As O’Brien and Bosc explain in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.), one of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. While the political parties in the House may disagree on what a ‘reasonable period’ might be, they would all agree that eventually, debate must end and the House must decide a matter.
Over the years, changes to the Standing Orders have been made to expedite the business of the House. Chief among these was the introduction of time limits on speeches by Members. In the Canadian House of Commons, in most debates, MPs may speak once, for a maximum of 20 minutes. There are some exceptions to that rule, for example, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have unlimited speaking time. If debate extends beyond a certain number of hours, Members’ speaking time is reduced to 10 minutes. This differs from the UK House of Commons, where there are no time limits on how long MPs may speak. However, at the outset of certain debates, the Speaker may impose a time limit on speeches due to the great number of MPs who have indicated they wish to participate in the debate.
However, there are times when, despite the existing limits on debate, the Government believes there is a need to cut short the debate. Certain rules exist which allow the Government to do just that. This is called “curtailing debate” and the means by which this is usually done are via closure and time allocation.
Closure is a procedural device which is used to bring debate on a question to an end by a majority decision of the House even if not all the MPs who wish to speak on the matter have had the chance to do so. The Closure rule was adopted in the Canadian House of Commons in 1913, during a filibuster by opposition parties. It has already been introduced in the UK House of Commons much earlier, in 1881, and in the Australian House of Representatives in 1905. In those days, in Ottawa, there were no time limits on how long Members could speak on a question, and opposition parties had managed to significantly delay the passage of government legislation, with some debates on bills stretching out over two years. Since its introduction in 1913, closure has been used over 60 times in the Canadian House of Commons.
Closure is a motion “That debate not be further adjourned”. It provides the government with a procedure to require that the question be put at the end of the sitting in which a motion of closure is adopted. Closure may be applied to any debatable matter, including bills and motions.
Prior to moving a motion for closure, an oral notice of intention to do so must have been given by a Minister at a previous sitting of the House. Debate on the item that is the subject of the notice must have begun before notice of closure may be given. No obligation exists to proceed with moving the closure motion even if notice has been given.
After notice has been given, the closure motion may be moved during a subsequent sitting. It must be moved by a Minister immediately before the House resumes debate on the item. While the closure motion is not debatable or amendable, a 30-minute question period is permitted, during which Members may ask questions of the Minister responsible for the closured item. At the end of this period, the Speaker immediately puts the question on the closure motion.
When a motion for closure is adopted, debate resumes on the now-closured business, subject to the restrictions imposed by the closure rule. Any Private Members’ Business scheduled during that sitting day is still taken up at its regular time. All questions necessary to dispose of the closured business are put no later than 8:00 p.m.
Time allocation, like closure, came about following a filibuster by the opposition during the Pipeline Debate in 1956. During that debate, closure was the only rule the government could use to advance its legislation but it was becoming clear that it was rather inflexible and inadequate. Consequently the House and its committees began deliberations on better ways to allot time for the consideration of specific pieces of legislation and planning of the session’s work, which the closure rule could not do. However, it wasn’t until 1969, after a debate which lasted 12 hours and that was, ironically, curtailed by a motion of closure, that a report recommending time allocation measures was adopted. The rule has evolved over the years, with the current version adopted in 2001.
The time allocation rule, which is used much more frequently than closure, allows for specific lengths of time to be set aside for the consideration of one or more stages of a public bill. Although the rule permits the government to negotiate with opposition parties towards the adoption of a timetable, it can also be used by the government to impose strict limits on the time for debate.
The rule is divided into three distinct sections with specific conditions applying depending on the degree of support among the recognized parties in the House of Commons. As explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice:
1. All Parties Agree: The first section of the rule envisages agreement among the representatives of all the recognized parties in the House to allocate time to the proceedings at any or all stages of a public bill. No notice is required. In proposing the motion, a Minister first states that such an agreement has been reached and then sets out the terms of the agreement, specifying the number of days or hours of debate to be allocated. The Speaker then puts the question to the House, which is decided without debate or amendment.
2. Majority of Parties Agree: The second section of the rule envisages agreement among a majority of the representatives of the recognized parties in the House. In these circumstances, the government must be a party to any agreement reached. The motion may not cover more than one stage of the legislative process. It may, however, apply both to report stage and third reading, if it is consistent with the rule requiring a separate day for debate at third reading when a bill has been debated or amended at report stage. Again, no notice is required, and it is not necessary for debate on the stage or stages specified in the time allocation to have begun. Prior to moving the motion, the Minister states that a majority of party representatives have agreed to a proposed allocation of time. The motion specifies how many days or hours are to be allocated.
3. No Agreement: The third section of the rule permits the government to propose an allocation of time unilaterally. In this case, an oral notice of intention to move the motion is required. The motion can only propose the allocation of time for one stage of the legislative process, that being the stage then under consideration. However, the motion can cover both report stage and third reading, provided it is consistent with the rule which requires a separate day for third reading when a bill has been debated or amended at report stage. The amount of time allocated for any stage may not be less than one sitting day.
The wording of a motion for time allocation must be specific as to the terms of the allocation of time. In most cases, time is allocated in terms of sitting days or hours. When there is no agreement between the parties, the amount of time allocated may not be less than one day. The motion can propose only the allocation of time for one stage of the legislative process, that being the stage then under consideration, with the exception of report stage and third reading, which can be covered in one motion. A motion for time allocation must be moved by a Minister in the House, and is neither debatable nor amendable. However, there is a 30-minute period set aside for Members to ask questions of the Minister responsible for the bill in question.
After the adoption of a motion for time allocation, debate at the stage or stages of the bill in question then becomes subject to the time limits imposed by the motion. The day on which the time allocation motion is adopted may be counted as one sitting day for that purpose, provided the motion is moved and adopted at the beginning of Government Orders and the bill is taken up immediately. At the expiry of the time allocated for a given stage, any proceedings before the House are interrupted, and the Chair puts every question necessary for the disposal of the bill at that stage. (source: Compendium of Procedure Online)