The House of Lords plays an important role in checking and challenging the decisions and actions of the government through questions and debates.
Members do this by either questioning ministers (in the chamber or in writing) or requiring ministers to respond to debates on topical issues. Anyone can watch the chamber at work during question time. Entry is free and you can also watch online.
The 30-minute question time takes place at the start of business from Monday to Thursday. A maximum of four questions directed at the government are posed by members. Once the government spokesperson has answered the initial question there is a chance for a short exchange of related, or ‘supplementary' questions. The government spokesman must answer each one.
Answers (in writing) to written questions should be provided within two weeks and are published in Lords Hansard reports.
Government ministers also announce important policy initiatives and reports on national and international issues in the Lords chamber through statements. Statements are usually made in both Houses and are followed in the Lords by a chance for short questions and observations on the announcement.
Many members have considerable experience in industries, professions and organisations and they are able to put this experience to good use during debates in the chamber, which the public can attend.
There are three main types of debate:
- General debates (usually on Thursdays): One longer debate or two short debates lasting around five hours. Each party is given opportunities throughout the year to initiate such debates and backbench members can enter a ballot to propose general debates.
- Short debates: These take place at the end of business or during dinner time and should last 60 or 90 minutes. From October 2013 there will be a weekly one hour slot (on Thursdays) for a topical question for short debate. Backbench members can enter a ballot to propose topical subjects for these debates.
- Debates on committee reports or general issues of the day with no set timing.
Scrutinising and challenging government: Did you know?
- During question time, members posing the question don’t actually ask them out loud in the chamber. They are listed on a pre-published order paper. They say ‘My Lords, I beg leave to ask the question standing in my name on the order paper’. The minister then responds from the despatch box.
- In the 2012-13 session, members held the government to account with 7,324 oral and written questions and 193 debates.
- The House of Lords is self-regulating. The Lord Speaker cannot impose order – all members are responsible for discipline in the chamber, or ‘keeping order’, and this is left to the House as a whole.
Image: House of Lords 2013/Roger Harris