Punch & Judy Politics? The roles and functions of Prime Minister’s Question Time

ruxandra.serbanIn their recently published book, former Labour advisers Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton explore the backstage machinery behind Prime Minister’s Question Time. Drawing on her PhD research, which focuses on parliamentary mechanisms for holding prime ministers accountable in parliamentary democracies, Ruxandra Serban reflects on how the book informs wider debates in legislative studies.

Prime Minister’s Question Time does not have a particularly good reputation. Designed as a weekly opportunity for MPs to question the Prime Minister, it is criticised for being noisy, excessively theatrical, scripted, and confrontational. But to what extent does it fulfil its role in holding the Prime Minister to account? What other roles does it perform for parliament and for the political system?

As PMQs provides a forum for the head of government to be questioned publicly and routinely by MPs, its implications for politics and for the workings of democracy are very important. In the recently published Punch & Judy Politics: An Insider’s Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton offer useful insights into the procedures and practices for holding Prime Ministers accountable. Drawing on interviews with key players at the centre of politics, as well as on their experience as advisers to several Labour Party leaders, the authors expose the machinery behind the weekly duel between party leaders. In what is a thorough and insightful overview of PMQs, they trace the development of the procedure from its introduction in 1961, document the extensive preparation that goes on both in No 10 and in the Leader of the Opposition’s office, and describe the strategies underpinning questions and answers. In providing such a detailed account, the book in part sets out to understand the roles and functions of PMQs, and contributes to a wider conversation in legislative studies about the functions of parliamentary questions, and of parliaments more generally. Continue reading

Exploring Parliament: opening a window onto the world of Westminster

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)Cristina.Leston.Bandeira.1.000In February this year, Oxford University Press published Exploring Parliament, which aims to provide an accessible introduction to the workings of the UK parliament. In this post, the book’s editors, Louise Thompson and Cristina Leston-Bandeira, explain why the book is necessary and what it hopes to achieve.

If you travelled to Parliament Square today you’d see hundreds of tourists gathered in and around the Palace of Westminster. Over 1 million people visited parliament in 2017 to take part in organised tours, watch debates in the Lords and Commons chambers, attend committee hearings and visit its unique gift shops. Many more will have watched parliamentary proceedings on television; most likely snapshots of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs). Recognition of the iconic building, with its gothic architecture, distinctive furnishings and vast corridors is high. However, the public’s understanding of what actually goes on within the Palace of Westminster is much lower.

As we write this blog it is another typically busy day in parliament. Among the many other things happening in the Commons today, Labour MP Diana Johnson is asking an Urgent Question on the contaminated blood scandal, there is a backbench debate on autism and an adjournment debate on air quality. Over in the Lords, peers will be scrutinising the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill and debating the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Those of us who teach, research or work in parliament will know what each of these activities is. We’ll know why the Commons chamber will be far quieter during adjournment debates than at question times and we’ll be able to follow with relative ease the discussion in the Lords as peers scrutinise the various clauses, schedules, and amendments being made to government legislation. But to the wider public the institution can seem somewhat opaque. The language may seem impenetrable, the procedures archaic and the customs of debate unfamiliar. One may say there is therefore an important role, and perhaps duty, for those of us who teach and research parliament to inform and educate the wider public about the diverse range of roles being performed each day by the institution and its members. Continue reading

Labour’s ‘motion for a return’: what and why?

Opposition days have become a source of controversy in the early months of the 2017 parliament, with government MPs repeatedly abstaining on Labour motions. Such motions are usually non-binding. However, last week Labour attempted a different approach, tabling what is called a ‘motion for a return’. Andrew Defty explains what happened.

An opposition day debate last Wednesday saw the Labour Party deploy an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure which may force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies. By means of a little-known procedure called a motion for a return, Labour transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House. Labour’s approach caused some confusion in the House of Commons and had parliamentary observers reaching for a copy of Erskine May in order to determine what exactly had happened and what it meant. This post examines the background to Labour’s parliamentary trap and the implications for the government.

The government’s approach to opposition days

The background to what happened on Wednesday lies in the government’s approach to opposition day debates in this parliament. Opposition days provide a rare opportunity for opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. There are 20 opposition days in each parliamentary session. These are usually divided between opposition parties, in the last session Labour had 17 of these while three were allocated to the SNP. Each day is then often divided in two to allow for more subjects to be debated. On Wednesday last week, Labour tabled two motions for discussion, one dealing with armed forces pay and the other on the release of the Brexit impact studies.

Opposition days provide an opportunity for opposition parties to table a motion on a subject they consider to be important. Government ministers must come to the House and respond to the motion, speaking at the beginning and end of the debate. The government may also table an amendment in an attempt to overturn the motion, usually by changing its meaning. There is usually then a vote. Governments with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition day motion, but even if a government is defeated, opposition day motions are non-binding and the government is not required to respond or make any policy changes as a result.

