On reforming PMQs

The UK’s Hansard Society released a report examining public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) and asking whether PMQs is a ‘cue’ for their wider negative perceptions of Parliament. Some of the key findings include:

  • 67% of respondents agree that ‘there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’ – 5% disagree
  • 47% agree that PMQs ‘is too noisy and aggressive’ – 15% disagree
  • 33% agree ‘it puts me off politics’ – 27% disagree
  • 20% agree that ‘it’s exciting to watch’ – 44% disagree
  • 16% agree that ‘MPs behave professionally’ at PMQs – 48% disagree
  • 12% agree that PMQs ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’ – 45% disagree

Reaction to the report in the UK has been quite interesting. Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has long called for an overhaul of PMQs. For example, he delivered a speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies back in 2010 wherein he provides an interesting history of how Prime Minister’s Questions has evolved, looks at past (failed) attempts to reform it, and outlines what he considers to be the main problems with PMQs today:

We reached the point where almost nothing was deemed beyond the personal responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day, where the party leaders were responsible for a third of all the questions asked (and often more like 50 to 60% of the total time consumed) all set against a background of noise which makes the vuvuzela trumpets of the South African World Cup appear but distant whispers by comparison. If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screetch which is a very strange concept to my mind. The academic analysis does not make for enjoyable reading either. A survey by the Regulatory Policy Institute of all PMQs posed in 2009 concluded that the Prime Minister had answered only 56 per cent of all questions asked of him. If it seems harsh to cite Gordon Brown in this fashion then it should be observed that the same survey determined that only 56 per cent of the questions asked of him were actually genuine questions in the first place. What the detailed exercise revealed, depressingly, was that PMQs had become a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum. It was emphatically not an act of scrutiny conducted in a civilised manner.

Speaker Bercow also identifies three steps that could be taken to address what ails PMQs, namely:

  1. Change the culture. “It would require the Prime Minister and a new Leader of the Opposition, as so nearly happened in 1994, to agree on a common understanding of behaviour, one which offered teeth to our existing code of conduct which states unequivocally that “Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute”.”
  2. Shift the focus back to backbenchers. “If the session is to remain 30-minutes long, the next Leader of the Opposition could usefully ask whether he or she truly needed as many as six questions of the Prime Minister in order to land a blow or whether, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, three or four would do instead.”
  3. The content of the encounter. “Is it the right device for ensuring effective scrutiny? Does it need to be supplemented by other institutions? Are open questions posed in the vain attempt to catch a Prime Minister out actually the best means of inquiry?”

In response to the recent Hansard Society report, Speaker Bercow sent a letter to the three party leaders asking them to curb the “yobbish” behavious of their own MPs during PMQs. He has received favourable responses from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, and a more cautious reply from Prime Minister Cameron. Some MPs are in full agreement with both the Hansard Society report and Speaker Bercow, while others have essentially told him to stop whining about PMQs.

There have been many suggestions put forward regarding how to improve PMQs, both on blog posts and in the comments section on media coverage of the Hansard Society report. Some of the suggestions put forward on this blog post on the Liberal Democrat Voice blog are quite typical. The most popular seems to be giving the Speaker more power to make the PM actually answer the question asked/allow the speaker to decide that a question hasn’t been answered. While understandable that people get frustrated by non-answers that don’t directly address the content of the question asked (and the problem is far greater during the Canadian House of Commons Question Period), there is a problem here. In some instances, it will be very obvious that the PM’s answer completely ignores the main (or entire) thrust of the question. In other instances, however, this will be less obvious. The reality is that the Speaker is not in a position to know if a question has been “properly” or “fully” answered because he or she is not the minister and is not briefed on that matter and simply does not know how much information the minister is in a position to make public at that time. That would call for a subjective judgement call by the Speaker, which no Speaker would want to have to do.

In fairness, Speaker Bercow has shut down the Prime Minister on a few occasions when his answer has started to deviate into obvious non-answer territory, for example, in this exchange from 6 November 2013:

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Many women face discrimination at work when they become pregnant, so how will charging them £1,200 to go to an industrial tribunal help them? Before the Prime Minister has another attack of the Lyntons and starts talking about all the dreadful trade unionists on the Opposition side of the House, I should like to make it clear that I am a trade unionist and damn proud of it.

The Prime Minister: Millions of people in our country can be very proud of being trade unionists. The problem is that they are led so badly by bully-boys—[Interruption.] They are led so badly by people who seem to condone intimidating families, intimidating witnesses and intimidating the Leader of the Opposition. That is what we have come to with Unite. They pick the candidates, choose the policy, pick the leader and bully him till they get what they want.

