On Written Questions

While most are quite familiar with Question Period or Question Time – the parliamentary proceeding during which MPs question government ministers – you  may not know that in addition to oral questions, MPs can ask government ministers questions in writing. These written questions are often used to obtain more detailed information about policies and statistics on the activities of government departments that would require too long an answer to be asked as an oral question during Question Period.

Rules surrounding written questions vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, in the Canadian House of Commons, 48 hours notice is required before a written question is placed on the Order Paper. Each MP is allowed a maximum of four questions on the Order Paper at a time. They can also indicate that they would prefer to receive an oral response to the question, which will be delivered during Routine Proceedings. They do this by marking the written question with an asterisk when it is submitted. These are known as “starred questions”, and a maximum of three starred questions are allowed out of the MP’s total of four. MPs can also request an answer within 45 calendar days.

In the UK House of Commons, both MPs and Lords can submit written questions to Ministers. There are different types of written questions. Ordinary questions do not have to be answered on a specific date. An MP will date a written question for two days after they have tabled it, but the convention is that the MP can expect it to be answered within seven days of the question being tabled. However, there is no parliamentary rule that states ordinary written questions have to be answered by a certain date. All House of Lords written questions follow a similar procedure. Lords enter questions on the Order Paper via the Table Office. Lords may table up to six questions each day and can expect an answer within 14 days.

Named day questions only occur in the House of Commons. The MP tabling the question specifies the date on which they should receive an answer. The MP must give a minimum of two days’ notice for these types of question. MPs may not table more than five named day questions on a single day.

As well, it should be noted that questions originally tabled for oral answer that do not get answered at oral question time are submitted to the government department as named day questions.

While there are variations in the rules governing how MPs use written questions from one parliament to the next, there is one thing MPs in most, if not all, legislatures have in common, and that is a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of answers provided by ministers.

On a number of occasions in the Canadian House of Commons, MPs have raised matters of privilege over the answers they’ve received to written questions – unsuccessfully (see, for example, 4 December 2002, 27 January 2003, and 13 December 2004). None of these cases was found to be a prima facie breach of privilege and Speakers have ruled that it is not the role of the Chair to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate nor to “assess the likelihood of an Hon. Member knowing whether the facts contained in a document are correct”.

In the UK, the House of Commons Procedure Committee released a report during the 2008-09 session looking at Written Questions and noted:

There is widespread concern that many answers to WPQs are unsatisfactory. We are particularly concerned that, in some cases, information is refused under a WPQ but later granted through a Freedom of Information request. The Government has a duty to answer WPQs accurately and in full. It is unacceptable that some answers fall short of these standards, and the Government must reiterate these responsibilities both in guidance provided to officials and in the Ministerial Code.

As a remedy, the Procedure Committee proposed that, on a trial basis, it take on the role of monitoring unsatisfactory answers referred to the Committee by Members. This would enable the Committee to assess the extent of any problems, and would send a message to Government that if it failed to meet its responsibilities in answering WPQs these shortcomings would be recorded and pursued.

The Committee began monitoring written questions in the following Parliament, in October 2010. They invited MPs to refer to them specific instances where they were dissatisfied with the answer received to a question they had tabled. This dissatisfaction could be due to an answer clearly not addressing the question or where information is refused when requested through a WPQ but is made available by other means. The Committee would then examine every submission and in cases of particular concern, would refer questions to Ministers for comment and review. The Committee received just over 50 complaints, and of those, about half merited further investigation. In their report, Seventh Report: Monitoring written Parliamentary questions, tabled in April 2013, the Committee noted that the experiment had been quite successful:

As a result we have obtained answers for Members on a number of occasions in circumstances where they would otherwise have found it difficult or impossible to follow up on an inadequate response, and we have been able to use the opportunity to emphasise to Ministers the importance and value of engaging adequately and appropriately with this particular form of Parliamentary scrutiny. We now intend to bring this trial period to an end and put the exercise on a more permanent footing.

The Committee’s second monitoring report was released in January 2014 and found that while the timeliness of ministries in answering written questions had improved over the previous session, certain ministries were still under-performing and were “on notice”:

Overall performance in timeliness of answering of written Parliamentary questions has improved since 2010-12, from 69% to 76% in respect of ordinary written questions answered within a working week of tabling and from 69% to 73% in respect of named day questions answered on the named day. The performance of certain departments, however, remains poor, and those with whom we have been in correspondence this year should consider themselves to be “on notice” that if the improvements which have been promised do not materialise when we come to examine the statistics for 2013-14, we will be considering very carefully what action, possibly including further oral evidence sessions, it is necessary to take.

The UK Parliament has also just launched an online written questions and answers module. Previously, one had to look in Hansard to find the answers to questions tabled by MPs — this new module makes it much easier to search through the questions and read ministerial replies. As the Procedure Committee noted in its first monitoring report, written questions “are a vital tool for the accountability of Government. The effectiveness of this form of accountability depends on Members receiving answers which are both timely and which respond adequately and appropriately to the question which has been asked.”  Perhaps making it easier for people to read the replies to WPQs will encourage ministers to provide more thorough answers.

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MP defections and by-election timing

Douglas Carswell, a UK Conservative backbench MP, today announced he was quitting the Tory Party to join UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party). He also announced he was resigning as an MP and would seek re-election under his new party label in a by-election.

Most of the discussion right now in the UK media is focusing on what this means for the Conservative Party as it is challenged on the right by UKIP. This blog, as we all know by now, does not focus on party policies or party politics in general. Rather, I want to look at two other issues raised by today’s events.

