6. Statements, questions and motions
Ministerial statements (oral)
Commons urgent questions repeated as statements
Questions and motions
Questions and motions: general principles
Committees on motions
6.1 Members may by leave of the House make a short factual statement of a personal character, such as a personal apology, a correction of information given in a speech made by them in the House or a reply to allegations made against them in the House. Personal statements are usually made at the beginning of business and are not debatable.
Ministerial statements (oral)(1)
6.2 Statements by ministers on matters of public importance may be made by leave of the House without notice.(2) Such statements are commonly synchronised in the two Houses. Information on timings is displayed on the annunciators.
6.3 If the responsible minister is a member of the House of Commons, the statement is made first in that House and may be repeated in the House of Lords. The timing is agreed through the usual channels. Where a statement has been made in full to the House of Commons and made available in the Printed Paper Office before it is due to be repeated in the House of Lords, the minister in the Lords may (with the agreement of the usual channels) draw the attention of the House to the statement made earlier without repeating it. This is normal practice when a statement is repeated on the next or a later day. The House then proceeds immediately to the period for exchanges with the Opposition front bench or benches. In such circumstances, the text of the statement is reproduced in full in the Official Report.(3)
6.4 If the responsible minister is a member of the House of Lords, the statement is usually made after questions (or, on Fridays, at the beginning of business).
6.5 If the House is in committee, it is resumed on the motion of a member of the Government for the purpose of hearing the statement. When the statement and exchanges following it are finished, the House again resolves itself into a committee, on the motion of the Lord in charge of the bill. On days when there are two balloted debates or time-limited debates, any Commons statement repeated in the House is normally taken between the two debates. Only in exceptional circumstances are such debates interrupted for a statement.
6.6 There is no limit on the number of ministerial statements that can be made in one day, but lengthy interruption of the business of the House is not desirable.
Discussion on a statement
6.7 Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House and, although brief questions(4) from all quarters of the House are allowed, statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate.(5) The time for the Opposition front bench or benches and the minister’s reply to them should be limited to 20 minutes;(6) ministers should not, however, cut short their replies, even if this means going beyond the 20-minute limit.(7) The period of questions and answers which then follows for backbench members should not exceed 20 minutes from the end of the minister’s initial reply to the front benches.(8) If a debate upon a statement is desired, a notice should be tabled for a later date.
6.8 As a matter of courtesy, members who wish to ask questions on an oral statement should be present to hear the whole of the statement read out.(9)
Publication in Hansard
6.9 Where a statement contains material which is too lengthy or too complicated to be given orally in the House, the additional material may be published in Hansard without being given orally.(10)
6.10 Written statements may be made when the House is sitting, by ministers, or the Senior Deputy Speaker.(11) Notice is not required. Written statements may also be published online and in editions of Hansard produced when the House is not sitting. Written statements are available online(12) as soon as they are made and are published in Hansard.(13) The digital copy of written statements is the definitive record copy.(14)
6.11 When the answer to an urgent question tabled in the Commons is, by agreement between the usual channels, to be repeated in the Lords, it is repeated in the form of a statement, synchronised with the answer in the Commons.(15) The repetition of the answer is followed by 10 minutes of question and answer, to which the rules governing comparable exchanges on private notice questions apply.(16) The minister making the statement should not be interrupted, save for points of clarification. The official Opposition usually have the first opportunity to ask questions following such a statement.
6.12 Questions and motions are expected to be worded in accordance with the practice of the House. The clerks are available to assist members in drafting questions and motions, and the advice tendered by the clerks should be accepted.(17) However, there is no official who has authority to refuse a question or motion on the ground of irregularity. Members are responsible for the form in which their questions and motions appear in House of Lords Business, subject to the sense of the House which is the final arbiter.
6.13 It is open to any member of the House to call attention to a question or motion which has appeared on the day’s order paper or in the future business section of House of Lords Business, and to move that leave be not given to ask the question or move the motion, or to move that it be removed from House of Lords Business. Such a motion should only be used in the last resort; it is debatable and is decided by the House.(18)
The nature of parliamentary questions
6.14 The purpose of parliamentary questions is to elicit information from the Government of the day, and thus to assist members of both Houses in holding the Government to account. The House has resolved that it is of “paramount importance” that ministers should give “accurate and truthful” information to Parliament, and that they be as “open as possible” in answering questions.(19) Such requirements are inherent in ministerial accountability to Parliament. A parliamentary question is not a “request for information” under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Form and scope of questions
6.15 Parliamentary questions should relate to matters of government responsibility.(20) Questions should be as short and clear as possible, and precise in their requests for information. Statements of fact should be included in questions only to the extent necessary to elicit the information sought. Questions should be worded neutrally, and should not presuppose their own answer. They should not contain expressions of opinion or argument. It is not in order to italicise or underline words in the text of motions or questions in order to give them emphasis.(21)
6.16 Questions are normally addressed to “His Majesty’s Government”, rather than to a particular department or minister. It is for the Government to decide which department or minister should answer a particular question. There are certain exceptions, including oral questions addressed to Lords ministers who are full members of Cabinet, which may be taken in a designated question time. Such questions are addressed to “the Secretary/Minister of State for [department]” (see paragraph 6.25). For questions addressed to the Leader of the House or the Senior Deputy Speaker see paragraph 6.21.
