By Matthew Barrett
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It seems there will be another PMQs this year, as David Cameron has just said, during a press conference in South Africa, that it:
"may be right for Parliament to meet on Wednesday so I can answer questions"
The Prime Minister will also be making a statement on Wednesday.
By Matthew Barrett
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One of the moments of excitement from today's Prime Minister's Questions was a clash between John Bercow and Childrens Minister Tim Loughton, which appears to be a further installment in an ongoing series of exchanges between the two .
As can be seen from the video above, an angry and ruffled Speaker Bercow singled out Loughton, telling him to "calm down" and "behave like an adult". Bercow then said if Loughton couldn't comply, he should "leave the Chamber, get out, we'll manage without you."
Very shortly after, the Speaker stopped proceedings again, telling Loughton "No, it's not funny, only in your mind, Mr Loughton, is it funny. It's not funny at all, it's disgraceful."
Mr Loughton has since tweeted:
Within a wide-ranging interview with The Independent the Commons Speaker suggests that Prime Minister's Question Time needs reform:
"This is the most viewed of all the parliamentary events. Changing it would make the biggest impact, but while a lot else has changed this has not. It is far too noisy and needs to be conducted in a more civilised manner... Journalists love the cut and thrust, but the public detest it. We must not mistake media enthusiasm for a massive bust up with the views of the great mass of the public who don't like it".
In particular he recommends cutting the number of questions that the Leader of the Opposition can ask:
"Six questions are too much for the Leader of the Opposition. They end up taking a large number of minutes, say ten minutes out of 30, that is a third of the time gone".
Questions to the Prime Minister take place today at three o'clock rather than mid-day, because the Commons is sitting to a Tuesday timetable (even though it's Wednesday).
This provokes the question: should PMQs be changed? Should the session once again take place twice a week, perhaps on Tuesdays and Thursdays - as pre-1997 - rather than once a week?
Whether so or not, how should it adapt to the novelty of a Coalition Government? More radically, what's the point of PMQs at all? Isn't a fusty, cranky anachronism in this thrilling age of "new politics"?
Perhaps the best way of answering these questions is to look at how our two most electorally successful recent Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, dealt with PMQs.
According to Charles Moore - Thatcher's biographer, and the Greatest Living Englishman - the three-times victorious Prime Minister didn't like the Commons. Even at her most successful, she never quite got out of her mind the conviction that the place was, in many ways, an Old Boys Club. This helps to explain why she was always on top of her brief in the Chamber: she always feared that she'd be caught out, and was nervous (though it usually didn't show), watchful, attentive.
The twice-weekly ordeal of PMQs thus became for her a means of swotting up on what her Ministers were up to, finding out what her backbenchers cared about and, more broadly, keeping in touch with whatever was going on at the time.
Charles told me earlier this morning that, for her, this arrangement had another advantage - no formal lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "The Foreign Office was always insisting that it was vital to the national interest for her to entertain the Emir of Al-Muhajiroun, or whatever,' he said. "PMQs gave her an excuse to refuse."
I haven't spoken to any of Tony Blair's biographers. But why do so when his view's on the record? "I've never pretended to be a great House of Commons man," he said during his last PMQs, "but I can pay the House the greatest compliment I can by saying that from first to last I never stopped fearing it."
This presumably explains why PMQs was cut from two sessions a week to one after 1997 - though that single session was extended by half an hour, guaranteeing no overall time loss. I remember talk at the time of how this "modernising" reform, part of a "new politics", would allow more probing, serious, less partisan questioning of the Prime Minister. Needless to say, this didn't happen.
As in so many instances, the Thatcher practice is preferable to Blair's. PMQs should be broken up into two sessions, and moved to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Some adjustment be made in the procedure, no doubt, to take into account the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from an Opposition to a Government Party.
By the way, the Thursday timetabling's important: such a move would stop MPs sloping off to their constituencies after the Wednesday PMQs, as some of them were prone to do post-1997. Ideally, the new Business Committee of the Commons - not the Executive - would take or confirm the decision, but this, as matters stand, looks to be the Prime Minister's.
So if David Cameron wants to keep an eye on his Departments, an ear open to his backbenchers, his nose to the grindstone, and his sixth sense attuned to whatever's in the news, he knows what to do - especially if he wants to skip lunch with the Emir of Al-Muhajiroun.
Last month it was reported that Shadow Leader of the House Sir George Young was keen to move Prime Minister's Question Time to Thursdays.
