the morning). The Lord Speaker, after consultation, decides whether the question "is of sufficient urgency and importance to justify an immediate reply".[11] The Lord Speaker's decision is final.

44.  Private Notice Questions are rare. Since the start of the present session only 2 out of 17 applications have been accepted, reflecting a long-standing reluctance to grant Private Notice Questions and thereby delay the start of the main business of the day. In contrast, the new Speaker of the House of Commons announced early in his term in office that he would allow more Urgent Questions. He fulfilled this undertaking by allowing no fewer than 17 Urgent Questions between the start of the present session and the end of 2010. Although many of these have been repeated as oral statements in the House of Lords, the growing disparity between the two Houses reduces this House's ability to hold the Government to account.

45.  We recommend that the Lord Speaker interpret the criteria for allowing Private Notice Questions more liberally. We believe that the presumption should be that if an issue is an urgent matter of national importance, the application should be granted.


46.  The confusion of question time is compounded by the use of wordy and unnecessarily obscure procedures. Oral questions are all but impossible to follow unless the observer is equipped with the Order Paper, as the Member putting the question, having been called by the Clerk, simply stands to say "My Lords, I beg leave to ask the question standing in my name on the Order Paper", without reference to the text, before the minister stands to answer. The process of asking supplementary questions is equally bewildering to the uninitiated, with Members on all sides standing, speaking and even shouting, and with sedentary Members calling out the name of the Member they wish to hear. It is often hard for an outsider to discern the purpose of the spectacle.

47.  Members also on occasion make unnecessarily time-consuming interventions. Too much time is spent on introductory remarks, for instance thanks to the minister or unnecessary declarations of trivial non-financial (and non-registrable) interests. There is a tendency of Members from all sides, including the Government front bench, to ignore the clear guidance in the Companion that "supplementary questions ... should be short and confined to not more than two points ... should be confined to the subject of the original question ... ministers should not respond to irrelevant questions."[12]

48.  We recommend that instead of Members seeking leave to ask the questions "standing in their name on the Order Paper", Members should read out the text of the question, using the formula "My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government ...." To ensure that this does not take up too much time, we further recommend a mandatory limit of 40 words for oral questions (excluding the introductory formula given above).

49.  To ensure best use of question time, we re-affirm the existing guidance in the Companion on the conduct of question time, while recommending that it be supplemented by the following guidance, based on that already found in the Guide to the Code of Conduct:

  • Members should not take up the time of the House making trivial declarations of non-financial and non-registrable interests.

50.  Finally, we recommend the addition of the following new guidance in the Companion:

  • Questioners should not thank the Government for its answers, nor ministers thank questioners for their questions.


51.  The Government makes both oral and written statements to the House on matters of public importance. Most oral statements taken in the Lords are repetitions of statements made first in the Commons. The statement is read out by a Government minister or spokesperson, which is followed by up to 20 minutes of questions from the Opposition front bench and Government answers, and then a further 20 minutes of questions from the backbenches and Government answers.

52.  Written ministerial statements are printed in Hansard, and are not discussed in the Chamber.

53.  While questioning the Government on oral statements is an essential part of holding the Government to account, the timing of statements is problematic. If a statement is made first in the Lords, it will be taken straight after oral questions, but if, as is almost always the case, it is repeated from the Commons, it will be taken "at a convenient moment" at which the House's business can be interrupted, after the Commons minister has begun speaking.

54.  Moreover, as the Companion states, "Ministerial statements made in the Commons are repeated in the Lords if the usual channels so wish".[13] In practice, this means that the decision as to whether or not to repeat a statement is taken by the Opposition front bench. Nor is there any limit on the number of ministerial statements that can be made in one day. The Companion states that "lengthy interruption of the business of the House is not desirable", but if three statements are repeated on the same day they can interrupt the day's main business (for instance, consideration of Government legislation), in prime time, for two hours or more.

55.  However important as an element of scrutiny, statements can significantly hold up the business that the House was expected to conduct. Important debates and votes may be deferred late into the evening or even a subsequent day. The impact on the scheduling of business is further compounded by the increasing numbers of Urgent Questions being allowed in the Commons (see above, paragraph 44), which are often repeated as statements in the Lords. The resulting increase in the frequency of oral statements is illustrated in Figure 5 above; more precise figures are given in the table below:
SessionNumber of oral statements Average per sitting day
2004-0523 0.37
2005-0671 0.34
2006-07 59 0.42
2007-0863 0.38
2008-0966 0.49
2009-1023 0.34
2010-12 (up to 6 April 2011) 840.62

56.  When a statement is repeated in the Lords, the entire text of the Commons minister's statement is read out by a Government spokesperson before questioning begins. This does not normally present any difficulty—such statements typically take between five and ten minutes to read. But occasionally such repetition does not represent a good use of the House's time: reading the entire Comprehensive Spending Review statement on 20 October 2010, for example, took over an hour, and even though the statement had been read in full in the Commons three hours beforehand (where members of the Lords may watch from the galleries), broadcast on live television, and made available in print from the Lords Printed Paper Office.

57.  We recommend that the usual channels should, in deciding whether to repeat a statement in the Lords, also consider whether it would be a good use of the House's time for the statement to be read out. In exceptional cases (for instance a long statement, which has been publicly available for some hours) it may be appropriate for the text of the statement to be reproduced in the Official Report without being read out; the remaining oral exchanges would take place in the Chamber as at present.

