The institution of PMQs feeds the idea that MPs are not like ordinary people because they behave in the workplace in a thoroughly unprofessional way – it is time to reform the weekly pantomime and allow the public to submit questions, argues Ruth Fox
‘A pathetic spectacle’ is one of the politer public descriptions of prime minister’s questions in the United Kingdom. Surprisingly, given that criticism of PMQs has intensified in recent years, no one has really ever asked what the public think of parliament’s shop window. But in the last few months, through focus group discussions conducted in partnership with YouGov and a national opinion poll conducted by Ipsos MORI, we have gauged the public mood.
Our report Tuned in or turned off? Public attitudes to prime minister’s questions shows that PMQs is a ‘cue’ for the public’s poor perceptions of parliament and provides a lot of the raw material that feeds their negative assumptions about politicians. The conduct of MPs is considered childish like school children in a playground. It feeds the idea that MPs are not like ordinary people because they behave in the workplace in a thoroughly unprofessional way. The noise, point-scoring and the perceived failure to answer the questions create an atmosphere that confuses rather than informs. And the jeering and the finger-pointing lead the public to conclude that MPs are ridiculing important issues instead of taking them seriously.
Defenders of PMQs argue that the theatre and drama is important – if it is toned down, no one will watch. But the public see the theatrics rather differently: it is ‘farce’ and ‘pantomime’. Citizens want rousing speeches and passionate conviction but more often than not what they see is ‘noise and bluster and showing off’. The partisanship on display is thought to be an act by the MPs so the drama itself leads the public to suspect that the whole exercise is dishonest.
Overall it was clear from our focus groups that many people are actually ashamed of PMQs and this was reflected in our subsequent survey results. Only 12 per cent of the public agree that PMQs ‘makes me proud of our parliament’ whilst 45 per cent disagreed.
Other results broadly confirm the focus group findings: 67 per cent of the public agree that ‘there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’ – 5 per cent disagree; 40 per cent agree ‘it deals with the important issues facing the country’ – 20 per cent disagree; 36 per cent agree it is ‘informative’ – 22 per cent disagree; 33 per cent agree ‘it puts me off politics’ – 27 per cent disagree; 20 per cent agree that ‘it’s exciting to watch’ – 44 per cent disagree; 16 per cent agree that ‘MPs behave professionally’ at PMQs – 48 per cent disagree.
The public don’t like the status quo, although nor would they want to see PMQs abolished. They like the principle of holding the government to account each week. So the key to improving public attitudes lies in addressing the behavioural problems without completely killing the spectacle.
Firstly, the behaviour of MPs needs to change with the party leaders and party whips leading by example. Varying the format of PMQs will have no impact whatsoever unless the political leaders themselves are prepared to do things differently in the future.
The Commons speaker also needs to have the power to name a member for disorderly conduct and remove them from the chamber for the rest of PMQs. A sin-bin penalty, used with discretion, might help curb the more zealous behaviour of a few members in the chamber.
Rather than an often tedious and predictable question and answer session, the format also needs freshening. The model of questioning should be varied to facilitate more discussion, pursuing genuine scrutiny and debate on a few topical areas rather than sole reliance on rapid-fire Q&As solely designed to trip participants up. At present, the emphasis at PMQs is on the use of open questions where MPs can ask the prime minister about absolutely anything and he is expected to know the answer on the spot. This rarely lends itself to informed debate and scrutiny. The re-introduction of closed questions on subject-specific areas might help remedy this.
The number of questions asked by the leader of the opposition should also be reduced to free up more time for questions from backbenchers and the leaders of the minor parties. And the public could be invited to submit questions for consideration at PMQs at least once a month. New technology means this could be done in simple and cost-effective ways.
Finally, the timing of PMQs should also be changed. In our poll in December, 54 per cent of the public said they have seen or heard PMQs either in full or in clip form in the last 12 months. Although everyone who sees it shares the negative perception of MPs, those who said they had seen it in full rather than just clips were more engaged by PMQs generally. However, awareness of PMQs is heavily skewed towards older citizens. Some 68 per cent of those aged 65 and over report having seen it in the last year compared to just 35 per cent of those aged 18-24. It is unlikely ever to attract huge audiences. However, moving PMQs to an early evening slot might help broaden the range of people watching.
Ruth Fox is director of British-based think-tank the Hansard Society