"Question Time" Question Time
April 20, 2007 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I'm curious about the questions asked by number during "Prime Minister's Questions" in the UK...

Like others, I'm an American who is regularly entertained by the weekly Prime Minister's Questions. I understand "Question One, Mr. Speaker" and the rational behind it. My question was originally going to be what "Question Four" was, as I saw it asked (by number) and answered this week. However, I discovered that Hansard's record of the question swapped "Question Four" for the full text of the question (David Taylor's first question, halfway down the page). So my new question is, what other questions can be asked by number?
posted by Banky_Edwards to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Sub question: how many times can I use the word "question" in this question? I've officially reached the point where I'm staring at the word and thinking that *can't* be how it's spelled. Question?
posted by Banky_Edwards at 9:26 AM on April 20, 2007

MPs can submit questions in advance to the order paper. Which questions get asked is, as I remember, random. Questions can be referred to by number.

Question one is the same each week, by convention, but the rest aren't. The practice of asking questions and referring to them by number is more common when other ministers are being questioned and the question is long, complex and highly technical; PMQ's tends to be about political grandstanding rather than serious questioning so short, witty barbed questions are the order of the day. I'm not sure why, in PMQ's, a particular question would be referred to as "Number 4, Mr Speaker" when others are read out in full.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 9:43 AM on April 20, 2007

My first assumption was indeed that the MP was referencing his written question - but everyone apparently knew the question in advance, and I can't believe they all read (or even see?) the full list in advance. The fact that Hansard swapped out the spoken question ("Question Four, Mr. Speaker") for obvious boilerplate text ("When he next plans to visit North-West Leicestershire on official business") suggests that it's a standard question similar to Question One. So of course, I have to know - what are Questions Two and Three? Are there more?

Sub-sub-question: when I make my inevitable pilgrimage to see PMQ in person, will I get tossed from the visitors gallery if I join in the heckling?!
posted by Banky_Edwards at 9:49 AM on April 20, 2007

It's definitely not a "standard" question. Standard questions don't really exist — Question One is always the same purely because of convention, not by law or anything like that. If there were a "standard question" for north-west Leicestershire, surely there'd have to be one for every other quadrant of every other county in the country. There are about fifty counties in England alone, and hence two hundred quadrants of counties, so this would not be a terribly efficient system.

Everyone does know the question in advance, because they all pick up order papers on their way in (they're the pieces of paper you see MPs waving as they heckle).

Hansard does all sorts of editing (it's absolutely not intended to be a verbatim record). Substituting the written question for its number is not surprising.

Enjoy PMQ in the flesh. (You will be escorted out for noticeable heckling.)
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:01 AM on April 20, 2007

I imagined the standard question would be "When does the PM next plan to visit my constituency?" Thus anyone could ask it by number. I didn't realize everyone gets the questions ahead of time - I assumed those papers being waved were racing forms or bits of scrap. Many thanks for the answers!
posted by Banky_Edwards at 10:10 AM on April 20, 2007

I should clarify that Taylor's second question "Last Sunday, on the BBC..." was not, necessarily, known by anyone else in advance.

I was thinking that perhaps the first question Taylor asked would have been written in full on the order paper and his second, supplementary one about education was essentially off-the-cuff — but now that I think about it, I'm not sure that's true. I think all questions are technically supplementaries to the first question. Obviously, the Leader of the Opposition's questions can't be known in advance by the PM: that would defeat the point.

So perhaps the order paper just lists certain members to be called (though the Speaker does not have to call only these members).

Clearly, though, as you say, Blair knew the text of Taylor's first question in advance.

(I repeat myself here, but I'm sure it's not a "standard question"). I recommend reading this PDF from Hansard which explains the process in some detail. The PMQ's section is a little thin, so you may need to read some of the other more generic sections.

Incidentally, there is now a glass screen in front of the Strangers' gallery so heckling opportunities are limited.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:33 AM on April 20, 2007

Some of this is addressed in the Wikipedia article.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:58 AM on April 20, 2007

Question one is the same each week, by convention
In case anyone else was wondering what question one is (and why it's always the same), here's the answer, via Wikipedia:
The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number One, Mr. Speaker", is to ask the Prime Minister if he/she will list his/her engagements for the day. The current Prime Minister, Tony Blair, 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.
The Prime Minister may also take a moment before giving the answer to extend condolences or 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 themselves, but once someone answers a question, they are obliged to answer follow up questions (on any topic). The only question that the Prime Minister had to answer personally was his list of engagements for the week; hence he is asked this question first, and all subsequent questions are follow up questions, forcing the Prime Minister to answer the questions himself.
posted by languagehat at 11:00 AM on April 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

I assure you, DA, I read the Wiki article, although I probably should have linked it in the question, rather than just the previous PMQ MeFi post. I just had this vision of a more extensive lists of "standard" or "customary" questions, based on the mystery Question Four.

