Backbench Debates; Tabling oral questions; High Speed 2 and hybrid bill procedure - Procedure of the House Committee Contents


Backbench Debates

1.  The Procedure Committee's 6th Report of Session 2012-13 (HL Paper 151) set out a range of proposals by the Leader of the House to increase the time and opportunities available for backbench debates. The House agreed one of these proposals—extending the sitting times of Grand Committees solely considering backbench Questions for Short Debate—on 18 June (1st Report of Session 2013-14, HL Paper 19).

2.  On 25 June we considered a memorandum by the Leader on his remaining proposals. These were:

  • A new weekly topical Question for Short Debate to be selected by ballot;
  • Changes to improve the procedures governing motions for balloted debate.

We support the Leader's proposals, and set out below how they might best be implemented.


3.  As proposed by the Leader of the House, we recommend that a weekly one-hour slot for a topical Question for Short Debate (QSD), selected by ballot, should be set aside between time-limited debates and balloted debates (or after the main debate if there is only one) on Thursdays from the start of a Session to the end of January.

4.  The ballot would be drawn at 12 noon on Tuesday for Thursday of the following week. This would allow the Government Whips Office to include the topical QSD in Forthcoming Business a week in advance and it would appear in House of Lords Business for a full week. We believe this timetable strikes the right balance between giving members enough notice of the debate and ensuring that it remains topical. Members would be able to submit entries to the ballot from 10am on Monday morning until 12 noon the following day.

5.  To help ensure that entries to the ballot are topical, we propose the following test—that the subject of the QSD must have been covered by at least two mainstream media outlets on either of the two days that the ballot was open, or over the preceding weekend. In order to promote debate on a wide range of topics, we propose that the same subject should not be debated as a topical QSD more than once in a six-month period, and that no more than one entry on a subject would be accepted for the ballot (priority being given to the first tabled). We envisage these restrictions being narrowly construed: it would be acceptable to table an entry on a different aspect of a topic already debated or in the ballot, so long as it also met the topicality test detailed above.

6.  Members would not be permitted to "roll over" entries from one ballot to the next. An entry could be re-tabled by the member concerned, but the topicality test would be applied anew each time.

7.  The Clerks would advise members on the interpretation and application of these rules—as with the tabling of all questions and motions, we would expect that the advice of the Clerks be accepted.[1]

8.  The proposal for topical QSDs arose as part of a package intended to create more opportunities for backbench members to initiate debate. We therefore propose that they may be initiated only by backbench members,[2] and that a member may initiate only one topical QSD per session.

9.  Should there be no entry to the ballot in a particular week, or if it were determined that none of the entries was topical, then the slot the following Thursday would fall and the second party or balloted debate, if any, would immediately follow the first.

10.  The Leader's original proposal, as set out in our 6th report, suggested that entries to the ballot should have the support of a minimum number of members. He has not pursued that proposal, for two reasons. First, such a requirement would undermine the principle that all members should have an equal chance to pursue subjects they care about and have them debated in the House without having to persuade others of the merit of their chosen topic. Secondly, canvassing support could prove difficult given the short window of time available to table entries to the ballot—particularly for less well-connected members. We agree, and accordingly do not propose to take forward this aspect of the Leader's original proposal.

11.  We recommend the adoption of a weekly topical Question for Short Debate, to be selected by ballot, and governed by the procedures described in paragraphs 3 to 9 above.

12.  If this proposal is agreed, we envisage that ballots for topical QSDs will begin after the summer recess, with the first topical QSD taking place on 17 October. We propose to review the procedure in February 2014, with a view to recommending any refinements that may prove necessary.

Amendment to the Standing Orders

13.  An amendment to the Standing Orders is necessary to give effect to this recommendation. SO 40 sets out the order in which business is entered in the Order Paper, and SO 40(9) states that "Questions for Short Debate shall be entered last". We therefore recommend that Standing Order 40(9) be amended to read as follows (inserted text underlined):

"(9) Questions for Short Debate shall be entered last, except for balloted topical Questions for Short Debate on Thursdays, which shall be entered after the first motion for general debate."


14.  We recommend three changes to the procedure governing motions for balloted debate, as proposed by the Leader of the House. First, all entries to a particular ballot should lapse once the ballot has been drawn, and should need to be formally submitted anew at the members' initiative for the next ballot. This would prevent members "rolling over" their motions and help ensure that members remain actively interested in debating any motion for balloted debate that they have on the order paper.

15.  Secondly, members should be allowed either a motion for balloted debate or a Question for Short Debate on the same subject on the Order Paper at any one time, but not both. It is reasonable to expect members to decide whether they are seeking a full debate or a short debate and to table a single item accordingly—it would also prevent members 'spreading their bets': lengthening both lists and making it harder for other members to secure either sort of debate.

