Gender & the Research Excellence Framework: An Analysis of the Politics & International Studies Unit of Assessment (I)

Ever wondered about the gendered dimensions of the REF returns and rankings for the Politics & International Studies Unit of Assessment? Well wonder no longer.

by Fran Amery, Stephen Bates & Steve McKay

1320 people were submitted to the Politics & International Studies Unit of Assessment of REF 2014. Of these, 929 were men, 387 were women with 4 not known*. This means that, excluding not knowns, 29.4% of those submitted to the REF were female, a slightly lower percentage than the percentage of UK-based female political scientists in Bates et al.‘s 2011 survey of the profession (see Table 1).

Table 1: Number & percentage of male & female political scientists submitted to REF 2014 & in 2011 Survey

Male Female Overall2

Tables 2 and 3 show breakdowns of these statistics in terms of job title and gender**.

Table 2: Numbers of Male & Female Political Scientists by Job Title and in Total, 2011 Survey & 2014 REF (% in Brackets)

M & F by Job Title

Table 3: Job title by number of male or female political scientists and in total, 2011 Survey & 2014 REF (% in bracket)

Job Title by M&F

These figures suggest that the reason why the percentage of female political scientists submitted to the REF was lower than the 2011 survey is because women are more likely to occupy positions that meant they were unable to be submitted (e.g. they were teaching fellows, etc.), rather than because they were less likely to be chosen. The figures also appear to show that there has been an increase in the number of female professors since 2011 but that there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in the number of male professors. 65 female and 369 male professors were recorded in the 2011 Survey; 87 female and 361 male were submitted to the 2014 REF. This means that 19% of professors submitted to the REF were female (compared to 15% of professors recorded in the 2011 Survey).

It is also perhaps interesting to note the figures for institutions which have moved towards using the more US-leaning titles of Assistant and Associate Professors, rather than Lecturers and Senior Lecturers (the figures are included in the equivalent job category in the Tables above). While numbers are small, some 87% of assistant professors were male (much higher than for lecturers), as were 65% of associate professors (about the same ratio as for senior lecturers).

In terms of individual institutions, the institutions which submitted the highest percentage of female political scientists to the REF (although sometimes with a small total number of people submitted) were: St Mary’s University College; Lincoln; Oxford Brookes; and Surrey. The institutions which submitted the lowest percentage of female political scientists were: Cardiff; Robert Gordon (both of which submitted no female political scientists); Essex; and Swansea (see Table 4).

Table 4: Number & percentage of female returnees to the REF by institution

Percentage & Number of REF Female by Institution

Of those institutions for which we had both sets of data (n=53), 9% submitted the same percentage of female political scientists as the percentage recorded in the 2011 survey (highlighted in green), 45% submitted a greater percentage (yellow), and 45% submitted a lower percentage (blue; see Table 5).

Table 5: Comparison of 2011 survey & 2014 REF in terms of % female political scientists

Comparison 2011 & 2014 by institution 1 Comparison 2011 & 2014 by institution 2

Table 6 shows a ranking of institutions in terms of the Seniority Sex Gap (SSG)^ for those scholars returned to the REF. A positive rating means the average female political scientist is more senior than the average male political scientist; a negative rating means the opposite. It shows that, taking all institutions into account, the average female political scientist returned to the REF holds a position just under a third lower than their male counterpart does. On this rating mechanism, the average male political scientist has a seniority rating of 3.07 (just over a senior lecturer/reader), while the average female political scientist has a seniority rating of 2.73 (just over a quarter under a senior lecturer/reader).

Table 6: Seniority Sex Gap by Institution

Seniority Sex Gap by Institution

This is the first of two blog posts on gender & the REF. The next one will look at the various rankings of the REF.

* Data on the gender and job title of the person submitted to the REF was collected using websearches of university and other relevant websites. This data was collected between the 1st and 6th February 2015 which means that the job title recorded may be different to when the person was submitted to the REF. Thanks to Darcy Luke for collecting this data.

** All the following figures excludes the not knowns.

^ The average seniority for male and female political scientists is produced by, first, giving a weighting to each category of job title (1 = Teaching/Research Fellow, or equivalent; 2 = Lecturer/Senior Research Fellow, or equivalent; 3 = Senior Lecturer/Reader, or equivalent; and 4 = Professor, or equivalent). The sums of each weighting multiplied by the number of male or female political scientists in the corresponding category of job title is then divided by the total number of male or female political scientists to produce a rating for both female and male political scientists. It is not possible to offer comparisons with the findings of the 2011 survey because a slightly different methodology was used to produce the figures for the REF.

