How should PMQs be reformed?

by Stephen Tall on February 15, 2014

Hansard-SocietyPrime Minister’s Questions, the half-hour weekly pantomime that transfixes Westminster and the SW1 media, got a deserved pasting from the Hansard Society this week which released a report, Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to PMQs.

The results couldn’t be clearer. PMQs is a significant ‘cue’ or ‘building block’ for the public’s perceptions of Parliament, and it provides a lot of the raw material that feeds their negative assumptions about politicians.

The public like the ‘theory’ of PMQs but dislike the current practice of it. They recognise that the opportunity to hold the government to account is an important part of the democratic process but in practice how it works alienates, angers and frustrates them. They dislike the noise, the finger-pointing and partisan point-scoring and the perceived failure to answer the questions. Viewers are more confused than informed particularly because of the noisy atmosphere.

The conduct witnessed at PMQs also gives rise to damning perceptions of MPs. Many regard what they see as being like school-children in a playground; some think it is worse. Participants in our focus groups contrasted the conduct of MPs negatively with standards of behaviour tolerated in their own workplace and wished MPs would set a better example. Said one participant: ‘..They do argue like children. I mean can you imagine any other sphere of adult life where one would act with so little respect’.

The theatrical and pantomime aspects are also disliked. Viewers want a rousing speech, and passionate conviction but see PMQs as just noise and bluster. The ‘farce drama’ also gives rise to suspicion about the motives of the politicians involved. The public doubt the authenticity of what they see and consequently consider it dishonest.
But perhaps what should worry MPs most of all is that the public think they are ridiculing situations and issues that affect the lives of ordinary people instead of taking them seriously. … Only 12% of the public agree that PMQs ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’ whilst 45% disagree.

None of this is surprising. Here are some of the suggestions the report (available to read in full here) puts forward to try and improve the situation…

  • Moving PMQs from its current 12 noon slot (when it is viewed in full by only a minority) to prime-time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when more people might watch it in full (those who do are more likely to have a positive view of PMQs than those who just see the most shouty clips on the news bulletins).
  • One PMQs session a month to adopt “a more discursive approach” focused on just a few topical areas selected by the Opposition and select committees.
  • The other 30 minute sessions could reduce their reliance on the open question, “with renewed emphasis on closed, subject-specific questions from backbenchers.
  • Reducing the number of questions allocated to the Leader of the Opposition (currently six) to free up time for more questions from backbenchers across the House.
  • “Citizens could be invited, once a month, to submit questions to the House for consideration at PMQs. New technology means this can be done in simple and cost-effective ways.” This was done by the education select committee in January 2012 when 5,000 mostly “genuine questions on substantive education policy issues” questions were submitted via the #AskGove Twitter hashtag.
  • Finally, the Speaker of the House needs to use “much clearer and stronger rules on conduct and behaviour”, perhaps through a ‘sin-bin’ approach that would allow the Speaker to name an MP for disorderly conduct and “require them to remove themselves from the chamber for the remainder of PMQs” or longer.
  • These suggestions from the Hansard Society all have merit and doubtless some weaknesses. My guess is they will get nowhere for exactly the reason set out in the report – the Westminster Village (MPs and journos) loves the theatre of PMQs and cannot bring themselves to give it up:

    Many at Westminster have operated for far too long under the illusion that the public like, even love, the current form of PMQs. Our research – the first time qualitative and quantitative analysis of public attitudes to PMQs has been undertaken – should put an end to this myth. Some people like the tone and format of PMQs but they are a minority; for most citizens the behaviour witnessed at PMQs fosters negative perceptions of Parliament and damages the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons and MPs.

    What would you do to change PMQs and try and restore Parliament’s reputation?

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.