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I've noticed that Prime Ministers in Westminister systems (i.e. United Kingdom, Scotland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) are expected to answer questions in Parliament on a regular basis. This usually takes place at least once a week.

It was only later that I realize that's not the case everywhere. In countries such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, the Parliament tend to summon Ministers for questioning only when something serious has occurred. These countries do not have the same culture as countries with the Westminister system.

Is this just something unique to the United Kingdom and its sister nations? Why do countries evolve differently in this respect?

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    Summoning ministers for questioning is different to PMQs and Urgent Questions might be a closer analogy to the opportunities granted by other systems. commonslibrary.parliament.uk/… – Jontia Jan 2 at 8:25
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    More generally, Question Time occupies the first hour of every normal sitting of the UK House of Commons (except Fridays). PMQs occupies the latter 30 minutes of that slot on Wednesdays; the rest of the time is allocated to departments on a 5-week rota. Major departments get a full hour every 5 weeks; minor departments get less time. In addition to all this, there are urgent questions (requested by the Opposition, and granted by the Speaker), statements (at the Governments behest), and written Q&As. – Steve Melnikoff Jan 2 at 21:04
  • Ireland has an equivalent, but the Irish system is, to a large extent, based on the Westminister system (after independence, Ireland retained a lot of UK laws). – John B. Lambe Jan 3 at 11:45
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Summary

The parliaments of Denmark, Finland and Sweden all have weekly Question Time when government ministers answer oral questions. In Sweden, the Prime Minister attends Question Time once per month. For Denmark and Finland, the regularity of Prime Minister attendance is not clear to me.

Hence the question is based on a false premise.


Premise

In OP's question is is stated:

In countries such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, the Parliament tend to summon Ministers for questioning only when something serious has occurred. These countries do not have the same culture as countries with the Westminister System.

This seems to be a misunderstanding. Below I have quoted information from the websites of the parliaments of each of these three countries contradicting this description.

Sweden

Here is an excerpt from an information page on the website of the Swedish Riksdag:

Question Time

Question Time with the Government is held on Thursdays at 2 p.m. These sessions are attended by four government ministers who come to answer questions from members of the Riksdag. The ministers do not see the questions in advance. Questions and answers have to be short and in principle they should not exceed one minute each. Approximately once a month the Prime Minister answers questions alone. This is known as the Prime Minister's Question Time.

The right to address questions to the Government is one element of parliamentary control. Members of the Riksdag can put both oral and written questions to the Government. Thousands of questions are usually asked during the course of a parliamentary year.

So question time with ministers is a weekly occurrence in Sweden, although the Prime Minister only attends once every month. Questions can be about any Government matter and when the Prime minister is not present, the other ministers will answer for the Government (to the best of their ability). Question time is not tied to specific events. This doesn't seem to be drastically different from the Westminster system.

Denmark

Browsing the website of the Danish Folketing, I found this information:

Control through questioning

One method of exercising parliamentary control of the Government is to put questions to Ministers. Collectively, Ministers are asked more than 15,000 questions a year, primarily about current issues and problems. To a certain extent, these questions may promote the questioner's own opinion on a given issue. Parliamentary control can thus be used to express political standpoints and to point out areas of disagreement.

Question Hour and Question Time

Individual MPs have various options for asking questions of Ministers. One option is to submit questions in writing and ask for oral or written replies. Written answers are forwarded continually whereas oral answers are given briefly during the weekly Question Time in the Chamber. MPs can also ask "impromptu questions", which means that Ministers must answer questions they have not seen in advance. This happens once a week during what is known as Question Hour. The purpose of the Question Hour is to strengthen the political debate in the Parliament.

Finland

And on the website of the Finnish Eduskunta if found this information:

MPs’ means to call the Government to account

Members can submit written questions to the minister responsible for a particular matter. This is a request for the minister to provide further information on the matter. The minister must reply to a written question within 21 days after the question has been received by the Prime Minister's Office.

Question time is held on Thursdays at the beginning of the plenary session that starts at 4 pm. Here Members can present brief oral questions to the appropriate ministers and hear their replies. Ministers do not receive questions in advance, so question time is a test of their command of timely issues in their administrative sector. The Speaker decides the order in which Members may take the floor and how long each topic may be discussed. Parliament does not vote on matters during question time, which is televised by the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

So it seems that the parliaments for all the countries you list have a weekly session where MPs can ask oral questions on any Government matter to ministers who have not seen the questions in advance. I did not find information specifically about the Prime Ministers' attendance in Denmark and Finland, but it seems MPs should be able to ask questions to any of the ministers, so I guess the Prime Minsters would need to attend somewhat regularly.

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  • This looks very like the pre-1961 situation in Westminster. – James K Jan 2 at 15:20
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In Germany, the government is required to answer written kleine Anfragen by members of parliament in writing. That has the same purpose as an oral question, but it lacks the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary debate. On the other hand, the written format should make it harder to gloss over messy details (governments still try, of course). There have been experiments with oral questions as well, but the kleine Anfrage is the traditional form.

This example shows how slightly different solutions to the similar problems have developed in different places. Statements like "only country X has freedom Y" are often literally true and nevertheless misleading.

