I have written many posts about various procedural measures used in the British House of Commons that I think would be welcomed additions to the Canadian House of Commons. While I have attempted to describe these measures in detail, viewing them in action would probably be far more enlightening. The BBC’s Democracy Live website makes available clips of specific proceedings from the UK House of Commons (and Lords), making it quite easy for me to provide readers with clips of urgent questions, ministerial statements and other proceedings.
Note – I don’t expect anyone to watch any of these in their entirely, but even if you watch them for only 10-15 minutes, you will gain a better sense of what is an urgent question, how oral questions to departments and ministerial statements differ from what we have in Canada, and why I prefer British procedure to what transpires in Canada. Some readers may disagree and prefer Canada’s chaotic (and in my view, rather unproductive) Question Period. That is fine. At the very least, you will better understand these procedures when I write about them in the future.
When it comes to Oral Questions in the UK House of Commons, most people will immediately think of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) – the weekly half hour where the Prime Minister alone takes questions from the House. The “highlight” of that is of course the 6-question exchange between the PM and the Leader of the Official Opposition.
However, in my view, PMQs is not that interesting, and more of a distraction than anything else. I much prefer the daily Oral Questions to ministers other than the PM. Each day, it is a different ministry (or group of ministries/agencies in the case of some of the smaller departments) which take questions. You can read more about the process here.
The above is the clip of the one hour questions to the Treasury of 8 February 2011. The first thing viewers will notice is that unlike for PMQs, the Chamber isn’t full. There is always sparser attendance for the department-specific oral questions, but at least the MPs who are present are there because they have specific concerns they seek to raise with the Minister. Unlike during Oral Questions in the Canadian House of Commons, where most ministers are present and take questions, only the Minister and parliamentary secretaries associated with the specific ministry facing questions are present. In this clip, we see Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, seated to his right is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander (the ginger-haired bloke with the glasses), to Osborne’s immediate left are MP Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary, David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, and Justine Greening, who was then Economic Secretary (Ms. Greening has been promoted to a different ministry since, and this position is now held by Chloe Smith). These ministers will alternate answering questions, taking the ones which fall under their areas of responsibility within the ministry.
What you won’t see is a minister refusing to answer a question, or a minister from a completely unrelated department answering a question – common occurrences in the Canadian House of Commons.
Because government departments face oral questions on a rotating schedule, with each ministry facing questions once every 2-3 weeks, when an urgent matter arises that falls under the purview of a given ministry, any MP may request an Urgent Question. If the Speaker grants the request, the minister responsible will be summoned to the Chamber immediately following that day’s oral questions and will field questions relating to the urgent matter. These sessions normally last about an hour, but on some occasions, have lasted longer than that.
On Monday, 23 January 2012, the European Union agreed sanctions banning all new oil contracts with Iran and freezing the assets of Iran’s central bank in the EU. The following day, Foreign Secretary William Hague was in the Chamber to answer an urgent question tabled by Conservative Robert Halfon, who wanted to know what action was being taken against the country over its nuclear ambitions. Again, what Canadian viewers will note is that we have one minister taking questions on a specific matter from MPs from all parties.
Ministerial statements in the Canadian House of Commons are, in my view, rather pointless affairs. In Canada, 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. Most ministerial statements tend to focus on commemorative matters (i.e. commemorating Veterans’ Week or the anniversary of some event) and explaining key pieces of government legislation. You can read more about ministerial statements here.
In the UK House of Commons, ministers use ministerial statements to actually brief the House on ongoing developments such as a disaster relief effort, an on-going military engagement, the economy, etc. The minister makes a brief-ish statement to the House, the Shadow minister responds, and asks a series of questions in his or her response, and then any MP can rise and ask a question of the minister. Like urgent questions, ministerial statements usually last about an hour, but the Speaker is free to let them go on longer than that is there is strong interest from a great number of MPs.
For example, on 21 July 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled the House of Commons (which had adjourned for the summer recess the day before) to make a statement to the House in which he updated MPs on the remit of the judicial inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, which will be led by Lord Justice Leveson, and named the members of the panel for the inquiry. Mr. Cameron took questions from MPs for over two hours.
You will note that the House is very well attended for that particular ministerial statement. This isn’t always the case.
Prime Minister’s Questions
For anyone who may not have actually ever seen PMQs, you can catch up with the most recent ones on the UK Parliament’s youtube channel.