Wednesday 11 June 2008

Questions in the House of Lords

Yesterday the issue of oral questions was raised - in Oral Questions. The exchanges give a useful insight into practice

Lord Denham asked the Leader of the House:

Whether she will remind Ministers of the guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders that they need only answer two points in response to each supplementary oral question, and of the case for keeping supplementary answers short.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, Ministers and departments are fully aware of the helpful advice contained in the Companion. However, I am always happy to remind them of it. It helps Ministers to adhere to this guidance when noble Lords also follow it and ask no more than two supplementary questions at a time.

Lord Denham: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that my Question was partly aimed at noble Lords who ask supplementary questions and who are strictly limited by Standing Order to two points but all too often offend? However, if Ministers, who are not so limited and are only excused from answering more than two points, would stick voluntarily to that limit, questioners themselves would be more selective and therefore shorter.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I was indeed well aware of what the noble Lord was getting at with his Question. However, Ministers often try to be extremely helpful to your Lordships. Where we are able to give answers to lots of questions, we try to do so. It is more helpful to us if noble Lords adhere to the Companion and merely ask the two.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as one who has answered my fair share of Questions in my time, may I ask the Leader of the House whether she will remind Members of the House asking supplementary questions that, if they ask more than two, the Minister responding has the opportunity to pick and choose, which makes it easier for the Minister? I heard what she said about being helpful, but will Ministers refrain from answering questions that bear no relation to the Question on the Order Paper?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Indeed, my Lords. My noble friend attempts to be helpful, but I am not sure that my colleagues on the Front Bench thought that reminding noble Lords of the ability to pick and choose was necessarily the best thing. Of course, I agree with him: if a question is wide of the mark, noble Lords must accept that we will not be answering it.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the noble Baroness find as irritating as I do Ministers who start everything off with, “Well, my Lords”? Are they telling me that they are well? Are they asking me whether I am well? In either case, I hope that she will agree that it is incorrect.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the health of the noble Baroness is always of enormous interest on these Benches and across the whole House. I accept, however, that we should begin by saying “My Lords” and answering the question.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does not the high incidence of rambling multiple questions suggest that self-regulation does not work at Question Time? Who is responsible for enforcing our Companion? Perhaps I may whisper the solution: the Lord Speaker should be allowed to intervene.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it will be for the House to decide how it wishes to be regulated in the future. I have no difficulty with the Lord Speaker performing more functions. If that is what the House and the Lord Speaker wish to do, it would be perfectly acceptable to me. For the moment, the House has chosen to self-regulate, perhaps with an occasional nudge from me at Question Time.

Lord McNally: My Lords, it is my turn: self-regulation at work. Does the Lord President agree that this House has a great reputation for innovation? Is it not unfair that only the government side of the House has the chance to explain its policy? Would it not be a great innovation if we were given time—the Liberal Democrats would certainly welcome it—to explain our policy in a question and answer session?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord McNally: My Lords, would the Lord President not pay good money to hear the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, questioning his Front Bench on Conservative policy?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there are a number of ways in which Questions could be asked in the House for which I would pay good money. Again, however, it is for the House to determine. I have had plenty of opportunities of having the joy and benefit of listening to Liberal Democrat policy.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, would the Minister not agree that that question was rather wide of the mark?

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, to get back to the Question on the Order Paper, is the noble Baroness aware—I am sure that she is—of the useful book Procedure & Practice? It is pocket or handbag-sized; I carry mine in my handbag all the time, as noble Lords know to their intense irritation. It is easy to read and clears up a whole lot of points on House of Lords procedure. Would the noble Baroness recommend it to noble Lords who have difficulty?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I would indeed recommend the little red book.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, will the Leader of the House yet again remind those dilatory Ministers who fail to answer Written Questions within the statutory two weeks of their obligation to do so? Will she explain why the poor noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, is still waiting for an Answer to a Question tabled in January? It is still unanswered in June.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, has waited since 24 January; the reply was due on 7 February. The culprit is Mr Liam Byrne, whose office I rang yet again today. I also rang his Permanent Secretary. I remind Ministers of these matters and my office does so on a regular basis. The noble Lord has been extraordinarily helpful in supporting me in so doing, as he well knows.