The problem with PMQs

Being a politician I am – not surprisingly – happy to stick up for politics and politicians in general.

I think politics is essential for our country – imagine what a country where government ruled without elections would be like – and I think most (though not quite all!) politicians are in it for decent reasons. I don’t think they’ve got their snouts in the trough (after all, most could easily earn more and work fewer hours outside politics) nor do I think that MPs get ridiculously long holidays (Parliament being “in recess” isn’t the same as being on holiday – conscientious MPs work through recess, researching policy, meeting constituents and so on and on). And I could go on.

Lynne Featherstone at PMQsBut the point at which I draw the line in defending my profession is Prime Minister’s Questions. What an awful testosterone-fuelled bear pit of badly behaved boys (and it is overwhelmingly boys!) that is!

To be more precise – the flaws with PMQs fall under five headings. First, the Prime Minister only very rarely faces any detailed, forensic questioning – because the format makes it far too easy to avoid the question.

Second, too many questions get eaten up by patsy soft questions from the government’s own side. “Would the Prime Minister confirm how wonderful he is?” is only a slight paraphrase – and is a waste of everyone’s time.

Third, the atmosphere and ethos is far too much about verbal strutting and intimidation. Take for example the Labour Party’s response to Gordon Brown’s dodgy first outing at PMQs. It was to ensure that Labour MPs made lots more noise next time round, heckling and shouting down Tory MPs as they rose to ask questions. Can you imagine running a workplace on that basis? Judge a manager but how loudly his or her staff shout and heckle other managers at the weekly staff meeting? Bizarre. Yet this is meant to pass for normal adult behaviour in the Palace of Westminster.

Fourth, because there are not that many questions asked – and so much time is wasted with points two and three – individual MPs only very rarely get the chance to ask a question. This means lots of names go into the hat each week, and a small lucky number gets pulled out.

Using random draws to choose who gets to ask questions may sound fair – but it means that some MPs (the unlucky ones) almost never get called. Why should their constituents suffer from having an MP who is less able to raise issues at PMQs (in as much as that does some good) than people who live elsewhere, just because of the luck of the draw by Mr Speaker?

And it means you cannot choose when you want to ask a question. You just have to bung in your name time after time hoping it eventually pops up. Hard luck if there’s a major issue that has blown up in a particular constituency. Chances are – the MP won’t get to raise it at PMQs for months.

And fifth, because PMQs only take place when Parliament is sitting, there are large chunks of the year when if something happens – sorry, no questions allowed.

So – PMQs are, to use the phrase of the moment – not fit for purpose. They don’t do a good job at holding Prime Ministers to account, and the awful behaviour of so many MPs leaves a dreadful impression on the public as to what politics and politicians are about. And alas, for all that the media loves to take an instinctive cynical and negative approach to politicians, when it comes to PMQs they are deeply complicit in the establishment game. Atrocious macho posturing? Oh, that’s never newsworthy.

An MP can pretty much do anything except strip naked and hurl themselves across the Chamber and they won’t get a whisper of media criticism for their behaviour at PMQs. It’s just boys having fun, and that’s all ok isn’t it?

Well no – I don’t think it is. It’s time to blow the whistle on the sort of behaviour that – if it took places elsewhere, such as from pupils in a classroom – would have the self-same politicians clamouring for tough action, the smack of firm discipline and probably the introduction of a few new criminal offences too.

In the absence of a few ASBOs being dished out to the serial hecklers and shouters, what then is to be done?

First, the Speaker should take a much, much tougher line, including reviewing the recorded pictures and sounds after each PMQs to catch out those miscreants who think they can get away with it just because the Speaker doesn’t immediately see or hear that it was them personally misbehaving. And each time someone is caught out – let the Parliamentary broadcasting authorities release the relevant clip and transcript, all ready packaged up for the local and regional media for that MP’s constituency. Perhaps when handed an easy story on the plate, we’ll then start seeing some media pressure! Even if we don’t, I am sure many bloggers will take up such information voraciously – and spread the embarrassment and political cost for the offenders more widely.

