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

Questioning Prime Ministers: a survey of procedures in 32 parliamentary democracies

Prime Ministers are prominent political actors in parliamentary democracies, yet there has been little comparative research on how they are held to account by parliaments. As part of her PhD research Ruxandra Serban is seeking to fill this gap. Here, she outlines initial findings from a survey of procedures in 32 parliamentary democracies.

Prime ministers are prominent political actors in parliamentary democracies, yet there is little understanding of how they are held accountable by parliaments. What are the mechanisms through which parliamentarians may question them and how do such mechanisms vary procedurally? The UK House of Commons famously provides a high-profile weekly session for questioning the head of government at Prime Minister’s Questions. How does PMQs compare with questioning mechanisms in other parliaments?

Drawing on my PhD research, this blog presents preliminary findings from a survey of procedural rules regarding such mechanisms in 32 parliamentary democracies, and illustrates the variety of procedures available in different countries.

How does questioning take place?

Collective and individualised

Whether prime ministers are questioned individually or together with other ministers is likely to be important in determining how they interact with parliamentarians. The nature of government in parliamentary democracies is collective. Prime ministers lead the government and are collectively responsible together with their cabinets; but in most countries they are not responsible for specific ministerial portfolios. Prime ministers are expected to account for their own actions and also to speak for the government. Consequently, whether or not they are questioned individually or together with ministers is likely to have an important effect on the types of questions they are asked.

Plenary and committee

An additional dimension concerns the distinction between plenary and committee mechanisms. The setting of the procedure creates different types of questioning environments. For example, the Liaison Committee in the UK House of Commons was introduced to complement the main plenary mechanism (PMQs), specifically in order to configure a more focused forum of scrutiny.

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The report of the Scottish Parliamentary Reform Commission: Westminster as a model for reforming Holyrood?

The Scottish Parliament’s Commission on Parliamentary Reform, established by the Presiding Officer last year, reported in June. Its recommendations include that committee conveners should be elected by the whole Parliament, changes to First Minister’s Questions, the extension of the legislative process from three stages to five and the establishment of a new backbench committee. Ruxandra Serban summarises the report and notes that several of the most substantive recommendations would bring the Scottish Parliament’s procedures closer to those of the House of Commons.

The Commission on Parliamentary Reform was established on 26 October 2016 by the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Ken Macintosh MSP. It was chaired by John McCormick, a former Controller of BBC Scotland and UK Electoral Commissioner with special responsibility for Scotland, and included 10 other members: five from civic society appointed by the Presiding Officer, and one nominated by each political party represented in the Scottish Parliament.

The Commission was appointed to review the evolution of the Scottish Parliament in the 18 years since its founding, and to assess its capacity to deal with the additional sets of responsibilities devolved through the Scotland Act 2016 and expected to result from the Brexit process. The Commission convened between November 2016 and June 2017, and sought evidence through meetings and public events, written submissions, oral evidence sessions and an online survey.

The report published on 20 June 2017 makes reference to the set of principles proposed by the Consultative Steering Group (CSG) in 1998 as the key benchmark against which to measure the effectiveness of the Scottish Parliament, and upon which to base suggestions for reform. The CSG was set up in 1997 by the UK government to consider institutional design options for the Scottish Parliament. Its report set out four principles to inform the functioning of the new parliament: power-sharing; accountability; open and accessible participation; and equal opportunities. Since then, some questions have been raised about whether the Scottish Parliament has truly managed to embody the principles of ‘new politics’ envisaged by the CSG, or whether it is in fact a ‘Westminster model’ parliament (notably here and here).

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How parliament influences policy: academic and practitioner perspectives

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There is now a large body of academic research demonstrating that the Westminster parliament has considerable policy influence, yet claims that the UK has an executive-dominated political system persist. On 15 March Professor Meg Russell and Professor Philip Cowley, who between them have carried out much of the key research in this area, spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar on the policy impact of parliament along with Sarah Champion MP, who offered an insider perspective. Ruxandra Serban reports.

Public and media discourse is often shaped by a longstanding assumption that the Westminster parliament is weak relative to the executive – but is this really true? A closer look demonstrates that it is a complex and often misunderstood institution. On 15 March the Constitution Unit, in collaboration with the Hansard Society and the Parliament and Constitution Centre of the House of Commons Library, hosted a seminar in parliament with Professor Meg Russell (Director of the Constitution Unit), Professor Philip Cowley (Queen Mary University of London), and Sarah Champion MP, to discuss parliament’s policy impact.

The legislative process, the Lords and select committees

Speaking first, Meg Russell suggested that the constant portrayal of parliament as a weak institution should be a matter for concern, as perpetuating an inaccurate assumption may drive down trust in the political process. The impact of parliament on policy has been a major strand of the Unit’s research in recent years, including extensive work on the legislative process, the House of Lords and select committees.

Tracing amendments in both chambers on 12 bills (2005-2012) revealed that although at first glance government amendments were much more successful than non-government amendments (94 per cent were passed, compared to 0.7 per cent of non-government amendments), in fact 60 per cent of government amendments that made substantive policy change were traceable to parliamentary pressure, mostly through previous non-government amendments. Select committee recommendations can also lead the government to bring forward amendments of their own , notably including the reversal of the Labour government’s manifesto policy on smoking in public places from a partial to a complete ban. These findings are elaborated in an article by Meg Russell, Daniel Gover and Kristina Wollter, recently published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs.

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Definitely not business as usual: Predictions and preparations for May 2015

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On 12 March 2015 Lord Gus O’Donnell and David Cowling spoke at a Unit seminar entitled ‘Forecasting the 2015 Election result, and preparing for a hung Parliament’. Ruxandra Serban reports on the event.

With just 6 weeks left until polling day, the outcome of the May 2015 general election remains highly unpredictable. With few signs that either of the two main parties will secure an overall majority in the House of Commons, current predictions are predominantly based on the assumption of another hung parliament. On 12 March 2015 the Constitution Unit and the UCL School of Public Policy hosted a seminar with David Cowling (BBC Political Editor) and Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary between 2005 and 2011) to discuss whether any reliable predictions can be made about the election, given the current shifting political landscape, and whether the 2010 election is a useful guide in the preparation for another hung parliament.

David Cowling framed the discussion around the unique features that the 2010 election brought to the usually predictable two-party race for Westminster: the first televised leaders’ debates, changes to parliamentary boundaries, and the surge of the third party (Liberal Democrats) in the opinion polls. Cowling dubbed 2010 ‘the losers’ election’, as the Conservatives failed to win an outright majority for the fourth election in a row, Labour scored their second worst vote share in 80 years, and even the Lib Dems lost seats.

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