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New script for the political theatre

Prime Minister's Questions: Reforms aim to terminate 'absurd histrionic s'

Political Correspondent

The rules for Prime Minister's Question Time, the twice- weekly high point of Commons political theatre, could be rewritten after a report by the Procedure Select Committee is published on Monday.

The report is understood to recommend a ban on "open" questions, which ask the Prime Minister to list his engagements for the day, and require MPs to table "substantive" questions 24 hours in advance.

There was, according to one member, a "broad consensus" on the Procedure Committee that this change would encourage more serious debate, and encourage MPs to hold the Prime Minister to account rather than to score party- political points.

"All the evidence we took, which included sessions with two former prime ministers, Sir Edward Heath and Lord Callaghan, indicated that we have got to get away from the absurd histrionics," one member was reported as saying.

At present, MPs who want to ask questions have to table them two weeks in advance, and enter a ballot to be listed on the Order Paper. Successful MPs are then entitled to ask a "supplementary" question, which must be related to the subject of the listed question - hence the "open" question which allows any question to be sprung on the Prime Minister as a follow- up.

Some Labour MPs complain that the committee's recommendation is designed to protect the Prime Minister from surprise questions, which they say are an important test of a politician's ability.

But a survey of 167 MPs carried out by Harris Research and published this week found that 61 per cent supported the change to "substantive questions tabled at short notice".

Two other options which are expected to be suggested by the committee did not find favour in the survey. Only 15 per cent supported extending PMQs from its present 15 minutes. And only 31 per cent backed a restriction of the right to ask questions to balloted MPs - thus ensuring the Prime Minister would know the names of all his questioners in advance. At present, the Speaker calls MPs other than those listed on the Order Paper in order to balance the two sides of the House.

The Procedure Committee inquiry was set up after John Major indicated his support for change at the time of the Labour leadership election last summer. Any changes would have to be approved by the Commons, probably on a free vote, after a recommendation from Tony Newton, Leader of the House.