In other words – let’s not have MPs lecture others on zero tolerance without also holding themselves to standards of decorous behaviour. There has been some welcome move towards a clamp down on bad behaviour by the Speaker recently – with him twice upbraiding Labour MP Ian Austin for – well – just shouting out abuse after abuse. But that doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Second, PMQs need to take place in more weeks of the year and for a longer period of time. This will give more MPs the chance to ask questions and even open up allowing backbench MPs (rather than just opposition party leaders) getting to ask a supplementary question.

Outside of Parliament’s normal sitting weeks, why not take PMQs around the different parts of the UK? Indeed, this would open up all sorts of possibilities for allowing members of the public to ask questions. It would be good to get the public more involved directly.

But also this means there would be a ready supply of people willing to tell the media what they thought of their experience, whether they were happy with how their question was answered and so on – all extra pressures for people to behave and to answer questions in fact.

We know from past general elections how the few questions that have really cut through to politicians have been those where a member of the public has confronted a politician in person. So let’s have more of that.

Third, you may have heard of this new-fangled internet thing. Let’s use it to bring in the public more, even where logistically it is too difficult to get everyone in the same room. Part of what we could do is to have the public being able to ask questions via the internet – such as by submitting video clips and then getting the PM to record his answers. This sort of exchange of clips has worked really well (via YouTube) as part of the Republican and Democrat presidential nomination contests. Having people film themselves asks questions is not only a good protection against faked spam questions, it also gives more passion and humanity to the questions – all of which adds to the pressure on those on the receiving end to answer properly.

Fourth, the Prime Minister should be open to more frequent questioning from MPs outside of PMQs. In particular, his appearances before the massed ranks of all the Select Committee chairs tend to provide a more in-depth and considered line of questioning – so let’s have more of those.

But above all, what we need is a real desire to put an end to the current embarrassing unedifying display of “he who shouts loudest shouts last”. It doesn’t hold those with power to account and it demeans politics. And it only continues that way because no-one has cried foul. It’s time to cry foul.

Lynne Featherstone is MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and is the party’s spokesperson on Youth and Equalities. She asked her first PMQ in October 2007.

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40 Comments

  • matt severn 5th Jan '08 - 11:34am

    Lynne, the reason why we have MP’s is because they are elected to do full time what members of the public can only do occasionally. Turning PMQ’s into a travelling populist roadshow would not produce the improvements you want. But I agree, there is a huge role for the internet, US style, at general elections, and the PM should appear before the super comittee every month. But Brown is too much of a coward to do those things!

  • I would just like to say that I enjoy PMQs just at it is. Yes, improve other ways of challenging the Prime Minister. More regular meetings of the Liaison Committee, as you suggest, would be good, and also the PM appearing more regularly before public audiences (although Blair always used to be criticised when he did that).

    Increase scrutiny that way, but leave space for PMQs. There are clear examples of the PM being put on the spot by a politician capturing the political moment… dare I mention Vince?

  • Passing Tory 5th Jan '08 - 12:08pm

    It would be an enormous pity to do away with PMQs. It might not be the most edifying of events but it performs a couple of extremely valuable functions.

    I consider it a bit like deer rutting. It is a non-lethal and relatively harmless way for the groups to determine a pecking order. You can tell when each party as its tails up, or is defensive. As a result, although it might not really answer questions, it is an extremely good political weather vane.

    The second point is that it forces the PM to be on top of his brief. Of course the PM can bluster away and dodge questions but then this becomes an issue in its own right. For example, the very fact that GB returns week after week to a staid (and, IMHO, somewhat misleading) list of facts about the economy shows a great deal about how he sees the world.

    Sure it is blokey, but that does not necessarily mean that it is not effective. (As it happens, I would far prefer pecking orders to be determined by male aggressiveness, which tends to be more directly confrontational, that female aggressiveness, which tends to be more catty [involve more “nagging”?]).

  • God – what a sexist stuck in the last (but one?) century old idiot passing tory is – urrrgh!

  • Ash Faulkner 5th Jan '08 - 2:45pm

    Gah no, leave it alone. I know a number of American friends who marvel at the way our Prime Minister is kept on his feet, and wish only that such a system were available in the United States.

