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Questions for Prime Minister’s Questions

How useful to democracy are Prime Minister's Questions?

Sam Alvis

Naked Politics Blogger 

I turned up to Prime minister’s Questions on Wednesday fully expecting the usual affair and to write a post calling for its demise. But something strange happened; whether it was the long relaxing summer break, whether it was the sobering topic of the refugee crisis or whether it was respect for political great Harriet Harman, in her last PMQs, the chamber had a subdued and thoughtful air. One half hour hasn’t wiped out years of bluff and bluster, but it did highlight the Wednesdays’ potential.

Questions to the Prime Minister have been a fixture since 1881 when William Gladstone moved a inquiries to day’s end so he could enjoy more of a lie-in. But it wasn’t until 1961 when Harold Macmillan enshrined two fixed 15-minute slots on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. In one of his first acts in Government, Tony Blair tweaked the process into Today’s, one 30-minute slot noon on Wednesdays.

To ask a question MPs enter their names on the Order Paper, which are then called at random. Those not making the original list may try again in a practice known as ‘bobbing’, repeatedly standing up to try and catch the Speakers attention. The Leader of the opposition is entitled to ask six questions, whilst the third largest party, currently the SNP, get three.

In theory, it’s great; a transparent and open debate for the Government to justify their thinking and actions, and a chance for the opposition to press them on errors, oversights or misjudgment.

In practice however it isn’t exactly democracy in action.

The first and enduring problem is the behaviour of MPs. What should be a robust exchange of ideas is too often filled with witty quips, booing, and general rabble. Speaking over each other and acting like children further damages public respect of an institution, already at an all-time low.

For the benefit of the theatrical spectacle, Cameron often prefers a well-written jest as opposed to a genuine response. His posturing at PMQs and repeated dominance of the sober performances of Brown, Harman, Miliband and Harman again – not to mention the soon to be ultra-sober Jeremy Corbyn – is one of the reasons the public have such faith in him as a leader. But it detracts from the purpose of the exercise. The noise and clamour of backbenchers on all sides is more suited to a karaoke bar in the wee hours than the home of our lawmakers.

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The second issue is the questions themselves. Several days before each session, Government Whips send round a list of questions the Prime Minister would like to answer. We’ve all heard them, full of the Chancellors favourite sound-bites; long-term economic plan, hardworking families, growing economy etc. etc. In an event intended to improve democratic transparency, what is the point in a question and answer scripted by the same people. It’s not just the Tories, Tony Blair, and his king of spin Alastair Campbell, were equally adept at pre-prepared slogans.

If planted questions and bland responses weren’t enough, then Cameron’s flat out avoidance of questions also invalidates the whole debacle. On Wednesday, Debbie Abrahams MP asked the PM about the falsifying of testimonies by the Department of Work and Pensions, the release of data related to deaths by those on sickness benefit, and the breach of Ministerial code by Iain Duncan-Smith referring to non-disabled people as normal. The PM’s response;

“First, let me deal very directly with the publication of this data. This data was published because I promised at this Dispatch Box that it would be published, in a way that it was never published under any Labour Government. That is the first point…

“It was widely reported that thousands of people died within weeks of being found ‘fit for work’ and losing their benefits. This is wrong.”

“Perhaps the hon. Lady should read that before asking her next question.”

You tell me how closely that matches the question. I’m fully aware politicians are uber-careful over potential slip-ups, but in an exercise intended to expose the thinking of government, what’s the point in a questions with no answer.

There is hope; in a point of order Labour MP, Paul Flynn, has asked the Speaker to look into all-party talks on PMQ behaviour. Yvette Cooper MP has also said she’ll campaign for reform of the child-like political posturing.

Wednesday, with a few exceptions, showed us that PMQs could still serve a purpose. On topics like the refugee crisis we need open, transparent and mature debate. However with a new Labour leader behind the dispatch box next week and the PMs continued distain for his SNP counterparts I suspect we’re only likely to return to a session of banter more suited to his time in the Bullingdon Club.

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