Questions about Prime Ministers Questions
January 19, 2011 11:44 PM   Subscribe

So, questions about Prime Ministers Questions.

Recently I've been trying to catch as many Prime Ministers Questions (PMQ) as possible, and I'm finding the back and forth interesting, informative as well as (especially the last two weeks or so) entertaining. A few questions:
  • Why do Cameron, et al address "Mr Speaker"? He's the moderator but it seems many of the arguments are directed towards him. Is this just a figure of speech or will he act on these arguments?
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  • Some of the backbenchers have been close to out of control the last few PMQs; can The Speaker eject anyone? Has this ever happened?
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  • Process for raising questions: if I had a query do I raise it with my MP, explicitly asking that it been brought up during PMQ or is this a decision that she'd take forward?
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  • What control does Miliband, et al have over the agenda? Specifically, even though its called PMQ I don't sense that the opposition can direct the discussion much, or am I (probably) off base here?
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  • Has anyone attended Strangers Gallery? If so how did you get tickets and what is the protocol for attending - is it any different than entering Parliament any other time?


Thanks for indulging, I'm trying to learn as much as I can before finally naturalising …
posted by Mutant to Law & Government (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Speaker of the British House of Commons:

Whilst presiding, the Speaker sits in a chair at the front of the House. Traditionally, members supporting the Government sit on his or her right, and those supporting the Opposition on his or her left. The Speaker's powers are extensive, and are much more extensive than those of his or her Lords counterpart, the Lord Speaker. Most importantly, the Speaker calls on members to speak; no member may make a speech without the Speaker's prior permission. By custom, the Speaker alternates between members supporting the Government and supporting the Opposition. Members direct their speeches not to the whole House, but to the Speaker, using the words "Mister Speaker" or "Madam Speaker." Members must refer to each other in the third person by the title of their constituency or their ministerial titles (not their names); they may not directly address anyone other than the Speaker (who does call them by name).
posted by sbutler at 12:00 AM on January 20, 2011


can The Speaker eject anyone?
Yes and has done; for example, Dennis Skinner, 'the Beast of Bolsover', has been suspended from the house several times for using 'unparliamentary language'.
posted by Abiezer at 12:04 AM on January 20, 2011


The speaker can eject someone, by "naming" them - this doesn't happen very frequently, but it's not rare either. I think the routine is that the speaker says "I name Mr Denis Skinner", and there's then a vote on whether he should be suspended from the House. (Guardian article).

Questions from constituents are far more likely to be raised by an MP as a written question to the appropriate minister - PMQs are really about political grandstanding, asking questions which you hope will embarrass the other side or (if you're on the government side) to allow the PM to make an answering speech saying how wonderful the current government's policies are. Questions are selected at random, more or less - the Wikipedia article describes the process.

I went to Strangers Gallery in the late seventies, on a school trip - I think you can get tickets by writing to your MP. Still have the order paper somewhere - I was a 15-year-old politics geek, and it was a thrill to see people like Tony Benn, Enoch Powell and Geoffrey Howe in the flesh. Yes, I was impressed by a dead sheep.
posted by nja at 12:22 AM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Regarding the Visitors (Strangers) Gallery: tickets are hard to come by for Wednesdays, as might be expected, though it's easier to get in for other debates.

If you're a British citizen, you can either queue or ask your MP to get you a ticket (though as I understand it, while they can get limited tickets to the Gallery, they can't guarantee it'd be on the PMQ day); if you're a non-national you have to queue I'm afraid.

I believe Embassies used to issue a limited number of tickets but I'm not sure if that's still the case - I think the Gallery was closed for some time following 9/11 (though can't find anything to back that up right now) which might have made them more jumpy about foreign nationals in the Chamber.
posted by citands at 12:26 AM on January 20, 2011


Old blighty isn't the only place with question time, and we do have more than a few things in common with how they do it there. Mutant let me introduce to my good friend Dorothy.

FWIW in Australia the Speaker ejects a few people every session. They usually go in groups during particularly boisterous sittings.
posted by smoke at 12:43 AM on January 20, 2011


Isn't that addressing the speaker thing also done in the US House of Reps?
posted by telstar at 12:44 AM on January 20, 2011


Formally, the Leader of the Opposition (Milliband in this case) can ask a set number of main questions (I think 3) any time he wishes, that the Speaker has to allow him. When the LibDems were in the opposition, they also got a (smaller) number of questions. Informally, the party leadership can, and do, plant questions amongst the backbenchers.

While the main questions are allocated to backbenchers by ballot, anyone can ask a supplementary question and it's up to the Speaker to allow the question or not. It's the supplementary questions where opposition members often try to trap the government.

So yes, the opposition directs the debate to a certain extent.
posted by tavegyl at 1:32 AM on January 20, 2011


Regarding getting a look around, you can see some of the place by going along to a public meeting. Meetings are pretty common and held in various rooms facing over the Thames on the House of Lords side of the building. You can walk past the queue to get in for these.
posted by biffa at 1:56 AM on January 20, 2011


What control does Miliband, et al have over the agenda? Specifically, even though its called PMQ I don't sense that the opposition can direct the discussion much, or am I (probably) off base here?

