Tue | Jan 22, 2019

George Davis | If we could learn from Britain

Published:Tuesday | May 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM

On Wednesday, May 16, I watched on my computer as a packed British House of Commons engaged in that weekly staple, Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs). Every time I watch such proceedings, I experience a mix of jealousy, frustration, anger and no little resignation at why Jamaicans almost never see anything comparable in our House of Representatives.

In many parliaments, I suspect MPs come under pressure from their political rivals from time to time when they ask tough questions of the prime minister or president. And they often respond to this pressure by asserting their right to ask questions on behalf of their constituents. That declaration often neutralises the heckling and can be accurately described as an almost nuclear reaction to abuse and jibes from across the floor.

Given the way our House of Representatives works, the overwhelming majority of our MPs, who rarely or never raise a matter concerning their constituency on the floor, have no authenticity nor authority to use this nuclear option.

So last Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May first came under fire from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn used six questions to lash the prime minister for presiding over a divided Cabinet, creating an army of Britons who were effectively in 'work-poverty' and paying workers wages that are lower today than 10 years ago. He criticised skilfully even as he asked her to declare how many additional HMRC staff had been recruited to handle Brexit and to state how many other businesses were considering their future in Britain.




The temperature was hot inside the Commons as the PM stood up to the jousting, rattling off statistics about her government's record in office as opposed to the previous Labour administration. What May did skilfully was to answer, by way of rebuttal, the main criticisms made by Corbyn without answering Corbyn's main questions directly.

The throaty command of "Order!" from House Speaker John Bercow punctuated proceedings and sought to keep the MPs in line. When Corbyn yielded after six bites of the cherry, it was time for other MPs who had submitted questions to put these to Prime Minister May.

For the next 40 minutes or thereabouts, Prime Minister May fielded questions from at least 14 MPs, including about six from her own Conservative Party. The questions from fellow Tories were not the toughest, but all dealt with important national issues or matters directly affecting their constituents.

Think for a minute and see if you can imagine any JLP MP asking Prime Minister Holness any serious question in Gordon House about any controversial issue. Even if that question was fair, the MP runs the risk of being accused by party colleagues in the House, and Labourites outside, of trying to set up the boss. Or imagine any PNP backbencher asking Dr Phillips about the lack of clarity or consistency in the Opposition's stance on a topical national issue? That Comrade risks being branded a fifth-columnist! Any wonder they just sit in silence and let the sitting of the House pass them by.

Over the course of the PMQs, Prime Minister May was asked a range of questions about her government's commitment to invest in community hospitals, treatment for the growing number of university students battling mental illness, holding the press to account, and making it affordable for persons such as a seven-year-old boy from the constituency of Erith and Thamesmead to buy drugs needed to treat cystic fibrosis.

As I watched the proceedings, I wondered if there were no issues affecting constituents in South East St Elizabeth or Eastern Hanover or Central Kingston or South St James or South West St Catherine or Eastern Portland that their MPs wanted Prime Minister Holness to respond to.

In Britain, PMQs happens every week. In Jamaica, PMQs, according to the Standing Orders (17B), is to happen only on the second sitting of the House in each month. And even then the offering isn't as rich as the British serve it.


- George Davis is a communications consultant and media executive. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and george.s.davis@hotmail.com.