The value of Parliamentary Questions

Lord Norton

44972Tabling questions to the Government can serve one of several purposes.  One is is to ensure that an issue is drawn to the attention of a minister.  The matter may be important but not one that has fully engaged the attention of ministers.  The purpose is thus served before the minister has even come to the dispatch box.

There was a good example at Question Time yesterday.  Lord Ashley of Stoke asked about provisions made to prevent violence against disabled people.  The minister, Lord West of Spithead, explained what the Government were doing, but went on to say: “This is not an area I had looked into in any great detail and I was absolutely horrified when I began to do so and saw some of the percentages of disabled people who are subject to violence.”   He said the Government talked to various groups representing disabled people.  “I absolutely commit the Government to talk more with these groups because more needs to be done.”

Questions also serve a purpose in teasing out what progress, if any, is being made with Government programmes and initiatives.  There was an example yesterday when Lord McNally asked when the Government expected the National Council for Democratic Renewal, announced by the Prime Minister on 1 June, to meet.  The Leader of the House, Baroness Royall, replied: “My Lords, it is important that there is a mechanism at the heart of government to lead work to rebuild trust in politics and shape the next steps to renew our constitution.  That is why the Prime Minister has said that he is establishing a national democratic renewal council.  Further details will be announced shortly”. 

Lord McNally responded by saying: “My Lords, I think that that means ‘not the foggiest’.”  

We know how to interpret answers.

19 comments for “The value of Parliamentary Questions

  1. 04/06/2009 at 11:17 am

    The often slightly bizarre aspect of questions in the Lords is the ministers who answer them, as most of the Secretaries of State and other senior ministers sit in the Commons. For example, Admiral the Lord West of Spithead, with his military background, is a natural choice for issues such as security and terrorism. But it’s hardly surprising he isn’t familiar with figures on violence towards the disabled. Yet as the Home Office minister who happens to sit in the Lords, he has to take any questions directed towards that department. Of course, there are notable exceptions in the current cabinet, such as Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, where the top minister sits in the Lords, but until recently that was very unusual.

  2. Mark Shephard
    04/06/2009 at 1:51 pm

    Beyond scrutiny and influence, there are of course a number of wider functions that questions fulfill, including legitimation (latent and manifest), tension release, exit, socialisation and training, and representation (party, constituency…).

  3. Bedd Gelert
    04/06/2009 at 3:26 pm

    Hmmm.. There was a phrase of similar meaning about ‘exploring the limits of my expertise’ [or was it ‘experience’?] which was used as a cover-up in the same way..

  4. Rob
    04/06/2009 at 6:43 pm

    Following on from what Jonathan has said, does Lord Mandleson answer questions in the Lords or does he leave that to junior ministers like the other departments?

  5. Bedd Gelert
    05/06/2009 at 9:12 am

    Oh dear ! I have just heard that Surrallan Sugar may be heading your way. You have my deepest condolences…

    • Mark Shephard
      05/06/2009 at 1:27 pm

      Could balance it out with Anne Robinson. One could imagine the exchange… AR: ‘You are the weakest link…goodbye’. AS: ‘I’ve heard enough of your lip… you’re fired’. Committee chairs in waiting, perhaps.

    • Croft
      05/06/2009 at 4:48 pm

      Bedd: Glenys Kinnock in the Lords!!! I…I…I just don’t know where to start. This is looking more like a Vaudeville government by the minute

  6. Bedd Gelert
    05/06/2009 at 4:14 pm

    Great to see that Gordon Brown has such a high opinion of the Lords – he is raiding them for his front – bench team !!

  7. lordnorton
    06/06/2009 at 10:13 am

    Mark Shephard: Not all the functions ascribed to legislatures by Packenham necessarily apply in the context of PQs: they may fulfil the function of latent legitimation, but not that of manifest legitimation.

    Rob: Lord Mandelson does answer questions in the House. See, for example, his answer to to a question on Tata steel asked in the House on 13 May.

    • Mark Shephard
      08/06/2009 at 3:13 pm

      Lord Norton: Manifest legitimation is arguably evident during questions – there can be congratulatory questioning, for example, or even the register of applause (latter of which is recorded in the Scottish Parliament).

  8. 06/06/2009 at 7:28 pm

    “He said the Government talked to various groups representing disabled people. “I absolutely commit the Government to talk more with these groups because more needs to be done.””

    Oh, great. I see the approach of yet more divisive legislation that favours special groups and makes a mockery of the idea that we are all equal under the law — and all of this egged on by fake charities funded extensively by taxpayers’ cash.

    Well, whoopee do.


  9. lordnorton
    06/06/2009 at 8:50 pm

    Devil’s Kitchen: The purpose of seeing the groups is quite clearly to ensure equality under the law – everyone is entitled to be protected from violence.

  10. lordnorton
    08/06/2009 at 9:07 pm

    Mark Shephard: It is, though, not the formal giving of assent to a measure in order for it be binding. It is the aspect of assent that is crucial. What you are referring to would more appropriately be subsumed under the rubric of latent legitimation, that is, part of a structured process that confers legitimacy by its practice over time.

    • Mark Shephard
      10/06/2009 at 10:34 am

      As I intimated in my earlier posting, I think that is a rather narrow view of manifest legitimation. I don’t see much that is latent in applause for example! Perhaps we need a third hybrid category, quasi-manifest legitimation, or symbolic manifest legitimation.

      • lordnorton
        13/06/2009 at 10:04 pm

        Mark Shephard: Hmm, or perhaps we don’t!

  11. 09/06/2009 at 6:43 pm


    “Devil’s Kitchen: The purpose of seeing the groups is quite clearly to ensure equality under the law – everyone is entitled to be protected from violence.”

    I’m sorry, but could you please point me to the last year in which we did not have laws against violence?

    The purpose of these laws is quite clearly not to treat people equally under the law. Let us examine the laws surrounded racially aggravated assault: in these cases, a higher maximum sentence is permitted over and above that for non-racially aggravated assault, yes?

    That is not equality under the law, Lord Norton: not at all.

    We have had laws against violence for hundreds of years: would you care to tell me what has changed in the last ten that we need to “identify groups”?

    And could you please tell me how treating sentencing differently depending upon arbitrarily designated group-based motives is compatible with equality under the law?


  12. lordnorton
    09/06/2009 at 6:56 pm

    Devil’s Kitchen: The point was being made that since disabled people suffer disproportionately from violence, there is a need to consult with affected groups to see what could be done to tackle the problem. That strikes me as eminently sensible. There is no reference to having different laws – where in the post is there any such reference? Having laws against violence does not help us identify what can be done to protect those who are more at risk than others.

  13. 09/06/2009 at 11:24 pm


    Agreed. But, given that the Lords is the House for scrutiny of legislation, why should you get involved?


  14. lordnorton
    10/06/2009 at 7:25 am

    Devil’s Kitchen: Because the scrutiny function of the House of Lords is not confined to legislative scrutiny and encompasses scrutiny of executive policy and actions, including what the executive is doing to tackle social, economic and political problems – subjects in which the House has some degree of expertise.

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