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A Corpus-Based Analysis of REF Output Titles for Politics and International Studies*

Have you ever wondered what the titles of outputs submitted to the REF tell us about disciplinary trends, foci and boundaries? Well, thanks to the wonder of corpus linguistics and Laurence Anthony‘s AntConc, wonder no longer.

Dr Stephen Bates is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham

Table 1 shows us a ranking of the 100 most popular words used in titles of work submitted to the 2014 REF and 2008 RAE for the Politics & International Studies panel**.  As can be seen and as would probably be expected, the same grammatical words – the, and, of, in and a – occupy the first five places in the same order for both rankings (s is there because of ‘apostrophe-S'; eu is there because the method treats all data as lower case). After that, we can see the kinds of lexical words that, again, we would probably expect to see in a list of popular words with political scientists and IR scholars. So, lots of titles have the words politics, political, policy, international, European, war, theory and power (including this little beauty) in them. These lists are able to tell us a lot about the perennial concerns of the discipline but they aren’t able to tell us very much about growing and declining areas of interest.

Table 1: REF & RAE Politics Word Lists (Sorry for the break in the middle of the table. I couldn’t work out how to insert the whole table at once – the same goes for the other tables below).

Politics Wordlist 1 Politics Wordlist 2

Analysing (sub-)disciplinary trends can be achieved through comparing the word lists in Table 1 to produce rankings of keywords for both the 2014 REF and the 2008 RAE. These rankings can be found in Table 2 which lists the top 100 keywords for each. Keywords are words which are unusually frequent, or infrequent, in one collection of words, or corpus, in comparison to another^.

Table 2: REF & RAE Keyword Rankings

Politics Keyword 1 Politics Keyword 2

So, if we compare the keywords for the 2014 REF with the 2008 RAE, we find that Obama, financial, austerity and crisis are ranked highly. Again, this is what we would probably expect to see given the timing (and the importance) of the global financial crisis, austerity measures and the election of Barack Obama. Yet, beyond these expected keywords, these rankings can help us to identify some interesting – well, I think they’re interesting – possible trends within the discipline:

  • Although not appearing very frequently in titles, the high ranking of both experiment and spatial in the 2014 REF list may suggest the growing importance of particular methods and theories to the discipline in the UK. The relatively high ranking of philosophy in the 2008 RAE list may indicate a decline in interest (or that political philosophers were submitted to the Philosophy sub-panel).
  • We are no longer as concerned with globalisation/globalization as we were in 2008 or, at least, we now call it something different and/or don’t refer to it in our titles
  • The same can be said for technology, industry, things that are communist, and diplomacy, while we’ve become more interested in things to do with the climate, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism.
  • In terms of geography, Afghanistan, GreeceChina, Ecuador, Somalia, Rwanda and India have shot up our list of concerns, whereas we’ve become less interested in GermanyAsia (or at least the bits of Asia that are not China, India and Afghanistan), Estonia, Chile, Mozambique and Canada.
  • Things European are now not so prominent or important as they were in 2008 (Europa, European, Europe and EMU  all appear in the top 100 keywords for RAE 2008, although European remains very high in the REF 2014 word list ranking).
  • We now talk more often of capitalisms than we used to.
  • We have turned to Polanyi more often since 2008, presumably to understand the crisis and its aftermath.
  • We do not turn to Rawls as often as we used to.
  • We are now more interested in the left than in Labour.
  • A focus on gender is becoming an increasingly important element of the discipline.
  • The presence of und, der and (maybe) die in the 2008 list suggests that we do not publish as much work in German as we used to.
  • The presence of Judith and Friedrich but not (presumably) Butler and Nietzsche/Engels suggests we’re becoming politer as a discipline, and/or is simply a reflection that our titles are getting longer (the average length of a title submitted to the 2014 REF and 2008 RAE was 10.7 words and 9.9 words respectively).