OK, let's look at yesterday's PMQ as an example, Andrew George (LD) kicks off with the usual first question, which is to ask the PM about his engagements. George then has the opportunity to ask a supplementary question, which, because he asked an 'open question', can be on any topic.

George was chosen at random from all backbench MPs who put their names on the order paper for that day to ask questions. Obviously, if the MP is a member of the opposition, the supplementary will most likely be on a topic likely to be tricky for the PM and if they are a member of the PM's party, it will be a softball on a topic the PM wants to talk about. Since George is LD, so in the coalition, but not in the PM's party, it's interesting to see how he steers a middle ground, expressing guarded concern about NHS reforms.

Miliband follows up with a question on a different topic (unemployment) and then responds to the PM's answer with a further question. The Leader of the Opposition is allowed to ask six questions over the session and he is the only MP who is allowed to respond to the PM's answers with an additional question.

Although the MPs are chosen by lot to ask questions, the actual questions are organised in an alternating fashion between the government and the opposition. So, it's the turn of a Conservative, Jane Ellison, to ask a question which gives the PM the opportunity to highlight an issue he thinks makes Labour look bad, their response to the coalition policy of 'free schools'. Next up is Chris Bryant (Lab), with a question which claims government cuts would affect front-line policing.

The questions continue to alternate between back bench MPs in the government and those in opposition, including the DUP, a smaller party from Northern Ireland. Then Miliband asks his last four questions in succession, all of which are about NHS reforms. This is briefly interrupted by noise from the MPs and the Speaker chastises them.

Miliband has no more questions, so it's back to the turn-taking. An LD raises, quite aggressively, a local constituent. A Labour MP continues the NHS theme. A Conservative asks about European control of British fiscal policy. And so on. It's hard to tell from Hansard, but some of these questions may be supplementaries, rather than from MPs selected by lot. MPs stand and sit before the PM answers to indicate to the Speaker that they would like to ask a supplementary.

So, to answer your question, Miliband has quite a lot of control over the topics, both in terms of the questions he asks and in setting a theme of attack for his back-benchers to follow. However, there's plenty of flexibility and it's not just the opposition who ask questions.

Incidentally, the current format is a change dating back to Blair's early days in office, when two 15 minute sessions per week were replaced by a single 30 minute session and the number of questions given to party leaders was increased.

Interesting question and I enjoyed brushing up on my parliamentary procedure to answer it!
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:03 AM on January 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Busy Old Fool's summary is excellent, but if you aren't familiar with it, I highly recommend Yes, Prime Minister, which also provides some well-packaged insights into how this works in practise.
posted by rodgerd at 2:49 AM on January 20, 2011


I believe the reason that MPs address the speaker directly rather than the house itself lies in the fact that it is the Speaker that represents the voice of the Commons to the Monarch (and to an extent vice versa).

Constitutionally therefore, the Speaker is the "point man" between the House of Commons and the monarch. To address him or her is to address the source of the power that the House holds: the MPs are notionally addressing the Monarch through the Speaker with their arguments. In reality, the Speaker will not do anything at all regarding these arguments: they are in fact addressed to the rest of the House. (As far as I know the only member of the House of Commons that the Queen has regular contact with is the Prime Minister.)

The Speaker's role vis a vis the Queen is almost purely ceremonial because she no longer holds any direct power that she can actually exercise. Any attempt to use her remaining constitutional powers against the wishes of the Houses of Parliament it would probably end the monarchy. The Queen still holds a lot of soft power of course, as well as being one of the largest landowners in the country.

If you have a query that you would like to raise, then the correct approach is to write to your MP, requesting that they ask the minister responsible directly on your behalf. They're very unlikely to raise the question during PMQs though which is more about political theatre than the actual business of running the country. The reason you write to your MP is that the minister is pretty much required to respond to a query from another MP, but has no obligation to answer anyone else's questions unless they happen to come from one of their own constituents.
posted by pharm at 3:07 AM on January 20, 2011


rogerd: Indeed. Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minster will inform you as to how things really work...the story is that Kenneth Clarke was feeding the inside story to the writers whilst he was in cabinet back in the day.
posted by pharm at 3:10 AM on January 20, 2011


Much as I love Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, I don't remember them dealing with PMQs specifically. Was that a regular part of the show or on one particular episode?
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:33 AM on January 20, 2011


Several of the episodes use PMQs as a plot point, but I don't think the budget for the series ever allowed for PMQs to actually feature. "Power to the People" and "One of Us" both reference PMQs if the plot summaries on the net are to be believed for instance.
posted by pharm at 3:56 AM on January 20, 2011


This askme on Question Time covers some of the same territory, and isn't showing up in Related Questions. maybe add "questiontime" to the tags?
posted by zamboni at 7:30 AM on January 20, 2011


Addressing the speaker is a standard parliamentary procedure. It's done in the U.S. House and the Senate (only addressing the President of the Senate), and, in general, in any parliamentary body.

