Bercow’s urgent question revolution?

It’s fairly common in recent times for Parliaments to have some mechanism so they can question government ministers as a chamber. In the UK House of Commons, unique at least amongst the Commonwealth realms, the whole question time procedure is subdivided into different departments to be questioned mostly for an hour each day with a weekly half-hour session for the PM. You’re looking at roughly a two week turnaround for all departments to be questioned – this, understandably, means that sometimes an issue will come up that will not be able to be dealt with by the relevant minister for a week or longer.

To resolve this, the designers of this procedure used more ‘private notice questions’, an old procedure later renamed the ‘urgent question’, which allows the Speaker to call the government to send the relevant minister to the Commons where he or she will answer the original question and endure something like an hour of questioning from mostly backbenchers.

It’s become a received truth that the Speaker, John Bercow, is leading a revolution in this type of questioning. Some in the media say that in the last Speaker’s final year he allowed two urgent questions whereas the current Speaker allowed sixty in the first year of this Parliament. I wanted a better picture of the situation and to see how much actually has changed.

So, I found the invaluable historic Hansard – a veritable treasure trove – and the sessional returns which have some rather interesting data:

Clearly there has been a downward trend, but this data looks very variable until you remember that sessions are different lengths and have different numbers of recesses, etc. It’s more informative and less chaotic if you look at it in terms of the number of sitting days between private notice/urgent questions:

So, using this, let’s make a table by speaker, so that we can cut out a lot of the outliers:

Bercow: 2.65
Martin: 18.73
Boothroyd: 13.61
Weatherill: 10.35
Thomas: 19.08
Lloyd: 5.88
King: 4.34
Hylton-Foster: 5.72
Morrison: 7.65
Clifton-Brown: 3.5

On average the last Speaker, Michael Martin, granted an urgent question every 18.73 sitting days (looking only at sessions where he was Speaker throughout). That’s very close to George Thomas’ post-war worst of one every 19.08 sitting days. John Bercow stands in stark contrast, though with only one full session under his belt, granting one every 2.65 sitting days! That’s a post-war best, though the first post-war Speaker, Douglas Clifton-Brown, comes close.

That’s not all of the story though. It’s largely in the hands of the Speaker how long a minister is on his feet for – along with the appetite of MPs to ask questions of course! It’s interesting to compare how the practice of private notice/urgent questions has changed. It’s not directly possible to measure how long, but we can approximate it by looking at the number of words in the exchange. I’ve taken a sample of three private notice questions from every year and this should give a rough idea of the length of time each speaker tended to give to a private notice/urgent question.

Putting that by Speaker, again only including years where they were in the job throughout:

Bercow: 5291.5
Martin: 5539.92
Boothroyd: 4567.96
Weatherill: 2953
Thomas: 2142.13
Lloyd: 1772
King: 1863.53
Hylton-Foster: 1063.33
Morrison: 1456
Clifton-Brown: 800.39

Because this was just worked out from a sample not the full data set (I do still have a life despite appearances) the individual figures aren’t very meaningful and I wouldn’t encourage doing anything with them, but you can see the sea changes.

It’s interesting, because the the biggest jumps were under the Labour Speakers Dr Horace King and Betty Boothroyd and the Conservative Bernard Weatherill. Both Boothroyd and Weatherill were installed despite objections from the governments of the day, but King wasn’t.

It’s also interesting to note that from the samples I have gathered there was no significant difference between the length during John Bercow’s term so far and Michael Martin which would suggest the three-hour stint for George Osborne’s autumn statement wasn’t often repeated for urgent questions but that might just be a sampling error.

One other point – when you look at one William Morrison, a Conservative, he had a jump of six hundred and fifty words but he was installed against the wishes of the opposition. He was very fair and impartial, and Labour merely felt they weren’t consulted enough but this increase is still quite impressive. Perhaps it was part of a show of good faith to the opposition that he wasn’t a party stooge – indeed, from all accounts I have read he came out of the speakership with good will from all sides.

In the sixties and before, it was common to give ten minutes to a private notice question – perhaps slightly longer than one normal oral question on the order paper. Today it’s not unusual to see questions taking upwards of an hour – as long as an entire departmental oral questioning session. If figures were kept on the number and length of ministerial statements, I’d love to compare them. It’d be great to see whether the increase in urgent questions leads to an increase in ministerial statements and vice versa, and also to see if the length of statements is linked to the length of private notice/urgent questions.

So, that leads us to the final graph (I’ve combined calendar years with sessions to get the graph working so don’t take it too seriously – it’s just an instructive guide to trends not an academic graph):

So while John Bercow has unleashed a revolution in urgent questions, his reforms only took the number back up to the days of Douglas Clifton-Brown in the 1940s. The biggest change and increase in accountability comes from the length of urgent questions. It was increased slowly over time but was taken to an unprecedented amount by Bernard Weatherill in the early 1990s. So, our revolution took place over twenty years and was the combination of Bernard Weatherill increasing the length of PNQs, Betty Boothroyd and yes, even Michael Martin, maintaining and even extending the length he had reached, and John Bercow triggering this new assertiveness by increasing the number.

Combined, their efforts have gone a long way to restoring the reputation of the Speakership and Commons – in spite of Boothroyd and Bercow throwing away the traditional wig and robe respectively!

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