The first is Mr. Carswell’s decision to not only cross the floor to join another party, but to resign as an MP and seek re-election. I have discussed the issue of floor crossing (see this post), and normally, MPs in both Canada and the UK who decide to leave one party during the course of a parliament (meaning in-between elections) and join another simply do that. They do not resign their seat; they do not seek re-election under their new party label in a by-election. In other words, the voters in their constituency have no say in the matter until the next general election. As I explained in my post on floor crossing, there have been attempts in both the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons to pass legislation which would require an MP who decides to switch parties in-between elections to do exactly what Mr. Carswell is doing. Each attempt to pass such legislation (always via a Private Member’s Bill) have failed. Will Mr. Carswell’s actions change anything?

The question before us now is whether Mr. Carswell’s actions will set some sort of precedent. Will there now be greater pressure on defecting MPs to do the same thing rather than follow current practice, which, as I stated above, is simply to change party and continue on as an MP? Some in the UK are already arguing that it should.

The second point of interest involves the matter of the by-election itself. I’ve written a couple of posts outlining how the UK approach to calling by-elections compares with ours here in Canada, which you can read here and here. In both posts, I point out that the UK system seems better to me – the decision to call the by-election is not up to the Prime Minister, and consequently, vacant seats tend to be filled much more quickly in the UK than they are here in Canada. In Canada, the Prime Minister will often delay the calling of a by-election for as long as he or she can (and often for purely political reasons), which means a constituency can go up to six months without an MP.

In the UK, convention dictates that the party which holds the seat decides the date of the by-election. Generally, because it is their seat that is now vacant, the party wants to fill it as quickly as possible. This usually means that the writ is moved the same day or the day after the seat has become officially vacant However, the situation with Mr. Carswell is different. The Conservatives held that seat in the 2010 election, and so it is up to them to decide when to call the by-election. Here we may well see political maneuvering come to the fore. First there is the legitimate matter that they will have to find a suitable candidate to contest the seat against Mr. Carswell, and if we assume Carswell’s decision to defect to UKIP was a surprise to them, they probably don’t have anyone lined up as they full expected Mr. Carswell to run again in the 2015 General Election. But even once they find a candidate, they can still hold off on calling for the by-election to be held. However, even here, the by-election will most likely occur sooner than it would in Canada; a Speaker’s Conference on electoral law in 1973 proposed several changes to how by-elections are usually conducted and one of the guidelines adopted was that a writ for a by-election should normally be moved within three months of a vacancy arising.

So while most in the UK will be focusing on the Conservative-UKIP issues raised by Mr. Carswell’s defection, this blog will be far more interested in watching developments on these other two fronts.

ETA: Today (2 September 2014), it was announced that the by-election will occur on 9 October 2014. The resignation of Douglas Carswell as Clacton’s Member of Parliament became official the day after he announced he was defecting from the Conservatives to UKIP. On the afternoon of 29 September, a message was released by HM Treasury which made Mr Carswell’s resignation official:

“The Chancellor of the Exchequer has this day appointed John Douglas Wilson Carswell to be Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.”


(You may recall my earlier post explaining that MPs in the UK House of Commons cannot actually resign their seat.)

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Row over the selection of a new Clerk for the House of Commons

clerksEarlier this year, the Clerk of the UK House of Commons, Sir Robert Rogers, announced that he would be retiring at the end of August. Traditionally, a new clerk is appointed from within, but in this instance, the Speaker of the House of Commons announced that the position would be advertised.

After an exhaustive selection process conducted by a panel chaired by Speaker Bercow, it was announced that the successful candidate was an Australian, Carol Mills, the Director of Parliamentary Services in Canberra. The decision has been met with great consternation. Both parliamentarians and parliamentary observers deem Ms. Mills to be unsuited for the post. That said, the concern over the choice of Ms. Mills has been largely confined to the edges of public debate; the issue of who should be the next Clerk of the House of Commons is not of great concern or of much interest to the general public.

What does the Clerk of the House of Commons do? If you have ever watched parliamentary proceedings, either in the UK, or in Canada or any other legislature, you may have noticed certain individuals, usually robed in black, sitting at a table in front of the Speaker’s chair. These are the Clerks-at-the-Table, non-partisan officials who provide advice to the Speaker and to Members. In Canada, they also record the decisions of the House. At the head of the Table sits the Clerk of the House, the senior permanent official of the House of Commons. This is an ancient position; the first Clerk was appointed in 1363 in Britain though from much earlier times kings had employed officials to record their decisions and those of their advisers.

The Clerk of the House is the principal constitutional adviser to the House, and adviser on all its procedure and business, including Parliamentary privilege. If a point of order is raised by a Member, it is the Clerk that the Speaker will turn to for advice on the intricacies of the Standing Order in question. The Clerks are instrumental in preparing the rulings delivered by Speakers. Consequently, whoever holds the position must be an expert not only the legislature’s Standing Orders, but also parliamentary conventions and precedents that guide so much of what happens on the floor of the House.

While that is the traditional role of the Clerk, in more modern times, the role has expanded to include significant administrative duties. In effect, in many legislatures, the Clerk is also sort of the CEO of the legislature, with oversight responsibilities for a wide range of parliamentary services. Clerks now oversee decisions about Human Resources, information technology, catering, security, etc., areas which, in many cases, they have scant expertise since their main focus has always been the procedural side of Parliament. Some legislatures have recognized that expecting an expert in parliamentary procedure to also successfully see to the administrative side of things isn’t ideal, and have split the task between two positions. The Clerk remains responsible for procedure, while a second person will oversee the administrative and financial duties. This is the case in Australia, where Ms Mills manages the general administration of the building in her Director of Parliamentary Services role. She has, however, no procedural experience.

