Questions to Ministers

Government ministers face questions from MPs on the floor of the house. The parliamentary timetable includes question time sessions for ministers from each government department. In addition to questions tabled in advance, ministers answer topical questions on issues relating to their department. Speaker Bercow has required ministers to answer urgent questions more frequently. The most high-profile event is Prime Minister’s Question Time (also referred to as PMQs), which takes place each Wednesday at noon for half an hour. This provides an opportunity for the leader of the opposition, the leader of the third largest party and backbenchers to question the prime minister. A backbencher might raise a constituency matter, but many government backbenchers ask questions drafted by the whips which are intended to flatter, rather than probe. The leader of the opposition may try to shape the agenda or highlight policy failure. As leader of the opposition in the 2015–16 parliamentary session, Jeremy Corbyn tried to change the gladiatorial style by asking questions sent in by members of the public. Speaker Bercow has called more backbenchers during PMQs and sought, with limited success, to reduce noise levels in the chamber.

MPs and Lords get the opportunity to question government ministers either directly on the floor of the House during the regular oral question times or in writing.

Question time takes place on the following days:

  • Monday: 2.35pm - 3.35pm

  • Tuesday: 11.35am - 12.35pm

  • Wednesday: 11.35am - 12.35pm

  • Thursday: 9.35am - 10.35am

Ministers from each government department attend the Commons on a rota basis to answer oral questions. Each major Government department is allocated to a particular day of the week, with a rota agreed by the Government and Opposition parties.

In the Lords, the House questions government ministers at the start of each day's business, but there are no set days for government departments.

Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs)

The Prime Minister answers questions every sitting Wednesday from 12.00noon -12.30pm.

In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair replaced the two 15-minute sessions of PMQ with a single 30-minute session on Wednesdays, giving fewer opportunities to question the PM. However, some would question whether this is really a loss. In 2015, the Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman, the longest serving MP in the Commons, described PMQ as “an exchange of pointless and useless declamations”. While proceedings are televised, most people are only likely to see highlights on the evening news, encouraging participants to focus on short, witty sound bites. Some questions are planted by the government in order to set the PM up for pre-prepared statements, rather than put on the spot and face real scrutiny. Other questions, which ask the PM if they would agree with a positive statement about their party, are barely questions. In 2014, Ed Miliband said he wanted “a more serious tone” for PMQ, but arguably little has changed. The Speaker still has to intervene at times to address the rowdy behaviour of MPs during PMQs.

However… the opportunity to regularly question the Prime Minister is still significant, and quite unique. Most other democracies around the world lack an equivalent to Prime Minister’s Questions. The former American President George H.W. Bush once said “I count my blessings that I don't have to go into that pit that John Major stands in, nose to nose with the opposition.” In 2010, a petition was started in America to have President Obama face regular questions from Congress, much like PMQ. Therefore, it is arguable that, while it is not always entirely civilised, we should still value PMQs as an important opportunity for the legislative branch to directly challenge the executive. PMQ also appears to be quite popular with the public. The BBC's Daily Politics show often has its best ratings on a Wednesday, when it broadcasts PMQ live. Jeremy Corbyn has also attempted a new approach to PMQ, by crowdsourcing questions from the public on the Labour Party’s website.