How should PMQs be reformed?

Hansard-SocietyPrime Minister’s Questions, the half-hour weekly pantomime that transfixes Westminster and the SW1 media, got a deserved pasting from the Hansard Society this week which released a report, Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to PMQs.

The results couldn’t be clearer. PMQs is a significant ‘cue’ or ‘building block’ for the public’s perceptions of Parliament, and it provides a lot of the raw material that feeds their negative assumptions about politicians.

The public like the ‘theory’ of PMQs but dislike the current practice of it. They recognise that the opportunity to hold the government to account is an important part of the democratic process but in practice how it works alienates, angers and frustrates them. They dislike the noise, the finger-pointing and partisan point-scoring and the perceived failure to answer the questions. Viewers are more confused than informed particularly because of the noisy atmosphere.

The conduct witnessed at PMQs also gives rise to damning perceptions of MPs. Many regard what they see as being like school-children in a playground; some think it is worse. Participants in our focus groups contrasted the conduct of MPs negatively with standards of behaviour tolerated in their own workplace and wished MPs would set a better example. Said one participant: ‘..They do argue like children. I mean can you imagine any other sphere of adult life where one would act with so little respect’.

The theatrical and pantomime aspects are also disliked. Viewers want a rousing speech, and passionate conviction but see PMQs as just noise and bluster. The ‘farce drama’ also gives rise to suspicion about the motives of the politicians involved. The public doubt the authenticity of what they see and consequently consider it dishonest.
But perhaps what should worry MPs most of all is that the public think they are ridiculing situations and issues that affect the lives of ordinary people instead of taking them seriously. … Only 12% of the public agree that PMQs ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’ whilst 45% disagree.

None of this is surprising. Here are some of the suggestions the report (available to read in full here) puts forward to try and improve the situation…

  • Moving PMQs from its current 12 noon slot (when it is viewed in full by only a minority) to prime-time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when more people might watch it in full (those who do are more likely to have a positive view of PMQs than those who just see the most shouty clips on the news bulletins).
  • One PMQs session a month to adopt “a more discursive approach” focused on just a few topical areas selected by the Opposition and select committees.
  • The other 30 minute sessions could reduce their reliance on the open question, “with renewed emphasis on closed, subject-specific questions from backbenchers.
  • Reducing the number of questions allocated to the Leader of the Opposition (currently six) to free up time for more questions from backbenchers across the House.
  • “Citizens could be invited, once a month, to submit questions to the House for consideration at PMQs. New technology means this can be done in simple and cost-effective ways.” This was done by the education select committee in January 2012 when 5,000 mostly “genuine questions on substantive education policy issues” questions were submitted via the #AskGove Twitter hashtag.
  • Finally, the Speaker of the House needs to use “much clearer and stronger rules on conduct and behaviour”, perhaps through a ‘sin-bin’ approach that would allow the Speaker to name an MP for disorderly conduct and “require them to remove themselves from the chamber for the remainder of PMQs” or longer.
  • These suggestions from the Hansard Society all have merit and doubtless some weaknesses. My guess is they will get nowhere for exactly the reason set out in the report – the Westminster Village (MPs and journos) loves the theatre of PMQs and cannot bring themselves to give it up:

    Many at Westminster have operated for far too long under the illusion that the public like, even love, the current form of PMQs. Our research – the first time qualitative and quantitative analysis of public attitudes to PMQs has been undertaken – should put an end to this myth. Some people like the tone and format of PMQs but they are a minority; for most citizens the behaviour witnessed at PMQs fosters negative perceptions of Parliament and damages the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons and MPs.

    What would you do to change PMQs and try and restore Parliament’s reputation?

    * Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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    15 Comments

    • 1. Give the speaker the power to make the PM answer the actual question asked rather than deliver a sound bite. I never thought someone could match Blair for avoiding answering question’s but Cameron does…

      2. Ban MP’s who ask planted questions.

      3. Ban MP’s who ask the sort of non questions that give the PM chance to deliver a well rehearsed sound bite.

      4. Make these apply to all ministers questions.

    • Julian Dean 15th Feb '14 - 8:14am

      As above, answers to questions and truthful & factual responses at that.

      At the moment PMQ’s is just a waste of time.

    • A C McGregor 15th Feb '14 - 8:16am

      Can’t the speaker already “name” a member in such circumstances? It is the willingness of the speaker to do so that is at issue.

      Tightening up the rules on written questions, so that apart from number 1 the written questions are used, tightly written, and the follow up questions are on-topic would make questions much more forensic & searching.

    • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 15th Feb '14 - 9:09am

      FMQs, the equivalent in the Scottish Parliament can be just as bad. It’s at noon on a Thursday and often the questions from party leaders take up 20 of the 30 minutes. And we have exactly the same sort of pantomime as there is at Westminster. Most unedifying.

      However, occasionally, we get a bit of thoughfulness into the mix. It’s amazing how the atmosphere switches from the combative to serious contemplation. Sometimes the last round of questions is devoted to a single subject, domestic violence, cancer care, prison reform. It’s very difficult for MSPs to misbehave in these circumstances.

      On discipline, I think it’s high time that Bercow stopped grandstanding with clever lines (see what I did there, Mr Gove?) and actually started chucking people out.