In the current parliamentary session the government has decided to adopt a strategy of not contesting opposition day motions. Although ministers come to the chamber to respond and Conservative MPs participate in opposition day debates, Conservative MPs, presumably under instruction from the Whips, have not been voting against the opposition motion. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but are almost certainly a consequence of governing without a majority. It certainly saves the government from going to the trouble of marshalling its MPs into the chamber for a non-binding vote which they are likely to lose anyway. It may also be designed to ensure that Labour’s victory in such votes is somewhat pyrrhic. This point was made by the Conservative MP, Peter Bone, following a government defeat on a recent opposition day motion in which Conservative MPs abstained, when he claimed that although the opposition had won the vote, the Conservatives could not be said to have lost.

This strategy of abstaining in votes on opposition day motions has, however, caused some consternation in the chamber of the House of Commons. Following a government defeat on an opposition day motion on universal credit on 18 October, there was criticism from both sides of the House at the government’s decision not to contest the vote in order to enable it to ignore the outcome. The Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, complained that the government’s approach risked reducing the chamber to the level of a ‘university debating society’, adding, ‘what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it? Surely when we vote, it should have some effect.’ The Speaker was also particularly exercised by the government’s apparent neglect of Parliament, noting that, ‘it is blindingly obvious that this is an unusual situation about which there is strong opinion’ and that it would be ‘respectful to the House’ if a minister were to come to the House and explain the government’s thinking.

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The election of the Speaker: myth and reality

When the newly elected House of Commons meets on Tuesday, its first task will be the election of the Speaker. In this post, Andrew Kennon explains how this will work and separates some of the myths surrounding the process from reality.

When the newly elected House of Commons meets for the first time on Tuesday, the first business – even before swearing in all MPs – will be election of the Speaker. John Bercow, who won his Buckingham seat with a majority of over 25,000 on Thursday, is expected to be re-elected unopposed, though prior to the election there was some talk of a challenge. What are the myths and realities surrounding this process?

Is the Speaker always re-elected unopposed?

This is what has happened in practice. Every Speaker who has been re-elected to the House – normally with other parties not putting up rival candidates in the constituency – has been re-elected to that post. But the House is given the opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only if the answer is ‘no’ does it proceed to a full election.

The possibility of rejecting the incumbent has been raised in the media under Speaker Bercow. He was first elected in 2009, about a year before the 2010 general election. At that point, he was a Conservative MP on the opposition side of it he House. There was some speculation after the 2010 election that the new Conservative government would oppose his re-election, but this did not materialise. The same occurred after the 2015 election.

So: this is practice but not binding.

Does a new Speaker always comes from the Government side of the House?

This is what happened in practice until 1992 when Betty Boothroyd was elected. There is no reason to regard it as a convention.

Does the Speakership alternate between the two main parties?

Since Speaker Martin (Labour) succeeded Speaker Boothroyd (also formerly Labour) in 2000 this cannot be said to be a firm rule. Between 1965 and 1992 successive Speakers did come from the opposite side of the House to their predecessor – but, equally, they also came from the party in government at the time of their election. The House’s freedom to make its own choice among an array of volunteers probably means that any sense of it being the ‘turn’ of a particular party is out of date.

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What might parliament do with the Article 50 bill?

Meg-Russell

On 24 January the Supreme Court ruled that the government requires parliament’s consent to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty and hence begin formally negotiating Brexit. This requires a bill, and the government responded with the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – on which debates in the Commons begin today. Meg Russell asks how parliament could respond to the bill – both procedurally, and in terms of the political dilemmas facing members.

In the form it was introduced, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is a very short and simple measure. With just two clauses, it authorises the government to ‘notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU’, stating that this is notwithstanding the 1972 European Communities Act or any other existing statute. Yet its simplicity clearly belies its importance; the decision to trigger Article 50, following the Leave vote in last June’s referendum, has potentially huge ramifications for both the UK’s politics and its economic future. It is well-known that a majority of MPs, and probably an even higher proportion of peers, supported Remain in the referendum. The government’s original starting point was that parliamentary approval of this kind was neither desirable nor necessary. Now that the bill has been published, its passage could present significant political challenges, for government and parliamentarians alike.

This post focuses primarily on the procedural aspects. What are the stages through which the bill will have to pass, and where do the potential obstacles lie? The post focuses in particular on the immediate Commons stages. Having indicated the key steps, it moves on to discuss MPs’ representational dilemmas, and how these could play out. Finally, it provides some brief reflections on the bill’s likely reception in the Lords.

The timetable for the bill in the Commons was set out by David Lidington, Leader of the House of Commons, on Thursday 26 January. Its second reading stage is due to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, with debate today able to last up to midnight. It is then proposed to spend three days in committee, on the floor of the House of Commons, next week, after which it will quickly receive a third reading and (if approved) pass to the House of Lords.

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MAKING TIME TO REFORM PARLIAMENTARY TIME

14th May 2013

All this talk of draft bills and Loyal Address amendments about an EU referendum raises several vital democratic issues of parliamentary process, not least that of the ways in which MPs, individually or collectively, can initiate debate or legislation on important topics of the moment.  At its heart, as always, lurks the core problem of Government control of House of Commons business and time.