6.17 In drafting a question, thought should be given to the nature and scope of the response:
- Oral questions are not intended to give rise to debate, and should be drafted in such a way that the minister can make their initial reply in no more than 75 words. Proceedings on each question, including supplementary questions and answers, are limited to ten minutes.
- Questions for written answer should usually be answerable using no more than 500 words.(22) The Government apply a “disproportionate cost threshold”, currently set at £850,(23) to written questions, and may decline to answer questions where the cost of answering would exceed this figure.
What makes a question inadmissible?
6.18 Questions are generally regarded as inadmissible if they fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Questions that cast reflections on the Sovereign or the Royal Family.
- Questions that relate to matters sub judice.
- Questions that relate to matters for which the Church of England is responsible.(24)
- Questions that relate to matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd Cymru or the Northern Ireland Assembly.
- Questions that contain an expression or a statement of opinion, or whose purpose is to invite the Government to agree to a proposition or to express an opinion.
- Questions that are phrased offensively. The principles of Standing Order 31 (personally insulting and offensive speeches to be avoided) also apply.
6.19 In addition, questions on matters for which the Government are not responsible are regarded as inadmissible. In judging government responsibility, members should take account of the following guidance:
- Questions should relate to ministers’ official duties, rather than their private affairs or party matters.
- Where government functions are delegated to an executive agency, accountability to Parliament remains through ministers. When a minister answers a parliamentary question, orally or in writing, by reference to a letter from the chief executive of an agency, the minister remains accountable for the answer, which attracts parliamentary privilege, and criticism of the answer in the House should be directed at the minister, not the chief executive.
- Questions should not ask about opposition party policies.
- Questions should not ask the Government for a legal opinion on the interpretation of statute or of international law, such matters being the competence of the courts.
- Questions should not ask about matters which are the particular responsibility of local authorities or the Greater London Assembly.
- Questions should not ask about the internal affairs of another country (save for questions about human rights or other matters covered by international conventions to which the United Kingdom is party).(25)
- In general, questions should not contain accusations against individuals. The names of individuals or bodies are not introduced into questions invidiously or for the purpose of advertisement.
- Questions should not ask the Government about the accuracy of statements in the press, where these have been made by private individuals or bodies.
- Questions should not ask about events more than 30 years ago without direct relevance to current issues.
- The tabling of questions on public utilities, nationalised industries and privatised industries is restricted to those matters for which the Government are in practice responsible.
- Questions should not be hypothetical, and should address issues of substance. Questions which are “trivial, vague or meaningless”(26) are not tabled.
Questions relating to the business of either House
6.20 The Government are not responsible for the business or decisions of either House of Parliament. Questions should not criticise the decisions of either House.
6.21 In respect of the House of Lords, questions may be addressed to certain members of the House as holders of official positions but not as members of the Government. Thus the Leader of the House has been questioned on matters of procedure, and the Senior Deputy Speaker on matters falling within the duties of their office or relating to the House of Lords Commission, other domestic committees, the Restoration and Renewal Client Board (27) and the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission.(28)
6.22 Questions are not tabled about the internal affairs of the House of Commons. Questions should not ask about House of Commons select committee or joint committee reports to which the Government have yet to publish their response.(29) Nor do questions usually refer to evidence given before a Commons or joint committee.
Wording of questions
6.23 The clerks can advise on how questions may be amended to conform to House style—for instance, the use of punctuation and abbreviations, the standard form for references to previous answers, and so on. Questions should use plain English and should generally be understandable without reference to other documents (with the exception of Hansard).
