Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

PMQs - how much Q&A is there?

Something I have noticed before about PMQs and it was apparent again today is that a fair proportion of the time is spent not asking or answering questions but in paying tributes or other statements of this nature.

Now, I need to tread carefully here as what I am about to say could easily be misinterpreted. I think it is absolutely right that the House of Commons pays tribute to fallen soldiers. I think they do it well and with heartfelt dignity and it is the least our servicemen deserve. However, the tradition that has become apparent recently of announcing the tributes at the start of PMQs and for the two main leaders to respond with their own tributes has the effect of reducing the amount of time available for questions and answers within the allotted 30 minutes. Perhaps the time for the session should be extended to 35 or 40 minutes to allow the tributes to be paid but for it not to impinge on the 30 minutes for questions.

The much more debateable thing that I have noticed is encapsulated in the following exchange from today's PMQs copied from Hansard:

Q5. [260228] Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, we laid the first bricks in the £4 million extension to Rainbows children’s hospice, which is in my constituency but serves the whole east midlands. We still need another £1 million, plus £2.5 million each year to keep the hospice running. When are the Government finally going to act to ensure that children’s hospices do not rely for 95 per cent. of their funding on local residents and fundraisers, and finally get them to the level of adult hospices, for which about 40 per cent. of the funding comes from the public purse?

Ms Harman: I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those in the NHS, both in hospital care and in the community, who help with palliative and end-of-life services, but I would also like to pay a very big tribute to the hospice movement, the voluntary movement that has spearheaded new ways to care for people at the end of their lives. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made that a priority, investing £30 million extra for palliative and end-of-life care and announcing additional support for all hospices and hospice home services for children up to the age of five. There is a great deal of progress under way, and it is very important indeed.

Can you spot what happened here? A very important question was asked about children's hospices and the funding for them which predominantly comes from charitable donations. Harman had a stab at answering the question in the end (a bit disingenuously I thought as I have no idea if the 30 million makes any difference in the context of the question) but the first half was taken up with a load of waffle about "paying tribute" to hospices. Now, again I need to tread carefully here. I am not saying that hospices do not deserve tribute being paid to them. However I see this sort of thing happen so often that I feel like it is sometimes being used as a way of burning up the available time so that there are less questions allowed to be asked. It also helps to divert attention from the original question which deserved a direct answer.

Nobody in the country would disagree with the sentiment Harman expressed and therefore it is not necessary for the answer. It is basically platitudinous waffle to pad out the answer. If the government wants to show its commitment to children's hospices it should answer the question properly and act upon it to ensure the scandalous 95% charity figure comes down substantially.

Gordon Brown is on record as claiming that there is no need for a televised debate between the leaders in the run up to a general election because that's what PMQs is for. However, the questions are often not answered (unless they are a plant from their own side and then it is just a way of scoring political points) and there is a lot of sometimes unnecessary padding.

I know that today PMQs went on beyond 12:30 (I suspect because Mr Speaker recognised that some time had been lost) which is a good thing but that does not often happen and as it is the only time of the week that our representatives get to hold the Prime Minister to account directly, I think more thought should be put into how the structure can be adapted to work as it needs to.


Bill Quango MP said...

Its a good point. Gordon's mob are particularly adept at fitting a few friendly backbench questions for mutual back scratching.

"Will the Prime Minister join with me in saying how he wall paper factory in Berwick is the finest in the land?"

"Indeed it is. Under this government wallpaper supplies have risen ten fold..blah blah."

A chance for a backbencher to plug a local concern or issue and the chance for the PM to have a fully scripted rest.

The practice should be outlawed.Its a dodge.

Mark Reckons said...

It's not just Brown though of course. Blair was just as bad and I certainly remember Major and even Thatcher doing this sort of thing.

It is a structural problem with PMQs and I think that one of two things must happen:

1) As I said in my post we need it to be restructured somehow.
2) Failing that, the Speaker needs to enforce the Q&A parts of the proceedings properly and embarrass the PM every time he doesn't answer a question or disallow blatantly planted question and irrelevant waffle or grandstanding. I suspect we will have to wait for a new Speaker though before there is any chance of that.