Procedure of the House (Proposal 3) — Motion to Resolve

– in the House of Lords at 4:41 pm on 8th November 2011.

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Moved By The Chairman of Committees

To resolve that Members should read out the text of oral questions, using the formula "My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government" followed by the text of the question; and that there should be a mandatory word limit of 25 words (excluding the introductory formula) for all oral questions.

Photo of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Crossbench 4:45 pm, 8th November 2011

This is the most ridiculous idea that I have ever heard in my life. As far as I can make out, it is put forward as a time-saver: how on earth is it going to be quicker to say "My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government" and then another 25 words instead of saying "My Lords, I beg leave to ask the question standing in my name on the Order Paper"? It just does not make sense. Is it proposed, then, that the questions will not be printed on a list-or what?

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the noble Lady must have had a sheltered existence if this is the most ridiculous thing that she has ever heard. I must confess that I have heard a good deal more ridiculous things. My understanding is that this is not in order to be more efficient or effective in regard to time, but to convey to those outside of the House what they do not have available-which is the Order Paper. Rather than their being uncertain of the purpose of the Question, they would be clear about it. I accept entirely what the noble Lady has said-that it would take up a little more time-but, if it contributes to making our proceedings more comprehensible to those who are watching on the television or by internet, it is a reasonable enough proposition. The idea that the number of words might be restricted is a good one as well.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord and I confirm that that is the purpose. As everything is now televised, people must understand what is going on. We could get the time back by saying that the Minister may stand up when someone has been speaking and trying to ask a supplementary for 30 seconds and start the reply at that point. Quite simply, if one cannot get the question out in 30 seconds it is just bad luck.

Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative

My Lords, I believe that the present arrangement works extremely well. As far as I can see, this will actually slow down the proceedings, and, to try to get some of the time back, imposes a limit on the length of Questions to 25 words. One can see a number of Questions on the Order Paper now which are over 25 words and are by no means excessively long. I see no reason whatever to change the existing arrangement.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I agree very much with my noble friend, but there is one thing that we could do-and I hesitate to mention this. There is one practice in the Commons that speeds it up: that the Member asking a Question gets up and says "Number One", "Number Two" or "Number Three" or whatever. As the Question is printed on the Order Paper; as you can put texts on the television that viewers can read; and as every Member of your Lordships' House can read and has an Order Paper, that is the way one could speed things up. However, in my view there is absolutely no justification for this particular suggestion.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. Clearly, we want to make the House intelligible to as many people as possible. However, given that we have Questions one month in advance on our green sheet and, on the day, we get two sheets with the Questions on, nobody should be in any doubt as to what Question we are going to be asking. Given that the Questions are well known in advance, the solution is to have the text on the television. That would achieve the two things that we want to achieve: first, to better inform the public; and, secondly, not to do the very opposite of what we are trying to do in many of these Motions, which is to save time. This goes completely contrary to the thrust of them.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am slightly agnostic about this. If I have to come down somewhere, I come down on the status quo. However, I am attracted to the limit of 25 words. We need more brevity in this House. I take myself to task, following on from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, earlier, that my colleagues and I on the Front Bench do not take ourselves and other noble Lords on our Back Benches to task when they ask long supplementary questions. I do not say that we must have it in writing, but as a consequence of this debate we all need to be more mindful about the length of supplementaries, both questions and answers. I hope that that is one lesson we will have learnt from today.

Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, as I understand it, the limit is on the length of the Question on the Order Paper. It is not on the length of supplementary questions.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I understand that, but I was trying to draw a comparison by saying that it is not so much that we need a limit on the original Question, but that we need to be more self-regulatory in putting a limit on the length of supplementaries.

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I, too, am agnostic about the particular form, but the example that 25 words would make is perhaps one that the House would take on board. A short question takes a lot of hard work to frame but is probably the greatest courtesy that any noble Lord can pay to the House. The more questions we have on any particular topic, the better the range of issues around that topic is covered. I know that frequently only five supplementary questions are put, whereas I must say, coming from the Commons, I would have thought that closer to 10 supplementary questions are put in an equivalent time. That would be appropriate. We should somehow absorb the self-discipline of not believing that it is necessary to lay out the full background to a question, and then because our questions are so important, we should ensure that two or three are wrapped into what is meant to be one supplementary question. But that is going to require the Leader of the House, the Leaders of other parties and perhaps the Members of longest standing who have real influence in this House actually to enforce the process. Perhaps then newer Members, who very rarely get to open their mouths in this place, will have an opportunity to genuinely contribute where they have real expertise.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, the problem with that as a proposition is that it does not work. We have been arguing for that for the past 10 years. I can think of innumerable occasions where Members have sought to try to stop people asking long supplementary questions, but I can guarantee the House that tomorrow it will happen again, and that it will happen on Statements. It is because we simply do not enforce the rules of the House. It is a problem that this House will ultimately have to address.

Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench

My Lords, I want simply to ask whether it is in the House's power to arrange that the Question is printed on the television screen. That was exactly 25 words.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the time allowed for each Question is about seven minutes. When we had a smaller House, most of those who wanted to ask a question were able to do so, but now there are so many people who cannot get in on a question. They might not always have something valuable to contribute, but sometimes they do. Is it not time, perhaps not today but very soon, that we sought to adjust the length of the Questions by allowing eight or nine minutes for each of them rather than seven minutes?

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, since we cannot even squeeze the name of the person speaking in Grand Committee onto the television screen, I doubt if we can fit 25 words on it.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

My Lords, a simple arrangement would be to have a surtitle over the Throne so that anyone could look at it up there.

Photo of Lord Geddes Lord Geddes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I am all for paucity of words and the concept of limiting supplementaries to 25 words is thoroughly admirable, but that is not the point of this proposal. In that respect, I think that noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, has done the House a good service with her initial intervention. I certainly am not in favour of wasting the House's time even further.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, I have a confession to make. I do not spend a great deal of time watching the Parliament channel or listen to "Yesterday in Parliament" and I do not know the answer to the question. Do those channels ever print the Question so that people can see it? It seems to me that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is absolutely right. I am not concerned that the Questions should be on these screens because we can always get hold of the Order Paper ourselves. Indeed, that is one of the first things most noble Lords do when they come into the House. It is a question of whether people who are watching the proceedings know what the Question is. I do not want to have the Question read out in the House but we should follow this up through the Information Committee or whatever to make sure that the television channels print the Questions so that many more of members of the public who watch will know what we are talking about.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

To help the noble Lord, it is not just television as there is also YouTube and other internet channels. You cannot do anything about that and we will probably be putting out more information that is much more accessible to the general public.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, if people are interested in the proceedings of the House, they have only to go on to the parliamentary website and look at the Business of the House. They can then see all the Questions listed for a month ahead.