Prime Minister's Questions

From Academic Kids

Prime Minister's Questions is a Parliamentary practice in the United Kingdom where every Wednesday when the House of Commons is sitting, the Prime Minister spends half an hour answering questions from MPs. In Canada this constitutional convention is known as Question Period and occurs both in the federal Parliament and in the provincial legislatures. In Australia and New Zealand the period is called Question Time. In the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales this practice is called First Minister's Questions.

UK practice

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 formal question on the Order Paper is to ask the Prime Minister if he will list his engagements for the day, after which 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 engagements is because, until recently, any member of the cabinet could answer the posed question, allowing the Prime Minister to avoid having to answer any questions himself, but once someone answers a question, they are obliged to answer follow up questions (on any topic). The only question that the Prime Minster had to answer personally was his list of engagements for the week, hence he is asked this question first, and all subsequent questions are follow up questions, forcing the Prime Minsiter to answer the questions himself.

The Leader of the Opposition is allowed six supplementary questions (which he 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 get called in order to provide this balance.

If the Prime Minister is away on official business then a substitute, usually the Deputy Prime Minister, will answer questions. It is customary on these occasions for the Leader of the Opposition also to send a substitute.

Since the televising of Parliament "PMQs" 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 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, a move for which he was criticised.

Prime Minister's Questions were part of the inspiration behind the Anglophile Woodrow Wilson's revival of the State of the Union Address.

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