Perceptions of parliamentary procedure: is the grass really greener?

Last week’s appearance by Rupert and James Murdoch before the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport (which you can view here if you missed it) as well as Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement in the House of Commons the following day (viewable here) received global media attention. Many Canadian journalists who normally report on proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons seemed enthralled by the often small, yet significant differences in how the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons function – the very same differences which I have been writing about here for over a year now.

CBC reporter Kady O’Malley, who regularly liveblogs proceedings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, has since written two posts outlining some of the differences which she observed and, for the most part, would like to see adopted in Canada (first post on committee procedure, second post on procedure in the House of Commons). One highly respected political commentator, Andrew Coyne, national editor of Macleans Magazine, tweeted on July 20 “Everyone should be watching the UK phone-hacking debate, if only to see what a real parliament looks like”.

O’Malley’s post on committee procedure ignores one very important difference between Canadian and UK House of Commons committees: the majority of Select Committee Chairs are now elected by their fellow MPs. This applies to departmental committees and the Environmental Audit, Political and Constitutional Reform, Procedure, Public Administration and Public Accounts committees. Canadian committee chairs are elected by that committee’s members. Similarly, committee members in the UK are elected by their respective caucuses, while members of Canadian committees are appointed by their party whips. I have discussed this in detail in this post, and so I won’t repeat myself here, but it should be fairly obvious to most why having elected chairs and committee members would make for a more responsive and less partisan committee.

There are also a couple of other inaccuracies in O’Malley’s post on committee procedure. UK select committees do allow witnesses to make opening statements or general comments. Some witnesses decline to do so, but others take advantage of the offer. To her credit, Kady notes:

The following observations were inspired by what I saw when I was liveblogging the Home Affairs and Culture Select committees on Tuesday; as we are so often reminded, committees are, of course, masters of their own respective destinies, which means it is distinctly possible that other select committees operate on slightly – or even substantially – different rules.

O’Malley also writes that there aren’t time limits for questions and answers, nor on the length of time witnesses are expected to stick around to answer. Again, this isn’t entirely true. Each committee hearing has a set duration, for example, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30. The committee may well decide to go on longer, or to cut proceedings short. Some witnesses do have to leave at a certain time because of other commitments, and so the committee knows it has only a half hour, or an hour, etc., with that specific witness. It is true, however, that unlike the Canadian House of Commons committees I have watched, the UK committees don’t have time limits for questions and answers.

While Kady O’Malley highlighted some key differences (based on having observed one committee hearing), a recent piece on the BBC website questions if MPs are really up to the task of questioning witnesses, stating that “[T]here had been criticism of earlier hearings for not asking sharp enough questions, or following up lines of enquiry.” One MP defended MP inquiries this way:

“We are asking questions as non-experts, as representatives of the public.

“You can’t prepare those questions in advance because you can’t always anticipate the way that the discussion will go.”

The comment by UK MP Nicola Blackwood that MPs are asking questions “as non-experts” also reminds me of former Prime Minister John Major’s recent calls for reforms to increase the number of MPs with expertise in specific areas, which I discussed in this post.

This is a legitimate criticism of parliamentary committees. For example, there has been much criticism of one MP on the Culture, Media and Sports committee, Louise Mensch, for making some comments during the July 20 hearing accusing former News of the World Editor Piers Morgan of phone hacking because he had supposedly admitted to this in his autobiography. This led to a fierce row between Morgan and Mensch, who refused to repeat the allegations outside of Parliament, where she would no longer be protected by parliamentary privilege. Here in Canada, other committee investigative hearings have been less than stellar. In 2007, the Canadian House of Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics conducted an investigation into the Mulroney Airbus settlement. The questioning of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by MPs appeared often amateurish and boorish, and Mulroney’s legal counsel, Guy Pratte, described committee hearings as “damaging”:

“At a parliamentary committee there are absolutely no rules. Zero rules. At least at inquiry commissions some rules of fairness apply. Parliamentary immunity means things are said that never would be said if MPs were subject to defamatory libel.”

He remembers New Democrat MP Pat Martin saying to Mulroney: “I won’t call you a liar, but I don’t want anyone here to think that I believe you.” Pratte says, “That sort of thing would never be tolerated in a court of law. Never, never, never!” Mulroney fumed at the insult and his son Ben, the television host, had to be restrained in the audience. “Parliamentary committees play with peoples’ reputations sometimes in a very dangerous and damaging way,” says Pratte. “I understand they have work to do, and it is a political forum. I suppose there is a political advantage to be gained from getting a big headline the next morning.

“I’ve said it many times in the Mulroney affair. It should resemble an ordinary court.” Pratte says. “We should at least try to respect the basic principles of fairness. I wanted to present myself in politics several times, but my experience as much with Mr. Pelletier as Mr. Mulroney left me discouraged by the performance of certain, but not all, MPs and the lack of concern with which they threw out any sort of accusation.”

Kady O’Malley’s second post looked at differences between the UK and Canadian House of Commons in general. On Twitter on July 21, many Canadian journalists were enthralled by the ministerial statement delivered by David Cameron on the phone hacking scandal and the questions and debate which followed. I have also explored the vast differences between Canadian and UK ministerial statements, O’Malley, for some reason, did not comment on that at all. While UK ministerial statements are always far more productive affairs than their Canadian counterparts, this one was quite noteworthy: Cameron took 136 questions from MPs during his statement.