As Robert's Rules of Order states: "Speakers must address their remarks to the presiding officer, be courteous in their language and deportment, and avoid all personalities, never alluding to the officers or other members by name, where possible to avoid it, nor to the motives of members."
posted by General Malaise at 8:12 AM on January 20, 2011


Constitutionally therefore, the Speaker is the "point man" between the House of Commons and the monarch.

I'm not sure where you're getting that analysis from, and the more ardent defenders of parliamentary sovereignty would certainly reject it, not least because the Speaker has little formal ceremonial or constitutional interaction with the monarch.

Busy Old Fool's summary is great. One thing I'd add is that there's a distinction between directing one's remarks to the Speaker as a formality during debates, and addressing the Speaker directly on points of order. You don't see that too often during PMQs, but it occasionally happens thanks to MPs who are either proceduralist sticklers or just want to get on the telly.

Given the theatrics of PMQs, if you have a query that relates to ministerial responsibility and deserves a detailed response, you're much better off going through the chain of command -- writing to your MP, asking that it be raised with the relevant ministers, etc. Written questions generally better quality responses than spoken ones, and spoken ones to ministers do better than PMQs.

(Tangentially: I noticed that there was a nice little debate in the Lords this week on visa policies in Latin America, with polite and detailed exchanges on the shortcomings of current procedures. If you discover a member of the Lords who happens to share a particular interest or concern -- the all-party groups and select committees are good indicators, as well as Hansard records of questions and debates -- then it can be worth writing directly.)
posted by holgate at 10:31 AM on January 20, 2011


I'm not sure where you're getting that analysis from, and the more ardent defenders of parliamentary sovereignty would certainly reject it, not least because the Speaker has little formal ceremonial or constitutional interaction with the monarch.

The Speaker (pdf)
The Speaker acts as the spokesperson for the House on ceremonial and formal occasions. For
example, the Speaker presented addresses of congratulation to The Queen on the occasion of her
Silver Jubilee in 1977 and Golden Jubilee in 2002. Nowadays such occasions are usually
happy events; but in past centuries a Speaker might have been called upon to deliver an
unwelcome message to an autocratic and even despotic Sovereign a message which might be
much less welcome - the reasons, for instance, why the Commons had disagreed to raising a tax
for the royal revenues. Historically, the role of the Speaker could be rather perilous: seven
Speakers were executed by beheading between 1394 and 1535...
...Until the seventeenth century, the Speaker was often an agent of the King, although they were
often blamed if they delivered news from Parliament that the King did not like. Many Speakers
got into trouble for this, and a few were even executed. (See Appendix B)
Like many roles in the British state, the role a particular individual plays may no longer bear much relation to it's origins, but those origins remain the reason for it's existence.

Obviously, Parliament holds the power in the land in the modern UK, but the organs of state still maintain the fiction (IMO) that this power flows from the institution of the monarchy & is delegated to them. The reality is of course that any attempt by the monarch to revert those powers to herself would end the monarchy. Indeed, were the monarch to exercise directly those limited powers that she still holds, rather than follow the "advice" of he Prime Minister, it would cause a constitutional crisis.
posted by pharm at 1:27 AM on January 21, 2011


Erk. There must have been a bunch of carriage returns in that quote from the pdf. Sorry about that.
posted by pharm at 1:28 AM on January 21, 2011


Incidentally, quoting Robert's Rules of Order as being the reason that one addresses the Speaker isn't helpful since the rules contained with RRO trace their origins to the customary practices of debate in the Houses of Commons: it's a circular argument.
posted by pharm at 1:47 AM on January 21, 2011


pharm: point taken. I was thinking more about the mechanics of Parliament as a bicameral institution, where the Lords Commissioners serve as the formal liaison between Parliament and the Crown: notification of Royal Assent, for instance, goes initially to the Lords and not the Commons, and the formalities of opening and proroguing Parliament also go Commons-Lords-Crown-Lords-Commons.

So while the Speaker certainly speaks on behalf of the House, I'm not sure that "point man" is the term I'd use, as it suggests a more active intermediary role: constitutional protocols in the post-1688 era generally dictate that he/she has very little formal interaction with the monarch, as one of the various implicit guarantees of the independence of the House.
posted by holgate at 10:06 AM on January 21, 2011


I don't remember them dealing with PMQs specifically

Not a whole episode, no, but one is focused on Hacker having unintentionally misled parliament by claiming that no-one is spying on MPs. He spends some time gloating over a masterful performance and explaining to Humphrey how PMQs work and how friendly MPs are used to ask "patsy" questions and so on.

(Actually, now I think about it, the novelisation may have more detail than the show...)
posted by rodgerd at 12:55 PM on January 23, 2011


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