According to the Independent, the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has not only backed that proposal, but suggested that it should perhaps be re-instated as twice-weekly fixture, as it was prior to 1997:
"The Commons Speaker, John Bercow, is pressing for Prime Minister’s Question Time to be moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays – or even to take place twice a week. Mr Bercow believes the changes would help boost interest in Parliament and increase the number of MPs who go into the Commons chamber.
"Mr Bercow argues that moving PMQs to Thursdays would bring the parliamentary week to a more dramatic end. He fears that staging PMQs on Wednesdays means the week’s events tail off after then, with many MPs leaving Westminster for their constituencies early on Thursdays."
Prime Minister's Questions is covered in detail elsewhere on this site, but I have been moved to comment having watched the first half of today's session.
PMQs is good knockabout stuff, but it should be more than that. Not many people can watch it - given that it begins at noon - and so it is of limited importance. However, those outside the Westminster Village who do watch, such as retired people, may well be floating voters. Clips of the exchanges are shown on evening bulletins. So it is not wholly trivial. That being so, I think Conservative MPs need to be a bit more serious.
I understand the temptation, I really do. Face to face with members of this complacent, decadent, dishonest and self-satisfied Government, I might find it very hard not to take the mickey. But I'm a stand-up comedian, not a prospective Cabinet minister.
Drawing attention to inconsistent quotations and broken promises is great. The odd dig is entertaining, and I'm sure the public like to see a well-considered one. But braying like schoolboys and acting as though PMQs is a particularly irreverent Oxford Union debate is incredibly unattractive, and hardly inspires confidence. At a time when the economy is in meltdown and we are just over a year away (at most) from a general election, Tory front benchers need to be sober and thoughtful, and seen to be so.
William Hague did an excellent job with Harriet Harman, calmly cataloguing the Government's unrealised promises to help struggling businesses. He mocked her over her prime ministerial ambitions, which was fine. The ludicrous giggling of his colleagues wasn't. Nor was the fact that they shouted so loudly the Speaker had to step in.
This all comes from a candid friend. I know for a fact that the shadow administration is comprised of men and women who sincerely want to change this country for the better. But they need to demonstrate in word and deed - and demeanour - that this consumes them in a way that point scoring does not.
I want to place on record that I think the suspension of Prime Minister's Questions yesterday was absolutely right and proper. None of David Cameron's senior colleagues - who are also his friends - would have wanted to stand in for him. The Prime Minister meanwhile will have been particularly saddened, having lost a child - Jennifer Jane - himself. Neither knockabout debate nor forensic questioning was appropriate yesterday. And it was a touching mark of respect to a senior parliamentarian to suspend the session.
Everyone spoke with great dignity, and their contributions are worth recording in full. I pay tribute as well to the service and sacrifice of Lance Corporal Stephen Kingscott, Marine Darren Smith and Private Ryan Wrathall.
"Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 February.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Lance Corporal Stephen Kingscott, Marine Darren Smith and Private Ryan Wrathall have all given their lives in the service of our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to their families and friends. Time and again our service personnel show us their courage and commitment. They are dedicated men and women who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for our country and in the interests of a safer world. They shall not be forgotten.
I know that the whole House will want to express our sorrow at the sad death this morning of Ivan Cameron at the age of just six, and our condolences go out to David, to Samantha and to the Cameron family. I know that, in an all-too-brief young life, he brought joy to all those around him, and I also know that for all the days of his life he was surrounded by his family’s love. Every child is precious and irreplaceable, and the death of a child is an unbearable sorrow that no parent should ever have to endure.
Politics can sometimes divide us, but there is a common human bond that unites us in sympathy and compassion at times of trial, and in support for each other at times of grief. Sarah and I have sent our condolences to David and Samantha, and I know that the whole country, and our thoughts and our prayers, are with David, Samantha and their family today.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Stephen Kingscott and Marine Darren Smith, who were killed in Afghanistan, and to Private Ryan Wrathall, who died in Iraq. Whenever we read out such names, it is a reminder that whenever death comes, or however it comes, it is a devastating loss to the families involved. That is why I want to thank the Prime Minister on behalf of David and his family for his very generous and, I know, heartfelt words and for the private condolences that he passed on this morning. I also want to thank the Prime Minister for suggesting that we suspend the normal exchanges of Prime Minister’s questions, and the Speaker for agreeing to that exceptional action, which is deeply appreciated by David’s friends and colleagues in every part of the House. As much as anyone in the House, the Prime Minister will understand the dimensions of this loss—which, as he has said, is something no parent should have to endure. I spoke to David a little while ago, and he has asked me to pass on his thanks for the sympathy already expressed by so many colleagues in this House and beyond.