6.24 Question time in the House of Lords takes place at the start of business on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The time allocated for normal and topical oral questions is 40 minutes.(30)
6.25 Once each sitting month, on a fixed day of the week, secretaries of state sitting in the House of Lords, or departmental ministers in the House of Lords who are full members of the Cabinet, answer oral questions addressed to them in their ministerial capacity.(32) The normal practice is that three questions lasting up to 30 minutes are asked, immediately after oral questions, though these arrangements may be varied.(33) The process for selecting such questions, by ballot, is described in paragraph 6.36. Except where indicated in the following paragraphs, the procedure for asking secretary of state’s questions is identical to that for normal oral questions.
Tabling oral questions
6.26 Oral questions, marked * in House of Lords Business, are asked for information only, and not with a view to stating an opinion, making a speech or raising a debate.(34) The arrangements for tabling such questions are as follows:
- oral questions are drawn from a ballot(35) run by the Table Office at 1pm on the date four weeks ahead of the day on which they are to be asked (e.g. questions to be asked on Monday 31 March will be drawn from the ballot and tabled on Monday 3 March);
- entries for the oral questions ballot may be submitted to the Table Office in person, by telephone, by email, or by a person authorised on a member’s behalf, at any time after the previous ballot is closed;
- a member may submit only one question for inclusion in each oral questions ballot;
- if the oral questions ballot falls on the same day as the separate ballot for topical questions, a member may enter a question in both ballots but the questions should be on different subjects;
- members cannot ‘roll over’ submitted questions from one day to the next: questions must be re-submitted for each ballot;
- if, by the time the ballot is drawn, fewer questions have been submitted than there are slots available, the remaining slots will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis;
- in the event of the day four weeks before a sitting day being a public holiday in England, the ballot will take place on the next working day;
- no oral question may be tabled less than 24 hours before the start of the sitting at which it is due to be asked (or after 2.30pm on Friday for Monday);
- the number of oral questions is limited to four;
- no member of the House may have more than one oral question on the order paper at any one time,(36) but topical questions and Secretary of State’s questions are excluded from this rule;
- no member of the House may table more than seven oral questions each year.(37)
Asking the question
6.27 Oral questions are asked by leave of the House. The form of words to be used in asking a question is:
“My Lords, I beg leave to ask the question standing in my name on the order paper.”(38)
6.28 If a member of the House is not present to ask a question, the question may be asked by another member with the permission of the member named on the order paper.(39) The form of words to use in this circumstance is:
“On behalf of my noble friend/the noble Lord, Lord X, and with their permission, I beg leave to ask the question standing in his/her name on the order paper.”
6.29 On such occasions, the member who is in fact to ask the question should inform the Table, who will inform the Government. The unanimous leave of the House is required for one member’s question to be asked by another when the authority of the member named on the order paper has not been given.(40) If the Lord Speaker knows that an oral question is not going to be asked, they inform the House before they call the first question;(41) the remaining questions are each limited to ten minutes.
Ministers’ replies and supplementary questions
6.30 Ministers’ initial answers should not generally exceed 75 words. Supplementary questions should be short and confined to not more than two points.(42) If a supplementary question exceeds these guidelines, the minister need answer only the two main points. Supplementary questions should be confined to the subject of the original question, and ministers should not answer irrelevant questions.(43) The essential purpose of supplementaries is to elicit information, and they should not incorporate statements of opinion. They should not be read. The member who tabled the question has no automatic right to ask a final supplementary question.
6.31 Members should not take up the time of the House during question time by making trivial declarations of non-financial and non-registerable interests. Questioners should not thank the Government for their answers, nor ministers thank questioners for their questions.(44)
6.32 Where a minister’s answer contains material that is too lengthy or too complicated to be given orally in the House, it may be published in Hansard.(45)
Topical (balloted) oral questions
6.33 The fourth space for an oral question each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is reserved for a question which is topical. The questions are chosen by ballot.(46)
6.34 Members may enter the ballot even if they already have one oral question on the order paper; but they may not enter the ballot if they already have an oral question on the order paper for the day concerned. No member may ask more than four(47) topical oral questions in one year. The clerks discourage members from tabling questions which are clearly not topical. In checking that questions are topical, account will be taken of the level of recent mainstream news coverage, including online sites and mainstream regional publications. Clerks indicate to members which questions have already been tabled for ballot. No more than one question on a subject may be accepted for inclusion in the ballot and priority is given to the first which is tabled. The wording of a topical question may not be altered after it has been tabled in such a way as to change the topic of the question. Alterations for clarity are permitted, as long as they are made at least 24 hours before the question is to be asked.
6.35 The timetable for the ballot for topical questions during any sitting week is:
Day question is to be asked
Question appears in HL Business
Previous Wednesday, after oral questions
Monday or Tuesday morning
All questions for the ballot should be submitted to the Table Office.
