HL Deb 07 July 1976 vol 372 cc1232-7

2.58 p.m.

The PRINCIPAL DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie)

My Lords, on behalf of the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to.—(Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie.)

The Committee's Report was as follows:


The Committee have considered ways in which the length of Question Time could be contained. They are not in favour of recommending a system of time limits, since this could lead to a proliferation of rules. Nor do they believe that the House would favour a rigid time limit on Question Time as a whole, or on individual questions. They are of the opinion, however, that the House would wish Question Time to be conducted in an orderly and expeditious manner and they would remind the House that the remedy for over-long Question Time lies in its own hands. They consider that Question Time should normally be concluded in twenty minutes and draw the attention of the House to the following undesirable features of Question Time which tend to lengthen it:—

  1. (a) the tendency for small debates to develop;
  2. (b) lengthy Ministerial replies which encourage lengthy supplementaries;
  3. (c) the practice of advancing a point of view under the guise of a supplementary question; and
  4. (d) the habit of reading out prepared supplementary questions.

The Committee have also considered whether a minimum period of notice should be given of Starred Questions. They recommend that no Starred Questions should be tabled less than twenty-four hours before it is due to be asked.

The Committee have also considered the procedure of the House governing the repetition of Statements. They recognise the inconvenience to Members of the House when business in which they are taking part is interrupted for a lengthy period for the repetition of Statements. While they do not wish to recommend any new restrictions on the rights of Members of the House to comment and ask questions on a statement, they would draw the attention of the House to:—

  1. (a) the Companion to the Standing Orders in which it is stated that any comment on a Statement must be brief; and
  2. (b) Standing Order 32 which says that Statements " should not be made the occasion for immediate debate, unless the House so order ".


The Committee have considered whether any restriction should be placed on the asking of Unstarred Questions in view of the fact that many of them are now taken late at night and tend to attract a considerable number of speakers. They recognise that Unstarred Questions provide Members of the House with an opportunity of raising a subject in debate when other opportunities are not available and they do not wish to make it harder for Members of the House to do this.

They believe, however, that if a certain flexibility could be provided for the placing of Unstarred Questions on the Order Paper, this might help to avoid Unstarred Questions being taken unreasonably late at night. They recommend, therefore, that Standing Order 39 should be amended so as to allow an Unstarred Question to be advanced on the Order Paper to an earlier .late than that for which it had been set down without the leave of the House obtained on a motion of which notice must be given on the Order Paper. Such an advancement would not take place without the agreement of the asker of the Question and consultation with the majority of those who had indicated that they wished to speak on it. In order to achieve this change, the Committee recommend that Standing Order 39(l) be amended as follows:—

In line 4, after " Questions ", insert " and Unstarred Questions ".


The Committee were informed of the publication of the Thirteenth Edition of the Companion to the Standing Orders.


My Lords, may I take this opportunity to congratulate the Procedure Committee on their recognition of the importance of the Unstarred Question as a method whereby BackBenchers can make known their feelings in the House and also for their proposal to notify speakers who have put down their names of any change of date. While on that subject, I should like to emphasise that as the Companion definitely discourages any questions being asked of the Minister after he has sat down, it is important to realise that an Unstarred Question is now being turned very much into a mini-debate. I hope, therefore, that the House will be tolerant of questions asked of a Minister after he has sat down. Of course, I do not suggest that the questioner should have the opportunity to speak again.


My Lords, may I ask the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees whether she is aware that for the purposes of accuracy I have obtained a copy of this report ? I want to be informed, either by the noble Baroness or by the noble Lord the Leader of the House, how these suggestions are to be implemented. I wonder whether my noble friend the Leader of the House had read this report before he answered questions, because one of the recommendations is that answers should be very short. I wonder also whether my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell had read the report. How is the report to be implemented? I understand that reports are not sent to every Member of your Lordships' House and that copies are obtained only when one asks for them. How are Members to know what are the suggestions?