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    The "Westminster System" also has Written Answers (normally, but not always, in response to Written Questions). – Andrew Leach Jan 2 at 16:14
  • Indeed, the fun part of PMQs is often the supplementary questions asked as follow-ups to the written answers. – Brian Drummond Jan 2 at 21:07
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    Oddly enough, the US doesn't have anything even slightly analogous to Question Time (except for the incredibly boring State of the Union address, which is more analogous to a Queen's Speech than to Question Time). But arguably the US doesn't need such a thing, as the President is not held to the confidence of either chamber of Congress, and is correspondingly less powerful than a PM would be (Congress can totally ignore his entire legislative agenda, if it so chooses). – Kevin Jan 3 at 0:37
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    @Kevin The difference is that UK and Germany have parliamentary systems where the government is appointed by and accountable to the parliament. The US have a presidential system where the president is elected and only accountable to their constituents. – Philipp Jan 3 at 13:30
  • @Philipp your comment seems to repeat Kevin's statement that "the President is not held to the confidence of either chamber of Congress." It's not clear why you find it useful to echo that fact. – phoog Jan 5 at 0:35
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No, it's not unique. France's Assemblée nationale has one or two weekly sessions for oral questions to the government.

They were introduced with the current constitution (1958) and the format evolved over time. Questions are now time-limited but otherwise very free (whereas other business has to obey stricter rules on etiquette and process). The government is free to let a cabinet minister respond first instead of the prime minister. The prime minister can always add something and take as much time as he or she wants. MPs only get one question, no follow-up but they frequently react to earlier questions by colleagues.

The context is quite different however. The French prime minister's role is more limited and answers to the president, who cannot be questioned by the parliament (not even in writing). In fact, the president is never present during regular parliamentary sessions, which is traditionally seen as a way to guarantee the parliament's independence, and is the only person who cannot be summoned to a hearing by a parliamentary committee.

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Questions to the Prime Minister is a fairly modern innovation, dating back only to the 1960s.

There has long been a tradition that MPs could ask questions of each other with the Speaker's permission, and typically there would be some time set aside each day for questions to Ministers of the Crown. But it was ad hoc, and if Parliamentary time was short there would be less time for questions.

It was not until the Premiership of Harold Macmillan that it was decided to have two 15-minute slots for questions. Macmillan was keen for this because he knew that he was a skilled performer, and he thought it would provide him with a twice-weekly opportunity to put down the Labour leader (Gaitskill, known more for bluntness than for wit) and highlight splits within the Labour party.

So the evolution of PMQs in Westminster can be traced particularly to Macmillan's self-belief in his own abilities at the dispatch box. The further evolution has followed the particular style of Prime Ministers, and their personal relationship with the Leader of the Opposition. The big change to a single long session on Wednesday was again a result of the PM (Blair's) belief that he could perform well at PMQs and come across well in debate. Had Macmillan been less self-assured, there might be a system of written questions without supplementals, as in Germany.

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    This 2008 piece from the Guardian highlights the performance aspects of PMQs as the main point. theguardian.com/politics/blog/2008/jul/17/… – Jontia Jan 2 at 11:47
  • Do you happen to know how much the format varies among different countries using the Westminster system? – jkej Jan 2 at 16:27
  • @jkej New Zealand has Question Time, where MPs may ask questions of ministers of the crown. Questions are allocated to parties based on their proportion of Parliament, but I believe it's up to the MP that is asking the question which minister they choose to ask. There may be some rule that someone can only be asked one question per day though. The initial question is given to the minister in advance. The Prime Minister can be asked a question just like any other minister. Questions must be within the minister's area of purview. The vaguer the question, the less the minister is expected to ... – Miles Rout Jan 3 at 10:51
  • ...stick to their answer: if you ask simply 'does the minister for primary industries stand by all his statements?' then ask your real question in the supplementary questions, you of course cannot expect the minister to come up with, off the top of his head, the answer to any arbitrary supplementary question you ask. If you ask a very specific question, the minister is required to answer it directly and isn't allowed to worm his way around it or pontificate on an unrelated issue. – Miles Rout Jan 3 at 10:53
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Austria also has something similar, where at the beginning of each plenary sitting of the parliament, there can be1 a so called "Fragestunde/Question Time":

During Question Time, which takes place at the beginning of plenary sittings, all Members of Parliament may address oral questions to members of the Federal Government.

Once the government member queried has answered, the Member who has asked the question and Members belonging to other parliamentary groups may ask additional questions.

Additionaly, there are multiple forms of written questions that the government has to answer in a timely manner. Most importantly, each member can sign one "Dringliche Anfrage/Urgent Question" per year which must be answered within a few hours, and which is usually used by the opposition to ask questions that are unpleasant for the government.

1) Unless enough members request to hold a "Aktuelle Stunde/Debate on Matters of Topical Interest" instead, which is a form of debate about a specific topic where the government representative responsible for the topic is expected to participate, but which does not follow the question and answer format.

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    (+1) Does that mean once or more a day? I ask because you wrote “session” and the quote mentions “sittings”. In the House of Commons, there is one “session” a year. – Relaxed Jan 4 at 14:02
  • @Relaxed I've edited to use the term "sitting" that is also used in the quote. – Hulk Jan 4 at 14:54
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To support the notion that this is a relatively common occurrence in parliamentary democracies everywhere, the website of the Estonian parliament, Riigikogu, says that there's a weekly Question Time there with both ministers and the PM taking part:

Besides adopting legal acts, the Riigikogu is responsible for supervising the activities of the executive power. Means of parliamentary control include interpellations (in Estonian) and written questions (in Estonian) by members of the Riigikogu, and the weekly Question Time (in Estonian).

A member of the Riigikogu has the right to submit interpellations and questions to members of the Government as well as to leading state officials, such as the Auditor General, Chancellor of Justice, the President of the Bank of Estonia and others. It is compulsory to answer the interpellations of members of the Riigikogu orally at the sittings of the Riigikogu, written questions must be answered in writing.


The main difference between most parliamentary democracies and the UK is how publicized this event is. In modern British politics, PMQs are an episode of theatre more than politics with all of the ratings given to how the PM performed against the Leader of the Opposition. Most of the places, while broadcasting the service (as nearly all parliamentary debate is broadcast), don't emphasise the showmanship.

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