    Would you rather PMQs were like the Commons usually is? A load of empty green benches and one bumbling octogenarian ruffling through is papers on the Fence Construction Bill? Politics turns us off enough as it is, the humour that occurs at PMQs is one of the few things that people actually respond to.

  • Passing Tory 5th Jan '08 - 3:42pm

    Felix, would you care to actually make your case? It strikes me that there is, in fact, a fair bit of sexism on Lynn’s in as much as she tags the behaviour she dislikes as male, and implicitly argues that such behaviour is fundementally wrong. I broadly agree with the first bit (that the sort of behaviour prevalent at PMQs is male-oriented) but NOT the second (that it is necessarily wrong).

    Jennie, at one level your point is perfectly valid. There is, in fact, pretty little debate (in the generally recognised form). That does not mean that PMQs cannot be informative on a different level.

    There is pleanty of time set aside for debates and committee sessions where fine details can be analysed. I am not sure that this should really be the function of PMQs, whose role is rather to assess the mood of the House as well as to keep the PM on his toes.

  • Passing Tory 5th Jan '08 - 5:36pm

    Mark,

    I never claimed that PMQs measures the capacity for good governance. But you have (accidentally?) made my point for me. It measures “posturing for social status”. But what is the social status they are posturing over? It is the ability to govern.

    I emphtically do not believe that PMQs is a direct part of the process of govenence. For that you need much more forensic and controlled conditions (such as the Liason Committee). But what I think it does provide is a measure of how the government is doing. You can tell very quickly in PMQs whether the government is struggling, or whether they feel in change, on a given issue.

    Measuring the performance of a government is no easy task, but the current format of PMQs gives us a valuable insight into how well the government is doing. However appealing sterilising the format might sound, I think we would loose this information and Westminster would be a poorer place for it.

  • Passing Tory 5th Jan '08 - 8:08pm

    Linda,

    I am not pretending that there are not huge swathes of government where the approach you seem to advocate would not be extremely effective. And, when it comes down to it, the real work of government is not carried out by jeering across a debate chamber.

    But you seem to be going much further than that and say that there is no room for the PMQ style. And this is where I think that you are wrong.

    If you want to look at it from the sexism angle then this is analogous to saying yes, the sexes have to live together, but that is not to say that every aspect of our lives should tend to some average. Think of it as another manifestation of localism – something I thought you lot were in favour of. Let the boys have their fun and enjoy it for what it is; there is pleanty of time for detailed debate (and it isn’t a coincidence that detailed discussion of policy is only watched by real nerds like your truely while PMQ has half a chance of reaching Joe Public). As I have said, I am not claiming that PMQs are central to governance but I do think they provide an extremely valuable measurement of the process.

    There is another point that is worth raising on this. Evolution, in its various manifestations, is remarkbly efficient at optimising design. That is not to say that change is not required, but that it is worth putting the effort into understanding the strengths, and not just the weaknesses, of what you plan to destroy.

  • Hywel Morgan 5th Jan '08 - 11:40pm

    Gaffa – in 1641 the House resolved that “if any man shall whisper or stir out of his place to the disturbance of the House at any message or business of importance Mr Speaker is ordered to present his name to the House, for the House to proceed against him as they shall think fit.” (Erskine May pg 445)

    As numerous MPs disturb the House during PMQs and the Speaker has to my knowledge never presented any names to the House he must obviously be of the view that PMQs is not business of importance 🙂

  • Da iawn Hywel!!

  • Second Passing Tory 6th Jan '08 - 12:44am

    Passing Tory,

    To an certain extent, I agree with you when you say, ‘I am not claiming that PMQs are central to governance but I do think they provide an extremely valuable measurement of the process’. This does not, however, necessarily rule out the potential for moderately reforming PMQs from its current format along some of the lines suggested by Lynne above.

    In my view, the central problems of PMQs are that, first, it is not as effective as it could be in holding the PM to account. As you suggest in one of your posts above, PMQs is likely to reach a wider audience than BBC Parliament’s coverage of Select Committees, and so it is arguably more important that the PM provides at least a reasonable response to the questions and scrutiny he or she receives.