It is her lack of procedural experience which has raised concern. The Clerk of the Australian Senate wrote a scathing email (which was leaked) in which she made it clear that Ms. Mills was not qualified for the post due to her lack of procedural experience. A number of senior Labour and Conservative MPs are calling for her appointment to be delayed. The leading internal candidate, David Natzler, is considering appealing the decision of the appointment panel, and Sir Rogers, the out-going Clerk, has intervened,  asking Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, to delay sending the name of his proposed successor to the Queen for approval.

It does not seem likely that a delay will be possible, however. Sir Rogers retires at the end of August, and the UK House of Commons will return from its summer break on 1 September 2014. Yesterday, Speaker Bercow indicated that he would be willing to split the Commons Clerk role to avoid this sort of controversy, but this split would occur in the future, after Ms. Mills retires.

At this point, it does look as if Ms. Mills’ appointment will proceed. I don’t know if she will be in place as Clerk for when the House returns on 1 September, but whenever she takes up the post, she will have a steep learning curve ahead of her.

Here is a video of out-going Clerk Sir Rogers, explaining the role of Clerks in parliament.

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Do we need a Peoples’ PMQs?

UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband recently floated the idea of a weekly “public question time” where an audience representative of the country would question the prime minister on any issue of the day.

Miliband was a bit short on details regarding how this would work. Apart from stating that the audience should be representative of the country, the only other details he provided was that the public PMQs should be held in parliament at least every two weeks, but preferably weekly.

On the surface, it’s an interesting idea, but it also raises a number of questions. First of all, how would these people – representative of the country – be selected? Would it be a completely random process, you know, sort of like being chosen for jury duty? Or would interested persons be invited via a website or social media to put their name in? If the latter, self-selection, then you’re not going to end up with an audience “representative of the country.” You’re going to end up with an audience full of political partisans and people with specific causes and agendas.

As Dan Hodge rightly notes in this column:

The vast majority of British voters have zero interest in Prime Minister’s Questions. Nor, once the initial novelty had worn off, would they have any more interest in watching People’s Questions. It’s only politicians who think the weekly interrogation of politicians is of major national significance.

This is the reality of our times: most people – most ordinary people “representative of the country” just don’t care enough – or at all – about politics. They’d have no interest in participating in a Peoples’ PMQs. The only people who would be keen on participating, as I stated above, would be partisans and people with vested interests. The sad truth is that people who are really keen on politics aren’t the majority. And if you end up with an audience full of partisans, the questions won’t be any more enlightening than what you currently get in PMQs. Case in point: when this story came out in the UK, the Guardian put up an open thread column asking “What would you ask David Cameron?” If you’re not familiar with the Guardian, suffice it to say that the vast majority of its readers do not like the Tories. The paper is strongly associated with the Labour Party, and its readers are decidedly left-of-centre. A quick perusal of some of the suggestions quickly demonstrates what sort of questions partisans would ask.

I admit that I am very leery of “real people” questions. There has been an extremely annoying trend here in Canada regarding leaders’ debates during election campaigns, where the normal practice of having the party leaders face questions from a panel of seasoned journalists has been replaced with asking questions from “ordinary” Canadians. The problem with this is that, as I’ve said, most people aren’t really into politics, and the questions that are asked often tend to be rather non-specific, and often inappropriate. A lot of “ordinary” people will ask federal party leaders questions about education and healthcare, which aren’t federal responsibilities. Yes, the federal government provides funding to the provinces to be used for education and healthcare, but Ottawa’s ability to do much in those areas is quite limited. I do miss the days when Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe would simply sneer at those questions and dismiss them with “That’s not a federal responsibility, it’s provincial” and refuse to say more, while the other federal leaders would try to wax poetic about grandiose plans over something they really couldn’t do much about. I would think any sort of “Peoples PMQs” wouldn’t be much better.

Another issue is simply that this idea looks like an attempt to by-pass Parliament. MPs are elected to represent people – it is their job to hold the PM and the Cabinet to account. If citizens have certain concerns about a government policy, they can (and should) contact their MP and that MP should try to get answers on behalf of his or her constituents from the relevant government minister, including the PM. There are a number of UK MPs who, once they learn that they’ll be allotted a question during PMQs (because the names of MPs are drawn in a lottery), ask for suggestions for questions on Twitter and other social media. Whether or not they actually use any of the questions suggested to them by their followers, I don’t know, but I do regularly see them on Twitter inviting people to suggest questions.

UK party leaders are already quite accessible to the public (especially compared to Canadian party leaders). Before he became PM, David Cameron held a regular number of Q&A sessions in marginal ridings. He has continued this practice since becoming PM (here’s a recent one from this year). Yes, these aren’t always public events or televised, so not the same as a Peoples’ PMQs, but my point here is that at least the PM is regularly going out and talking to people, being questioned by them. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has a weekly radio call-in show.

Every single minister regularly appears before his or her department’s select committee for questioning (including the PM, who appears before the Liaison Committee a couple of times each session – you can watch his most recent appearance here. More and more of these committees have also turned to Twitter and other social media to invite “ordinary people” to submit questions to be put to the Minister. They will often reserve the last 20 or so minutes of the session for questions submitted by the public. Here’s an interesting assessment of the very first time this was attempted back in 2012, by the Education Committee.

I don’t disagree with Ed Miliband and others that there is too often a disconnect between elected officials and the general public, but I don’t think that a Peoples’ PMQs will really do much to change that. My gut feeling is that a lot of people, probably a majority of people, will never be that interested in politics in general, and gimmicks won’t change that.

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Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt.2)

(The following is part 2 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. You can read part 1 here. JD is a Dutch-Israeli undergraduate student at Leiden University College in the Hague, the Netherlands. He is majoring in policy science with a focus on constitutional design. He frequently contributes to the political science blog Fruits and Votes. JD’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog’s administrator.)

