Supplementary memorandum submitted by Professor the Lord Norton of Louth
PRIME MINISTER'S QUESTIONS
I was asked to provide a short note on mechanisms that may be employed to enable MPs to question the Prime Minister, additional to the existing and much criticised Prime Minister's Question Time. Since the meeting of the Procedure Committee on 16 April, at which I was invited to prepare the note, the Prime Minister has volunteered to appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee. The Prime Minister's announcement clearly has a critical bearing on what may now be proposed. The announcement by Downing Street represents a significant, and positive, departure from existing practice.
If the Prime Minister is to appear before MPs, other than in the existing format of Prime Minister's Question Time (PMQT), then there are three broad options. The first is developing means of further questioning the PM on the floor of the House. The second is questioning the PM in committee. The third is questioning the Prime Minister in Westminster Hall.
The floor of the House
Developing the opportunity to question the Prime Minister on the floor of the House, other than through the occasional statement, is limited. There appears little scope for developing means other than existing PMQT. As the Committee is aware, there is scope, and in my view a compelling case, for reforming the format of PMQT. If one wishes to go beyond that, the principal practical means of achieving more opportunity for Members to question the PM would be through extending the time allocated to PMQs. The time set aside for PMQs has not changed since the introduction of a dedicated Prime Minister's Question Time in 1961, though the way it is distributed has changed (from two 15-minute slots to one 30-minute slot). The Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which I chaired, recommended two 30-minute sessions each week. That would extend the answerability of the Prime Minister to the House, but without introducing a new mechanism for doing so.
The other means of extending the Prime Minister's answerability to the House is through reversing the historical trend of Prime Ministers spending less time in the House. Prime Ministers are now less likely than their predecessors to spend time in the House listening to speeches, voting, making statements, and opening debates. When Tony Blair opened for the Government in the debate on 13 July 2000 on government accountability to Parliament, his speech was noteworthy for the number of occasions he kept saying "Madam Speaker", even though the Deputy Speaker had taken the chair. Even when his attention was drawn to the fact, including by the Deputy Speaker, he still kept referring to Madam Speaker. The explanation, as one senior MP noted afterwards, was that it must have been one of the very few or even the only occasion since becoming Prime Minister when he had spoken in the House when the Speaker was not in the chair.
The decline in the time spent in the House by the Prime Minister is not compensated for by an increase in the time spent in the chamber by senior ministers. There is therefore a case for encouraging the Prime Minister to spend more time in the House, not least in making the occasional statement and in opening for the Government in some debates. Though it can be argued that the PM has no departmental responsibilities and therefore has limited opportunities to make statements, there appears no shortage of statements emanating from 10 Downing Street on different aspects of public policy. There may be a case for suggesting that any major public policy announcement made from 10 Downing Street, and certainly any statement that is made at or accompanied by a Prime Ministerial press conference, should be subject to a statement by the Prime Minister in the House. Alternatively, or as a fall-back position should the Prime Minister be reluctant to make a statement, the Speaker could accept a policy announcement by the Prime Minister at a press conference as constituting a prima facie case for allowing a Private Notice Question on the subject.
There are essentially three options in terms of the Prime Minister appearing before Select Committees of the House. The first is to appear before those committees that cover sectors falling within the remit of the Prime Minister. The primary committee here is the Public Administration Committee, given that the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service. The Treasury Committee is probably the only other committee that could make a claim, given that the Prime Minister is also First Lord of the Treasury. The Public Administration Committee has made various attempts to get the Prime Minister to give evidence, rejected on the ground that Prime Ministers have "by long standing convention" declined to give evidence. While the case made by the Public Administration Committee is a persuasive one, the PM appearing before the Committee will not in itself extend the answerability of the PM to the generality of MPs.
The second option is for the Prime Minister is to appear once a year or biennially before each of the Departmental Select Committees. This would extend the capacity of MPs who serve on committees to question the Prime Minister. The drawbacks of such a practice are twofold. First, it would impose a considerable additional burden on the Prime Minister. Even if the appearance were biennial, it would still mean considerable preparation in order to appear before eight separate committees each year. Second, it may be seen to undermine the position of other members of the Cabinet, the Prime Minister appearing before a committee to answer in depth on the subject for which a Secretary of State is responsible. Where the Prime Minister takes the lead in a particular sector, such as foreign policy, this might be justifiable but there is little to sustain the case across all Departments.