Mr Speaker: Order. Actually, I think the question was about tribunals, if memory serves. [Interruption.] No. It is a good idea to try to remember the essence of the question that was put.

There has also been much concern expressed over “planted” questions. It’s important to understand that planted questions in PMQs aren’t quite the same sort of planted or lob-ball questions Canadians witness from government party backbenchers in the Canadian House of Commons. It is important to remember that which MPs get to ask questions during PMQs is determined by a lottery, therefore the party whips have no control over which or how many of their MPs will get called on. Yes, there are attempts by Number 10 to suggest questions Conservative MPs might want to consider asking, but as I explained in that post, few MPs agree. However, that doesn’t stop some government backbenchers from willingly asking questions that are framed in a way to highlight something positive that the government has done. They do this for a couple of reasons: first, it can be an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the party leadership in the hopes of future promotion, and second, they often use them to highlight something in their own riding and thus promote themselves to their constituents. An example of this could be this question from the Conservative MP from Portsmouth North on 29 January 2014:

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Portsmouth is an entrepreneurial city, delivering a drop of 25% in jobseeker’s allowance claimants over the past year. With this in mind, is the Prime Minister aware of a commercial plan put forward to the Department of Energy and Climate Change to build a number of specialist vessels designed to revolutionise and facilitate the industrialisation of the tidal energy sector? Does he agree that Portsmouth would be an excellent place to build those ships?

The Prime Minister: First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything she has done in recent weeks to highlight the importance of Portsmouth and all matters maritime, in the broadest sense of the word?

I am aware of this interesting project, and I understand there will be a meeting with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shortly. It is testament to the excellent reputation of Portsmouth that there is so much interest in this commercial sector, which my hon. Friend, I and the whole Government want to see expand. The appointment of a Minister for Portsmouth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), will make a big difference. It is good news that the youth claimant count has fallen so quickly in Portsmouth, but we must stick to the economic plan and keep delivering for Portsmouth.

Who is to say if that was a planted question, or one that the Member willingly wanted to ask as it highlighted both her government’s work and her constituency? It certainly isn’t as blatantly “planted” as this exchange from the Canadian House of Commons question period (19 November 2013) which is little more than an excuse to attack the leader of the Liberal Party:

Ms. Joan Crockatt (Calgary Centre, CPC): Mr. Speaker, when it comes to protecting children, our government’s record is unequivocal. We have already passed mandatory prison sentences for child sexual offences, including aggravated sexual assault and Internet luring. Unbelievably, yesterday, when the Liberal leader was asked whether he would repeal these tougher sentences, he said, that he wouldn’t rule out repealing mandatory minimums for anyone. While the Liberals waffle, can the Minister of Justice explain how our government will strengthen sentencing for child sexual offenders?

Hon. Peter MacKay (Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, CPC): Mr. Speaker, while sexual assault against children in Canada is actually on the rise, hearing that the Liberal leader is talking about repealing mandatory sentences for sexual predators is, frankly, appalling. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have passed mandatory prison sentences. This includes an omnibus crime bill that was introduced in 1968 by—wait for it—the then justice minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Our government will soon introduce legislation to ensure multiple child sex offenders serve consecutive sentences. I hope that the Liberal Party and all parties present will support this important protection for Canadian children.

The BBC ponders if PMQs really is getting worse in this rather lengthy piece. The consensus seems to be that things have indeed deteriorated since the 1980s. In another BBC piece, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman looks into the issue, essentially arguing that passionate debate is to be preferred over decorous, consensual debate. She raises the example of Winston Churchill refusing to rebuild the bombed Commons with a circular Chamber because too many earnest parliaments had been destroyed by “the group system.” She also notes that parliament offers plenty of decorous, respectful debate – and no one turns out to watch it. This last point is very true. The House of Commons is always packed for PMQs, with some MPs even sitting in the aisles because there isn’t enough room on the benches to accommodate them all. This presents a sharp contrast with almost all other proceedings in the House – including the departmental oral questions, which are often quite sparsely attended.

My main concern is the fascination Canadians have with PMQs, and the quite prevalent desire to adopt something similar here. In my view, PMQs is the least interesting procedure on offer in the UK House of Commons. I would much rather see the adoption of the rota system for questions to ministers, the introduction of urgent questions, reformed ministerial statements, and changes to the committees system. I don’t see how adopting the most boorish proceeding the UK House of Commons has to offer will improve anything here in Canada.

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