Part 2: The specifics of Senate reform and their effects

In my previous post I discussed the problems of majoritarianism and the resulting executive dominance in Canada’s system of government. In this post I will explore in detail my specific recommendations for reform, as well as the way in which they would empower the Senate to fulfil its role of balancing out the power of the government and holding it to account, all the while better representing Provincial interests.

Creating bicameral incongruence

An interesting question is by what formula the Provinces should be represented in the Senate; it would be reasonable to think that a different basis of representation, such as equal representation for each province, could make the partisan composition of the Senate become incongruent to that of the Commons. However, such change to the current situation is not critical, much less sufficient for that end. Instead, the decisive factor would be the method of appointment or election, which must be one which makes a one-party majority very unlikely.

One way to appoint Senators that is likely to both create intercameral incongruence and a ‘Provinces’ chamber’ would be appointment by Provincial governments or legislatures. The main drawback of this solution would be an entanglement of provincial and federal politics, eliminating the separation between the two which is one of the advantages of federalism. People would no longer be able to vote in provincial elections without effecting the federal government. In the long term, this strongly incentivises federal parties to take over control of the provincial party systems, which would severely undermine any role the Senate may at first have as an agent of the Provinces’ interests.

The way forward would appear to be direct elections. In order to prevent governments from winning upper-house majorities – the absolutely crucial part of the equation – the electoral system should be some form of proportional representation. In order to avoid excessive party domination, it would be a good idea to choose a candidate-based PR system, such as the single transferable vote (STV). This fully candidate-based proportional system would inject a dose of intraparty competition that is not only likely to weaken the parties, but strengthen the role of provincial interests. The way for candidates to compete against other candidates of the same party is to differentiate themselves by catering to particularistic interests of the electoral district, in this case – the Provinces. Meanwhile, the degree of choice voters have under STV in ranking candidates from various parties (very much unlike the first-part-the-post used for elections to the House of Commons) is also commendable, and is more likely to result in the election of independents than other PR systems. The result of this electoral system should be a diverse representation of the electorate, with a majority for any single party becoming a highly unlikely prospect.

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

The next question is the election cycle. The best possibility would be to simply to hold Senate elections concurrently with elections to the House of Commons. Such elections would, however, best be staggered, with half of the Senate being elected at each general election, for two main reasons: firstly, it would increase the Senate’s independence by reducing the prime minister’s power to threaten dissolution to one that concerns only the more senior half. Secondly, in combination with proportional representation, it would make it more difficult for a government to achieve a majority in the upper house. Under PR, a party needs close to or over 50% of the vote to win a majority of seats contested – therefore, if Senate elections were staggered, two successive landslide wins would be necessary for a single party to win a Senate majority. Furthermore, longer terms may lead to longer-term thinking in the Senate as a result of the delay in concern for re-election. For these reasons one-half of each Province’s Senators should be elected at each federal parliamentary election, which would currently mean a term of no longer than eight years, while the minimum would depend on the frequency of elections.

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Breaking Deadlock

Currently, the Senate’s full power is used only sparingly, due to the way in which it is appointed; there can be no doubt that an elected Senate would be much more assertive. For enabling an effective role for the Senate in review of legislation and government actions the crucial factor is that the Senate retain a large degree of power over legislation. The only reason governments have to co-operate with a Senate’s accountability measures, such as inquiry or information disclosure order is the latter’s potential threat of declining to pass government legislation until the government complies. A house of review with no legislative power would be ineffective, as it could simply be ignored. Likewise, a house that chooses to not exercise its legislative power is also a poor check. Therefore an assertive body of senators is essential to allow the senate to fulfil is role a check on government power.

Nevertheless, for good and effective government, complete deadlock should be avoided. A good mechanism would therefore be needed, in order to resolve disagreements between the Houses and to encourage Senators to work towards a compromise instead of being obstructive. The current formal powers of the Senate are almost symmetrical to that of the House of Commons, with only very few limits, specifically regarding initiative and amendment of money bills. A deadlock-breaking mechanism exists, in a form inspired by the British Constitution: additional appointments can be made (on the prime minister’s advice), limited to either 4 or 8 extra senators. As a deadlock breaker it is simply a way for the government party to come closer to having a majority in the Senate. If the Senate were elected, it is possible that governments will get into the habit of making these appointments at the start of each session, effectively a government bonus in the Senate which has no place in the reformed institution proposed here.

Actually, a certain deadlock-breaking mechanism is already inherent in the election cycle proposed above. Should the two houses disagree on a bill, and the government is well-positioned in the opinion polls to win an election, there’s an incentive for the prime minister to advise a ‘one-and-a-half’ dissolution, whereby the House of Commons and half of the Senate face new elections. This threat would be a potent bargaining tool in the hands of the PM, while also poses its own risks for him. A government which is not faring well in the polls will almost certainly not make use of this avenue. In such a case, there is a greater threat of deadlock; seeing as the Senate can block supply, there is even a threat that the opposition in the Senate will try to bring down the government and force an election. There is a good case for removing the Senate’s power to block supply, which effectively makes the government depend on both houses for funding. It can be argued that the government should only be responsible to one house to avoid the deleterious effects of instability, not to mention government shutdowns. Secondly, one could argue for removal in the interest of the financial efficiency that one-party government promotes; if such a government must compromise with other parties to pass its budget, this potential will decrease. However, a check on the government’s finances is as important as any other for the Senate for checking the government’s power and keeping it accountable.  I would suggest some limitation to the Senate’s power to block supply, so that it cannot veto the bare essentials necessary to fund government, but so that it can still veto radical changes to fiscal policy, including such things as tax increases.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

The proposals

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained, to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