The ballot for Secretary of State’s questions
6.36 Questions addressed to secretaries of state or Cabinet-level departmental ministers are selected by means of a ballot. The ballot is drawn three working days before the questions are due to be asked, and the ballot opens one week before the questions are drawn. Exact timings are set out in House of Lords Business.
Private notice questions(48)
6.37 A private notice question (PNQ) gives members of the House the opportunity to raise urgent matters on any sitting day. A PNQ should be submitted in writing to the Lord Speaker by 12 noon on the day on which it is proposed to ask it, or by 9.30am on Thursdays, Fridays and any other days when oral questions are taken before 1pm. The decision whether the question is of sufficient urgency and importance to justify an immediate reply rests with the Lord Speaker, after consultation.(49)
6.38 PNQs are taken immediately after oral questions, or on Friday at a time agreed by the Lord Speaker, the Lord asking the question and the usual channels. They should not be made the occasion for immediate debate.(50) Proceedings on PNQs follow the rules for oral questions. In particular, supplementary questions should be short and confined to not more than two points. Proceedings on a PNQ are limited to 15 minutes. For these reasons it may at times be more convenient for the House if the PNQ procedure is not used but instead the Government or Senior Deputy Speaker makes a statement on the matter which the PNQ is intended to raise. Circumstances in which statements may be more appropriate than PNQs include: when a long answer is required; when the responsible minister is a member of the House of Lords; and when the House of Commons is not sitting.(51) PNQs are not taken on the day of State Opening.
Questions for written answer
6.39 Members may also table questions for written answer.(52) Questions may be tabled only on sitting days and on tabling days during recesses. There is one tabling day each week in the House of Lords when the House of Commons sits but the House of Lords does not, plus a tabling day on the first Monday in October.(53) Guidance on the wording of written questions is given at paragraphs 6.12–6.23. Answers to written questions are published online.
6.40 When a minister undertakes in the House to write to a member on a matter of general interest to the House, it is open to that member or any other member to ensure that the minister’s reply is available to the House by putting down a question for written answer.(54)
6.41 Written questions, including those tabled on tabling days during a recess, are expected to be answered within 10 working days.(55) Answers are sent to members via the electronic question and answer system.(56) They are published online on the day they are answered and in a collated daily report on the next sitting day. Questions which are unanswered when Parliament is prorogued are answered by ministers writing to the member who asked the question. Any such answers are not published. Where appropriate, written
questions may be answered on the day on which they are tabled. The following criteria are used to determine whether a written answer is admissible:(57)
- Only substantive answers to questions are admissible. Except where, due to shortage of time, answers cannot be prepared in response to questions tabled within five working days of the end of a session, holding answers are not permitted.
- Answers should not exceed 500 words, although the Editor of Debates has discretion to exceed this in exceptional cases.
- Answers should be complete and comprehensible and should not rely on references to external documents or web pages.
- Up to three electronic attachments may be included with an answer. In the interests of long-term accessibility, supporting documents should be included as attachments rather than by means of hyperlinks (which may break in future). Electronic attachments will be published on the parliamentary website but will not be published in Hansard (the Library will print attachments on demand).
- Electronic attachments should be referred to in the substantive answer so that readers of hard copy know that they exist. A note indicating where readers can find the additional material will be inserted in the text of Hansard.
- Tables will be printed only if submitted in such formats as are approved from time to time by the Editor of Debates. Tables not in approved formats may be included as one of the electronic attachments.
- Visual material such as graphs, charts or maps may be included in an electronic attachment.
6.42 The Leader of the House advises on individual cases of difficulty.(58)
Limits on number of written questions
6.43 Members may table six written questions on any one day and a maximum of 12 written questions per sitting week.(59) The tabling of a series of different requests for information in the form of a single question is deprecated.(60)
Questions for short debate
6.44 A question for short debate is distinguishable from a motion in that there is no right of reply.(61) Questions for short debate are drawn from a ballot conducted by the Table Office every five sitting weeks.(62) Entries for the ballot may be submitted at any time and are published in House of Lords Business. A member may only submit one entry to each ballot and may only ask one question for short debate per calendar year.
6.45 The first four entries drawn from the ballot are debated in Grand Committee on a Thursday. No more than two of the four questions for short debate may be asked to the same department, and questions cannot be asked to departments with business in the Chamber that day. Only backbench and Crossbench entries are eligible to be tabled for debate in Grand Committee.
