The parliamentary grass is not always greener

Speaker John Bercow reviews the history and present circumstance of Prime Minister’s Questions.

All of which leaves us with the PMQs seen in the last Parliament. 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. And this is what the House of Commons has allowed to be placed in what I repeat is the shop window.

This assessment would seem to undermine the argument that the situation in Britain is vastly superior to our Question Period. I do think we would benefit from borrowing some of their approach—in line with Michael Chong’s proposed reforms—but we needn’t shame ourselves with the idea that what beleaguers QP is somehow entirely unique to our politics. I’d also like to see something like Speaker Bercow’s approach to intervention: consider his willingness to cut off the Prime Minister during a semi-famous session last June. Something that came up several times during the spring sitting was the “Thank you for asking about X, but I’d like to talk about about Y” approach to responding to questions. I’m not sure why that’s permitted. Ministers and government representatives aren’t obligated to answer the question that has been asked, but I’m not sure why, in not answering questions, members of the government should be allowed to use up the time set aside for questions of the government by pursuing their own points of debate.

(I would point here to the four principles of QP set out by Speaker Bosley in 1986: Time is scarce and should, therefore, be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible; The public in large numbers do watch, and the House, recognizing that Question Period is often an intense time, should be on its best possible behaviour; While there may be other purposes and ambitions involved in Question Period, its primary purpose must be the seeking of information from the government and calling the government to account for its actions; and Members should be given the greatest possible freedom in the putting of questions that is consistent with the other principles. And the five options for ministers in responding set out by Speaker Jerome in 1975: answer the question; defer their answer; take the question as notice; make a short explanation as to why they cannot furnish an answer at that time; or say nothing.)

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