It was interesting to see the many comments from Canadians on Twitter, some of whom lamenting that Canada doesn’t have a Prime Minister’s Questions (not that there was a PMQs on 20 July). It reminded me that only days earlier, the Independent had run an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of PMQs. The sub-headline of that article reads: “No other parliament has anything like Prime Minister’s Questions.” Quite a few readers took exception to that and rattled off a series of countries that they said had PMQs: Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, to name a few. It was clear to me that people were confusing a general oral question period where all ministers, including the PM, take questions, which is what both Canada and Australia have, with a questions session where only the PM and no other ministers takes questions. It made me wonder if the Canadian journalists on Twitter, who were expressing such enthusiasm for PMQs, were aware of the UK House of Commons’ other daily questions – the department-specific oral questions, which I’ve written about in detail here. I don’t know if they’d be as impressed by those since they are such staid affairs when compared to PMQs. They should be, however, since again, they are far more productive than the Canadian version of Question Period for both getting information from the government and holding it to account.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally believe that the UK House of Commons functions far better than its Canadian counterpart, but as we all well know, the grass usually does look greener on the other side of the fence – or in this case, ocean. At least one very prominent figure in the UK believes there is still room for further reforms at Westminster.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow spoke to the Guardian and stated that while “MPs and peers have “rediscovered their collective balls” over the phone-hacking affair”, more could be done to strengthen Parliament. First on his list is finding a way to allow Parliament to compel witnesses to appear before committees.

Parliamentary committees (both in the UK and Canada and other jurisdictions) have the power to request witnesses to give evidence to them via an informal invitation issued by the committee clerk or the committee chair. They can also draw on their formal powers to summon witnesses via a Speaker’s warrant. That power is unqualified, “except to the extent that if conflicts with the privileges of the Crown and of Members of the House of Lords, or with the rights of Members of the House of Commons.” (Erskine May, 24th edition, p. 820). Should a witness fail to comply with such a warrant, however, they will be found in contempt of Parliament. In theory, the House of Commons has the power to send for persons whose conduct has been brought before the House on a matter of privilege by an order for their attendance. In practice, however, as Bercow notes, this isn’t really an enforceable power:

“If the Murdochs had refused the warrant to attend, we would have been in an extremely awkward situation. I don’t think there is much we could have done. There has been a complete ambiguity, a lack of clarity, an uncertainty about what our powers are.”

Bercow says select committees should have enforceable powers to compel witnesses in British jurisdiction to attend, and not, as at present, “depend on a toxic blend of bad publicity and the entirely implausible threat of imprisonment.

“I don’t think frankly it should be the Speaker on behalf of the house imprisoning a witness. We have got a creche in the parliamentary estate, but not so far as I know a cell.”

I sort of agree with Bercow that there probably needs to be a better way to compel witnesses to attend when summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee. Currently, the most likely outcome of a witness’s refusal to appear before a committee will be for that person to be found in contempt of Parliament. They may be called before the Bar of the House to be reprimanded by the Speaker or asked to apologize, but again, there is no way to compel them to do so:

The problem is that the sanctions – involving fine or imprisonment – to enforce any punishment are constitutionally somewhat rusty. Vernon Bogdanor, the former professor of government at Oxford University, has suggested they may have fallen into “desuetude” [disuse]. The House of Commons is not believed to have fined anybody since 1666 and has not “committed anyone to custody”, apart from temporarily detaining them, since the 19th century.

The last time the Commons attempted to reprimand anyone at the bar of the house was in 1957 when the Sunday Express editor John Junor was criticised after offending MPs by publishing an editorial accusing them of abusing their petrol allowances. “Such a sanction would now appear high-handed,” the recent standard and privileges committee report acknowledged.

Another MP, Adrian Bailey, who chairs the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, has called for new laws to be introduced to force witnesses to appear before select committees. In the US, a federal act makes contempt of Congress a misdemeanor “punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 nor less than $100 and imprisonment.., for not less than one month nor more than twelve months.” Perhaps something along these lines would be what Bailey and Bercow have in mind.

Bercow also would like to see witnesses before committees examined under oath “as a matter of course”. Committees do have the power to administer oaths to witnesses, however, more often than not, they aren’t. This too has ramifications. If a witness was not sworn in before testifying, and then found to have provided false evidence or misled the committee, the worse that will happen is that they may be found in contempt. However, again according to Erskine May (p. 824), “[B]y the Perjury Act 1911, s 1, where evidence is given upon oath, the giving of false evidence is punishable as perjury. The power of either House to punish for false evidence is not, however, superseded by this Act.” Meaning that it would still be up to the house to administer any punishment – the range of which are similar to those available for anyone deemed to be guilty of contempt. And again from Erskine May:

it should be borne in mind that in 1978, the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible, and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so. Thus many acts which might be considered to be contempts are either overlooked by the House or resolved  informally.  (p. 251)

And while Canadian journalists and political watchers were so enthralled by PMQs, that item of business remains a source of great frustration and embarrassment for Bercow:

“I cannot think of any business that would put its worst product in the shop window and in some respects it’s our worst product. I think the level of heckling, the extent of catcalling, the sheer decibel level, are not conducive to reasoned debate.”

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