Questions regarding House of Commons/Prime Minister's Questions
May 21, 2006 7:14 PM   Subscribe

Prime Minister's Questions questions. UK citizens, please explain a couple of things to this curious American.

I enjoy watching CSPAN's broadcast of the Prime Minister's Questions, and dearly wish our own president was required to answer to congress in the same way.

My questions: When a member finishes his/her question, amid all the grumbles, here-heres and huzzahs, several other members stand and then immediately sit down. What's up with that?

Also, what are all those green books, large boxes, and other objects atop the center table where the Prime Minister stands?
posted by shifafa to Law & Government (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
If I may piggy back on this question, how does the speaker know who to call to ask the next question? I've always presumed that the standing shifafa referenced had something to do with it, but there must be some protocal involved...
posted by jaysus chris at 7:35 PM on May 21, 2006


This says:
MPs stand up to show solidarity with a question or a response"
I've heard several times that the books are recent Hansards, but I can't find anything backing that up online.

jaysus see here:
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.
(btw it's 4am on Monday morning here. Not a great time to be catching us awake)
posted by cillit bang at 8:08 PM on May 21, 2006


cillit bang - good point. Damn - I fired off my questions without thinking of time differences. My bad.

Thanks for your wee-hour response.
posted by shifafa at 8:19 PM on May 21, 2006


It's the same here in Canada.
posted by acoutu at 8:45 PM on May 21, 2006


When a member finishes his/her question, amid all the grumbles, here-heres and huzzahs, several other members stand and then immediately sit down.

It's the traditional way to 'catch the speaker's eye' and be recognised, although with something as stagemanaged as PMQs, that rarely (i.e. never) happens. It also means you get noticed by constituents watching on the box.

A quick word to Americans who only see PMQs on C-SPAN: while it's more fun than Congress, it really is quite unrepresentative of how parliament works. The 'home side' questions are usually cleared with the PM's office, and it's more of a sideshow than the main business of debate.

The centre table is correctly called the Table of the House, though it's sometimes mistakenly called the despatch box because of the two boxes that the opposing speakers use as lecterns. Between them? [watching C-SPAN now] A stationery tray, copies of Hansard and other Commons publications (the green volumes)... and I have no idea what the bound volumes between the two despatch boxes are.
posted by holgate at 9:14 PM on May 21, 2006


Thanks for the info and comments, holgate.
posted by shifafa at 10:07 PM on May 21, 2006


Here is a relevant factsheet that suggests it may be Hansard and Parliamentary rulebooks.

There is a good series of factsheets here if you're still curious - plus if you're in the UK come and sit in the gallery and watch for an hour or so, it's great fun.
posted by greycap at 11:22 PM on May 21, 2006


As an aside: Look for the red lines on the floor infront of the benches on each side. The lines are just over two sword lengths apart. An MP may not cross these lines, and so they cannot stab each other. BTW, the present Speaker loves the sound of his own voice and is a bit of a show pony.
posted by priorpark17 at 12:32 AM on May 22, 2006


One other point: the Table of the House gives rise to the parliamentary term 'to table', short for 'to lay upon the table', which is notable for having opposite meanings on either side of the pond. When a bill is 'tabled' in the UK, it is offered up for consideration; in the US, a tabled bill is put aside.
posted by holgate at 2:05 AM on May 22, 2006


Also on the table is the Mace, a symbol of authority. A famous right-wing politician got into trouble for waving the mace around once: the left-wing opposition responded by singing the Red Flag.
posted by alasdair at 5:26 AM on May 22, 2006


And Neil Kinnock once broke the mace over his knee in outrage at Thatcher's continual rear-entry of the country.

Most of the time, MPs stand to let the Speaker know they want to be called on. At PMQ, that's mostly just a formality, since it's incredibly managed now -- they don't even get a follow up question any longer. In the old days, this was great
Q: What is the PM doing today?
A: I refer the Hon. Gen. to my previous answer
Follow-up: Well, will he have any time to explain to the Iraqi people why another 30 of them were killed tonight in an illegal war he started?

Don't get nearly as much of that stuff these days.
posted by bonaldi at 6:12 AM on May 22, 2006


Yes I am still curious - and enjoying all the comments. Please post whatever anecdotal information comes to mind. I love the story about swinging the Mace around. Great stuff!

greycap, I would love to sit in the Gallery someday, but I've read it is very difficult to obtain tickets, especially as a foreigner. I seem to remember that one must apply far in advance, that there are only a few tickets available per day, and that you aren't even guaranteed a particular time for your visit. Is this indeed the case?
posted by shifafa at 9:16 AM on May 22, 2006


holgate, "tabling" has the same meaning in Canada as it does in the UK, so it isn't a side of the pond thing so much as an "Americans being cussedly and ignorantly different than the rest of the world" thing.
posted by QIbHom at 9:44 AM on May 22, 2006


A quick word to Americans who only see PMQs on C-SPAN: while it's more fun than Congress, it really is quite unrepresentative of how parliament works. The 'home side' questions are usually cleared with the PM's office, and it's more of a sideshow than the main business of debate.

At least in provincial legislative assemblies in Canada, which are the only kind I've seen first-hand, Question Period is serious business. It doesn't so much affect legislation directly, but reporters always attend and the opposition always try to embarass the government. A lot of election issues first arise in Question Period.

In the anecdotal area: Once upon a time, I had a job preparing ministerial briefings for the Minister of Health of Nova Scotia. My boss would generally attend and sit in the gallery, so if something came up that wasn't in the briefings, the Minister could stall until he sent a note down with the answer. If you see a page hand a note to somebody while they're answering a question, and they suddenly stop saying how much they appreciate the opportunity to answer the question etc., and actually answer the question, that's what's going on.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:26 AM on May 22, 2006


Also: don't get the impression that it's not important. The poor performance of Menzies Campbell (leader of the third, Liberal, party) at PMQs is leading to calls for him step down, barely months after he took on the job.
posted by bonaldi at 11:13 AM on May 22, 2006


You know, there is something to be said for government being entertaining. If watching congress in the US weren't so mind-numbingly boring, people might pay more attention. Then perhaps more than 33% of the population would be able to name the three branches of government.
posted by shifafa at 2:43 PM on May 22, 2006


But it *is* the only entertaining half hour of the week...

The BBC's parliament A-Z is an excellent, fascinating resource.
posted by nthdegx at 5:59 AM on May 25, 2006


When I was a lowly co-op student, I had to prepare briefing notes for question period. Yes, folks, that's who's writing the stuff that people say in Question Period!
posted by acoutu at 11:31 PM on May 26, 2006


Sitting in the gallery - if you're not a UK or Commonwealth resident, you have to join the queue unfortunately. Pitch up on a day that's not PMQs, though, and not in high tourist season, and you have a good chance. Make sure you check when Parliament is in recess when you do, though, otherwise you will have nothing to see!
posted by greycap at 2:39 PM on June 6, 2006


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