On Ministerial Statements

In this post, I compared the UK format for oral questions to the Canadian format, and argued that the UK format provided for more, not less accountability. In that post, I also referred to Urgent Questions, which is another means available to Members of the UK House of Commons to question a minister on an urgent, topical matter, regardless of whether it is that ministry’s turn in the oral questions rotation.

There is yet another option available to Members in the UK that provides greater accountability, and that is statements by ministers, where a minister – including the Prime Minister, elects to address the House on a topical issue.

Now, ministerial statements exist in Canada as well. However, there is a huge difference in how they are used in both countries.

This is how Statements by Ministers unfolds in Canada, as explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice:

During “Statements by Ministers”, Ministers are expected to make brief and factual statements on government policy or announcements of national interest. Members speaking on behalf of parties recognized by the House are normally the ones who speak in response to a Minister’s statement. However, with the unanimous consent of the House, independent Members have been allowed to respond. In responding to the statement, Members are not permitted to engage in debate or ask questions of the Minister. The length of each response may not exceed the length of the Minister’s statement; Members who exceed this length are interrupted by the Speaker. The rules provide no explicit limitation of time allotted to the Minister or the overall time to be taken for these proceedings, although the duration of the proceedings can be limited at the discretion of the Chair.

This is the list of Statements by Minister from the most recent parliamentary sessions (the index for the 2nd and 3rd (current) sessions of the 40th parliament are not yet online):

38th Parliament (04/10/2004-29/11/2005)

  • Canada Labour Code, federal labour standards, Part III, review
  • Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 15, Equality Rights, 20th anniversary
  • Chicoutimi, HMCS, submarine, October 2-6, 2004, fire, injuries, damage, adrift in North Atlantic, Lt Chris Saunders, death, condolences
  • Holocaust Memorial Day, commemoration
  • Veterans Week (November 5-11, 2004), commemorating
  • Veterans Week (November 5-11, 2005), commemorating

39th Parliament, 1st session (03/04/2006-14/09/2007)

  • Accountability and transparency, improving, Federal Accountability Act (Bill C-2)
  • Afghanistan, Canadian aid, reconstruction support (Harper), 282
  • Air India, flight 182, June 23, 1985, terrorist attack, public inquiry
  • Chinese Canadians, Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Immigration Act, 1923: Apology/compensation and Repeal, 60th anniversary
  • Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting (Nassau, Bahamas, May 24-26, 2006), youth development and empowerment theme
  • Democracy, women, participation, Equal Voice Canada position
  • Employment Equity Act, 20th anniversary, tribute
  • Indian residential schools, compensation agreement
  • Judges, salaries and benefits, Legislation (Bill C-17)
  • National Day of Mourning, workplace fatalities, occupational health and safety, April 28th, commemoration
  • Québécois, nation within a united Canada
  • Slave trade, abolition, 200th Anniversary of the Act to Abolish the African Slave Trade in the British Empire
  • Softwood lumber, Canada-United States trade dispute, settlement agreement
  • Veterans Week (November 5-11, 2006), commemorating
  • Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 1917), World War I battle, anniversary

39th Parliament, 2nd session (16/10/2009-07/09/2008)

  • Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma, political prisoner, honorary Canadian citizenship
  • Indian residential schools, apology to former students
  • Queen Elizabeth II and H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, Diamond Wedding Anniversary
  • Veterans Week (November 5-11, 2007), commemorating

40th Parliament, 1st session (18/11/2008-04-12/2008)

  • Economic and Fiscal Statement (November 27, 2008)

As is fairly clear by the list of topics, most ministerial statements tend to focus on commemorative matters and explaining key pieces of government legislation. There are some exceptions, of course, such as the Prime Minister’s statement on the softwood lumber agreement with the United States (27 April 2006), a long-standing trade dispute. However, if you read the transcript from the Debates, there is no holding the government to account in these statements. The Prime Minister trumpets his government’s success in ending this dispute, then the leader of each opposition party has a chance to reply, and they do, in very partisan terms. There is no questioning of the PM for further information, no discussion, only partisan one-upmanship.

In the UK, after Question Time (and any urgent questions that may have been allowed) a government minister may make an oral statement to the House. Notice of statements is not usually given until the day they are to be made. The statements usually relate to matters of policy or government actions. At the end of a statement, unlike in Canada, MPs can respond or question the government minister on its contents – all MPs, not solely the leaders of recognized parties.

To see how this contrasts to Statements by ministers in Canada, I will provide a couple of recent examples from the UK House of Commons. Just yesterday (14 March), Prime Minister Cameron made a statement on events in Japan and the Middle East, which you can read here. As you can see, Cameron outlines what that UK government is doing in both cases, and takes questions from MPs. On 28 February, the first day back after a week-long recess, Cameron used a ministerial statement to brief the House on what had transpired during that week with regards to the situation in Libya and the efforts by the government to extricate British nationals from that country.

If you’ve taken the time to at least briefly look at the Canadian example and the UK examples, which to you appears to be the most informative and the best way to hold the government to account? In my view, there’s really no comparison to be made – ministerial statements in the Canadian House of Commons are rather self-serving affairs that more often than not fail to address urgent or topical issues. Because there is no opportunity for MPs to then question the minister, ministerial statements cannot be considered a means of holding the government to account.

Consequently, when you combine the focused, ministry-specific form of oral questions with the regular use of Urgent Questions and Statements by Ministers, there exists far more opportunity for the opposition to hold the government to account in the UK House of Commons than there are in the Canadian House of Commons.

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