AB, thanks for the linkage - that should keep me busy. But, no thanks for dashing my dreams of shouting "hear hear!" from the cheap seats. Not that I'll be stopped from showing up - a live PMQ is this Anglophile's wet dream.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 11:20 AM on April 20, 2007

I think all questions are technically supplementaries to the first question.

Correct. And it tends to be that many MPs will ask an incredibly generic question as their required first question, get an incredibly generic answer, then will get into the detail. I haven't often seen the detail of the question asked up front on the order paper. There are various reasons for this - an Opposition MP might want to not give away the detail in advance, a Government-bench MP might want to give the PM a chance to show off about the Government's general progress in a particular policy area before raising a constituency issue of more detail. In this case I suspect it is because Taylor wants to make a point about sticking up for his constituents and getting the PM's interest. He can then report back to local media and in his own newsletters accordingly. As others have said, the opening question of any single issue discussed at PMQs tends to be pretty generic, this particular format is as good as any other and is not uncommon.

I have drafted a few answers to PMQs in the past. They are hard to write briefing for (and have horrid timescales in which they have to be written and cleared with Number 10). If you're lucky, it's a Labour MP and special advisers will contact their office to ask what the supplementary is, or it may be a planted question. David Taylor is a bit more rebellious so may not have told them much of the detail. Looking at the format of the answer, my suspicion is that there was an inkling he would ask something on education, hence the briefing pack had lots of general lines on education plus some key facts on Taylor's constituency, and that Blair has glanced down and strung them together. Hence the general "not really an answer to the question" answer then a quick attempt to at least try to tailor it to what the MP asked. The phrase "my hon. Friend has four excellent specialist schools in his own constituency" in particular reads as if it is straight out of a briefing pack. Briefing packs for PMQs and other oral parliamentary questions tend to have a section in them giving the MP's "form" on asking previous questions, what their interests are, anything they've been huffing and puffing about recently, anything notable from local media in their constituency, etc, in an attempt to second-guess where they're coming from.
posted by greycap at 12:50 PM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Greycap, thanks for chiming in. Do you have any insight into the "Question Four" question? Also, re: follow-up questions. I realize that all questions from MPs are technically follow-up questions to "Question Number One." But in this case, David Taylor got two questions in - first, he said "Question Number Four, Mr. Speaker," (which Hansard fleshed out as regarding Blair's plans to visit), and then offered his education question. (Incidentally, I've always assumed that Labour MPs gave Blair a heads up as to the substance of their questions, or at least those that would require some detail in answering.)

Perhaps the answer to why Taylor got two questions lies in the pdf that AB dug up...but I'm still mystified as to why he first said "Question Four." I don't believe I've seen such a question before...although I've been known to use PMQ as a sleep aid on many occasions.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 1:15 PM on April 20, 2007

Yes I see what you mean now - sorry for getting confused. I hadn't twigged your point about the usage of the phrase on its own. The use of "question four" is definitely to refer to the order book, and AB's guide confirms this in its procedures for ordinary oral parliamentary questions on departmental business - which PMQs more or less follow the rules for.

"The Speaker sets the process in motion by calling the Member whose question is first on the printed Order of Business. The Member stands up and says, "Number one, Mister Speaker". As the text of the question is set out on the Order of Business it is not necessary for the Member to read it out. To follow the proceedings clearly it is necessary to have a copy to hand."

To answer AB's point about what actually goes on the order paper, here's the one for the relevant session. Only the first question and Taylor's actually list the question. If you look at some others, some recent ones don't show any questions listed apart from no 1. This is because technically, all other MPs asking supplementary questions are also asking about the PM's engagements - it's just that they don't actually say it on the floor of the house. All of which leaves me mystified as to why Taylor's question was listed. You could try contacting these people who are the Clerks to the Procedure Committee - these are the House of Commons officials who will run parliamentary questions and write up the procedures.

Sorry if I have just more or less gone over everyone else's ground but hopefully the links to order papers will be of use.

On the point about editing Hansard after the event, Gyles Brandreth (former Tory whip under Major) tells a nice story in his diaries about discovering you can pop upstairs to talk to the transcribers and get them to polish your prose.
posted by greycap at 4:00 PM on April 20, 2007

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