58.  A balance needs to be struck between the House's core functions. Some statements will be of critical importance, and should certainly be discussed in the Chamber, in "prime time". But in general we do not consider that devoting two or more hours of prime time to statements, and thereby interrupting the House's vital work of legislative scrutiny, always represents the best use of the House's resources.

59.  We recommend that, on days when more than one oral statement needs to be taken, the option should be available to take the second and subsequent statements in the Moses Room. Such statements would take precedence over other business scheduled in the Moses Room.

60.  Nor do proceedings on statements necessarily make best use of the House's time or the skills and knowledge of Members. The Companion is clear that statements "should not be made an occasion for immediate debate". But this is qualified by the statement that "brief comments and questions from all quarters of the House are allowed". Members have differing views on what constitutes brevity—some Members may make contributions lasting three or four minutes, significantly reducing the number of Members able to intervene. This leads to increasingly intense competition, with Members refusing to give way, with similar problems being experienced during oral statements as during question time.

61.  Where two or more Members wish to intervene during proceedings on an oral statement, the same procedure is followed as during oral questions—it is the task of the Leader (or another Government minister) to rise and seek to give expression to the sense of the House as to who should be heard. The same considerations apply to oral statements as to oral questions, and for the same reasons we believe that the Leader's role during oral statements should, for a trial period, be transferred to the Lord Speaker.

62.  We recommend that the guidance on backbench contributions on oral statements be clarified, by removing the reference to "brief comments". To avoid speech-making, and with a view to increasing the number of Members who can intervene on statements, we recommend that backbench contributions should be limited to questions to the minister.

63.  We support the practice of increasing the time available for backbench questions to 30 or 40 minutes in exceptional circumstances.

64.  We recommend that consideration be given to conferring upon the Lord Speaker the role currently performed during oral statements by the Leader of the House or the Government front bench, for a one-year trial period in the first instance, beginning no sooner than 5 September 2011. In the event of the Lord Speaker's unavoidable absence from the House, this task would be performed by the Chairman of Committees or by another Deputy Speaker.

Who speaks for the executive?

65.  Finally we address an over-arching issue affecting the way the House scrutinises the executive. For such scrutiny to be effective, it is important that those engaging with the House on behalf of the Government are ministers and officials with specific policy responsibility in the area being scrutinised, rather than those whips who are not ministers or junior officials who cannot fully represent decision-makers and answer for them. The Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Wakeham, recommended in 2000 that ministers should continue to be drawn from and directly accountable to the second chamber, and suggested that "it would be desirable if the second chamber were to continue to furnish several ministers of State and at least two members of the Cabinet."[14]

66.  However, whereas the end of the previous Parliament saw no fewer than three members of the Cabinet, including two Secretaries of State, in addition to the Attorney General, sitting in the House of Lords, in the current Parliament there are no Lords-based Secretaries of State, and only two members of Cabinet in the Lords.[15] The number of Ministers of State in the Lords has fallen from four to three.[16] This dilution of Government representation in the House undermines the ability of the House to assist the Commons in holding the Government to account.

67.  Nor have alternative means to enable Members to scrutinise the Government been proposed. Towards the end of the last Parliament, concern in the House of Commons over the presence of two Secretaries of State in the Lords, and the resulting perceived shortfall in accountability, led the Commons Procedure Committee to look at ways in which Lords ministers could answer questions in the other House.[17] The problem has now been reversed, as Members of the House of Lords find themselves unable to challenge responsible ministers across the spectrum of Government policy.

68.  As long ago as 2000 the Royal Commission pointed out that the lack of ministerial accountability to the second chamber meant that "the wider perspectives and relevant expertise of members of the House of Lords cannot be brought to bear directly and regularly on those senior members of the Government with the lead responsibility for most major areas of public policy". The current lack of direct accountability to the House of Lords is contributing to a reduction in the level of scrutiny by Parliament as a whole, and is therefore contrary to the public interest. The Royal Commission recommended that "a mechanism should be developed which would require Commons ministers to make statements to and deal with questions from members of the second chamber".[18]

69.  We recommend that renewed consideration be given, possibly by the Procedure Committees of the two Houses, to the means whereby ministers sitting in either House may be enabled to make statements to and answer questions in the other House.

4   Erskine May, 2004 edition, p. 918. Back

5   The Procedure Committee has recently recommended that this notice period be reduced to four weeks: see Procedure Committee, 4th Report, 2010-11 (HL Paper 127). Back

6   Companion to the Standing Orders, 2010 edition, p. 100. Back

7   See the House of Lords Journal, vol. 151 (1919), p. 113. Back

8   Procedure Committee, 1st Report, 1942-43, debated and referred back to the Committee on 5 May 1943. Back

9   See Procedure Committee, 1st Report, 1998-99 (HL Paper 33). Back

10   Companion, p. 61. Back

11   Companion, p. 100. Back

12   Companion, p. 98. Back

13   Companion, p. 91. Back

14   A House for the Future, report of the Royal Commission on House of Lords Reform, Cm 4534 (2000), p. 81, recommendation 44. Back

15   The Leader of the House and Baroness Warsi, the Minister without Portfolio. Back

16   Lord McNally, Lord Howell of Guildford and Baroness Neville-Jones. Back

17   House of Commons Procedure Committee, Accountability to the House of Commons of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords, 3rd Report, 2009-10 (HC 496). Back

18   Op. cit., p. 81. Back

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