6.46 In addition to the four entries drawn for debate in Grand Committee, a supplementary list of questions for short debate is published in House of Lords Business. These may include frontbench entries (which are identified as such in House of Lords Business), and may be taken during a lunch break, dinner break or as last business at the discretion of the Government Whips’ Office. These questions for short debate are published in the order that they are drawn from the ballot. It is expected that they will be debated in that order, subject to the availability of the member asking the question and the business in the Chamber on the day proposed. There is no guarantee that time will be found for every question on the supplementary list and questions that have not been asked will be removed when the next ballot is drawn. QSDs from the reserve list may be asked after the next ballot is drawn, as long as they have been tabled for a named day before that ballot takes place.
Timing of questions for short debate
6.47 Questions for short debate taken in the Chamber are entered last on the order paper.(63) More than one question for short debate should be put down only on a day when business appears to be light. They are taken either as last business (in which case they are subject to a time limit of one and a half hours(64)) or during the lunch or dinner break (in which case they last for a maximum of one hour(65)). Thus questions for short debate should be limited in scope.(66)
6.48 Once every five weeks when the House is in session, a Grand Committee sits for four hours to consider four questions for short debate tabled by backbenchers.(67) Other questions for short debate may be taken in Grand Committee with the agreement of those concerned, and are time-limited to one or one and a half hours.(68) The Grand Committee normally adjourns at the end of any QSD that does not take up the full time allotted to it, resuming for the next QSD at the previously advertised time.
Topical questions for short debate
6.49 In a normal session, on every Thursday from the beginning of the session until the end of January, there is a topical question for short debate between the general debates (or after the general debate if there is only one), unless otherwise agreed.(69) The topical question for short debate is chosen by ballot.
6.50 Only backbench and Crossbench members may enter the ballot and a member may initiate only one topical question for short debate per year.(70) The test of topicality is whether the subject has received news coverage in at least two mainstream media outlets, including online sites and mainstream regional publications, on either of the two days that the ballot was open or over the preceding weekend.(71) The same subject may not be debated as a topical question for short debate more than once in a six-month period. No more than one question on a subject may be accepted for inclusion in the ballot and priority is given to the first which is tabled. The clerks advise members on the interpretation and application of this guidance.
6.51 The ballot is drawn at 12 noon on Tuesday for Thursday of the following week. The ballot is open from 10am on Monday until 12 noon the following day.(72) Members should table entries anew for each ballot; undrawn questions are not automatically entered into the next ballot. If there is no entrant in a ballot, or if none of the entries is topical, the slot falls.
Guidance on the conduct of questions for short debate
6.52 The questioner is guaranteed 10 minutes and the minister 12 minutes. The remaining time is divided equally between all speakers on the list; there is no guaranteed time for Opposition frontbenchers. If the list of speakers is small, the maximum allocation for all speeches is 10 minutes, except for the minister, who is still guaranteed 12 minutes.
6.53 No member may speak more than once except with the leave of the House. If a member does speak more than once it should be only for the purpose of explaining a material point in his or her speech and not to introduce new subjects for debate.(73)
- The form of words used when asking the question is: “My Lords, I beg leave to ask the question standing in my name on the order paper ”.
- The member who asks the question has no right of reply since no motion has been moved.
- It is not in order for members to continue the debate after the Government’s reply has been given, except for questions to the minister before the minister sits down.
6.54 In a normal session every Thursday(74) from the beginning of the session until the end of January(75) is set aside for general debates. The House has agreed that it is desirable that there should be regular debates on general topics, and on select committee reports, in prime time.(76)
6.55 Motions are tabled on the order paper in the name of one member only.
- The leave of the House is not sought when a motion is moved. The form of words used is: “I beg to move the motion standing in my name on the order paper”.(77)
- Every motion, after it has been moved, must be proposed in the form of a Question from the Woolsack before debate takes place upon it.
- Motions, other than for the Humble Address in reply to the King’s Speech, are not seconded.
- At the conclusion of the debate, after every member who wishes to speak has spoken, the mover has the right to a short reply. At the end of their short speech in reply, the mover may either withdraw the motion or press it. If it is pressed, the member on the Woolsack or in the Chair then completes the Question on the motion, if necessary reading its terms.
- It is contrary to the practice of the House for a Question once decided to be put again in the same session.
6.56 General guidance on the wording of questions and motions, and on government responsibility, may be found at paragraphs 6.12–6.23.
6.57 The two types of motion are:
- resolutions; and
- ‘take note’ motions.