    A fairly recent example of this lack of accountability of PMQs was on 10 October 2007 when Cameron accused Brown of ‘treating the British people like fools’. Cameron’s first question was ‘Can we believe what the PM is saying when giving his reasons for not calling an election?’, to which Brown responded, wholly unsatisfactorily, ‘I will take no lectures from the Leader of the Opposition’, completely evading the question. Calling an election is an issue of fundamental national importance, and for Brown to respond with such neglect is, in my view, wholly unreasonable and self-serving. I believe the electorate should be entitled to something better than this from their PM; the truth is, it seems, Brown simply made an awful tactical mistake (with regards to the election).

    Secondly, I agree with Lynne that there is far too much theatre and melodrama at PMQs – why can’t MPs behave with at least a reasonable degree of dignity and courtesy, especially as they’re appearing on national TV? Backbench jeers frequently turn into deplorable behaviour; the Tories say they want to see greater ‘school discipline’ – show some yourself, Tories!

    Notwithstanding, I think there is still space for the debates and responses to become a little more heated than usual, if the situation warrants it. But on the whole, given that PMQs is a national spectical that is supposed to represent the scrutiny of the most senior part of the executive, I consider there to be room for huge improvement, avoiding lapsing into the ‘low skullduggery’ that it frequently does, to quote Tony Blair.

  • passing tory 6th Jan '08 - 8:35am

    2PT,

    I used to hold views similar to Lynne and you but have changed after careful reflection.

    To take the point that you make about the greater audience meaning that the PM has to give a fuller response first. I think that the reason that PMQs get the coverage that it does is precisely because of the way that complex issues are turned into small soundbites that capture the essence of the problem. Brown after all does get examined by the Press under more controlled conditions and that usually gets far less coverage than PMQs, and it not more enlightening.

    In fact, PMQs is one of the few times that politicans banter in the way that people might down the pub (and it isn’t all guys down the boozer, Lynne), and I think it would be a pity to loose this. I often feel that some of the cleverest guys in “Fleet Street” are not the profound political commentators for the broadsheets, but the guys in the tabloids who are able to distill down complex arguments into easily digestable ideas. PMQs in its current format forces this from politicians, and I don’t think this is a bad thing.

    Your two other points are linked, I think. Would Brown fully answer the question if the format was sanitised? No, he wouldn’t, as any check against his press conferences or select committee appearances will testify to. You would just get slightly more sophisticated dodging. The value of PMQs is that someone trying this on will (a) be seen as a crushing boor and (b) get jeered to the rafters. So, what at first glance appears to be schoolboy behaviour in fact acts as a barometer of performance. And the guys I am interested in are not those who are jeering, supporting their guy, but those who cannot bring themselves to (and this has been quite a number on the government benches in recent weeks).

    Lynne, and a number of commentators, have said that they don’t think that PMQs is effective at what it sets out to achieve. Thats depends a little on what you are expecting it to achieve, of course. If you are after a forensic examination of the governments performance then you are in the wrong place. But Lynne says it fails to hold the PM to account. I think the opposite, that it holds the PM (and the leaders of the other parties) to account extremely well. They are forced to make their case concisely, and in demotic terms, and will get turned on very quickly and loudly if they fail. Therefore, although on first inspection it might appear unedifying, I think in reality it is highly informative in a way that a more sanitised format would not be. Which it why I would have severe reservations about changing this aspect.

    By all means send the PM around the country during recess to answer questions from the public, although I think it would be wrong to see this as a direct extension to PMQs as it would tell you something very different (and, I think you would have to guard against heavy manipulation of these events, as seen with the citizen juries).

    It also puzzles me slightly why Lynne feels that she has to wait until her name comes out of the hat at PMQs to ask the PM a question. Is the art of letter writing, or composing an email, completely dead? Or are MPs increasingly willing only to ask a question for the benefit of the cameras so that their constituents can see them on TV?

  • 3rd Passing Tory 6th Jan '08 - 4:45pm

    As ever, this is an interesting debate. I think it shows clearly that different people have different ideas of what PMQs is actually for.

    Lynne is quite right that it doesn’t achieve what she wants it to achieve, and Passing Tory is quite right that is does achieve what he wants it to.

    So the real question is not ‘is PMQs fit for purpose’, but rather ‘what is the purpose of PMQs’?

