By Andrew Defty
The weekly Prime Minister’s Questions is undoubtedly an important mechanism for holding the government to account. The requirement that the Prime Minister must come to the chamber of the House of Commons on a weekly basis to answer questions about government policy and administration provides a valuable, and rare, opportunity for individual MPs to scrutinise government.
However, in practice PMQs often falls somewhat short of this ideal. Criticisms of PMQs tend to focus on the Punch and Judy nature of the occasion, in which government and opposition seek to score points by outdoing each other through jeers and rehearsed one-liners. Another common source of complaint is the governing party’s use of planted questions which are merely designed to offer the Prime Minister an opportunity to reiterate a few stock phrases about the government’s achievements. If PMQs is to provide a genuine opportunity to scrutinise the government then such practices are, at best, a waste of time.
Another, less well-known but increasingly common, way in which this precious opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny is being wasted is the practice of MPs asking pointless questions about things over which the government has no control. Such questions are not necessarily designed to provide the government with a free hit and are perhaps less grating than those which ask the Prime Minister to comment on the economic benefits of the recent opening of a newsagents in Chipping Walden. However, they are similarly pointless.
Two striking examples of the form cropped up in last week’s PMQs. The first, from Charles Walker, Conservative MP for Broxbourne, related to the news that the British gymnast Louis Smith had been banned from the sport for two months after appearing to mock Islam in a video. Something for which Smith had subsequently apologised. An indignant and apparently frustrated Walker asked the PM:
When people make fun of Christianity in this country, it rightly turns the other cheek. When a young gymnast, Louis Smith, makes fun of another religion widely practised in this country, he is hounded on Twitter and by the media and suspended by his association. For goodness’ sake, this man received death threats, and we have all looked the other way. My question to the Prime Minister is this: what is going on in this country, because I no longer understand the rules? (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.888)
The PM who, understandably, appeared at something of a loss at how to answer the question, ‘what is going on in this country?’, responded by asserting the importance of freedom of speech and religious tolerance, before moving onto ground on which she was clearly more comfortable, the government’s counter-extremism strategy.
Later in the same session the Labour MP for Selly Oak, Steve McCabe, asked the Prime Minister to comment on the ruling by football’s governing body that the national teams for England and Scotland would not be allowed to wear poppies on their kit in their forthcoming game to be held on Armistice Day:
Has the Prime Minister spotted the ludicrous refusal by FIFA, the footballing federation, to let our players wear poppies at the forthcoming Scotland-England game? Will she tell the respective associations that, in this country, we decide when to wear poppies and that we will be wearing them at Wembley? (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.889)
The PM was, it seemed, much more comfortable in responding to this question and was moved to offer a stern telling-off to FIFA:
I think the stance that has been taken by FIFA is utterly outrageous. Our football players want to recognise and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security. I think it is absolutely right that they should be able to do so. This is for our football associations, but I think a clear message is going from this House that we want our players to be able to wear poppies. I have to say to FIFA that before they start telling us what to do they jolly well ought to sort their own house out. (Hansard – 2 November 2016, col.889)
Interestingly it was this response which dominated media coverage of last week’s PMQs, and was reported on the front page of several newspapers. In contrast, for example, the Prime Minister’s responses to Jeremy Corbyn’s questions about benefits cuts or Jeff Smith’s question on the government’s latest high court defeat on air pollution, or the government’s commitment to increase GP numbers restated in response to a question from Rosie Winterton, faded into oblivion.
The problem with Walker’s and McCabe’s questions is not that they are not interesting and valid issues for discussion but that they are not issues over which the Prime Minister has any authority. Both questions related to the actions of a sport governing body, in McCabe’s case, the international governing body, over which the Prime Minister has no authority or, it might reasonably be assumed, influence. Walker’s question raised the not insignificant problem of online abuse but did not ask anything specific about government policy in that regard. Indeed, it is not entirely clear why Walker felt moved to ask his question at all. As far as I can tell, Louis Smith is not a resident of Broxbourne and was not born or brought up there. The question was clearly motivated by a more general sense of disquiet about the state of the country but it is hard to know how the Prime Minister is supposed to answer such questions.
It is not that the Prime Minister will not have a view on such issues, but it is perhaps wrong to expect that she does, or more importantly that it matters. The Prime Minister’s response to such questions, made up as it is on the floor of the House of Commons, does not constitute government policy and is at worst wholly irrelevant. The policies of British Gymnastics or of FIFA do not fall within the purview of government policy and it is unlikely that the government will choose to do anything in response to such questions, or indeed that it should. It would be refreshing, although admittedly unlikely, if the PM would respond to such questions by stating that the government has no official position on these matters, and no authority, and that if MPs wish to know her personal view on such matters they should perhaps choose a different forum in which to ask such questions, the House of Commons tea room, for example.
The more serious point about this is that questions such as these waste a valuable opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny when MPs could be asking the Prime Minister to comments on government policy. When PMQs was established as a regular fixture in the Parliamentary week in 1961, it was based on the assumption that the Prime Minister would only answer questions on those areas in which they had personal responsibility. It was not uncommon for the Prime Minister to transfer questions to other Minsters or simply to dismiss irrelevant questions in a fairly perfunctory fashion. The current practice of PMQs being tabled as engagements questions, allowing MPs to ask an unseen supplementary question on any issue they care to choose, has rather undermined the Prime Minister’s capacity to transfer questions in advance. At the same time a widespread expectation has developed that the Prime Minister should now provide an answer to whatever question is posed on any issue which might excite a member’s interest. It would perhaps take a brave Prime Minister to simply dismiss a question on the basis that it is not an area over which they have any responsibility, but it might help to reassert PMQs as an important and relevant mechanism for parliament to scrutinise the executive.
About the author
Andrew Defty is Reader at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln. He is on Twitter: @adefty.