The following piece presents the research findings of a final year undergraduate dissertation based at the University of Hull.
By Ben Goldsborough
Speaker John Bercow has repeatedly reaffirmed his belief that increased use of Urgent Questions (UQs) in the chamber of the House of Commons has made ‘ministers…become much more willing to volunteer statements to the House than had become the habit for many years previously’. But until now this statement was based on anecdotal evidence and not solid data. This research aims to understand if UQs are an effective scrutiny tool in order to hold the executive to account. To do so, it has looked at the role of the last three Speakers’ use of UQs (and previously Private Notice Questions). The following analysis is split into three sections: first, how many and what types of question were granted; second, who answered the questions; and third, who asked the questions in the first place.
How many and what types of questions were asked?
This research conducted a quantitative analysis of all UQs asked under Speaker Betty Boothroyd (27 April 1992 to 23 October 2000), Michael Martin (23 October 2000 to 21 June 2009) and Bercow (22 June 2009 to 12 July 2013). This uncovered a total of 6,152 individual UQs asked by Members to the executive. Of these, 1,461 concerned foreign affairs and 4,691 concerned domestic affairs. Speaker Boothroyd presided over 1,371 individual UQs, Martin 1,234, and Bercow 3,547. This research also separated the opening questions, or those that implemented the UQ from the combined total of questions. That resulted in there being a total of 311 UQs topics being asked.
The questions asked by the Members of Parliament where examined and placed into four categories: opening question (this is the formal opening question to instigate the UQ in line with Commons practice), opposing question (a question that was openly critical of the government and a question that was instigated to attack the governments record), supporting question (a question that invited the government to reiterate its party political message or to point to its opponents failures), and a scrutinising question (a question made to the government aiming to gather information on the matter at hand with no party political point being involved). Combining supporting and opposing questions resulted in this research creating a total which was detailed as a partisan question.
This research has been able to disprove that UQs are just another partisan tool used by the Commons to attack the incumbent government. The evidence has shown that the presiding Speaker makes an impact on the ability of a UQ to be a scrutinising implement. Boothroyd and Bercow were both Speakers who were able to keep the House in a relatively calm mood (encouraged through less partisan questions being asked, which removed the temptation of opposing benches to shout down a partisan point or start a tit for tat arms race) thus promoting questions that scrutinised and did not demonise the executive. However, Martin was the Speaker with the least ability to maintain this type of questioning. Bercow was not only able to restore UQs to ‘Boothroydian’ levels of scrutiny but more importantly was able to improve upon her successes (under Boothroyd questions which scrutinised accounted for 61.2%. Then under Martin they fell to 54.6% which recovered under Bercow to 62.3% of all questions).
The Speaker, however, was not the only variable that impacts on a UQs ability to scrutinise the executive. Foreign or domestic affairs also play a key role in determining the ability of UQs to scrutinise the executive. Foreign affairs, in the main, ensure that the Commons scrutinising the executive (with 74% of foreign affairs questions being scrutinising) and domestic questions are more partisan in nature (with 38.8% of questions being partisan). Some of the apparent reasons for this was the House believed it knew what it was discussing when asking a UQ on domestic affairs and as a result wanted to put forward its opinions. Moreover, domestic affairs, unlike foreign affairs contain issues that separate the parties on ideological grounds, be it the NHS or the economy.
Who answered the questions?
The second part of our question concerned the effectiveness of UQs in scrutinising the executive. This research deemed that an effective question was one that brought forward a Secretary of State to the dispatch box. UQs showed their limitations in this field, as it has been shown that the majority of the time UQs are responded to by a Minister (51.7% of UQs were replied to by the Minister and only 47.2% were answered by the Secretary of State).
But once again Speaker Bercow demonstrated his strengths as a Speaker in being able to get more UQs responded to by a Secretary of State (49.7%) than any other Speaker, improving on Speaker Boothroyd’s (29.8%) and Speaker Martin’s (20.5%) record by a significant amount. This supports the claim that Speaker Bercow not only improved the ability of UQs to scrutinise the executive but also to improve the effectiveness of UQs.
Who asked the questions?
The final area this research investigated was whether UQs were a parliamentary instrument available to the whole House or just the Opposition Frontbench. Another weakness of UQs was shown here. The majority of UQs instigated were by Frontbenchers (55%); with opposition Backbenchers coming in second (28.9%).
Bercow, once again showing his credentials as a transformative Speaker, was able to reduce the deficit between questions asked by Frontbenchers and Backbenchers (see Figure 2). This strengthening of the Backbencher was something that has been ongoing under all three Speakers, but Bercow made a huge leap forward in ensuring the gap is being eroded away.
It was also uncovered that UQs instigated by Frontbenchers were more likely to be partisan in nature (22.1%) as opposed to ones instigated by Backbenchers (12.2%). This raises a conflict in UQs. Yes, questions asked by Frontbenchers to the executive are more effective in bringing forward a Secretary of State, but it will be at the detriment of scrutiny.
The research has shown that Speaker Bercow can now say, without the use of anecdotal evidence, that he truly is the Backbenchers’ Speaker. Moreover, Bercow has improved the scrutinising ability of UQs, ensuring that they are used for their intended purpose and not just political point scoring, a common complaint of today’s proceedings in the House.
Ben Goldsborough is a final year undergraduate student at the University of Hull, studying towards a degree on British Politics and Legislative Studies. His main research interests are legislative scrutiny and the UK constitution. He is available on Twitter @BenGoldsborough.