Ivan’s six years of life were not easy ones. His parents lived with the knowledge that he could die young for a long time, but that has made their loss no less heartbreaking. They also wanted me to say, once again, how hugely grateful they are to the many NHS and care workers, who not only did their utmost for their son this morning, but have helped him every day from the moment he was born. We should remember today that many thousands of other families are deeply grateful for the dedication, support and love of these highly professional people. We know how much their help has meant to the Cameron family. Ivan, their son, suffered much in his short life, but he brought joy and love to those around him, and, as David himself has said in the past, for him and Samantha he will always be their beautiful boy.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): May I add my condolences to the family and friends of the three servicemen who died serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan? May I also say a few words on behalf of my party leader, my parliamentary colleagues and my party to extend our deepest sympathy to the Cameron family on the loss of their son, Ivan, this morning? Everybody in the House will have experienced bereavement, but there is something especially sad and shocking about the loss of a child. We all recognise that that is something that is especially difficult to cope with. This is a personal tragedy that transcends all party barriers, and I simply express the hope that the family are given the space and privacy to grieve and cope with the tragedy that they have experienced.
Mr. Speaker: This House will share my sadness at this news. Our hearts and sympathy go out to David and Samantha, and to Nancy and Arthur. As a mark of respect for Ivan, this House will suspend until half-past 12 o’clock.
"A quarter of all council tax is now used to pay for local authority pensions. A former chief executive of Northamptonshire county council left his job 18 months ago at the age of 52 with a lump sum payment of £291,000 and a £97,000 a year index-linked pension, which is costing the county £600,000. Nice work if you can get it! When will the Government have the courage to tackle this national pension outrage?
The Prime Minister: The first thing I should say to the hon. Gentleman is that it is a Conservative council that he is referring to, and the second thing is that most local authority workers do not have that level of pension entitlement. I hope that the Conservative party is not going to make the mistake of identifying one case as representative of what is happening to ordinary local authority workers who, as we found with the emergency services, do a good job when called upon to do so."
Mr Binley comments:
“It used to be the case that those who worked in the public sector were paid less than the private sector because of a number of other advantages, and notably among those a generous pension scheme. But with salaries that now exceed equivalent private sector roles at many levels those pension arrangements need to be reviewed. We cannot have a quarter of Council Tax going on local Government pensions. We cannot have schemes which double in cost to the taxpayer every seven years. It is not sustainable and at a time when those in the private sector face pension cuts it is not fair either.
Changes must start at the top, where the pension arrangements are the most generous. We have had a former Chief Executive of our Council leave that office at a relatively young age with a lump sum payment of £291,000 and a £97,000 a year index linked pension. That is complete nonsense and exemplifies the bloated nature of costs in our public services at present.
I brought this to the attention of the Prime Minister who told me this is not the case in all of the country. I am afraid it shows just how out of touch he is with local government inflation in the country. Since the Government came into power the cost of local pensions to the taxpayer has risen from £1.322billion to £5.009 billion far outstripping annual inflation rates.
Yet again we see a Prime Minister in total denial.”
Richard Benyon has been blogging on the Conservative Party website, and offers this observation about PMQs:
"Prime Minister’s Questions is what much of the country think Parliament is like all the time. I try to point out that for most of the time the “crucible of the nation” is as sparse as a late night tube train. I came into Parliament thinking PMQs would be a ridiculous pastime overdue for reform and one that I would shun. I have changed my mind.
While it is often ridiculous and tends to shed more heat than light, it is worth reflecting that when week after week the most powerful politician in the land has to come to Parliament and to account for the actions of his Government in a confrontational atmosphere. Can you imagine Presidents Bush or Sarkozy coming down from their particular Olympus to be asked such impertinent questions? For a few short minutes it keeps reminding the most powerful in the land that they are mortal after all."
Mr Benyon had a chance to take part in PMQs on Wednesday. Alas, the Prime Minister was at the European Council, and he had to make do with Ms Harriet Harman. Here is the exchange:
Robert Neill: "Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Conservative-controlled London borough of Bromley on achieving the highest rate of dry recycling in London and on being recognised as an exemplary authority for garden and home recycling? Would he like to come and see the work that we are doing in Bromley? I could take him and show him one of our bottle banks."