How can we reform PMQs?

27 Jun 2014

Prime Minister’s Question Time, a half an hour session every Wednesday lunchtime sees the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and a packed House of Commons engage in a batch of exciting and lively questions to the Prime Minister.

Until the 1880s, any questions to the PM were treated the same as any other questions to Ministers of the Crown. However, these were officially formalised in 1881 for William Gladstone’s premiership and in 1953 it was agreed that questions to the PM would be on Tuesday and Thursday. In 1959, recommendations to form two fixed fifteen minute sessions on Tuesday and Thursday were proposed under the premiership of Harold Macmillan. This was again changed when Tony Blair became PM, where the sessions were merged into the current format.

 

A prominent issue for PMQs in the present day is that it is now infamous for the disorderly behaviour of MPs, with consistent shouting and noise from both sides of the House. Speaker John Bercow has described it as a “cacophony of noise” and has said that senior MPs from across the House have told him that they may refuse to attend as they “feel embarrassed by it”. 

With the Speaker having to preside over what appears to be a rampant primary school class, and thus regularly sounding like a distressed teacher, what can be done to reform this primeval political performance? 

I have heard three suggestions for serious reform: Stricter punishments for MPs; more invigorating, less repetitive rhetoric; and less scripted questions.

The whole image of PMQs does nothing to aid positive perceptions of politics in this country. Raucous MPs, confusing statistics, political point scoring and insults from the “Dunce of Downing Street” and Labour’s “muppet” damage the credibility of politics amongst the electorate. Scripted questions and briefings from government departments have always been present, but the increasingly prominent influence of campaign managers and spin doctors has taken its toll, with backbench questions encouraging the leaders to take up the same old lines of attack. Phrases such as “Long Term Economic Plan” and “Cost of Living Crisis” have led to many seeing PMQs as being pretty much the same every week. As such, the public and the casual watcher gain little faith in politics from watching the sordid episode. 

I do not believe however that the road to reform is easy. It is blatantly necessary but not clear or simple to achieve. Surely the most important point is that we must see a less scripted, more constructive PMQs where, as well as national issues, MPs have the chance to air constituency issues without a “wall of noise”. Let’s make PMQs a constructive, engaging and impressive spectacle worthy of the House of Commons, rather than a primary school classroom.

We know the aim of reform, we know the way in which it should be gone about. But how will it be achieved? 

Firstly, it needs to be carried out on a cross-party basis to ensure that the changes are workable and will apply to all sides of the House, to all Members, and benefit all viewers and all constituents. This must be done through the Speaker and party leaders, and with the support and knowledge of the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons as well as the Administration Committee. We need a joint effort to portray the view to the general public as well as avid BBC Parliament watchers that the House of Commons is a functioning and effective body that cares about its public image.

Otherwise, we are merely sanctioning a weekly Punch and Judy performance that is fostering widespread disillusionment in our political system and its participants.

By Tom Chidwick

Mumsnet Petition to Reform PMQs

 

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