In Canada, a similar convention is known as Question Period and occurs both in the federal Parliament and in the provincial legislatures. In Australia and New Zealand the period is called Question Time. In the Irish Dáil, the practice is called Leader's Questions. In the Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and National Assembly for Wales this practice is called First Minister's Questions. India's Lok Sabha has a Question Hour. In Israel, it has been recently suggested that such practice should commence in the Knesset twice a year. Sweden's prime minister also answers direct questions from the parliament, every Thursday.
The practice of regularly asking the Prime Minister questions in parliament in a fixed period was started in the 1950s.
Backbench MPs wishing to ask a question must enter their names on the Order Paper. The names of entrants are then shuffled in a ballot to produce a random order in which they will be called by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker will then call on MPs to put their questions, usually in an alternating fashion: one MP from the government benches is followed by one from the opposition benches. MPs who are not selected may be chosen to ask a supplementary question if they "catch the eye" of the Speaker, which is done by standing and sitting immediately before the Prime Minister gives an answer. The Leader of the Opposition is traditionally the first MP from the opposition benches to be called after the first question (whether it comes from the government or opposition benches), and the leader of the next largest opposition party is the next MP to be called from the opposition benches.
The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number One, Mr Speaker", is usually to ask the Prime Minister if he/she will list his/her engagements for the day. The current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, like his predecessor Tony Blair, usually replies:
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
The Prime Minister may also take a moment before giving the answer to extend condolences or offer congratulations after significant events. After this, the MP may ask a supplementary question about any subject which might occupy the Prime Minister's time. The reason for asking the Prime Minister about his/her engagements is because, until recently, any member of the Cabinet could answer the posed question, allowing the Prime Minister to avoid answering questions himself, but once someone answers a question, he is obliged to answer follow-up questions (on any topic). The only question that the Prime Minister had to answer personally was his/her list of engagements for the day; hence he/she is traditionally asked this question first, and all subsequent questions are follow-up questions, forcing the Prime Minister to answer the questions himself/herself. Occasionally the first question tabled is on a specific area of policy, but this is rare, as it would allow the Prime Minister to prepare a response in advance; the non-descript question allows some chance of catching him/her out with an unexpected supplementary question.
The Leader of the Opposition is allowed six supplementary questions (which he/she will normally use as two groups of three), and the leader of the third largest party (currently the Liberal Democrats) has two. The Speaker tries to alternate between government and opposition questioners, and MPs who have drawn a low number or did not enter the ballot can be called in order to provide this balance.
If the Prime Minister is away on official business then a substitute will answer questions. This is usually the Deputy Prime Minister, a post currently unfilled; the Leader of the House of Commons, or another senior Minister. If the Prime Minister is not in attendance, it is normal for the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the third party to also send a substitute. Currently the Opposition substitute is normally William Hague (designated "Senior Member of the Shadow Cabinet") and for the Liberal Democrats, Vincent Cable (the party's deputy leader). If one is absent or the position unfills then they will be substituted by the Shadow Leader of the House (for the Opposition) or parliamentary affairs spokesperson (for the Liberal Democrats). Since the televising of Parliament, Prime Minister's Questions have formed an important part of British political culture. Because of the natural drama of this confrontation, it is the most well-known piece of Parliamentary business. Tickets to the Strangers Gallery (public gallery) for Wednesday are the most sought-after Parliamentary tickets. One of Tony Blair's first acts as Prime Minister was to replace the two 15-minute sessions, held on a Tuesday and Thursday, with a single 30 minute session on a Wednesday. The first PMQs under this new format took place on 21 May 1997.