The five things you didn’t know about “Prime Minister’s Questions” on C-SPAN involve history and procedure. This program is one of the longest-running and most-watched TV shows in the governmental affairs channel’s lineup. That’s because political junkies like to know what’s happening in the UK while gaining insight into how the parliamentary system works “across the pond.”
Televising “Prime Minister’s Questions” was a long time coming
The first Prime Minister’s Questions was not televised, nor were any debates and speeches in the House of Commons. The first head of the UK government who began taking such questions was Harold Macmillan in 1961, but it wasn’t until November 24, 1966 that the first vote on televising any House of Commons doings via closed circuit TV was considered. MP Richard Crossman’s motion to do such was defeated by one vote, 131-130. From that close vote, more debates, proposals, and ideas would be forthcoming over the next 20-plus years, until finally on November 28, 1989, C-SPAN showed this first ever event that would become a TV show.
Members of Parliament (MPs) who say “(Question) Number One, Mr. Speaker” do so for the opportunity to ask their principle question
The first MP to ask a question of the Prime Minister (PM) will say “(Question) Number One, Mr. Speaker,” to which the PM will answer by listing his official engagements for that day, including meetings with his ministers. That question about the PM’s engagements allows for a supplemental, which can relate to a wide range of questions that an MP can ask as long as it’s related to the PM’s duties. If the PM is asked that “Number One” question again, he will say something like “I refer the Honourable Member to the reply I gave some moments ago.”
It costs money to get answers to questions to the Prime Minister
Is democracy free? Not really. Regularly, you’ll hear the Prime Minister initially respond to the question by saying something like, “I thank the Honourable Member for writing me in advance,” and he’ll proceed to answer the question from the documents he has in front of him (as with many questions posed). According to the House of Commons Information Office, (as of the end of 2008) it costs government departments and/or House administration budgets an average of 410 British Pounds to answer an oral question and 149 British Pounds to answer a written question, the former being higher because it takes more time and effort to research the answer(s) and/or brief ministers like the PM. In a nutshell, many questions ministers answer are posed in advance via writing.
The first televised question was asked to Margaret Thatcher about the National Health Service (NHS)
Thanks to the extensive video archives of C-SPAN, one can actually watch the first episodes of “Prime Minister’s Questions” online. On November 28, 1989, Margaret Thatcher was asked by Conservative MP Tim Yeo, after “Question Number One”, about her feelings about the increased funding of the NHS in relation to defense spending. The first opposition questions came from Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock about the alleged 60 million British Pounds of a shortchanged sale by Thatcher’s government of British automaker Rover-Leyland to private interests.
The weekly half hour of “Prime Minister’s Questions” once took two calendar days to complete
The program regularly runs half an hour either live on Wednesdays at 7am ET on C-SPAN2, with two repeats on Sunday night at 9pm/12am ET on C-SPAN. But until 1997, that half hour of questions in the rowdy House of Commons took two days to complete. Until Tony Blair changed the format in 1997 to half an hour on Wednesdays, “Prime Minister’s Questions” took place on both Tuesdays and Thursdays for 15 minutes. There were times when C-SPAN would only air 15 minutes of a show from 1989-97 because the House of Commons wasn’t sitting (in session) on one of the days, notwithstanding their other recesses which could last weeks.
Factsheet P1 Procedure Series, Parliamentary Questions: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-information-office/p01.pdf, Revised August 2010, Pp. 6-7,9-10, House of Commons Information Office
Factsheet G5 General Series, Broadcasting Proceedings of the House: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-information-office/g05.pdf, Revised August 2010, Appendix B, House of Commons Information Office
Emails between Roy A. Barnes and House of Commons Information Office, February 8-9, 2011