Table 3 compares the 2014 REF Politics word list to the 2014 Economics and 2014 Sociology word lists. As would be expected, the keyness figures are much higher in these rankings than when comparing the REF Politics to the RAE Politics and most of the keywords are words that you would expect to find in such a list, relating, as they do, to typical disciplinary concerns (for example, war, security, party, EU, democracy for Politics and IR; market(s), growth, price, wage, inflation for Economics; and life, family, work, urban, class, household for Sociology). There are, however, some more interesting inclusions and omissions, particularly when comparing economics to political science and vice versa:

  • Noticeable at the top of the Politics-compared-to-Economic/Sociology and Sociology-compared-to-Politics rankings are politics and the political, and sociology and the social respectively. Noticeable by its absence at the top of the Economics-compared-to-Politics ranking are economics and economic. This appears to be both because political science and sociology focus on economics in a way that economics does not on politics and sociology and because economics does not talk about itself in the same way as the other disciplines do. Thus, for example, while economic and economics are mentioned 83 times and 7 times in political science titles respectively (compared to 56 times and 14 times in economics titles), politics and political are mentioned 5 times and 31 times in economics titles (compared to 406 times and 381 times in political science titles).
  • The appearance of crisis and capitalism (and maybe also neo and liberalism) in the top 100 Politics-compared-to-Economics keywords is perhaps surprising. Indeed, capitalism is not mentioned in any economics title at all (although capital is mentioned 55 times).
  • The inclusion of words such as evidence, models, equilibrium and games at the top of the Economics-compared-to-Politics list without a corresponding list of theoretical/methodological-type words at the top of the Politics-compared-to-Economics list suggests that political science as a discipline is pluralist and diverse in a way that economics is not.
  • Although bioethics is increasingly important for political scientists, sociologists remain much more likely to use words related to biotechnology in their titles (for example, genetic(s), stem, cell, biology).
  • The presence of Bourdieu in the Sociology-compared-to-Politics ranking suggests that political scientists still cannot, or do not want to, find a use for him in their work, or at least do not want to shout about using him in their titles (only one person did so).
  • In comparison with both economists and sociologists, political scientists like to use the and apostrophes in their titles.
  • In comparison with political scientists, economists like to use with in their titles.

Table 3: REF Politics, Economics & Sociology Keyword Rankings

Pol Econ Soc Keyword 1Pol Econ Soc Keyword 2Pol Econ Soc Keyword 3

Bis bald.

* This analysis was undertaken by: (1) removing as many duplicate titles as possible (it was not possible to remove all because some titles submitted twice were listed using different punctuation and/or combinations of upper and lower case letters); (2) saving all remaining titles submitted as outputs to REF 2014 and RAE 2008 to plain text files; and then (3) using the wordlist and keyword tools on AntConc, a freeware corpus analysis toolkit for concordancing and text analysis, designed by Prof. Laurence Anthony of  Waseda University Japan.

** The total number of different words, or word types, used in titles submitted to the 2014 REF and the 2008 RAE were 6708 and 6767 respectively. A full list of the word types and keywords are available on request.

^ Using Log Likelihood as the statistical measure, the following significance values apply:

  • 95th percentile; 5% level; p < 0.05; critical value = 3.84
  • 99th percentile; 1% level; p < 0.01; critical value = 6.63
  • 99.9th percentile; 0.1% level; p < 0.001; critical value = 10.83
  • 99.99th percentile; 0.01% level; p < 0.0001; critical value = 15.13

See page 7 of here and also here for more.

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Do Local Authorities Really Want Sustainable Construction Powers?

National planning policy and building regulations have undergone considerable reform in recent years. The latest incarnation is embodied in the Housing Standards Review, (HSR) published in 2014. The HSR sought to consolidate the plethora of standards into national building regulations whilst making it harder to local authorities (LAs) to introduce standards that supplement these national regulations in response to local needs or priorities. One area where local powers have been significantly curtailed by the HSR is in the sustainability and energy efficiency of homes.

Since the publication of Building A Greener Future and the Supplement to the Planning Policy Statement: Planning and Climate Change in 2007, LAs have been able to set local standards on building sustainability to reflect local needs and priorities. Although options are provided in the HSR for local standard setting in a number of areas to supplement the revamped building regulations, this isn’t one of those. The extent to which sustainable construction targets can be set locally has thus been significantly curtailed. The response was predictably fierce. The Association for the Conservation for Energy remarked on the ‘political naivety’ and ‘shortsightedness’ associated with the decision. A report of the Environmental Audit Committee from November 2013 suggests that ‘this decision bulldozes local choice in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach designed to benefit developers who want to build homes on the cheap’.

Yet what do local authorities themselves think? The evidence actually points towards local authorities being against the idea of local standard setting in the area of energy-efficiency in buildings.

