Private notice questions. Tabling oral questions, Repeal of Standing Orders, Repetition of answers to House of Commons urgent questions - Procedure Committee Contents


Private Notice Questions

1.  In 2010 the House agreed that the decision of the Lord Speaker on an application for a private notice question should be final.[1] The Committee has now considered a proposal by Lord Trefgarne that a procedure be put in place for appealing against the Lord Speaker's decision; as an alternative, he proposes that the House could revert to the pre-2006 procedure, where the initial decision was taken by the Leader of the House, subject to "the general sense of the House."

2.  The Committee believes that the current procedure works well, and that it would not be appropriate to introduce a right of appeal against the Lord Speaker's decision. We therefore recommend no change to the current procedure for dealing with applications for private notice questions.

Tabling oral questions

3.  In our 3rd Report of the current session we recommended the adoption, on a trial basis, of a procedure for allocating oral questions by means of a ballot. After a long debate on 9 January, the House agreed an amendment, tabled by Lord Grenfell, which instructed us "to consider and report again on the procedure for tabling oral questions before the Easter recess".[2] Following that debate, the Chairman wrote to all members of the Procedure Committee, requesting them to consult colleagues and in light of this consultation to bring forward proposals for further consideration.

4.  The consultation suggests that there is general agreement across the House that more members should be enabled to participate in oral questions; but there is less agreement on how to achieve this. We have considered several options, including:

·  Moving fully to a ballot, as recommended in our 3rd Report;

·  A ballot either for one or two questions each day, or for one whole day each week;

·  Increasing the number of questions each day from four to five, and the time allowed from 30 to 40 minutes;

·  Introducing a cap on the number of questions each member may table in a given period.

5.  The only one of these options for which there appears to be broad support is the introduction of a cap. We accordingly recommend that, with effect from the current year, members should be entitled to table no more than seven oral questions in each calendar year.[3]

6.  We have also taken this opportunity to discuss both the distribution and length of supplementary questions. We remind all members of the House of the existing rules, set out in paragraph 6.29 of the Companion to the Standing Orders:

"Supplementary questions~~ may be asked but they should be short and confined to not more than two points. If a supplementary question exceeds these guidelines, the minister need only answer the two main points. Supplementary questions should be confined to the subject of the original question, and ministers should not answer irrelevant questions~. The essential purpose of supplementaries is to elicit information, and they should not incorporate statements of opinion. They should not be read."

7.  We further remind members that "giving way accords with the traditions and customary courtesy of the House."[4] It is essential, in a self-regulating House, that all members behave with courtesy and self-restraint, particularly during question time, so as to allow as many members as possible to participate.

Repeal of Standing Orders

8.  In April 2012 the Government published a Green Paper on Parliamentary Privilege (Cm 8318). The Government also announced that the Green Paper would be referred to a Joint Committee for scrutiny. This Joint Committee was duly established, after some delay, in January.

9.  Chapter 9 of the Green Paper covers a number of miscellaneous issues relating to parliamentary privilege, including three House of Lords Standing Orders, which the Green Paper suggests no longer have any continuing purpose. In June 2012 the Leader of the House agreed, in correspondence with the Clerk of the Parliaments, that it would not be appropriate for the Joint Committee to consider House of Lords Standing Orders, and the Clerk of the Parliaments accordingly brought a paper before the Procedure Committee.

10.  Standing Order 16, which dates from 1699, is as follows:

16. The printing or publishing of anything relating to the proceedings of the House is subject to the privilege of the House.

11.  Standing Order 16 dates from a period when both Houses actively sought to prevent publication of reports of their proceedings—Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates did not appear until 1800. Its original purpose was to limit unauthorised and scurrilous reporting of proceedings of the House. Following the development of parliamentary reporting in the early nineteenth century the protection afforded to documents printed by order of the House, and to extracts or abstracts of such documents, was put on a statutory basis in the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840.

12.  Standing Order 84, which dates from 1678, is as follows:

84. In all cases wherein it is necessary to examine witnesses in perpetuam rei memoriam, it shall not be taken to be a breach of privilege of Parliament to file a Bill against a Peer in time of Parliament, and take out usual process for that purpose only.

13.  Standing Order 84 relates to a now obsolete legal process whereby testimony could be taken before the main trial—for instance, if the witness were terminally ill. Such cases are now handled by different means, and the Standing Order serves no continuing purpose.

