Comparing UK and Canadian House of Commons procedure

Going by the keyword search activity on this blog, there seems to be much interest in comparisons of parliamentary procedure in Canada and the United Kingdom. I have written many posts about various parliamentary proceedings which differ notably in both countries, and so I thought I would regroup that information into one post, with links to the more detailed posts for those who wish to find out more. Please note that this is not a comprehensive explanation of all of the differences between the two countries – I am looking only at major areas of interest.

Oral Questions

Characteristics

UK House of Commons

Canada House of Commons

Frequency Daily (Monday to Thursday) Daily (Monday to Friday)
Participants One ministry each day (or some smaller departments/agencies grouped together) The entire cabinet
Duration Larger ministries get one hour, smaller ministries will divide the time between them 45 minutes
Time limit for questions/answers None – there is a quota, however, and for large ministries who have a full hour, that quota is a minimum of 25 questions plus supplementaries 35 seconds to ask the question, 35 seconds for the answer
Can minister refuse to answer question No Yes
Can minister defer question to another minister No (only to other ministers from the same department) Yes
Do ministers know questions in advance Yes and no – questions must be submitted three days in advance to allow the minister to prepare complete answers, but the final 10-15 minutes are reserved for topical questions which are not submitted in advance, ditto for supplementaries. No (but they can be given advance notice). Side note: Ministers’ answers often tightly scripted to mostly repeat party line regardless of what is actually asked of them.
Participation of backbenchers Questioning is open to all MPs, but drawn by lottery to determine who will be able to ask tabled questions. Any MP can stand to ask a supplementary. Backbenchers given scripted questions, party whips determine which MPs will ask questions. Speaker can recognize any MP but usually sticks to list of names provided by the parties.
Attendance Rarely a full house, but attendance varies depending on the ministry being questioned that day (e.g. Questions to the Treasury will see more MPs present than Questions to the Secretary for Wales) Usually a full house, less so on Fridays when senior ministers and party leaders are usually absent
Is PM present No – PM has separate oral questions, Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) every Wednesday at noon Often, but not always – may have other commitments
Are other ministers present? No, only the ministers for the ministry fielding questions that day Yes, unless they have other commitments
Are other party leaders present? No – only the shadow critics from other parties. The Leader of the Opposition normally attends PMQs only. Shadow critics may not even ask a question – if they do, usually come in on a supplementary. Yes, unless they have other commitments. Leaders of opposition parties usually take the lead-off role when it’s that party’s turn in the rotation.

Posts you may want to read which explain the above in greater detail: Fixing Ottawa: Question Period

Urgent Questions

Characteristics

House of Commons UK

Canada House of  Commons

What is it? An urgent question is a question of an urgent nature and of public importance for which no previous notice has been given. It will relate to a matter of public importance or the arrangement of business. No such procedure
How does it work? Any MP can submit a question to the Speaker on an urgent matter of public interest. If the Speaker agrees, the relevant government department is informed at once and the Minister responsible will have to appear before the House on short notice to answer the question.Takes place immediately following the day’s questions to the ministry. The procedure on Urgent Questions is similar to ordinary oral questions.  The main question will be asked, the Member who has put the question down is then allowed to ask a supplementary. Other Members will then be called to ask further questions on the same subject.
Duration Usually about an hour but some will end sooner. Speaker has full discretion to allow procedure to go on longer if there is sufficient interest in number of MPs wanting to ask a question.
Problems Frequency of UQ depends entirely on willingness of Speaker to grant them. Current Speaker John Bercow is very supportive and has granted close to 80 since the May 2010 election. His predecessor, however, had granted only two in the final twelve months of his term as Speaker.

