What we need is a people's question time, Mr Blair

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair has paid less attention to the House of Commons than any Prime Minister before him, mainly because he can. Indeed, with a majority of 179, reduced last year to 167, he can afford to take a more nonchalant view of the tut-tuttings of constitutional theorists than he has.

Instead, he has tried to persuade us – and his backbench MPs – that he takes his accountability to the representatives of the people seriously.

Despite cutting his appearances for Prime Minister's Questions to once a week, his office produces statistics showing that he spends at least as much time on his feet in the Chamber, making statements and answering questions, as his immediate predecessors. Yet he hardly ever takes part in Commons votes, and his forays into the Members' Tearoom have become choreographed events.

This is part of a wider failing of accountability, which is that PM's Questions – important though it is – has some obvious drawbacks as a means of re-connecting with the people. The ritual nature of the exchanges puts many people off politics, while the tone and the format make it difficult to pursue a line of enquiry beyond a rhetorical flourish. When Mr Blair unilaterally changed the format at the start of his premiership, he promised he would also appear regularly at "people's question time" sessions to answer questions from members of the public. That has not happened, although when he does appear in such forums, mostly for television programmes, the results are often enlightening. The Prime Minister should revive that idea.

In the meantime, yesterday's surprise proposal that he should submit himself twice-yearly to detailed questioning by the chairmen of Commons select committees is an excellent step in the right direction. These are MPs who, although clearly of their party, often rise above point-scoring and speak on behalf of the wider public interest. Of course, this is a small reform which does not go nearly far enough in redressing the balance of power between executive and legislature, but the Prime Minister deserves praise for taking this step.

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