Conclusion: curbing the excesses of the Westminster system

Some readers of this blog will note similarities between the proposal outlined here and the system existing in Australia on the federal level as well as in several states, and indeed, the Australian experience was the inspiration. As in Canada, the Australian government utterly dominates the lower house; but unlike its Canadian counterpart, the Australian Senate, elected through PR, has a very effective review role. The Australian Senate not only improves and moderates legislation, but also holds the government accountable and transparent in various ways, creating checks and balances not present in most versions of the Westminster system.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

In all probability, a Canadian Senate reconstituted along the lines described above would be similarly empowered to increase scrutiny and oversight, carrying out inquiries and ordering the disclosure of information from the government, thereby checking executive power and increasing transparency. In the new Senate, devoid of a government majority, governments will have to negotiate with other parties to pass much of their legislation. Most proposals should pass with no significant clashes, or with improvements arising from bipartisan collaboration, but more controversial bills will have to be toned down and negotiated to have a chance of success.

Due to the more frequent need to secure compromises, the government’s ex-post accountability before the electorate would be watered down somewhat. Nonetheless, majority governments will remain in a very powerful position; the Senate will be able to constrain a government, but not to force one out. Since the other parties will remain unable to either remove such a government, or pass anything without its concurrence, a majority government would be partly responsible for any proposal that does pass, keeping accountability strong. The situation would of course be different, as it is now, in the case of a minority or ‘hung’ parliament. Such scenarios may sometimes prove trickier for governments than today, but in most cases, if a majority can be secured for some bill in the House, the same parties’ support will also be sufficient in the Senate.

In the long term, elections to the two houses may become strongly defined by the system. Elections to the House of Commons would become more strictly about the choice of government, with more people likely to vote strategically, voting their true preference in the Senate election.  Due to its electoral system, the Senate will almost certainly become more representative of the electorate than the House of Commons. Among its ranks there will be small parties which have great difficulty in capturing seats in the lower house. Such small parties (and independents) will begin focussing on elections to the Senate, where they will have a real chance to influence policy. They may also come to emphasise their role in making the Senate the place where the government is held to account, as the Australian Democrats did with their slogan ‘keep the bastards honest!’ Meanwhile, for the big parties, the distinguishing element of Senate elections would become competition among candidates of the same party (under STV). In order to differentiate themselves, a party’s candidates are will likely compete with each other in terms of bringing various benefits to their province.

Of course, this is not the whole picture; an elected Senate, where the government is permanently in minority, would fundamentally transform Canada’s political equation. Executive dominance, largely the unfortunate side-effect of the Westminster system’s majoritarianism, would be remedied while preserving most of its benefits. While the government, in most cases, should be able to continue to control the House, opposition parties in the Senate will have not only the power, but also the mandate to hold governments to account and subject their policies to a ‘sober second thought’. This, I am convinced, would be the best way of curbing the excesses of the Westminster system – by accomplishing what few of the participants in the FPTP-vs.-PR debate seem to contemplate: an elegant compromise between the accountability of the former and the representativeness of the latter.

Suggested further reading

Platypus and Parliament: The Australian Senate in Theory and Practice

Accountability Versus Government Control: the Effect of Proportional Representation

From breaking governments to a brake on government: a new bicameralism in Victoria?

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On programming motions

Maclean’s Aaron Wherry’s recent column looks at the current Canadian government’s extreme fondness for using time allocation to speed passage of its legislation through the House of Commons. I strongly urge everyone to read it.

What I found particularly interesting in the piece was the Government House Leader’s justification for use of time allocation. In essence, they are using it to, in his words, schedule how legislation proceeds through the various stages:’

There’s no doubt we have used it as a scheduling device, not as a limiting of debate device. So, yeah, we’ve tried to change the culture around it, the whole meaning of it and what it does. In the past, I think, while it was intended when drafted as a scheduling device, the way it was used in practice, and the rhetoric around it, had meant that it was for shutting down debate.

The Government House Leader is a bit confused. Time Allocation was always meant to be a means (ideally of last resort) of curtailing debate, not as a means of scheduling a bill’s progress through the House. Going by the above quote, what the Government is trying to do is use time allocation as a programming motion.  Perhaps it would make more sense then for the Canadian House of Commons to adopt a new procedure, namely, programming motions similar (or identical to) those used in the UK House of Commons?

No one disputes the reality that time is limited in the House of Commons, and that a sitting Government does have the right to get its business before the House. However, some pieces of legislation will go over less well than others. As noted in Erskine May, to secure the passage of particularly important and controversial pieces of legislation, a government may face a series of difficult choices:

1) taking special powers to curtail debate;
2) cutting down their normal programme to an undesirable extent;
3) prolonging the sittings of Parliament; or
4) acknowledging the impotence of the majority of the House in the face of resistance from the minority. (May, p. 468)

Before 1997, when faced with such a situation, UK governments would resort to allocation of time motions, or as they are more commonly called over there, guillotine motions – a much more appropriate expression, in my view. However, since 1997, use of the guillotine has been replaced by programming of bills. Introduced at first on a pilot basis following a report of the Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, it was enshrined in the standing orders in 2004. Since then, programming has become an established and broadly accepted feature of the transaction of Parliamentary business. In recent testimony before the House of Commons Procedure Committee, the Government stated that “There now appears to be a clear majority view in the House that, in principle, programming is beneficial to the scrutiny of legislation.” The Opposition concurred, saying they “support its continued use. In opposition we have sought through the usual channels to make programming work by acknowledging the executive’s need to manage the legislative timetable while censuring sufficient opportunity is available for members to scrutinize legislation.” (Procedure Committee, Third Report of Session 2013-14) The majority of government bills are now programmed.