6.58 Resolutions may be put down in cases where a member wishes the House to come to a definite decision on a subject, if necessary on a vote. mA resolution, if passed, constitutes the formal opinion or decision of the House on the matter. Resolutions, unlike “take note” motions (for which see the following section) may be amended.
6.59 Resolutions begin with the words “To move to resolve …” or “To move that this House …”. While it is in order to incorporate statements of opinion or the demonstration of a point of view in resolutions, or in amendments to resolutions, argumentative or intemperate language should be avoided. The wording should be concise and, in the case of amendments, relevant to the subject-matter of the original motion.
Motions to take note
6.60 Most debates take place on a motion “That this House takes note of …”. This formula enables the House to debate a subject without coming to any positive decision. Such motions are usually agreed to, since they are neutral in wording, and there is neither advantage nor significance in opposing them. The opinion of the House is expressed in the speeches made in the debate rather than on a division. The formula is regularly used for debates on the general debate day and for select committee reports. It is also appropriate when a minister wishes to put down a neutral motion.
6.61 Take note motions should be short and neutrally phrased to avoid provocative or tendentious language, although members are not prevented from advancing controversial points of view in the course of debate. A take note motion should not include a statement of opinion or demonstrate a point of view. Take note motions are not amendable.(79)
6.62 Debates on take note motions may be held in Grand Committee;(80) the proceedings are the same as those that take place in the Chamber.
6.63 One Thursday in each month, from the start of the session to the end of December,(81) is set aside for two balloted debates, unless otherwise agreed.(82) These balloted debates are limited to five hours in total,(83) and their subjects should be narrow enough to be debated within the time limit. These debates may be initiated only by backbench and Crossbench members and a member may initiate only one balloted debate per session.(84)
6.64 The choice of the two subjects is made by ballot, which is carried out by the Table Office, two or three weeks before the debates are due to take place. A member wishing to initiate a balloted debate must give notice by tabling the motion in House of Lords Business under Motions for Balloted Debate. It is not in order to put down a motion for a balloted debate which is the same, or substantially the same, as a motion that is already entered for the ballot.(85) Members should table motions anew for each ballot; undrawn motions may not be entered into the next ballot automatically.(86) A member may not enter into the ballot a motion on a subject on which the member has a question for short debate in House of Lords Business.(87) It is assumed, unless notice to the contrary is given to the Table Office, that any member who has a motion down for the ballot is willing and able to move his or her motion on the day appointed.
6.65 The purpose of these debates is to provide a forum for discussion rather than questions which the House may decide on a division. They always take place on ‘take note’ motions, which should be worded neutrally.
6.66 When a motion has been set down for a particular day, it may be amended in form but not in substance: a member who has been successful in the ballot may not substitute another subject for that originally proposed.
6.67 The House may limit debates, either in the Chamber itself or in Grand Committee, to a specific number of hours. Time limits are automatically applied to general party debates and balloted debates, with the time allocations agreed in the usual channels and with the members moving the motions based on the number of speakers signed up to each debate.(89) For other debates, a business of the House motion in the name of the Leader of the House (of which notice is required) must be moved before the start of the debate if a time limit is to be applied. Within the overall limit, the amount of time allotted to particular speakers is calculated in advance and stated on the speakers’ list.
6.68 Speaking time is allocated equally between all the speakers on the speakers’ list, subject to a guaranteed minimum number of minutes being given to the mover of the debate, the official Opposition frontbencher or frontbenchers and the minister replying. The table below shows these guaranteed minimum allocations of time for debates of various lengths, in minutes.
Length of debate
Four hours or over
Two hours or over
Less than two hours
6.69 If the number of speakers on the speakers’ list is small, every speaker enjoys an equal speaking time (up to the recommended maximum of 15 minutes for any speech), except for the minister in reply who has at least the guaranteed minimum time set out in the table.
6.70 At the appropriate time, whoever is speaking is expected to give way to the front benches.
6.71 The clocks in the Chamber show the number of minutes and seconds that have already elapsed since the start of each speech. When a time limit on a speech has been reached the clock display changes colour and flashes.
6.72 Speakers in time-limited debates should respect the time guidelines and keep their speeches short, so that all those who wish to speak may do so. Members may also speak briefly in the gap (for a maximum of four minutes) if time allows, subject to the guidance set out in paragraph 4.26. During time-limited debates, speeches should be interrupted only if time allows.
6.73 If time-limited debates are interrupted by other business, for example by a statement or, in Grand Committee, by a division in the Chamber, the time limit is extended correspondingly and an appropriate announcement made to the House or Grand Committee.