    I tend to agree that Lynne’s suggestion of sending the PM off around the country would not lead to a greater scrutiny, but would lead to a series of dull, carefully stage-managed events. I also find myself thinking, surely the PM has more important things to be doing (like running the country) than traipsing around the regions.

    I think that our current system is probably best: the Liaison Committee does the detailed forensic questioning (and look how few people bother watching!! But it is valuable stuff – perhaps allow them to question the PM more often), while PMQs provides an opportunity for the PM to held to account publicly over the main issues of the week – with the public able to decide fore themselves whether he is answering the questions satisfactorily or whether he is evadint them. As PT says – the mood of the House is often a very good indicator of how well the PM and the Govt is doing over particular issues.

  • Second Passing Tory 6th Jan '08 - 4:56pm

    Passing Tory,

    ‘They are forced to make their case concisely, and in demotic terms, and will get turned on very quickly and loudly if they fail.’

    I admit that it is true that if the question is answered unsatisfactorily or unreasonably (as in my example of Brown and the election above), then it is basically inevitable that the resulting jeers will signify, albeit in an undignified manner, that the answer given by the PM was unsatisfactory. Thus, the questioner effectively (but implictly) scores a point and the PM loses.

    Though I recognise some force in the points you raise above, perhaps it may, at the same time, be submitted that the unedifying character of PMQs is partly responsible for the increasing disengagement and disillusionment by the electorate with the political process. This would appear especially to be the case since PMQs is broadcast and analysed to a greater extent than other such scrutinies. Or would you deny that the manner in which PMQs is conducted is generally a turn off for a sizeable proportion of voters?

  • Mike Falchikov 6th Jan '08 - 6:30pm

    With rare exceptions, PMQs only elicit superficial answers to inadequate questions and provide an excuse for posturing and silly would-be macho rhetoric. Passing Tory’s example of Cameron’s question to Brown “Can we believe…” illustrates the
    pointlessness of it all – silly question which leads to silly arrogant answer. And it isn’t just a male preserve – seem to recall Thatcher’s bullying manner at PMQs.
    Altogether a poor example both of democratic practice and personal behaviour.

  • passing tory 6th Jan '08 - 7:28pm

    2PT et al.,

    Of course you can put the case for the behaviour at PMQs putting people off politics. On balance, though, I don’t think that it does. I strongly suspect it is one of those things where people proclaim one thing but, were we to change, they would rapidly tire of a more sanitised format. They get enough of politicians giving set answers to predictable questions as it is; I don’t see that giving people more of this would really help.

    And incidentally, when a really serious question is asked then the House does, in fact, tend to go quiet and both sides play by different rules. Take the last PMQs (how many people remember Cameron’s first two questions about Kosovo?) The very fact that these serious sections do not make the news bulletins rather supports my hypothesis that the reason PMQs get the coverage it does is precisely because of the banter, rather than, as you posit, that it gets the coverage because of its status and the banter gets in the way.

    And, at the risk of reiterating what I have said above, I think the reason for the success of PMQs (which, I will freely admit, is a rather bizarre process) comes down to the fact that it forces the politicians to express themselves not in the normal language of parliament but in something closer to the language of the street – more “News of the World” than “The Times”. As a result I don’t think that changing this aspect is going to engage more people – it is more likely to have the opposite effect.

  • Can we avoid all the male/female references, please? It’s boring as well as sexist – on both sides.

  • Mash, Tory, and yes, fourth passing Tory 7th Jan '08 - 12:08am

    An interesting article produced by the Member of Parliament for Wood Green and Hornsey. I recall when Lynne raised this issue on her blog, where I suggested that Prime Minister’s Questions ought to be extended for an hour or so. Prime Minister’s Question Time (often referred to as PMQs) is an opportunity for MPs from all parties to question the PM on any subject. However, the period of time offered, is unacceptably short and therefore inadequate. In order to hold the Prime Minister accountable, thirty minutes is frankly not enough time. Additionally, there ought to be a public Question Time of the Prime Minister ensuring there is healthy accountability of our Prime Minister to the wider public. From a personal standpoint, I don’t tend to judge my MP simply based upon what she affirms in PMQ, in actual fact, I monitor her comments via various mediums, EDMs and other mechanisms. The PMQ is inadequate to allow any constituent to make a real decision, unless your MP sits on the front benches.Lynne is and remains far more in tune than Barbara Roche, when she was the Labour MP for this particular area. She seems to listen, learn and then take the interest of her constituents forward. However, there are further weaknesses, of course, but generally she has been far better in representing the interest of her constituents.