      And I also agree with Steve about planted questions. I loathe them, especially when they come from Liberal Democrats. They are almost impossible to stop, though.

      I’m not so sure about requiring written submission of questions in advance. That’s too much stage management and would mean that there would be no questions on things that had arisen in the previous 24 hours, for example.

      I think there’s a place for citizens being able to question PM, but not sure that PMQs is the right arena to do so.

    • Also a fixed two parliament term for the speaker. Bercow has never been really secure and if we want the speaker to be powerful enough to admonish the PM they must be secure in doing so..

    • A C McGregor 15th Feb '14 - 9:29am

      Caron: Technically, all questions are written in advance, it’s just that current parliamentary procedure allows everyone to ask a vague question (number 1, usually) and then ask anything they like as their “follow up” to it.

    • Nonconformistradical 15th Feb '14 - 10:09am

      Drop the whole thing. The behaviour of all too many MPs at PMQs is a total disgrace to the nation.

    • On PMQs specifically:
      Question 1 and its answer set the whole thing up as Ruritanian – ditch them.
      Allow the speaker to decide that a question hasn’t been answered and invite the questioner to repeat it (perhaps in different words, but with no embellishment).
      Have the speaker call in the party leaders and whips to tell them to shut their mobs up (though in such a small, confrontational space it would be ridiculous to expect silence).
      Yes, have a few members – including ministers – named and excluded.
      If a question is no more than a prompt to produce a scripted reply, the speaker should indicate that it doesn’t need answering and move immediately to the other side.
      Maybe ban the briefing book.

      This does depend on the authority of the speaker. Bercow is generally a good thing – he’s succeeded in changing some things, dragging some of the proceedings into the 20th century at least – but he’s ignored and is too close to being laughed at.

    • Another day dream fantasy diversion from the real political. Issues of today.
      Whilst the party is sinking faster than a Somerset village it might be better to discuss what positive measures should be taken to reform the Liberal Democrats (on top of getting shot of Clegg and co) .
      We might for example want to have a party that does not sell peerages.

    • 1. Scrap it entirely.
      2. John Tilley is right, this debate is a distraction from what we should really be pressing, the future of the party, how to stop it being totally destroyed, how to change the leadership, the strategy and most importantly remove the constant refrain that it will be alright, it will improve and do not be so gloomy, blah blah….. We are in the s… and all the efforts to divert us cannot hide this very simple fact. Let’s get rid of the sewage and make a final effort to save the party, It is no longer a national one, it does not exist in many areas of the country, its workers in many places have given up and unless something really radical is done there is certainly no short term future .

    • About four-fifths, or about 25 minutes, of PMQs consists of very earnest questions and equally earnest answers with no ribald antics. Question: “Will the Prime Minister agree to look at the appalling situation concerning the plight of Mrs Muggins/the threatened closure The Royal Free Muggins Hospital/the disastrous flooding in Mugginshire in my constituency?” – Answer: “The Right Honourable member is absolutely right to highlight this situation. I share her/his concern and I will look into it and get back to her/him in due course.” – is a very typical exchange. The other 5 minutes consists of a few disingenuously planted questions and the slanging match between Her Majesty’s First Lord of the Treasury and leader of the loyal opposition. I agree with most of the changes listed, particularly the one which makes the whole thing done in peak time so more people are appropriately bored to tears by the Mugginshire questions. – So they know it’s only five minutes of Punch and Judy. But is that really the way forward? Will we end up with people being bored by politics rather than appalled? The media has some responsibility here and I can’t help but think it would help to educate people generally more in the real business of parliament. But I doubt they are interested. Therein lies the conundrum. The media, abetted by the pols, sex up three minutes of mindlessness out of endless hours of earnest boredom, to catch people’s attention. But it then “turns them off” politics. Hopefully a middle way between ennui and outrage can be found. Is it too much to ask that people in general use their brains a bit more, listen to some of the other debates, or at least to the rest of PMQs apart from the three shouty minutes rather than making stupid assumptions based on a very small snapshot?

    • I have just written to Tom Brake,deputy leader of the House, on just this subject, linked as it is to the dystopia that many feel about politics in general. It is desperately urgent that lots of things are done to improve appreciation of politics by the public. The Commons needs at least as much reform as the Lords.

    • AC Trussell 16th Feb '14 - 5:00pm

      Agree with Steve Way’s 1-4.
      The most aggravating is NOT ANSWERING the QUESTION!!!
      Nick Clegg seems to manage it O. K. on Call Clegg.
      The Speaker (Bercow) should stop saying ” The people at home watching this do not like it”.
      I think the people that are watching are used to it- and quite enjoy the show. The rest are not bothered because they are not watching.

    • Sadie Smith 18th Feb '14 - 9:48pm

      Speaker appears to call ‘usual suspects’ a lot of them male. Try calling a lot of women and see if it makes any difference.

    • Richard Underhill 10th Dec '15 - 11:31am

      Stephen Tall | Sat 15th February 2014 – 8:00 am
      Caron Lindsay 15th Feb ’14 – 9:09am
      The House of Commons has a committee consisting only of committee chairs at which the the current PM (Blair, Brown or Cameron) is the only witness. Alan Beith MP (chair of chairs) told me that there were negotiations about revising the length and frequency. It is broadcast on the Parliament Channel, but has a higher standard of debate than PMQs. It focusses on policy.

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