The differences between time allocation and programming motions might appear minor at first glance, but they are very different procedures. Time allocation motions have one purpose, and that is to cut off debate – hence why they are called guillotine motions. They are normally moved during 2nd reading debate, but after a fair bit of debate has occurred, not right at the outset of 2nd reading debate, as has been the case here in Canada of late.

Programme motions cannot be applied to 2nd reading debate. That is perhaps the most important difference. They are used to guide the progress of a bill through the committee stage, consideration (report) stage and 3rd reading. However, while they can’t be used to curtail 2nd reading debate, notice of programme motions must be given before 2nd reading and they are moved immediately after 2nd reading begins. The programme motion is then voted on, and once adopted by the House, becomes a programme order.

When a programme order covers proceedings which take place in the House itself (committee of the whole House, consideration (report stage) or third reading), a programming committee is appointed, consisting of the Chairman of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speaker) and up to eight other members, nominated by the Speaker. The function of the committee is to divide the bill into various parts and  allot to each part such time as it considers appropriate. This is very important. While the Government determines how much total time will be allocated for consideration of the bill at each stage covered by the programme order, how that time is used is not controlled by the Government. A committee of MPs nominated by the Speaker determine how the time will be used. Proceedings in the programming committee are limited to two hours. The House may debate the programming  committee’s resolution for up to 45 minutes and, if it is agreed to, it has effect as if it were included in the programme  order.

What is interesting about the process in the UK is that if the Government cannot get its programming motion passed, it might opt to abandon the bill if it believes trying to move it through the House without a formal programming motion will take up too much of the House’s time. That is what happened with the House of Lords Reform bill earlier in the current Parliament. House of Lords reform, like Senate reform here in Canada, is one of those issues that pretty much everyone agrees is needed, but there is little agreement on which way to proceed. Consequently, the Coalition Government went to great lengths with this particular bill. They first produced a draft bill in May 2011, and on 23 June 2011, set up a Joint Committee made up of 13 peers and 13 MPs to study the bill in draft form. The Committee heard evidence over the course of the next several months, and reported on the bill in April 2012 – almost a year later. Based on the committee’s recommendations, the Government than produced a final bill which had 1st reading in the House of Commons on 27 June 2012. Second reading debate began on 9 July 2012, and the programme motion was tabled on 10 July. However, there was strong opposition to the programme motion from an alliance of Labour MPs and Tory rebels and the Government, sensing that the programme motion was unlikely to be adopted by the House, dropped it. The bill itself received 2nd reading with strong support (462 votes to 124, a majority of 338) but 91 Conservative MPs voted against it. Without the programme motion, the bill would have faced an incredibly bumpy ride. Faced with this reality, the Government essentially abandoned the bill – and it was formally withdrawn in September 2012.

It might seem ridiculous to some that the Government would abandon a bill into which it had invested so much time and effort simply because it had to drop its programming motion, but despite having sent it in draft form to a committee for pre-legislative study, the bill remained a very controversial one, and the Government feared it would simply tie up the House and detract from the rest of its legislative program. Could it have used guillotine motions to force the bill through? It would have been highly unlikely that any vote on a guillotine motion would have succeeded. Unlike here in Canada, UK Governments cannot count on 100% of their backbenchers supporting them all of the time. As stated above, there was significant dissent among Conservative backbenchers over the very issue of Lords Reform. Also, using time allocation would have been contrary to how business is normally conducted in the House. A majority of MPs on both sides of the House would probably have objected to the Government resorting to guillotine motions. Since programme motions have become standard practice, guillotine motions have become an endangered species.

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More on electing committee chairs

In my previous post, I wrote about the recent election of the new chair of the Select Committee on Health which occurred last week in the UK House of Commons. Dr. Sarah Wollaston was elected by her fellow MPs, winning on the fourth count over four other contenders for the post.

The BBC’s Parliamentary correspondent, Mark D’Arcy’s recent column warns that some Conservative MPs aren’t too happy that Dr. Wollaston won the election. Ms. Wollaston, he explains, “has never been an identikit party trooper.” She was the first Conservative MP chosen via open primary, and has always been very independent as an MP. In fact, she was highly critical of her Government’s original NHS reforms as proposed in the Heath and Social Care Bill back in 2011. Some Conservatives, according to Mr. D’Arcy, fear that having such an independently-minded Conservative heading the committee could be embarrassing for the Government should any major issue involving the country’s health services arise over the course of the final year of this parliament. They also think that this independence is why Dr. Wollaston has so much support from Labour MPs. Because of this, some Conservatives:

are starting to suggest that their party should have some kind of primary process to decide its favoured candidates before the election is thrown to the whole House, or that the election itself should be restricted to MPs from the party which holds the particular committee.

Now for the non-regular readers of this blog, and for those not familiar with how the UK House of Commons chooses committee chairs, let me explain why the above quote is worrisome. Chairs of select committees (the equivalent of Standing Committees here in Canada) are elected by the whole House – by MPs. The chairships are divided amongst the major parties at the outset of a new parliament, in proportion to each party’s share of seats in the House of Commons. This in itself is a major departure from how we do things in Canada. In the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the current parliament, 22 of the 26 — 84% of the Standing Committees — are chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives hold only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chairs the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, don’t chair any. This isn’t the case in the UK House of Commons. There are 38 select committees in the UK House of Commons; the Conservative Party chairs 20 (53%), Labour chairs 14 (37%) and the Liberal Democrats chair 4 (10%). This is comparable to their representation in the House where the Conservatives hold 47% of the seats, Labour 40% and the Liberal Democrats 9%. The parties decide amongst themselves which party will chair which committee, although traditionally, the Public Accounts Committee is chaired by the Official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats always take International Development.