  • Or alternatively the Lib Dems could make better use of their only guaranteed weekly opportunity by asking better questions…

  • Anne Chapman 7th Jan '08 - 9:03am

    I think the problem of behaviour in politics goes much deeper than is thought. When choosing able politicians too much emphasis is given to the skills of ‘debating'(shouting down your opponent or talking round the issue?)and it is very much time for a new approach. Most people outside are very cynical and don’t rate the shouting matches for anything more important than they are…, a total waste of precious time and money.

  • Utter utter crap from an apalling woman.

    Politics, you complete moron, is about being animated, you are in the mother of all parliaments. Why shouldn’t people get worked up? why shouldn’t people heckle?

    Politics is about passion and believing in something, it is about debate, putting forward a point, a proposal, testing people’s debating skills so that proper scrutiny of the PM can be carried out. The lower chamber isn’t a whispering gallery so people can tip-toe around and it was never designed to be.

    If you don’t like it then you may as well leave. I don’t think you’d be particularly missed to be honest.

  • Alan Williams 7th Jan '08 - 11:50am

    I would be interested to know how many MPs feel equally dissatisfied with PMQ and would like to see it changed.

  • Jess Boydell 7th Jan '08 - 8:54pm

    The point raised is a valid one that I have been mulling over for a long while. Every Wednesday I watch PMQs, necessary for my line of work, and as the weeks go on I am more and more inclined to avoid watching the bear baiting that goes on. As I said to a colleague recently, what we see happen is basically bullying and, ironically, something that our government has strived to make illegal in our workplaces yet somehow sees as ok within PMQs- is this not a workplace too? Apart from this is just adds to the idea of ‘celebrity’ by reinforcing the idea that MPs are characters, or in fact caricatures, and this is embarrassing and not at all confidence inspiring! How can we pressure for change- PMQs is just a waste of time and hugely embarrassing?

  • ‘Democracy’, as we know it, is essentially adversarial: winning is all that matters. And it not just PMQT that is not fit for purpose.

    Parliament, itself, is the bear pit: yielding illegal warfare, uncontrolled growth, climate change, growing inequality, the threat of Big Brother etc etc.

    Elections? What for? More of the same.
    Unless the world can evolve something much better than the much vaunted democratic system America and Britain is attempting to impose by force on mankind – in the interests of permanent growth and inequality – our so-called civilisation is at an end.

  • Carl Phillips 8th Jan '08 - 4:38pm

    I am sure many of us would agree with most of the points you make about PMQs. Whilst the Speaker does sometimes tell MPs off for bad behaviour, I’ve never heard him, or Ms Boothroyd before him, ask the PM to “please answer the question !” Is this not permissible ?

    I also like your suggestion: “Outside of Parliament’s normal sitting weeks, why not take PMQs around the different
    parts of the UK? Indeed, this would open up all sorts of possibilities for allowing
    members of the public to ask questions. It would be good to get the public more
    involved directly.” But, what I would ask is why don’t MPs themselves also allow the public to ask questions of them ? We keep hearing that there should be “a public debate” on various topics but I never hear where these debates are to be held. So, Ms Featherstone, when will you next be giving a public speech in Highgate, or some other part of the constituency, where local residents can attend, ask you questions etc ? Or, do you believe that the internet has done away with the need for public speaking ?

  • I do agree that the culture of extreme yah boo politics portrays the Commons to be a place for politicians to just shout down their questions and views at each other like rowdy school chilrden. It does seem as though it’s the size of one’s vocal chords that matters most in debates and not the importance of the point to be made.
    However I do think that the adversarial style of the lower House is important and that many of the issues discussed bring out passionate views. But perhaps more actually scrutiny of the governments actions is needed, rather than MPs not letting each other talk for very long.

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