At Westminster every Wednesday when the House in session the Prime Minister responds to questions for about thirty minutes. In recent years there has been some discussion in Canada about the pros and cons of instituting a similar practice. This article outlines the history of the British procedure and some problems that have developed with it over the years.
For most of the public Prime Minister's Questions is the shop window of the House of Commons. The media coverage of that thirty minute slot dominates all other proceedings in Parliament during the rest of the week. If the country comes to an adverse conclusion about the House because of what it witnesses in those exchanges, then the noble work of a dozen Select Committees will pale into insignificance by comparison. If we are serious about enhancing the standing of the House in the eyes of those whom we serve then we cannot ignore the seriously impaired impression which PMQs has been and is leaving on the electorate. It is the elephant in the green room.
There will be some of my colleagues who I expect, very sincerely, to disagree with me. They argue that PMQs is splendid theatre, that it is secretly loved by those watching on television and that it is even therapeutic for parliamentarians to let their lungs loose on a weekly basis. I have to say that I find this argument utterly unconvincing. On the basis of its logic, bear-baiting and cock-fighting would still be legal activities. To my mind, the last nail in the coffin of the case for PMQs as it occurs today was hammered in by the leaders' debates during the general election campaign. The rules for those encounters included, you may recall, a prohibition on cheering or chanting from the audience. Does anyone plausibly contend that the cut and thrust of debate between Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg suffered as a consequence? Did anybody at home feel short-changed by the absence of cat-calling?
What is worse is that, as I hope to illustrate in the next few minutes, Prime Minister's Questions was never intended to have the character which it has since developed. When it was introduced in 1961, it had three distinctive features:
* Questions were directly related to those areas in which the Prime Minister had personal responsibility rather than treating him as if a President in sole control of the entire British Government.
* Questions and answers were short and snappy and dominated by backbenchers
* The exercise occurred in an atmosphere of comparative cordiality.
A little history is instructive. Before the 1880s, questions to the Prime Minister were dealt with no differently from questions to other ministers. They were asked, without notice, on days on which ministers were available (invariably Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday) in whatever order Members rose to ask them. Public business could not commence until questions had been completed. The first change was made in 1881 when as a courtesy to William Gladstone, then aged 72, questions to the Prime Minister were asked last on the list to enable him to come into the House somewhat later in the day than he would have done otherwise.
The introduction of fixed time-limits for questions and the late slot for PMQs meant that while in theory they were posed four days a week, in practice they were often never reached and very rarely completed. In 1953, in deference to Winston Churchill, then aged 79 and ailing, it was agreed that questions would be submitted on Tuesdays and Thursdays. An increasing dissatisfaction with the level of scrutiny this involved led to a landmark Procedure Committee report in 1959 which recommended that questions be taken in two 15-minute slots on Tuesday...