14.  Standing Order 85, which dates from 1675, is as follows:

85. No oath shall be imposed by any Bill or otherwise upon Peers with a penalty in case of refusal to lose their places and votes in Parliament or liberty of debate therein.

15.  Standing Order 85 is a product of its time: the Test Act 1673 had provided that all persons filling any public office were obliged to take oaths of supremacy and allegiance and subscribe to a declaration against transubstantiation. The 1673 Act did not apply to Peers, and in the next few years the House resisted attempts by the Commons to extend its provisions to Peers, which would have excluded those who were Roman Catholics. This resistance (embodied in part in Standing Order 85) was unsuccessful: the second Test Act, of 1678, extended to Peers, so excluding the "five Popish Lords" who had been accused of treason by Titus Oates.

16.  Thus Standing Order 85, while it represented an important and historic statement of principle, was over-ridden by statute as early as 1678, and has therefore had no effect for more than 300 years. Although the Test Acts were repealed in the 1820s, the Standing Order continues to contradict the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866, under which it is unlawful for members of the House of Lords to sit or vote unless they have sworn the oath of allegiance.

17.  We therefore conclude that Standing Orders 16, 84 and 85 are obsolete, and recommend that they be repealed.

Repetition of answers to House of Commons urgent questions

18.  On 22 November 2012 the House agreed the following recommendation, contained in the Committee's 2nd Report of 2012-13:

"We recommend that the following procedure for repeating answers to House of Commons urgent questions be adopted, on a trial basis, until the end of the 2012-13 session:

·  The answer given in the Commons will be repeated in full, as a statement;

·  It will then be followed by ten minutes of question and answer (as for a private notice question);

·  The existing rules on the conduct of PNQs, set out in paragraph 6.35 of the Companion, will apply;

·  The first question will normally be asked by the Opposition front bench, unless the usual channels have agreed otherwise."

19.  We undertook to review the trial in spring 2013. This report sets out the results of that review.

20.  Since January the new procedure has been used 11 times. We believe that it has generally worked well, with proceedings lasting between 13 and 16 minutes in total. In most cases answers have been repeated immediately after oral questions, when attendance is highest, without unduly delaying the main business of the day.

21.  One problem has been encountered: on some occasions the initial question from the Opposition front bench, and the answer to that question, have been too long, with the result that the time allowed for backbench questions has been squeezed. On 13 February this led to some discussion in the House;[5] Lord Martin of Springburn later wrote to our Chairman proposing that the time taken by the front benches should be discounted in calculating the ten minutes allowed for question and answer.

22.  We acknowledge the concern expressed by Lord Martin, and agree that backbench contributions should not be curtailed. But the fault lies not with the procedure (which is the same as for a PNQ), but with the failure of those on both front benches to observe that procedure. The procedure is clearly set out in paragraph 6.37 of the Companion to the Standing Orders:

[PNQs] should not be made the occasion for immediate debate. Proceedings on PNQs follow the rules for oral questions. In particular, supplementary questions should be short and confined to not more than two points.

23.  Thus the ten minutes following the repetition of the answer to a House of Commons urgent question should be devoted to questions and answers, in accordance with the clear rules set out in the Companion, not to statements or speech-making. These rules apply to those on the front benches as well as to back-benchers, and it therefore follows that we endorse the principle that the bulk of the time allocated to questions and answers under the new procedure should be available by backbenchers.

24.  The Leaders of the main parties have undertaken to remind their colleagues on both front benches of these rules, and in light of these undertakings we recommend that the procedure for repeating answers to House of Commons urgent questions, adopted on a trial basis in November 2012, be made permanent. We will keep the procedure under review, and if the problems encountered on 13 February recur, we will look again at whether the time allocated to backbenchers should be formally protected.

1   Procedure Committee, 2nd Report, 2009-10 (HL Paper 51), agreed 16 March 2010. Back

2   Procedure Committee, 3rd Report, 2012-13 (HL Paper 81); HL Deb., 9 January 2013, cols 145-172. Back

3   If such a rule had been in force in 2012, it would have affected five members of the House, each of whom tabled nine or ten questions in the course of the year. Back

4   Companion to the Standing Orders, paragraph 4.31. Back

5   HL Deb., 13 February 2013, cols 663-664. Back

previous page contents

© Parliamentary copyright 2013