6.74 If the debate on a motion is still continuing at the end of the time allotted to it, the Clerk at the Table rises, and the member on the Woolsack brings the debate to an end by either putting the Question forthwith or asking whether the mover of the motion wishes to withdraw it.(90)
Amendments to motions
6.75 A motion for debate, other than a ‘take note’ motion, may be amended with or without notice.
6.76 In principle, the discussion of an amendment to a motion is a separate debate, which must be concluded before the House returns to the original motion (or the original motion as amended). However, in practice, once a motion and an amendment to it have been moved, a single debate takes place on the motion and on any amendments that have been tabled to the motion and the principle embodied in Standing Order 29 (No Lord to speak more than once to a motion) applies to the debate as a whole. Once the first amendment has been moved, the rest of the debate takes place on that amendment, and the members in whose names the motion and any subsequent amendments stand speak in this debate to indicate the reasons why they prefer their own form of words. When the first amendment has been disposed of, any remaining amendments and the original motion (as amended) are usually put and decided without further debate.(91)
6.77 The following principles apply to a debate during which amendments, and possibly amendments to amendments, are proposed to a motion:
- a motion, an amendment to the motion, and any amendment to the amendment, are normally each moved and proposed in the form of a Question from the Woolsack before they can be further debated, though in some cases it may be for the convenience of the House to hear speeches from the opposition front benches before the first amendment is called;
- a member of the House who moves a motion, an amendment to it or any amendment to the amendment, may speak for that purpose and has a right of reply on their motion or amendment;
- a member whose motion is sought to be amended by one or more proposed amendments may make separate speeches dealing with each amendment;
- a member who has neither moved the original motion nor any amendment to it may speak once on the motion and once on any amendment or on any amendment to that amendment; and
- a member who moves an amendment should not speak separately on the original motion, but has a right of reply on their amendment.
6.78 At the end of the debate on an amendment to a motion, the member on the Woolsack states the terms of the original motion and of the amendment and then puts the Question:
“That this amendment be agreed to”.
6.79 If there is an equality of votes in a division on such an amendment, the amendment is disagreed to.
6.80 If there is more than one amendment to a motion, the amendments are dealt with in the order in which they relate to the motion, or, if they relate to the same place in the motion, in the order in which they were tabled.
6.81 If amendments are moved to an amendment, such amendments are dealt with in the order in which they stand on the order paper, in the same manner as if they were amendments to a motion, until all are disposed of. Then the original amendment is dealt with.
6.82 If any amendment is agreed to, at the end of the debate the member on the Woolsack puts the Question:
“That the original motion, as amended, be agreed to”.
6.83 On rare occasions when the House considers that the structure of debate set out in paragraphs 6.75–6.82 is too restrictive, it can go into committee on a motion, so that the limit on the number of times a member may speak is removed. The motion to do so may be moved without notice.
Adjournment of debates lasting more than one day
6.84 A motion for the adjournment of a debate may be moved at any time during the debate without notice and may be debated. When it has been arranged in advance for a debate to be adjourned (for example, the debate on the King’s Speech), it is usual for its adjournment to be moved at the end of the sitting. The adjourned business may be taken later the same day, or taken as first business on another day.(91)
Withdrawal of motions and amendments
6.85 If, at the conclusion of the debate, the mover decides not to seek the opinion of the House, they ask leave to withdraw the motion or amendment. A motion or amendment may be withdrawn only by unanimous leave of the House, though it is rare for any objection to be made.
6.86 The member in whose name the motion stands should conclude the debate by saying:
“I beg leave to withdraw the motion [or amendment]”.
6.87 No formal motion for withdrawal is made and no formal Question is put. The member on the Woolsack asks the House:
“Is it your Lordships’ pleasure that the motion [or amendment] be withdrawn?”
6.88 A single dissenting voice is sufficient to prevent withdrawal.(92) If there is none, the member on the Woolsack adds:
“The motion/amendment is, by leave, withdrawn.”
6.89 If any member dissents, the member on the Woolsack must put the Question on the motion or amendment.
1 Procedure 2nd Rpt 1984–85.
2 SO 34.
3 Procedure 8th Rpt 2010–12. See HL Deb. 3 December 2014, cols 1322–34.
5 SO 34; often restated by the Procedure Committee, most recently in 1st Rpt 2002–03.
8 Procedure 1st Rpt 1989–90; 1st Rpt 1994–95; Procedure and Privileges 1st Rpt 2023–34. On 26 January 2004, additional time was allowed for an intervention by the Lord Chief Justice (HL Deb. col. 12). On 10 June 2009 and 17 May 2011, the Convenor of the Crossbench Peers was permitted to intervene during the time for the front benches (HL Deb. col. 638) (HL Deb. col. 1261). The time allowed for backbenchers may be extended by agreement of the usual channels.