The third option is to appear before the Liaison Committee. One Member of the House, Andrew Tyrie, advocated in his evidence to the Commission to Strengthen Parliament that the PM should appear regularly, perhaps monthly, before the Liaison Committee. In its report, the Commission recommended instead "that the prime minister appears twice a year before the committee for a wide-ranging review, similar to that undertaken by some select committees of senior ministers".4 This is the recommendation that the Prime Minister now appears to have accepted. 5 The attraction of doing so is that it will allow the Prime Minister to answer for government policy, as he does in Prime Minister's Question Time, but in a more structured and less adversarial format than Question Time. Appearing twice a year will not impose massive burdens on the Prime Ministerthe number of times can be extended in the light of experienceand it allows questioning by a committee that has some claim to be representative of the collectivity of Departmental Select Committees. It will be up to each committee as to whether it wishes to have a session discussing the question(s) it would wish its chairman to put.
The Prime Minister's agreement to appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee is thus to be warmly welcomed. It represents a considerable step forward. It can be reviewed after a year or so to see if there is scope for extending the number of times the PM appears before the Committee. Appearing before the Liaison Committee twice a year and appearing on occasion before the Public Administration Committee are not mutually exclusive options. In appearing before the Liaison Committee, the PM is being called to give evidence in his capacity as Prime Minister. In appearing before the Public Administration Committee, he would be appearing in his capacity as Minister for the Civil Service.
There are substantial benefits in the Prime Minister agreeing to appear before the Liaison Committee. However, appearing before the Committee does not necessarily achieve the goal of widening the opportunity for all MPs to question the Prime Minister. It is clear from some of the questions put by members of the Procedure Committee that there is a desire for back-benchers, especially newer members, to have a greater opportunity to question the PM and to do so on the basis of a more even playing field than is afforded in the chamber. It is also clear from comments made by members of the Modernisation Committee that the Liaison Committee is viewed as an "establishment" body comprising senior members of the House. 6 There is therefore a case for looking at whether an opportunity may be created for back-benchers to have another avenue for questioning the Prime Minister. One route may be through the use of sittings at Westminster Hall.
Westminster Hall could be utilised for a regular, perhaps monthly, Question Time with the Prime Minister. The format necessarily would differ from that employed in the chamber. Simply repeating the format would render the use of Westminster Hall superfluous (why not hold it in the chamber?) and the limited seating would make it impossible for all MPs who are likely to wish to attend to do so. One possible format would be to use the occasion for "closed" questions, each one chosen by ballot, and with the person asking the question having the opportunity to put two or three supplementaries. The chair could be permitted to allow one or two other Members to put supplementaries. However, confining the supplementaries to the Member with the quesiton would ensure that the occasion remained a back-bench one. It would also reduce the pressure on seating, since MPs would not crowd in for the purpose of catching the eye of the Chairman, and reduce the temptation to engage in adversarial combat with the Prime Minister. An alternative method of proceeding would be to have a two-stage process, the first the selection of the question and the second the selection, also by ballot, of two or three other Members to put supplementaries. There would thus, in effect, be a questioners' list. This would ensure equitysenior Members would not get preferenceand would also deal with the limited seating capacity.
I raise this as a novel possibility. I appreciate that it is not, as yet, a well developed proposal and various arguments may be deployed against it. At this stage, I draw it to the Committee's attention as the basis for further reflection on the subject. The Prime Minister's decision to appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee may mean that there is little point in exploring further possibilities in the near future. However, the Prime Minister's willingness to be more answerable to Parliament may prompt reflection on how such answerability may be extended. If the PM's appearances before the Liaison Committee prove to be valuable and constructive occasions, then there may be a case for looking at other ways of extending the opportunity for all back-benchers to engage in such questioning.
4 Strengthening Parliament, p 51.
5 See, eg Philip Webster, "Blair volunteers for inquisitions in Parliament", The Times, 27 April 2002.
6 See, eg Select Committees, First Report of the Select on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Session 2001-02,
Vol II: Minutes of Evidence and Appendices, HC 244-II, Q11, Q14, Q37.
16 The Commission to Strengthen Parliament, Strengthening Parliament (London: The Conservative Party, 2000), pp 26-27. Back
17 See P Dunleavy and G W Jones, "Leaders, Politics and Institutional Change: The Decline of Prime Ministerial Accountability to the House of Commons", British Journal of Political Science, vol 23, 1993, pp 267-98. Back
18 See, eg The Ministerial Code: Improving the Rule Book, Third Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration, Session 2000-01, HC 235, Appendix 4. The fact that Prime Ministers have not appeared, usually because they have not been invited, does not amount to a convention that Prime Ministers do not appear before committees. Back