Post No.: 0374
This post may only be primarily relevant for those living in the United Kingdom, although I hope it’ll be interesting for others around the world to read about too – perhaps for the purpose of comparing parliamentary systems?..
Scrutiny of the UK government is generally provided via Prime Minister’s Questions, oral and written questions, debates, Commons cross-party select committees, Backbench committees and Lords select committees. In this post, we’ll look at Prime Minister’s Questions, oral and written questions, and debates. We’ll look at committees during a later post.
In normal circumstances, there is a widespread perception that Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is just a load of shouting and verbal point-scoring, which ultimately achieves nothing! It certainly helps to be a Prime Minister who is great at giving fob offs, platitudes, deflections and bunkum to ride through these events. But the main thing to understand is that this – 30 or so minutes per week, currently held every Wednesday at noon – event is just one small aspect of what Members of Parliament (MPs) do inside the House of Commons! It’s just a starter course. And arguably, this starter course is precisely about asking the Prime Minister questions rather than getting answers – that latter stuff happens at other times, even if it might be in the same place, and in far less shouty and more measured circumstances. PMQs is only a small part of the week for ministers.
And sometimes we need to imagine the opposite – if PMQs weren’t so theatrical then would it still be as engaging?! The (normally) unruly and shouty nature of PMQs evolved into existence and then has continued to persist for the reason of being fit for survival in the current media environment – the media will especially pick up on these rowdy moments because they’re the most attention-grabbing to attract viewers. Editors will also specifically pick out any memorable sound bites and so MPs will try to generate sound bites and score media points against their opponents. In other words, it’s simply about supply and demand, and a politician will be missing a trick if he/she doesn’t at least attempt to supply what might get his/her words attention in the media.
However, because the mainstream news tends to disproportionately report these ‘entertaining’ PMQs sessions – it’s the only live action from politicians most of the general public gets to see hence skewing the general public’s perception of what politicians do all week; which may help explain the strong negative impression of parliament that many citizens hold. So PMQs is, in truth, hardly what it’s typically like in parliament (e.g. watch any select committee debate freely online). About half-an-hour per week shouldn’t be generalised for what happens during the rest of the week. But the less we know, the more we generalise (and the more strongly opinionated and more black-or-white we can believe complex things to be too).
Well some will argue that for a short time each week – what’s wrong with a bit of conflict and competition inside parliament? We certainly don’t want a bunch of ‘yes people’ or obsequious fuzzy brown-nosers in parliament. We want criticism and scrutiny at its core! Some people complain that politicians verbally fight and disagree too much, but then others (or even some of the same people at different times) complain that politicians are all the same and are all colluding as one in a unified mission to control us all(!) One person’s ‘conflict, competition and pressure’ is another person’s ‘childishness, point-scoring and pettiness’! If nothing else, PMQs lets the Prime Minister know where his/her policies are popular or criticised; then the real governmental and parliamentary work happens during most of the other times of the parliamentary week (unless there’s a recess or parliament has been suspended (prorogued), which are times when MPs can concentrate on their constituencies and Lords can concentrate on their other employments, amongst other things). PMQs highlights issues but doesn’t answer them. The answering comes in different forums, such as debates and select committees.
Across some parts of the world, the UK’s Prime Minister’s Questions is actually envied – lots of countries would like their own leaders to face something harsher than a sycophantic press conference. Many citizens from other countries – other democracies even – envy the UK’s parliamentary process overall. So don’t generalise all governmental and parliamentary systems as being the same. The UK system can certainly improve(!) and should always strive to improve, but it’s not the least evolved in the world.
Calling for a longer PMQs though, so that it’s not so rowdy or crammed, with more time for asking more questions, would mean less time working elsewhere. A Prime Minister cannot feasibly attend to all questions people ask otherwise just listening to questions will be what the Prime Minister will do all week, every week! It’s also not the only time or way questions can be put forwards to the government (e.g. oral and written questions).
Apart from the main opposition leader’s questions, questions are randomly picked and this is considered to be the only fair and unbiased way to select questions out of the hundreds that could potentially be asked every week.
Oral and written questions, which include urgent questions, ministerial statements and (House of Lords) private notice questions – provide situations where MPs are required to answer the questions. Here, MPs can prepare their answers rather than be put on the spot. Well we cannot reasonably expect MPs (or any individual in the world) to have the full breadth of expertise for all areas of governance to answer all possible questions on the spot without resorting to declaring, “I don’t have the information right now so I’ll have to come back to you” or spouting made-up BS answers. The topics discussed in parliament encompass anything you can possibly imagine regarding running a country, from pensions and welfare, climate change, genetically-modified crops, jobs, terrorism, education, libraries, pandemics, and so forth.
So the UK system has a mix of preparable questioning (e.g. oral and written questions) and on-the-spot questioning (mainly PMQs and supplementary questions), combative and collaborative forums, elected personnel (House of Commons) and expert personnel (House of Lords), macro and micro level or broad and deep level inquiries, and so on. (Fluffystealthkitten explained the bicameral system of the parliament of the UK for us in Post No.: 0267.) All this variety and balance is strongly arguably healthy, with a bit of everything and complementary approaches. Woof!
Written questions are the most common, and government ministers are expected to provide a written response to all written questions submitted. And all of this is freely available to access and check in the public domain. It’s all transparently there if we wish to go and look for the information online – from full Hansard records for both chambers of parliament, calendars of events, to live parliament TV. There are even apps to show how MPs have voted following debates in the chamber. The UK parliament website is a massive resource and there are other free and accessible online sources covering what the UK government, parliament and individual MPs are up to every day.
Every debate must be attended by a relevant government minister, who must listen to and respond to the points raised. Debates also occur throughout the legislative process (the potential formation or amendment of any law). Debates help MPs and Lords or Baronesses to reach an informed decision on a subject. In contrast to PMQs, these are more productive and less noisy affairs, although still dynamic i.e. butting in is still allowed.
‘Divisions’ or votes often conclude a debate (such as to pass or reject a new law). All debates are recorded in the Hansard for any member of the public to review (online or in print). However, it can be too easy to filibuster private members’ bills forwarded by backbenchers (‘rank and file’ MPs) as it stands, by having someone talking on and on or otherwise wasting time until the deadline to pass a law has elapsed. There might be good reasons to reject a new law, but it really should be resolved via a division rather than a filibuster.
There is much to praise and criticise about how governments and parliaments work, but before we can credibly do so, we must actually understand how they work. Whichever country you’re a citizen of, I hope you’ll investigate how your government operates and is scrutinised too…