16.  Finally, we recommend that where one balloted debate has at least twice as many speakers as the other, there should be flexibility to shorten the less popular debate to two hours in order to extend the more popular one to three hours. At present, motions for balloted debate can attract significantly different numbers of speakers, leading to large discrepancies in the speaking times for backbench speakers between the two debates. We consider that allowing an adjustment of a maximum of half an hour will allow a degree of flexibility, while protecting the speaking times of members in less well-attended debates.

17.  The decision to propose a change to the standard time-limits would be taken by the usual channels when Speakers Lists close on Wednesday evening, and the change would be agreed by the House by way of a Business of the House motion on the morning of the debates.

18.  The Leader's original proposal, as set out in our 6th report of Session 2012-13, suggested that there might be a requirement that a minimum number of members indicate their interest in the subject of a motion as a pre-condition for entering the ballot. For the same reason that we decided not to take forward such a requirement in the context of topical QSDs (see paragraph 10), we do not propose to do so for balloted debates.

19.  We recommend the adoption of the changes to motions for balloted debate set out in paragraphs 14 to 17 above.

Tabling oral questions

20.  In our 5th Report of last session (HL Paper 150), we recommended that members be entitled to table no more than seven oral questions in each calendar year. That decision was to be implemented "with effect from the current year". The House agreed this recommendation on 24 April.

21.  It has been brought to our attention that some members were unaware that the effect of this recommendation was that the cap would be implemented retrospectively with effect from January of this year. While we do not intend to review the cap on oral questions at this time, we do not wish to penalise members who tabled questions at the start of the year and were unaware, at the time the cap was agreed, that the number of questions they had already tabled would count towards their limit for the 2013 calendar year.

22.  Accordingly, we recommend that the cap on oral questions should be deemed to have come into force from 1 May 2013. The limit of seven oral questions will therefore be calculated on a yearly basis from 1 May to 30 April.

High Speed 2 and hybrid bill procedure

23.  We have considered two proposals from the Leader of the House in connection with the High Speed 2 (HS2) hybrid bill. The first is for an amendment to the Standing Orders for Private Business to enable the public to comment on the environmental statement accompanying a hybrid bill and for those comments to be reported to, and to be taken into account by, the House. The proposed wording of this amendment is given in Appendix 1. The second is for a motion allowing, for the HS2 hybrid bill only, electronic deposit of bill documentation at relevant local authorities. The draft motion can be found in Appendix 2.

24.  The House of Commons passed equivalent motions amending their Standing Orders for Private Business and authorising the electronic deposit of bill documentation for High Speed 2 on 26 June.


25.  The amendment to the Standing Orders for Private Business aims to ensure that the House's procedures on hybrid bills are fully compliant with the objectives of the EU Directive on Environmental Impact Assessments, as amended by the Public Participation Directive in 2003. It provides an opportunity for the public to comment on the environmental statement on a hybrid bill, for those comments to be taken into account by the House before it takes a decision on the principle of the bill at second reading, and for further information to be made available at third reading.

26.  Under the new Standing Order, there will be a minimum of 56 days from the introduction of the bill in Parliament for comments on the environmental statement to be submitted to the Government. These comments must be published. They will be assessed and summarised by an independent assessor whose report must be submitted to the House in which the bill was introduced. A period of 14 days must then elapse before the bill can be given a second reading. Provision is also made for any further environmental information that may be required to make the environmental statement compliant with the Directive to be made available for public comment in a similar manner during the bill's subsequent progress through the Houses. This may be prompted by observations made by third parties, by recommendations of a select committee considering the bill or on the Government's own initiative. There will be a minimum period of 42 days for comments to be submitted. These comments will be published and a summary of them made by the independent assessor must be published. A period of no less than 14 days must then elapse before third reading of the bill in whichever House it then is.

27.  The new Standing Order also provides that at Third Reading the Minister must set out the main reasons and consideration upon which Parliament is invited to give its consent to the bill, and the main mitigation measures to offset any adverse effects of the bill. This information must also be published in a written statement not less than seven days before third reading.

28.  We recommend the amendment to the Standing Orders for Private Business set out in Appendix 1.


29.  The draft motion permits the electronic deposit of required documents for the High Speed 2 hybrid bill. Standing Orders currently require hard copies of all bill documentation, including the environmental statement, to be deposited in every local authority area along the line of route, of which there are around 250. Due to the scale of the project, the environmental statement alone for the HS2 bill is expected to run to around 50,000 pages. The proposal is therefore to enable, but not require, the deposit of this and other material in electronic form in each local authority area along the route. The Government have undertaken to make all key documents available in hard copy in all deposit locations and to continue to provide all the documentation in hard copy if locations so wish.[3] Hard copies of all the bill documentation will be available for inspection in both Houses of Parliament.

30.  We recommend the draft motion allowing the electronic deposit of documents in relation to High Speed 2 set out in Appendix 2.

1   Companion to the Standing Orders, paragraph 6.12 Back

2   This includes Crossbench members and Lords Spiritual Back

3   Statement by the Leader of the House of Commons, Mr Andrew Lansley, on 26 June 2013 (HC Deb, col. 419-20) Back

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