The Health Select Committee was allocated to the Conservative party, and thus when the former chair stepped down, only interested Conservative MPs were eligible to put themselves forward as candidates to replace him. However, following the election of two very independent-minded Conservative MPs, Dr. Wollaston at Health and, earlier this year, Rory Stewart at Defence, some within the Conservative party want to control the process of who becomes a committee chair. One way, according to Mr. D’Arcy’s article, would be for the Conservative caucus to decide by some process which of their MPs could stand for election for the post of committee chair. This would, in theory, allow the party (aka the party leadership) to weed out any MPs who are less keen on toeing the party line. Alternatively, any Conservative MP could put themselves forward as a candidate, but rather than the whole House voting to elect the Chair, the vote would be limited to  Conservative MPs (and one assumes they’d want the same process to apply to the election of chairs from other parties – limiting the vote to members of that party only). That would prevent the other parties from backing a candidate that they favour. Suffice it to say that either option completely undermines the entire point of having elected committee chairs and would reverse this very important procedural reform by putting the committee system back under the control of party whips.

However, not all Conservative MPs want the process to change. Mr. D’Arcy heard from a fair number who said they voted for Dr. Wollaston because she is independent-minded and won’t hesitate to criticize the government (and their own party) if that criticism is warranted.

Canadians may not be aware that a Canadian Conservative backbencher, Brad Trost, has successfully moved a motion ordering the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to study the matter of elected committee chairs. Trost was inspired by the reforms adopted by the UK House of Commons; however, his proposal falls short (in my view) because he does not also recommend distributing the chairships more proportionally among the parties. I don’t know why the government party has almost complete control of the committees here in Canada, but this is something that should be changed. As I mentioned above, in the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the current parliament, 22 of the 26 — 84% of the Standing Committees — are chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives hold only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chairs the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, don’t chair any. If the chair positions were divided more proportionally, the Conservatives would chair 14 committees rather than 22, the NDP 8, the Liberals 3 and the Bloc Quebecois 1. But of course, in our system, the BQ can’t chair a committee because they aren’t “recognized” as a party, failing, as they do, to have the magic number of MPs required to be considered a party in the House. And because they don’t meet this magic number, not only are BQ MPs denied the right to chair a committee, they can’t even be members of a committee. This is another thing that we do horribly wrong – the entire concept of “officially recognized party” needs to be tossed out the window.

But that, my friends, is perhaps a post for another day.

(Note: for those interested, Mr. Trost’s motion on electing committee chairs was debated on two occasions, first on October 21 2013, and then again on January 29 2014.)

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New committee chair elected

SarahWollastonMPThe UK House of Commons today elected a new Chair of the Select Committee on Health.

Regular readers of this blog will know that chairs of select committees are elected by the whole House. This is a relatively new development – the reform was adopted at the end of the previous Parliament and implemented for the first time in May 2010, at the start of the current Parliament. By all accounts, it has proven to be a very positive change; select committees have gained a lot of respect and they are seen to be more beholden to the House rather than to party whips.

Committee chairships are allocated among the three main parties roughly in proportion to their representation in the House, unlike here in Canada, where the party which forms the government chairs all but three committees. The Health Committee is chaired by a Conservative, and thus the House had a choice of four Conservative MPs who put themselves forward as candidates: Charlotte Leslie, Dr. Phillip Lee, Dr. Sarah Wollaston and David Tredinnick.

The House uses the Alternative Vote to elect Committee chairs, meaning MPs rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference. It took four stages of counting before one candidate ended up with the required 50% + 1 of the votes in play, and in the end, Dr. Sarah Wollaston was elected Chair.

Dr. Wollaston is a very interesting person for another reason. Before becoming the Member of Parliament (MP) for Totnes in 2010, she was the first person to be selected as a parliamentary candidate for a major British political party through an open primary, in which she emphasised that she was an outsider to politics, who had worked a ‘real job’. She won the nomination for the Conservative candidature and at the general election won the seat with an increased Conservative majority.

This is how the announcement of the results played out in the House this afternoon:

Mr Speaker: I will now announce the result of the ballot held today for the election of a new Chair of the Select Committee on Health. A total of 433 votes were cast, with two spoilt ballot papers. The counting went to four stages and 421 valid votes were cast in the final round, excluding those ballot papers whose preferences had been exhausted. The quota to be reached was therefore 211 votes. Dr Sarah Wollaston was elected Chair with 226 votes. The other candidate in that round was Dr Phillip Lee, who received 195 votes. Dr Wollaston will take up the post immediately. I warmly congratulate her on her election. The results of the count under the alternative vote system will be made available as soon as possible in the Vote Office and published on the internet for public viewing.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell) for his exemplary leadership of the Health Committee for more than four years. That leadership has been widely respected. I thank him for everything that he has done on behalf of patients, acting, as he has done, as their voice. The NHS touches people’s lives a million times every 36 hours. It is the most extraordinary achievement and also the most extraordinary challenge. The new chief executive of NHS England has called on everyone in the NHS to think like a patient and act like a taxpayer. The role of the Select Committee is to ask those challenging questions on behalf of patients and taxpayers so that this most cherished institution can continue to be there for all of our constituents when they need it the most.

Mr Speaker: I thank the hon. Lady for her words.

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on her success in the election. I know that she has the knowledge and, above all and perhaps more importantly, the wisdom to be a very good Chair of the Health Committee and I wish her all the very best.

Mr Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his gracious words.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that you know that parliamentary procedure says that we should not be allowed to applaud in this Chamber, but might not this be the kind of occasion when the Speaker abolished the rule and allowed applause?

Mr Speaker: There is an old adage that was taught to me by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) some 30 years ago that if one is intent upon a particular course of action, one should never give a bureaucrat a chance to say no. I think that I will leave it there for today.