When asked in the HSR consultation whether sustainable construction standards should be incorporated into National Building Regulations (thus restricting local choice) an overwhelming number of local authorities responded in favor (46 of 69 responses). When asked their views on whether local authorities should have the powers to set ‘Merton Rule’ type policies (which mandate the minimum renewable energy use in a building) ‘a number of local planning authorities are also in favour of a review [of the Merton Rule type policies], who do not see a role for planning in decisions about the energy performance of houses’.

What’s more, as part of my on-going research into this area I have surveyed all local English local authorities. Only 50% have embraced the standard setting powers that they have had up until the HSR, and even then there are serious concerns over whether those local standards are being enforced thoroughly.

An obvious question that arises from this is why? Why do local authorities propose a national Building Regulations led approach to sustainable construction standards? In the course of my research two factors have been raised.

First, there are considerable costs associated with rewriting Local Plans and many local authorities feel that the national debate on sustainable construction is in such flux that to expend resources on incorporating local standards is risky given that the national policy framework may change mid-way through, requiring a new local plan. This has happened in Harrogate Borough Council which, having introduced stringent sustainability standards into their local plan in 2009, was forced to begin the process anew after technical changes published in the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework undermined their whole plan.

Second, many local authorities realise that although local authorities are ideally placed to raise the sustainability of buildings. However, they are subject to strong external pressures from developers that prioritise growth over sustainability and lack the necessary internal capacity (whether in terms of expertise, institutional norms, pro-environment policy networks or dominant discourse favouring ecologism) to overcome these forces. On that basis many consider any local powers a waste, because they can’t be fully exploited.

We must not therefore be alarmist when we look at the HSR and its curtailment of local powers. It is by no means perfect; the extent to which the sustainability and environmental standards of homes can be raised in the future is largely down to how the Building Regulations are going to be reformed and there are doubts that it will go far enough in this regard. Nevertheless, the evidence points towards local authorities favouring a national approach. We should listen to and respect this view, and try to understand why they think like this at all. Only then can we hope to do anything about it.

2014-03-11 18.43.34Max Lempriere is a third year PhD student in POLSIS at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include the politics of planning and construction, local government innovation and ecological modernisation.

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Depoliticisation and the Father’s Clause in Parliamentary debates


University of Birmingham POLSIS academics

Dr Stephen Bates, Dr Laura Jenkins and Fran Amery, use work on in vitro fertilisation to think through depoliticisation. 

Originally posted on May 19th at Policy and Politics Journal Blog

Depoliticisation, in simple terms, involves disavowing political responsibility, or persuading the public that one is no longer responsible for particular decisions, with the result that deliberation and choice are restricted. Crucially, as the literature has identified, choices are still being made – e.g. politicians may retain mechanisms for indirect control – but they are concealed.

Studies of (de)politicisation often conceptualise it as a function of government and tend to focus on economic and monetary policy (a classic example is the devolution of monetary policy to the Bank of England). Our article argues that (de)politicisation may occur outside of formal governmental arenas and should not be regarded simply as a form of statecraft. Specifically, we explore in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and the parliamentary debates surrounding the addition and eventual removal of the Father’s Clause of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Acts.

Our first point is that new reproductive technologies such as IVF may themselves be seen as politicising, allowing greater intervention into areas of life previous considered subject to fate, and thereby expanding the capacity for the exercise of human agency. This is not to suggest that human reproduction was never touched by social intervention before IVF – surrogacy, for example, has existed for almost as long as recorded human history – but the birth of Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’, in 1978 brought with it unprecedented new possibilities. IVF involves the creation of an embryo outside the female body without the need for sexual intercourse, and consequently allows for new distinctions to be drawn between biological and social parenthood.

In some senses, subsequent political debates on IVF may be conceptualised as reactions to its politicising potential. Partially owing to its controversy, there was a substantial time lag between the birth of Louise Brown and the eventual regulation of IVF, but the latter came in 1990 in the form of the HFE Act, which also covered other issues surrounding treatment of the embryo such as stem cell research. While the issue of embryo research came to dominate parliamentary debate on the HFE Act, another prominent issue was the welfare of any child created by IVF, in particular the child’s ‘need for a father’.

As a result of two amendments successfully appended by the Conservative MP David Wilshere, the eventual Act required ‘a child’s need for a father’ to be taken into account before treatment, potentially barring same-sex couples and single women from accessing IVF (although the effect that this ultimately had on clinical practice is debateable). In parliamentary debate, the need for this clause was justified in terms of the need to maintain ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘common-sense’ – that is, traditional – family forms, and not to ‘upset the natural order of things’. This, we argue, represents a depoliticising reaction to the politicising potential of reproductive technologies, rejecting the possibilities for increased human agency and choice these technologies open up, and attempting to conceal the contingent nature of traditional family forms.

