Dale Smith has an interesting post dissecting proposals for reform of Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons as put forward by the Liberal Party. He raises some valid points, but also makes a notable error, which I will endeavour to correct here.
Part of what’s been the beauty of our QP as we have structured it is that the PM can be called upon to answer any question on any day, with no advance notice. That’s not the way it works in Westminster, where the PM is given questions in advance.
This isn’t 100% accurate. Most of the time, the UK Prime Minister does not know in advance what questions will be put to him or her, bar one — the first question, and that is because the first question is always the same.
Here is the Order Paper for Oral Questions to the Prime Minister for Wednesday, October 14, 2015 (PDF):
If you click on that to view it — and please do, you will see that the questions do not appear, only the names of the MPs who have been selected in the lottery to put questions to the Prime Minister. The only exception is Q1: “If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 October.”
Virtually every single PMQs begins with this exact question about the PM’s engagements. And the Prime Minister’s answer is virtually identical every single time:
“This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.”
This is known as an ‘open question’ and means that the MP can then ask a supplementary question on any subject. Following the answer, the MP then raises a particular issue, often one of current political significance.
The Leader of the Opposition then follows up on this or another topic, being permitted to ask a total of six questions. The Leader of the Opposition is the only MP who is allowed to come back with further questions. The leader of the 3rd largest opposition party is permitted two questions.
Most MPs will table the same question about engagements and if they do, only their names will appear on the question book. After the first engagements question has been asked, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled, supplementary question.
The exception to the above procedure is if an MP tables a specific question, called a closed question, which I have blogged about here. In the event of a closed question, any supplementary questions must relate to the topic of the original question. A closed question will usually be taken first, and once answered, including supplementaries, if any, the Speaker will then call on the next MP for a new question, which will be the engagements question listed above.
What all of this means is that, in theory at least, that the Prime Minister will not know what questions will be asked of him or her. However, the PM will be extensively briefed by government departments in anticipation of issues that are likely to be the subject of questions — as is the case here in Canada. Also, the governing party will often propose certain questions to its own MPs who have been selected in the lottery. Some MPs will accept to ask these planted questions in order to ingratiate themselves with the party leader, but many refuse to do so.
Smith’s observation that, in Canada, “the PM can be called upon to answer any question on any day, with no advance notice” ignores another key procedure in the UK House of Commons — namely the Urgent Question. I have written extensively about Urgent Questions in the past, but to summarize, if an urgent or important matter arises which an MP believes requires an immediate answer from a government minister — any government minister, including the Prime Minister, they may apply to the Speaker to ask an urgent question. If the Speaker agrees that the matter is urgent and important, and there is unlikely to be another way of raising it in the House, the question can be asked at the end of that day’s question time. The MP must put in their application at the start of the day, and if the Speaker agrees to the UQ, then the minister in question will have only slightly more than an hour’s notice.
An Urgent Question is a form of extended question period but on one topic only. The MP who put forward the request for an UQ puts the question to the minister, and the minister replies. Then any other MP can follow-up with additional questions on the same topic. This will go on for about an hour (although the timing is at the Speaker’s discretion — he can allow it go on longer if there is a lot of interest from MPs).
The UK Prime Minister will also make use of Ministerial Statements to keep the House informed on important matters. Ministerial statements in the UK House of Commons are the opposite of those which occur (rarely) in the Canadian House of Commons. The Minister will make a statement on an important issue, his or her shadow opposite will respond, asking questions, which the Minister will answer, and then the floor is open to any MP to ask further questions of the Minister on the topic of the statement. Again, this proceeding will last about an hour, but often will go on much longer. For example, in July 2011, Prime Minister Cameron famously delivered a ministerial statement on the topic of illegal phone hacking by the media and took upwards of 140 questions from MPs.
Of course, we don’t have Urgent Questions in the Canadian House of Commons, and our ministerial statements procedure is somewhat of a joke (and rarely used as ministers prefer to make important announcements at events outside of the House of Commons). But that does not change the fact that Smith is wrong to say that the UK Prime Minister knows in advance what questions he or she will face during PMQs.