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Australia might be headed for a double dissolution

Australia-VotesAustralia, like Canada and the United Kingdom, has a bicameral parliament, meaning it consists of two Houses, the lower house, the House of Representatives and the upper house, the Senate. Unlike Canada and the United Kingdom, however, Australia’s upper chamber is elected.

The House of Representatives normally lasts no more than three years. Senators, however, are elected for six-year terms. This means, that, under normal circumstances, when the House of Representatives is dissolved every three years for a new general election, the Senate continues to exist as Senators remain in office until the completion of their term and only half stand for election at any one time.

The most recent general election in Australia occurred on 7 September 2013. The House of Representatives was dissolved, and 40 of the 76 Senate seats were also contested.

Australia’s Constitution does allow for dissolution of the Senate, but only under very specific circumstances. This provision is called a double dissolution.

Double Dissolution

In Australia, as is the case in Canada and the United Kingdom, legislation must pass both Houses of Parliament before it can receive Royal Assent and become law.

In the UK, once a bill has passed third reading in both Houses, it returns to the House where it was introduced for the second House’s amendments (proposals for change) to be considered. Both Houses must agree on the exact wording of the Bill.

If the Commons makes amendments to the Bill, the Lords must consider them and either agree or disagree to the amendments or make alternative proposals. If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the Bill is sent back to the Commons. A Bill may go back and forth between each House until both Houses reach agreement. This is usually referred to as the “ping pong” stage. In exceptional cases, when the two Houses do not reach agreement, the Bill falls. If certain conditions are met, the Commons can use the Parliament Acts to pass the Bill, without the consent of the Lords, in the following session.

The process is similar in Canada. The Senate often makes amendments to bills, some of which involve corrections to drafting errors or improvements to administrative aspects. The House normally accepts such amendments. If the House does not agree with the Senate amendments, it adopts a motion stating the reasons for its disagreement, which it communicates in a message to the Senate. If the Senate wishes the amendments to stand nonetheless, it sends a message back to the House, which then accepts or rejects the proposed changes. If an agreement cannot be reached by exchanging messages, the House that has possession of the bill may ask that a conference be held, although this practice has fallen into disuse, with the last one occurring in 1947. Over the years, the exchange of messages and the appearance of Ministers before House and Senate committees have considerably reduced the need for this procedure. If no agreement between the two houses is reached, the bill remains on the Order Paper where it dies at the end of the session; no new bill may be introduced in the Commons on the same subject matter and containing similar provisions.

As stated, the Canadian Senate and the UK House of Lords are not elected bodies, therefore, these upper chambers will tend to recognize the primacy of the elected chamber. In Australia, because Senators are elected, the situation is more complex.

When the government does not have a majority in the Senate a situation can arise that the two Houses disagree over proposed legislation. In most cases compromises are reached and amendments are made by one or the other House until the bill concerned is in a state acceptable to both.

However, there have been occasions when no agreement could be reached between the two Houses. The Constitution provides the double dissolution mechanism as a means of breaking a deadlock between the Houses when such compromise is not achieved.

In effect the legislation may be put to the people, presenting the electorate with the opportunity to change the composition of the Senate following a full Senate election. There is also of course the possibility of a change in the composition of the House (i.e. a change of Government)—the deadlock may be broken in either direction.

If, after a double dissolution and elections for both Houses, the Houses continue to disagree on the same bill, the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of both Houses to enable the members of both Houses to vote together to resolve the matter. The House of Representatives has almost twice as many Members as the Senate, consequently a joint sitting is likely to see the will of a majority of the House overcome Senate resistance.

There have been only six double dissolutions; the last occurred in 1987.

Current Situation

The Liberal/National Coalition campaigned on a promise to (among other things) repeal the previous Labor Government’s carbon tax. After forming the Government following the September 2013 election, House of Representatives passed the Abbott Government’s legislation to repeal the Clean Energy Finance Corp. on 21 November 2013. The Senate rejected the bill on 10 December 2013. Three months have now passed, the the bill is scheduled to be re-introduced in the House of Representatives on 27 March 2014. If the Senate again refuses to pass the bill, the Prime Minister will be in a position to advise the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses. The Coalition had indicated even before the September 2013 election that it would trigger a double dissolution if it was prevented from repealing the carbon tax.

These are the steps which must take place before a double dissolution is possible.

Double dissolution

  1. The House of Representatives passes a bill and sends it to the Senate.
  2. The Senate rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  3. After an interval of three months (but in the same or the next session of Parliament), the House of Representatives passes the bill a second time and sends it to the Senate again. The bill reintroduced must be the original bill, except that it may be modified by amendments made, requested or agreed to by the Senate.
  4. The Senate again rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  5. The Prime Minister may now advise the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses. Once the preceding conditions have occurred, whether and when to advise a double dissolution is a matter for the Prime Minister. There is no constitutional necessity to do so, or to do so within any period of time.However, a double dissolution cannot occur within six months of the end of a three year term of the House of Representatives.
  6. Elections are held for both Houses.

Joint sitting

  1. In the new Parliament the House of Representatives passes the bill again and sends it to the Senate. The bill may be reintroduced with or without amendments made, requested or agreed to by the Senate. There is no constitutional necessity to reintroduce a bill that was the cause of the double dissolution.
  2. The Senate again rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  3. The Prime Minister may now advise the Governor-General to convene a joint sitting of the members of both Houses.
  4. The joint sitting votes on the bill as last proposed by the House of Representatives and on any amendments made by one House and not agreed to by the other. To be passed, amendments and the bill (as, and if, so amended) must be agreed to by an absolute majority—i.e. more than half of the total number of the members of both Houses.

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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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