Prime Minister's Questions
Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) (officially Questions to the Prime Minister) is a constitutional convention in the
United Kingdom, where every Wednesday when the House of Commons is sitting the Prime Minister spends half an hour answering questions from Members of Parliament ("MPs").cite news|url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/a-z_of_parliament/p-q/82556.stm | title=Prime Minister's Questions|date= 2006-01-24| work = BBC News Online]
Canada, a similar convention is known as Question Periodand occurs both in the federal Parliament and in the provincial legislatures. In Australiaand New Zealandthe period is called Question Time. In the Irish Dáil, the practice is called Leader's Questions. In the Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assemblyand National Assembly for Walesthis practice is called First Minister's Questions. India's Lok Sabhahas a Question Hour. In Israel, it has been recently suggested that such practice should commence in the Knessettwice a year. Sweden's prime minister also answers direct questions from the parliament, every Thursday.
John McCainpledged to institute an American equivalent of question time if he is elected president. [cite news |author= George F. Will|title= McCain's Question Time|url=http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/28/AR2008052802917.html |work= The Washington Post|publisher= washingtonpost.com |date= 2008-05-28|accessdate=2008-06-01 | quote= "I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons".] [cite news |authors= |title=If Presidents Faced Question Time |url=http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/01/opinion/01sun3.html |work= New York Times|publisher=nytimes.com |date= 2008-06-01|accessdate=2008-06-01 ]
The practice of regularly asking the Prime Minister questions in parliament in a fixed period was started in the 1950s.
Backbench MPs wishing to ask a question must enter their names on the Order Paper. The names of entrants are then shuffled in a ballot to produce a random order in which they will be called by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker will then call on MPs to put their questions, usually in an alternating fashion: one MP from the government benches is followed by one from the opposition benches. MPs who are not selected may be chosen to ask a supplementary question if they "catch the eye" of the Speaker, which is done by standing and sitting immediately before the Prime Minister gives an answer. The Leader of the Opposition is traditionally the first MP from the opposition benches to be called "after" the first question (whether it comes from the government or opposition benches), and the leader of the next largest opposition party is the next MP to be called from the opposition benches.
The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number One, Mr Speaker", is usually to ask the Prime Minister if he/she will list his/her engagements for the day. The current Prime Minister
Gordon Brown, like his predecessor Tony Blair, usually replies:
The Prime Minister may also take a moment before giving the answer to extend condolences or offer congratulations after significant events. After this, the MP may ask a supplementary question about any subject which might occupy the Prime Minister's time. The reason for asking the Prime Minister about his/her engagements is because, until recently, any member of the
Cabinetcould answer the posed question, allowing the Prime Minister to avoid answering questions himself, but once someone answers a question, he is obliged to answer follow-up questions (on any topic). The only question that the Prime Minister had to answer personally was his/her list of engagements for the day; hence he/she is traditionally asked this question first, and all subsequent questions are follow-up questions, forcing the Prime Minister to answer the questions himself/herself. Occasionally the first question tabled is on a specific area of policy, but this is rare, as it would allow the Prime Minister to prepare a response in advance; the non-descript question allows some chance of catching him/her out with an unexpected supplementary question.
The Leader of the Opposition is allowed six supplementary questions (which he/she will normally use as two groups of three), and the leader of the third largest party (currently the Liberal Democrats) has two. The Speaker tries to alternate between government and opposition questioners, and MPs who have drawn a low number or did not enter the ballot can be called in order to provide this balance.
If the Prime Minister is away on official business then a substitute will answer questions. This is usually the Deputy Prime Minister, a post currently unfilled; the
Leader of the House of Commons, or another senior Minister. If the Prime Minister is not in attendance, it is normal for the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the third party to also send a substitute. Currently the Opposition substitute is normally William Hague(designated "Senior Member of the Shadow Cabinet") and for the Liberal Democrats, Vincent Cable(the party's deputy leader). If one is absent or the position unfills then they will be substituted by the Shadow Leader of the House (for the Opposition) or parliamentary affairs spokesperson (for the Liberal Democrats). Since the televising of Parliament, Prime Minister's Questions have formed an important part of British political culture. Because of the natural drama of this confrontation, it is the most well-known piece of Parliamentary business. Tickets to the Strangers Gallery(public gallery) for Wednesday are the most sought-after Parliamentary tickets. One of Tony Blair's first acts as Prime Minister was to replace the two 15-minute sessions, held on a Tuesday and Thursday, with a single 30 minute session on a Wednesday. The first PMQs under this new format took place on 21 May 1997 [cite web|url=http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199798/cmhansrd/vo970521/debtext/70521-18.htm|title=House of Commons Hansard for 21 May 1997 (pt 18)|work= Hansard] .
PMQs have also been a popular feature on the US cable channel
C-SPAN, and have been spoofed by sketches on " Saturday Night Live". They are also currently being re-broadcast on CPACin Canada.
Leaders at the Dispatch boxes during Prime Minister's questions since 1945
The most high-profile contributors at Prime Minister's Questions are, of course, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, who speak opposite each other at the
dispatch box. Regular, fixed sessions have taken place since the 1950s, and the list below shows all the Prime Ministers since 1945 and all the Opposition Leaders they faced across the floor of the House of Commons;
Clement Attlee, faced by Winston Churchill1945–1951
Winston Churchill, faced by Clement Attlee 1951–1955
Anthony Eden, faced by Clement Attlee 1955, Hugh Gaitskell1955–1957
Harold Macmillan, faced by Hugh Gaitskell1957–1963, George Brown 1963 and Harold Wilson1963
Alec Douglas-Home, faced by Harold Wilson 1963–1964
Harold Wilson, faced by Alec Douglas-Home 1964–1965, Edward Heath1965–1970 and 1974–1975, and Margaret Thatcher1975–1976
Edward Heath, faced by Harold Wilson 1970–1974
James Callaghan, faced by Margaret Thatcher 1976–1979
Margaret Thatcher, faced by James Callaghan 1979–1980, Michael Foot1980–1983, and Neil Kinnock1983–1990
John Major, faced by Neil Kinnock 1990–1992, John Smith 1992–1994, Margaret Beckett1994 and Tony Blair1994–1997
Tony Blair, faced by John Major 1997, William Hague1997–2001, Iain Duncan Smith2001–2003, Michael Howard2003–2005 and David Cameron2005–2007
Gordon Brown, faced by David Cameron2007–present
* [http://www.numberten.gov.uk/output/Page306.asp Website of 10 Downing Street] Archive of videos and transcripts of PMQs
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/avdb/news_web/video/9012da68003c1c8/bb/09012da68003c261_16x9_bb.ram BBC Documentary about PMQs] "(Real Player)"
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/avdb/news_web/video/9012da68003c1c8/bb/09012da68003c261_16x9_bb.asx BBC Documentary about PMQs] "(Windows Media Player)"
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/the_daily_politics/6569289.stm BBC PMQs video podcast]
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