PMQs is like parliamentary Marmite: politicians and journalists either love it or loathe it.
Its detractors argue that the noise and partisan point-scoring is now so off-putting that it feeds the public's anti-politics, anti-politician mood. Its defenders argue that if it is toned down no on will watch it and the public will be even more detached from parliamentary activity than ever. They contend that it is a uniquely valuable opportunity to hold the leader of the country to account each week; its detractors consider it to be risible scrutiny.
But what do the public think about it? Surprisingly, given that criticism of PMQs has intensified in recent years, no one has really asked the public's view.
Today in our report, Tuned in or turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister's Questions we explore this for the first time. And the results from our online focus groups conducted in partnership with YouGov and a national opinion poll conducted by IpsosMORI couldn't be clearer.
PMQs is a 'cue' for the public's negative perceptions of Parliament, providing a lot of the raw material that feeds their negative assumptions about politicians.
In principle, the public recognise that PMQs is an important part of the democratic process because of the opportunity to hold the government to account. But PMQs in practice alienates, angers and frustrates. Overwhelmingly people dislike the noise, the point-scoring and the perceived failure to answer the questions. The atmosphere, particularly the noise, confuses viewers and makes them feel uncomfortable.
The conduct of MPs is perceived to be childish, like school-children in a playground. This behaviour is contrasted negatively with people's own experience in the workplace. One participant during our focus groups summed up the frustration that MPs don't set a better example: '..They do argue like children. I mean can you imagine any other sphere of adult life where one would act with so little respect'.
The theatrical and pantomime aspects are also disliked. Said another participant having watched a clip of PMQs, "A rousing speech, and passionate conviction is a good thing. This was noise and bluster and showing off - theatrical, but not good."
The theatrical elements - the 'farce drama' - also give rise to suspicion about the motives of the politicians involved. The public doubt the authenticity of what they see and consequently consider it dishonest.
But perhaps what should worry MPs most of all is that the public think they are ridiculing situations and issues that affect the lives of ordinary people instead of taking them seriously.
The opinion poll results broadly confirmed the focus group findings.
- 67% of the public agree that 'there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question' - 5% disagree
- 40% agree 'it deals with the important issues facing the country' - 20% disagree
- 36% agree it is 'informative' - 22% disagree
- 33% agree 'it puts me off politics' - 27% disagree
- 20% agree that 'it's exciting to watch' - 44% disagree
- 16% agree that 'MPs behave professionally' at PMQs - 48% disagree
It was clear from our focus groups that many of the public were actually ashamed of PMQs and this was reflected in the survey results. Only 12% of the public agree that PMQs 'makes me proud of our Parliament' whilst 45% disagreed.
So what should be done? It's clear the public don't like the status quo but equally they value the principle of PMQs so they don't want to see it abolished. What's required are changes to address the behavioural problems without completely killing the spectacle.
The first priority is that the MPs themselves need to change their behaviour, with the party leaders and party whips leading by example. Procedural changes will make no difference at all unless both sides of the House are mutually prepared to do things differently in the future. But if there is this commitment then a few changes to the format could also help address public concerns.
The change in behaviour should be backed up by a new sin-bin penalty - naming a Member for disorderly conduct and removing them from the chamber -for use at the Speaker's discretion. The model of questioning should be varied to facilitate more discussion, pursuing genuine scrutiny and debate on a few topical areas rather than sole reliance on rapid-fire Q&As solely designed to trip participants up. The use of 'open' questions - where MPs can ask the Prime Minister about absolutely anything and he's expected to know the answer on the spot - should be reduced. Instead, there should be a return to some closed questions on subject-specific areas. The number of questions asked by the Leader of the Opposition should also be reduced in order to free up more time for questions from backbenchers. The public could be invited once a month to submit questions for consideration at PMQs. New technology means this could be done in simple and cost-effective ways.
The timing of PMQs should also be changed. Fifty-four per cent of the public in our poll said they have seen or heard PMQs either in full or in clip form in the last 12 months. Those who report having seen it in full are more engaged by it than those who have seen only clips (although everyone who has seen it shares the negative perception of MPs' behaviour). However, awareness of PMQs is heavily skewed towards older citizens. Sixty-eight per cent of those aged 65+ report having seen it in the last year compared to just 35% of those aged 18-24. Moving PMQs to an early evening slot could broaden the range of people watching.
Change the time and the behaviour and more people might be persuaded to take a look.