Supporters of the ‘conventional wisdom’ parliamentary reform agenda over the last half century have justified the pace and route of reform as being incremental, evolutionary and practical, being the only way to achieve change in the face of the Government’s dominant position in the House of Commons.  Those more sceptical may choose to describe it more negatively, as being ad hoc, piecemeal, reactive, incoherent and devoid of any consistent guiding principle.

Some changes come not directly from demands from MPs or even the public, but from the initiative of the Government itself, and these, though dressed up as parliamentary reform to strengthen Parliament, often result in making life easier for Ministers.  Richard Crossman in the 1960s said there was a difference between parliamentary reform and modernisation, when he was distinguishing practical updating in infrastructure and facilities from procedural changes.  In the modern context, too often ‘modernisation’ has been the catchword for changes which assist the Government, or which can be absorbed by Ministers without serious inconvenience, whereas genuine ‘reform’, to make Parliament itself more powerful and effective, especially in relation to the Executive, has to take a back seat, awaiting Government permission and, worse, facilitation.

So it is with ‘parliamentary time’ and the control and order of business.  There have been some changes, especially to the scope for debate not initiated by Ministers, such as Westminster Hall.  There has been the innovation of the Backbench Business Committee, but that has been hobbled by the albatross of the Government’s e-petition wheeze around its shoulders.  Some ever-optimistic souls are still waiting in hope for the emergence of Government proposals for a ‘House Business Committee’ of some sort, originally promised for this year.

But we also wait in vain for fundamental change to issues like the current antiquated arrangements for backbench legislative initiative.  How different would the current ‘discussions’ of EU referendum legislation opportunities be if we didn’t have to rely on the various existing ‘private members bill’ processes, with its random ballot and limited scope for genuine progress of controversial bills, but if there were clear and efficient arrangements for the allocation of time for all types of parliamentary business, including scope for debates and legislative initiative by non-Governmental sources, such as backbenchers – getting rid of the unhelpful term ‘private member’ would be a small but symbolic reform – and committees.

The current confused mess – which may, in many ways, be helpful to Ministers – further undermines the Commons’ reputation with the public as an effective, responsive and accountable representative assembly, able to address coherently important issues of public interest.  Time for real, principled and all-embracing reform!

TIME TO RECALL A SHELVED PARLIAMENTARY REFORM

The UK Parliament was recalled on 10 April to mark the death of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. This post does not discuss whether recall was an appropriate response – personally, I do think it was – but considers how Parliament, especially the House of Commons, was recalled, as it is a good example of the wider, and fundamentally important, issue of the autonomy of Parliament, and its relationship with the Executive.

Parliament’s website announced the recall of both Houses. In respect of the Commons, it stated that “Standing Order 13 gives the Speaker the authority to recall the House of Commons when it stands adjourned, if he is satisfied it is within the public interest.” That sounds fair enough, in keeping with this core democratic body’s standing as the main representative forum of the people. But wait, what it didn’t say was that such a recall by the Speaker can only be done if triggered by the initiative of the Government. What the Standing Order actually says is:

“Whenever the House stands adjourned and it is represented to the Speaker by Her Majesty’s Ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet at a time earlier than that to which the House stands adjourned, the Speaker, if he is satisfied that the public interest does so require, may give notice that, being so satisfied, he appoints a time for the House to meet, and the House shall accordingly meet at the time stated in such notice.” [S.O.no 13(1), emphasis added].

So, at least as regards initiating recall of the Commons, the Daily Telegraph headline “Margaret Thatcher: David Cameron recalls Parliament for ‘remarkable’ former British leader” was probably a more accurate statement. A report in the Guardian suggested that the recall “was the idea of the prime minister and involved him in a lengthy wrangle with the Speaker’s Office. John Bercow felt there was no need to recall parliament, and was taken aback by the request. His office thought the tributes could be paid next Monday in line with precedent for previous deaths of party leaders. At one point, Cameron had to enlist the support of Miliband to overcome the opposition, and Labour sources said they felt faced with a fait accompli and did not want to risk being seen as failing to show Thatcher due respect.”

A useful Parliamentary briefing paper issued on 9 April, discusses the procedural and practical aspects of the Commons recall process; looks at how it is handled (generally differently) in the Lords and in the devolved parliament/assemblies, and proposals for its reform, within and outwith Parliament, especially to make it a procedure in the hands of the House and its Speaker rather than subject to the instigation of Ministers.

In particular, it records such a proposal by the previous Labour Government, in its 2007 green paper, The governance of Britain, and the announcement of an inquiry into this and related issues by the then Modernisation Committee. Despite much trumpeting at the time that the Modernisation Committee was an effective way to get Parliamentary reform – especially because it was chaired by a Government minister, the Leader of the House (!!!) – the Committee never completed its inquiry or took oral evidence, though some of its written evidence was published.

It should also be noted that the 2009-2010 ‘Wright Committee’ on the reform of the Commons – whose work is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee – did not address various  “contentious issues” on the House’s sitting patterns, and had “no collective view” on recall, but it did make a more general point very strongly (para 101): ”But we do recommend that the House should at least decide for itself when it sits and does not sit.” [bold in original].

What a refreshingly democratic notion! How about doing something about it, dear representatives of the people?