Ministerial Statements

Characteristics

House of Commons UK

Canada House of  Commons

What is it? A minister (including the PM) makes a statement in the House updating the House on an issue or on-going matter, how the government is addressing/dealing with the situation, future plans, etc. Examples would include: updates on military campaigns (e.g. Afghanistan), updates on economic/financial matters, updates on summits attended, etc. A minister (including the PM) addresses the House on a given issue or event. Unlike in the UK, most statements by ministers in Canada address commemorative events (e.g. Veterans’ Week), or similar items, or a new government program or bill.
How does it work? 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 minister makes his or her statement, after which the Opposition shadow critic responds, and asks a question of the minister. Other MPs can then ask questions of the minister on the subject matter of his or her address. 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. In responding to the statement, Members are not permitted to engage in debate or ask questions of the Minister.
Duration Up to an hour, but can go longer if needed. The decision is up to the Speaker. 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.
Frequency As needed, at the request of a minister Ministerial statements is a part of the daily routine proceedings, however, this does not mean that there will a statement every single day. In actual fact, they rarely occur as ministers prefer to make such announcements outside of the House.

For more information on ministerial statements, please see this post.

Debate

There are some key differences in how debate proceeds in both Houses of Commons.

UK House of Commons

Canada House of Commons

No time limit on speeches, although if a large number of MPs have indicated they wish to participate in a certain debate, the Speaker may indicate at the outset that he or she will limit speeches to a certain number of minutes (e.g. 10 minutes). Generally, each MP may speak for up to 20 minutes. When certain debates exceed a certain number of hours, this is reduced to 10 minutes.
Giving way – any MP may seek to interrupt the Member who has the floor to pose a question on something they have said. The MP who is speaking may “give way” – allowing the other MP to ask their question. Or, he or she may refuse to give way in order to make more progress in their own remarks. After an MP completes his or her remarks, there is a 10 minutes “Questions and Comments” session where other MPs can ask questions or comment on the remarks made by the MP. Questions and Comments was introduced in the 1980s to replace the practice of giving way, which didn’t work well once time limits on speeches were introduced.
MPs who wish to participate in a debate must sign up on a sheet outside the Speaker’s office. They are expected to attend the lead-off speech, and are also expected to be present to listen to a few speakers before they themselves take the floor, and to stay around after they complete their own remarks in order to gauge how their comments were received. They are also expected to make references to points raised by other MPs who spoke before them in the debate. This is to ensure that the debate does not consist of a series of MPs simply reading from prepared notes, with no reference to points raised by previous speakers. No such convention exists. MPs mostly read from prepared notes and their comments often do not contain any reference to points raised by previous speakers. MPs often disappear from the chamber as soon as they are done. Party whips usually decide which of their MPs will participate.
The Speaker has the power to select the amendments, new clauses or new schedules to be proposed in respect of any motion, or any bill under consideration on report or any Lords amendment to a bill. Selection is made by the Chair in such a way as to bring out the salient points of criticism, to prevent repetition and overlapping, and when several amendments deal with the same point, to choose the more effective and better drafted. No such rule exists.
A new Backbench Business Committee schedules debates on matters of interest to backbench MPs on 35 days each session. No such rule. There is scheduled time for debating private members’ bills, and certain opposition day debates.

See this post on Giving Way for more information on that practice. You may also be interested in this post assessing the Backbench Business Committee.

Committees

Recent changes implemented for the first time following the May 2010 general election have improved the UK House of Commons committees, making them more independent and less beholden to party whips.

UK House of Commons

Canada House of Commons

Committee chairs are elected by their fellow MPs, using the Alternative Vote. The Chair and Vice-Chairs of standing committees are elected by the members of the committee.
Committee members from each party are elected by their own caucuses The party Whips submit names of Members for each committee to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to be approved by the House.
Chairs of committees are distributed amongst the three main parties roughly in proportion to the party standings in the House. The Chair is chosen from amongst the government members of the committee with the exception of five committees where the Chairs are chosen from the Official Opposition (i.e., the Standing Committees on: Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics; Government Operations and Estimates; Public Accounts; Status of Women; and the Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations).
Party representation on committees is roughly proportional to the party standings in the House. Party representation on committees is roughly proportional to the party standings in the House.

See Fixing Ottawa: Committees and Report on 2010 Elections for Positions in the House for more information.

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