Prime Minister's Questions: Wikis

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Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) (officially Questions to the Prime Minister) is a constitutional convention in the United Kingdom, where every Wednesday when the House of Commons is sitting the Prime Minister spends half an hour answering questions from Members of Parliament (MPs).[1] Until 1997, Prime Minister's Questions was twice-weekly in 15 minute slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3.15-3.30pm while Parliament was sitting.

Other parliamentary democracies incorporate questions to the Prime Minister into a Question Time during which any government minister is able to give replies, rather than only the Prime Minister. In Canada, a similar convention is known as Question Period and occurs daily both in the federal Parliament and in the provincial legislatures. In Australia and New Zealand the period is called Question Time. In the Irish Dáil, the practice is called Leaders' Questions. In the Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and National Assembly for Wales this practice is called First Minister's Questions. India's Lok Sabha has a Question Hour. In Israel, it has been recently suggested that such practice should commence in the Knesset twice a year. Sweden's prime minister also answers direct questions from the parliament, every Thursday.[citation needed]

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Practice

Although Prime Ministers have answered questions in Parliament for centuries, the practice of regularly asking the Prime Minister questions in parliament in a fixed period was started in 1961 after a successful experiment under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.[2]

Backbench MPs wishing to ask a question must enter their names on the Order Paper. The names of entrants are then shuffled in a ballot to produce a random order in which they will be called by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker will then call on MPs to put their questions, usually in an alternating fashion: one MP from the government benches is followed by one from the opposition benches. MPs who are not selected may be chosen to ask a supplementary question if they "catch the eye" of the Speaker, which is done by standing and sitting immediately before the Prime Minister gives an answer. The Leader of the Opposition is traditionally the first MP from the opposition benches to be called after the first question (whether it comes from the government or opposition benches), and the leader of the next largest opposition party is the next MP to be called from the opposition benches.

The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number One, Mr Speaker", is usually to ask the Prime Minister if he will list his engagements for the day. The Prime Minister usually replies:

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.[3][4][5][6]

The Prime Minister may also take a moment before giving the answer to extend condolences or offer congratulations after significant events. After this, the MP may ask a supplementary question about any subject which might occupy the Prime Minister's time. The reason for asking the Prime Minister about his engagements is because, until recently, any member of the Cabinet could answer the posed question, allowing the Prime Minister to avoid answering questions himself, but once someone answers a question, they are obliged to answer follow-up questions (on any topic)[citation needed]. The only question that the Prime Minister had to answer personally was his list of engagements for the day; hence he is traditionally asked this question first, and all subsequent questions are follow-up questions, forcing the Prime Minister to answer the questions himself/herself. Occasionally the first question tabled is on a specific area of policy, but this is rare, as it would allow the Prime Minister to prepare a response in advance; the non-descript question allows some chance of catching him or her out with an unexpected supplementary question.[citation needed]

The Leader of the Opposition is allowed six supplementary questions (usually in two groups of three, although recently David Cameron has often used all six questions in succession), and the leader of the third largest party (currently the Liberal Democrats) has two. The Speaker tries to alternate between government and opposition questioners, and MPs who have drawn a low number or did not enter the ballot can be called in order to provide this balance.

If the Prime Minister is away on official business then a substitute will answer questions. This is usually the Deputy Prime Minister, a post currently unfilled; the Leader of the House of Commons, currently held by Harriet Harman; or another senior Minister. If the Prime Minister is not in attendance, it is normal for the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the third party to also send a substitute. Currently the Opposition substitute is normally William Hague (designated "Senior Member of the Shadow Cabinet") and for the Liberal Democrats, Vincent Cable (the party's deputy leader). If one is absent or the position unfills then they will be substituted by the Shadow Leader of the House (for the Opposition) or parliamentary affairs spokesperson (for the Liberal Democrats).

Since the televising of Parliament, Prime Minister's Questions have formed an important part of British political culture. Because of the natural drama of this confrontation, it is the most well-known piece of Parliamentary business. Tickets to the Strangers Gallery (public gallery) for Wednesday are the most sought-after Parliamentary tickets. One of Tony Blair's first acts as Prime Minister was to replace the two 15-minute sessions, held on a Tuesday and Thursday, with a single 30 minute session on a Wednesday. The first PMQs under this new format took place on 21 May 1997.[7]

Performance on the Dispatch Box requires a quick wit, eloquence, humour and a broad grasp of varied policy issues. Prime Ministers often rely on a large, multi-annotated handbook of facts and policy matters in order to produce the facts and figures required to give a solid response to an unexpected or jarring question. This is also an opportunity for backbenchers to catch the limelight by trying to corner the PM with a cunning question, or to highlight an issue of particular concern to their constituencies for a nationwide audience. Questions from the Opposition are usually the more challenging, whereas the government benches often praise policy decisions or give the opportunity for announcing such decisions; which enhances the drama in the rare case that a critical question is asked by the government side.

Opposition questions are usually highly critical of government policy, with the response from the PM also usually equally caustic in response forming a highly combative, confrontational debate between the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Remarks, questions and responses from both leaders are often jeered or cheered loudly by their respective party backbenchers. Frequent interjection is required from the Speaker, on occasion for breach of parliamentary etiquette (use of unparliamentarily language) and more often to bring order to the (often rowdy) Government and Opposition benches; both the Prime Minister and the questioner may stop and sit to induce the Speaker to call the house to order. Usually, only the highlights of the Leaders of the Opposition parties questions and the responses from the PM are shown on later news broadcasts.

PMQs have also been a recurring program on the US cable channel C-SPAN (the segment is broadcast live on C-SPAN2 on Wednesday at 7AM Eastern Time, and re-run on C-SPAN on Sunday at 9PM ET), and have been spoofed by sketches on Saturday Night Live.[8] They are re-broadcast on CPAC in Canada.[citation needed]

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Temporary suspension

At times of national or personal tragedy or crisis, PMQs has been temporarily suspended. The last such suspension occurred on 25 February 2009 when the Speaker of the House of Commons suspended parliament until 12.30 p.m. as a mark of respect for the unexpected death of David Cameron's 6-year-old son Ivan, at the request of the Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Prime Minister's Questions was also suspended after the death of the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, in 1994.[9]

Leaders at the Dispatch boxes during Prime Minister's questions since 1961

The most high-profile contributors at Prime Minister's Questions are, of course, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, who speak opposite each other at the dispatch box. Regular, fixed sessions have taken place since 1961, and the list below shows all the Prime Ministers since 1961 and all the Opposition Leaders they faced across the floor of the House of Commons:

References

  1. ^ "Prime Minister's Questions". BBC News Online. 24 January 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/a-z_of_parliament/p-q/82556.stm. 
  2. ^ http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page5180
  3. ^ Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1989-11-14, columns 178–179
  4. ^ Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1990-12-18, columns 150–151
  5. ^ Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1997-11-19, columns 318–319
  6. ^ Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 2007-10-10, columns 286–287
  7. ^ Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1997-05-21, columns 702–712
  8. ^ "Prime Minister's Questions." The SNL Archives.
  9. ^ Andrew Grice (26 February 2009). "Politics put on hold as House mourns death of leader's son". The Independent (independent.co.uk). http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/politics-put-on-hold-as-house-mourns-death-of-leaders-son-1632389.html. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 

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