10 Procedure 4th Rpt 1963–64; 3rd Rpt 1984–85; 1st Rpt 1987–88.
11 Apart from making written statements on behalf of the Administration, the Senior Deputy Speaker can also make written statements on behalf of the Administration and the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission (Procedure 2nd Rpt 2019–21).
16 Where proceedings on the answer to an urgent question take place the next day or subsequently, the answer is not normally repeated.
18 Procedure 1st Rpt 1985–86.
19 LJ (1982–83) 108.
20 LJ (1996–97) 404.
21 The only exception to this rule is questions relating to the procedure or administration of the House itself.
22 Procedure 1st Rpt 1985–86; 9th Rpt 1970–71.
24 HL Deb. 8 February 2012, col. WS21–22.
25 Procedure 2nd Rpt 1988–89.
26 See also Erskine May, p. 361.
27 Erskine May, p. 365.
28 R&R Client Board minutes, 17 October 2022. Private notice questions, topical oral questions, and topical questions for short debate to the Senior Deputy Speaker, on behalf of the Restoration and Renewal Client Board, are not admissible (Procedure 1st Rpt 2019–21).
29 Procedure 2nd Rpt 2019–21. The Senior Deputy Speaker can only respond to written questions on behalf of the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission.
30 Questions may not be asked about reports by the National Audit Office until the Government have responded to a House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report on the issue.
34 SO 33.
38 Procedure 1st Rpt 1967–68.
39 Procedure 2nd Rpt 1984–85.
40 SO 40(2).
42 Procedure 1st Rpt 1984–85; 1st Rpt 1987–88.
43 Restated in Procedure 1st Rpt 2002–03.
45 Procedure 4th Rpt 1963–64.
48 SO 34; Procedure 1st Rpt 1959–60; 5th Rpt 1971–72.
50 SO 34.
51 Procedure 2nd Rpt 1990–91.
52 SO 42; Procedure 1st Rpt 1990–91.
53 Procedure 1st Rpt 2014–15. The Leader of the House has discretion to vary the standard pattern of dates, by agreement with the usual channels, in case of exceptional recess dates.
54 Procedure 7th Rpt 1971–72.
56 Procedure 5th Rpt 2013–14. The Leader of the House has asked Lords ministers to send members signed paper copies of answers in addition to using the electronic system.
58 Procedure Committee minutes, 4 April 2000.
60 Procedure 1st Rpt 1977–78.
61 SO 35.
63 SO 38(9). There is an exception for balloted topical questions for short debate on Thursdays, which are entered after the first motion for general debate.
64 Procedure 1st Rpt 1994–95.
65 Procedure 3rd Rpt 1993–94.
67 Procedure 1st Rpt 2013–14. A question for short debate relating to a report of an investigative select committee is eligible for debate during such an extended Grand Committee sitting (Procedure 3rd Rpt 2013–14).
68 Resolution of the House 31 January 2005; Procedure 5th Rpt 2006–07.
71 A question relating to a report of an investigative select committee is eligible for entry into the ballot as a topical question for short debate (subject to the same criteria as other entrants, including in respect of topicality) (Procedure 3rd Rpt 2013–14).
72 When this period would open on a bank holiday, the ballot will open at 10am on the Tuesday, to be drawn at 12 noon on the following Wednesday.
73 SO 29(2).
77 If a member of the House is absent when a motion standing in their name is called and has authorised another member to act on their behalf, that member may do so, explaining the situation. Otherwise, the motion cannot be proceeded with on that day unless unanimous leave is granted by the House. See paragraph 3.41.
78 Procedure 1st Rpt 1985–86.
79 LJ (2010–12) 1688.
82 Procedure 1st Rpt 1974. They were formerly called “short debates”.
83 If one balloted debate has considerably more speakers than the other balloted debate when the speakers’ lists close, the usual channels may agree to time-limit the debate with more speakers to three or three and a half hours and the debate with fewer speakers to the remaining portion of the five hours with the consent of the member in whose name each debate is tabled. (Procedure 2nd Rpt 2021–22).
85 Procedure 5th Rpt 1974–75.
88 Procedure 2nd Rpt 1983–84; 2nd Rpt 1990–91; 3rd Rpt 1992–93.
90 SO 36(1).
91 For the application of these principles to the procedure on amendments to second reading motions, see paragraph 8.47.
92 SO 43.
93 SO 30.