Question time

Baroness Deech

Every day in the Lords starts with four oral questions, and it can be difficult to secure a slot (three a week are saved for last minute topical questions). Many peers want to ask questions in order to hold the government to account and to find out more about plans and actions taken, and this half hour is often the liveliest of the day. It can be too lively. Some concerns have been expressed about the noisy competition to be heard, as so many peers rise or speak simultaneously, hoping to be the one to ask supplementary questions of the minister once the peer who tabled the question has had his or her say. There seems to be something of a convention that the floor should be held by the parties in turn, but it could be that the keen would-be supplementary questioners are all on one side, or that there is a hesitation and another questioner fills the gap. Sometimes it is quite chaotic as everyone wants to be heard. The Lord Speaker does not intervene in the self regulating House but occasionally the Leader of the House, Baroness Royall, has to indicate who goes next and remind the House that the supplementary questions should be short and concise. All this happens in a time slot of 7 minutes per question. A minute could easily be saved by dropping the opening formula from the questioner: “My Lords, I beg leave to ask the question standing in my name on the order paper”, for we have all seen the question printed. More radical reform of the way in which the supplementary questions follow on seems to me to be necessary – maybe strict rotation around the parties or an advance notification. But precisely because it is unscripted and unpredictable, question time is revealing and important, and these qualities should not be lost in the quest for a more orderly process.

10 comments for “Question time

  1. Dave H
    28/02/2010 at 9:11 pm

    I think the Commons, when dealing with questions on the order paper seem to work it so that when an MP is called, the response is just to confirm the question number and the minister can come up with the answer. That seems a very streamlined way of getting to the answer. Obviously, if it’s a follow-on question that isn’t on the order paper, the question has to be read in full, but yes, cutting down on the boiler-plate to maximise the useful time for that half-hour seems to be a good idea.

    You could always get a quiz-show host in to give the peers training in how to ask questions really quickly but clearly 🙂

  2. Ken
    01/03/2010 at 10:54 am

    Interesting that, in a blog apparently devoted to greater public engagement, there seems to be acceptance of the idea that any public observer should be happy with a Oral PQ system in both House that effectively fails to tell these observers what the participants are talking about.

    Few things are more annoying and alienating for public observers of WEstminster proceedings than for Ministers to reply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or suchlike, to a Question which hasn’t been articulated openly.

    The sole focus seems to be on the convenience of those in the Chamber – which is surely exactly what is wrong with traditional Westminster cultural insularity.

    Solving this problem of making Question Time both effective for its participants and meaningful and inclusive for public observers (on whose behalf after all such accountability/scrutiny mechanisms ultimately operate) is not easy.

    The Scottish Parliament from its outset adopted the practice of the Questioner reading out the question. Yes, this can be a bit stilted at times, but at least viewers (on the Net or on TV or wherever), know what the exchange is about.

    Those observing remotely must be in as good a position as those in the Chamber (who will have copies of the ‘Order Paper’ available if desired). Reliance on ‘third party’ captions/subtitles for broadcasts or webcast to explain what the PQ is, is not sufficient.

    If ‘Outreach’ and ‘Public Engagement’ are, rightly, important objectives for both Houses in their procedures and processes, then the essential perspective of the public (whether as observer or, in other circumstances, as participant) must be considered.

    • baronessdeech
      01/03/2010 at 12:54 pm

      The questions are readily available on several public Parliamentary websites, and if you are listening on the BBC the commentator usually reads them out. But I agree that better use could be made of the screens which are placed in the Chamber and the corridors and the text of the questions could be displayed on them. Or the questioner could read it out rather than stating the traditional opening formula, which I criticised.

      • Dave H
        01/03/2010 at 10:21 pm

        You could invest in one of those big matrix signs to put above the Lords Speaker. I’m sure you could get one with with tasteful scrollwork on the sides to fit in with the rest of the decor.

      • Ken
        02/03/2010 at 9:30 am

        My more basic point is the extent to which, if at all, either House has regard to the impact on, or perspective of, the public, of any proposed reforms of their procedures or processes.

        In the modern era of participative and accountable democracy, with a more engaged and interactive representative politics, notions of parliamentary insularity and exclusiveness are, or should be, no longer acceptable.

        No one suggests that procedures ahould be made less effective or efficient simply to make them more public accessible or inclusive.

        What is needed is simply that the public’s persepctive and interest – Parliament, after all, is ultimately the public’s parliament – is given appropriate consideration along with equally important crtieria of effectiveness etc..

        This means more than simple and often superficial ‘quick wins’ like e-petitions or interactive websites. It means integrating (directly or otherwise) the public into the essential operation of their own parliament, to enhance representative parliamentary democracy.

        Can you or your fellow bloggers honestly say that these public interests are currently given their due weight in any debates on parliamentary reform?

  3. tory boy
    01/03/2010 at 11:30 am

    The Lords Speaker should be able both to call members to ask a question, and be able to tell members to sit down when they go on for to long. The current system looks like organised chaos, it is no good the govt whip calling members to speak when he can not see who is behind him!

  4. Carl.H
    01/03/2010 at 12:02 pm

    Ahhh baiting time.

    The Hawks wait, talons taught atop fine red leather, muscles primed ready to strike the unsuspecting prey, driven by the hawks to where it has no defence.The prey forced to take unpredictable, unscripted action to avoid the often cunning plans of the hunters.

    My Lady likes this game too much and shows her true calling, the nature of the witness on the stand and the professional interogator. I feel my Lady likes to win.

    Of course the archaic nonsense has to go, leave just the ceremonial speech for special occassions. We are of a modern era and modern communication. Questions can be asked at anytime, via mail or email, yes the office will have a chance to think clearly of the reply but is that not fair. I do not think for one moment that any question my Lady would put would be spur of the moment, I would think them carefully contrived, deliberately aimed at a weakness.

    I do not think the Parties should control the floor either, I want independents and each may have their own view, questions. The best one could do at these times is a lottery.

    Question time in both Houses seems to be fun time with opposition benches primed with questions they hope will show defects,soft underbelly of Government representation. To the public it appears no more than a game. It`s possibly the only entertaining part of politics, the thought of Harriet Harman or other being made to look a fool and one can certainly take the headlines with a well aimed strike.

    My Lords have a right to question Government and I presume that right is not purely only available on the occassions spoken of here. Watching the Lords debates one can clearly see some are more adept at speaking than others, their worth no less but in quick fire questions mistakes will be made at times by the less eloquent.

    • Twm O'r Nant
      01/03/2010 at 4:32 pm

      At least there is no applause, which wastes vast aeons of time in other places.

  5. Bedd Gelert
    02/03/2010 at 5:26 pm

    Lord Ashcroft has certainly provoked a ‘question time’ of his own…

    Does he ever show up at the canteen ? Might he do a ‘guest spot’ on Lords of the Blog ?

  6. Bedd Gelert
    02/03/2010 at 5:38 pm

    Jon Snow has some questions of his own about the HoL..

    Go on, stick it to him – he is up for a bit of jousting..

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