In 2008, after a review of the regulation surrounding human reproductive technologies, the Father’s Clause was removed from the Act. A number of amendments to the 2007 Draft Bill were tabled proposing the re-introduction of explicit reference to the need for a father, but these were rejected in favour of an amendment which simply expressed ‘the need for supportive parenting’. In the article, we argue that this represents a formal repoliticisation, once again opening up the possibility of a plurality of family forms and challenging traditional understandings of gender roles and reproduction. However, this repoliticisation is only a partial one – the parliamentary debate was premised on essentialist assumptions about gender, and the potential harmful effects of IVF were not debated.

While the article focuses on IVF, in particular its potential to challenge traditional understandings of the family, there are obvious parallels to other areas in which doctors and scientists may be perceived as ‘playing God’ or ‘interfering with nature’. We might expect to see similar depoliticising responses to other areas of human life in which new technologies – reproductive or otherwise – have opened up new possibilities for the exercise of human agency, or exposed the contingent nature of traditional or ‘common-sense’ ways of doing things: genetic engineering, human enhancement and sex reassignment therapy, to name a few.

The full article  on the subject – (De)politicisation and the Father’s Clause parliamentary debates – along with the rest of the special issue of Policy & Politics on depoliticisation, is available free in Policy and Politics throughout May.


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Should I stay or should I go? Why the UK should stay out of the Crimea issue


Iván Farías, Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science and International Studies argues why the UK should stay out of the Crimea issue.

The Republic of Crimea is said to be at the centre of a dispute between the Russian Federation and the international community. Such dispute arose when about two weeks ago, 96.7% of the voters participating a referendum held in the peninsula supported the accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia. As a result of the referendum, the Republic of Crimea, formerly part of Ukraine is now the (de facto) newest territory of the Russian Federation.

The result was not unexpected. With large numbers of Russian-speaking Crimeans and Crimea-based Russian passport holders boosting the ‘yes’ side, and about 38% of the Crimean population boycotting the referendum, the outcome was as predictable as rolling a loaded dice.

On this basis, some countries, namely the G7, have been very vocal about the alleged illegality of the referendum, its result and its implications. The United Kingdom has been no exception. Its political leaders have vociferously argued that the Crimean referendum should not be recognised. Simon Smith, the British Ambassador to Kyiv, recently stated that the referendum “should not be regarded as a legitimate expression of popular will on the part of the peninsula’s population”. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary William Hague contended that “Russia cannot simply trample over international law” and that Moscow’s move to annex Crimea went against the principles of territorial integrity and non-use of force. Finally, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that “it is completely unacceptable for Russia to use force to change borders, on the basis of a sham referendum held at the barrel of a Russian gun”.

There seems to be something wrong in annexating a territory from a neighbouring country which is (was?) in the middle of a revolution. It seems to be something akin to stealing your neighbours’ possessions while their house is on fire. The argument is then that it is in everyone’s interest to protect the neighbourhood from individuals who take advantage of people at their most vulnerable. In this analogy, the United Kingdom is thus only contributing to protect the European neighbourhood and the world from bullies like Russia.

Yet, the United Kingdom is not the long-time champion of freedom and sef-determination that Smith, Hague and Cameron portray it to be. It took the United Kingdom six years to recognise the independence of Ireland, a country which it historically ruled with an iron-fist. Oppression, rather than freedom, describes more accurately what India endured under British rule. The British government did not hesitate to send its military forces on a 12,000-kilometre journey across the globe to ensure continued posession of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. For some reason, the referendum in Ukraine, biased in favour of ethnic Russians, is illegal and illegitimate but the referendum held in 2013 in the Falkland/Malvinas, among a population of transplanted British islanders, is not. And now that Scottish independence is on the table again, England, the UK’s most populous and economically powerful country, has not hesitated into using scare tactics to maintain Scotland in the Union. Behind all of these historical developments lies the same idea: for the United Kingdom, freedom and self-determination are not cherished ideals, but only concepts whose meaning can be adapted to suit the foreign (and domestic) policy objectives de jour.

The United Kingdom seems to be interested in boosting its moral credentials on the promotion of freedom and self-determination by taking part in this alleged dispute on Crimea. Staying out of the issue could actually better serve such purpose.