My Lords, I believe that it is the custom to refer to Members of one's own Party as " my noble friend ", but in view of what Lord Shinwell has just said, I think I shall refer to him as " the noble Lord "! I appreciate that from time to time we are all guilty of making longer supplementary answers than perhaps the recommendations have in mind. I have sought, however, to shorten the original replies of Ministers and I hope the House will have taken note of it.

As to how these suggestions can be implemented, I will not disguise from the House that in the Procedure Committee I took a rather stronger view than did the remainder of the Committee. I was perhaps more attracted to the idea of having a time limit, say of 20 minutes, for Question Time, simply because of my experience of the Short Debates that we now have. In my view they have gained great support because of the quality of speeches and because Members speak very concisely, very much to the point, and recognise that other noble Lords wish to speak within the short time-scale. Therefore, I thought that a period of 20 minutes for Questions and supplementaries would help us to shorten not only ministerial answers but also supplementary questions.

To the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, I can only say that the Unstarred Question is a very important part of our procedure, but quite clearly each Question needs to come to an end at some point, and I think that if Ministers were to be questioned after they had spoken there would very quickly be a continuation of the debate and I do not believe that that is what the House has in mind on Unstarred Questions. I hope the noble Lord will not seek to cause problems by persuading Members of your Lordships' House to use the formula, " Before the noble Lord sits down, may I put the following point? " I think if we abide by the spirit of the recommendations in this Report a great deal can be achieved.

My own feeling is that, taking the size of the House, the increased membership and attendance and also the feeling that noble Lords have of participating, we need to be very aware of time and its importance to other Members of the House. Unless we do that I have an awful feeling that one day we may need to have a more formal procedure, not of time, but perhaps having a chairman or a Speaker, and I personally would not wish to see that.


My Lords, I certainly do not want to be disrespectful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House, but was his reply not rather lengthy ?


My Lords, it seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, has a point which is valid and to which there is an answer, which, with respect, the noble Lord the Leader of the House has not given. I think the answer is this. It is the duty of every Member of this House to keep order in this House. There is no Speaker, and when we have read, as we have done, the Report of the Procedure Committee, it is up to us, whether we sit on the Front Bench, the Back Bench, the Cross Bench or anywhere else, to see that these orders are obeyed. I do not think noble Lords should be offended when they hear from other noble Lords a cry of " Order! " or, " Question! " or, " Speech! " because it is the only way in which we in this House can keep order, and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, would be one of the first to use that privilege.


My Lords, with great respect I am bound to differ from the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I asked a simple question and when a report is available and is submitted to the House, as this has been, the question that I ventured to put has some validity. The question is: How do we implement the reports from the Select Committee on Procedure ? I should like to add that I am under the impression that this Report is debatable, but I do not intend to occupy the time of your Lordships' House by debating it. I merely want to make the suggestion that it might be useful when similar reports are available for a short time to be made available to Members of your Lordships' House to listen to a short statement from the noble Lord the Leader of the House stating what the proposals are and asking for consent. It is just as well that we should obtain some measure of agreement on the items contained in the Report.

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, if I may follow the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, I think he has a valid point here because these reports are not automatically sent to every Member and it is a matter which affects every Member because, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has said, we have to keep order. I wonder whether the noble Lord the Leader of the House would consider having a very short special notice—a blue notice or a green notice—drawing attention to the fact that this particular Report of the Procedure Committee contains guidance to Members on conduct and order, particularly on Questions. I think if that were done noble Lords would come and ask for the Report and more people would understand what the Select Committee on Procedure was trying to get at.


My Lords, I would assure the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I have no intention of working up any sort of steam in this matter, but—

Several noble Lords: Order!


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I certainly take note of the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and I will see whether we can implement it.


My Lords, can my noble friend the Leader of the House say whether the Select Committee fully considered restricting the asking of supplementary questions to one supplementary question only? In the other place it is often the custom to pass on extra supplementary questions to one's colleagues nearby, which adds to the interest of Question Time. Also might not questions of local interest be better tabled as Questions for Written Answer?


My Lords, again with the permission of the House, here is a classic problem. I have already spoken twice and now a question has been put to me. All these matters were carefully considered and I hope the House will now approve this Report.

On Question, Motion agreed to.