Originally published in Ivan’s blog  03/04/14

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Special CREES/POLSIS Seminar – The production of Migrants in Contemporary Capitalism

The special CREES/POLSIS Seminar on The Production of Migrants in Contemporary Capitalism presented the work of two young scholars:

Dr Nikolaos Xypolytas (University of Cyprus) and Dr Bahar Baser (University of Warwick)


This Special CREES/POLSIS Seminar focused on the migration process in the contemporary capitalist European societies. Dr Nikolaos Xypolytas‘ paper presented the findings of his most recent research on the process of migrant exclusion in the case of Ukrainian domestic workers in Greece. His sociological study looks at exclusion as a three-stage process that involves not only the host country but the country of origin as well. The process starts with the impoverishment of the workers in the country of origin, which results firstly, in the change of work orientations and secondly, in the actual migration process. The second stage involves the allocation of the labour force, following an ethnic and gendered division of labour in the host country. The third stage is centered on the concept of reproduction of work, where migrant domestic workers internalise the rules and regulations of their employment. The result of this process is the isolation of migrants and their entrapment in their low-status jobs. Dr Bahar Baser discussed the challanges she came across conducting her qualitative research on contenious issues in Turkish and Kurdish diasporas in the Netherlands and Germany. She argued that in any research that utilizes ethnographic research methods, it is crucial that the researcher is aware of their ‘subject position’ and how this position affects relationships betwen the researcher and the interviewee.  Since the outcome of the study and the knowledge that it produces are very much dependent on this positionality, it is important that the researcher informs the reader where he/she stands. The researcher is by no means ‘an objective observer’ , as their gender, class, religion, ethnicity, or age among other factors, may have an impact on the research process. Therefore, the researcher should be conscious of his/hers priviledged position and potential power relations with the groups that are under study and should adopt a ‘reflexive approach’ which refers to a self-reflection process during the selection of the subject, the fieldwork, as well as analysis of the data gathered.

The seminar was chaired by Dr Deema Kaneff who facilitate a very stimulating discussion between presenters and audiance. Everyone was encouraged to share their views and pose their questions in a very friendly and hospitable atmosphere. The event drew together staff members, postgraduate students and scholars from different universities.


The organizers, Polina Manolova and Veysel Erdemli would like to thank everyone for the expressed interest, attendance and stimulating discussion.

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Essential scrutiny or national embarrassment? Dr Stephen Bates, Lecturer in Political Science, responds to the Hansard Society’s report on Prime Minister’s Questions

bates-stephen There are a number of institutional reforms that could be introduced to bring about the kind of PMQs that Speaker Bercow has called for. These reforms, some of which have been stated and  occasionally restated in various Procedure Committee Reports over the years, include: extending  PMQs by quarter or half an hour each week; reducing the number of questions that the Leader of  the  Opposition is allowed to ask; institutionalising a set number of closed questions each week  (including for the Leader of the Opposition); increasing the toleration of ‘referred’ answers by the  Prime Minister by requiring the Prime Minister to read out (shorter versions of) departmental answers at the next session of PMQs; and ensuring that the Leader of the Opposition cannot ask his/her questions until after a set number of backbench questions have been asked.

However, there is another change that would improve parliamentary discourse and help hold the Prime Minister to greater account but that would be difficult to institutionalise formally. This change relates to how questions are posed. David Cameron is often criticised – as was Gordon Brown before him – possibly correctly, for not answering questions, yet he can only answer the questions that are put to him. If these include ad hominem attacks, it could be argued that he is not obliged to answer them; this at least gives him an excuse not to answer. To take but one recent example, an opposition backbencher asked on the 6thNovember 2013:

“The Prime Minister has just been boasting again about 1 million extra jobs. Can he therefore explain why in my constituency the number of people unemployed for more than two years has risen by 350% in the last year alone? It is now the worst figure in the country. Nine of the 10 worst constituencies on this measure are in the north-east, including all three Sunderland seats. Is that because they are the same old Tories, who do not care about the north-east?”

The last sentence of this question is unnecessary and detracts from the important issue raised. Questions posed at PMQs should be direct, forensic, uncomfortable and challenging for the Prime Minister; they do not need to be sarcastic or sometimes plain rude to achieve this end. A change of this sort – and also a change with regard the opposite problem of toadying questions posed by government backbenchers – can only be brought about by MPs and parties themselves. If they did so, this would increase scrutiny and accountability and would help address some of the issues raised by the recent Hansard report – but without killing PMQs as a spectacle.

This post was originally published on Democratic Audit 04/03/14

The Hansard Society’s recent report can be found here

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