A fascinating bit of history concerning ministerial statements in Canada

I have previously written about how, in my opinion, the UK House of Commons format for statements by ministers, or ministerial statements as they are also called, is superior to the procedure followed in the Canadian House of Commons. In that post, I explain how ministerial statements unfold in both Houses. The key differences between the two are:

  1. In the UK, ministers deliver statements to keep the House informed of on-going developments and government policy while in Canada, they are used primarily to mark commemorative events or to pay tribute to certain individuals; and
  2. In the UK, MPs have the opportunity to comment on the statement, and more importantly, ask questions of the minister to seek further information and better hold the government to account, while in Canada, no such opportunity exists, although representatives from each of the opposition parties can respond to the minister’s statement with a statement of their own on the same topic.

While doing a bit of research, I was fascinated to discover that for a very brief period of time, between 1975 and 1985, the rules for ministerial statements in Canada were changed and the Canadian House of Commons adopted essentially the very same format used in the UK House of Commons.

In its Second Report, presented on March 14, 1975, the Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization recommended that rules governing ministerial statements be modified to allow not only the comments/responses from opposition representatives, but to also allow Members to ask questions of the minister. The Speaker was given full discretion in deciding how much time would be taken up by the statement and the corresponding comments and questions. This is the case in the UK. In general, the time allocated for a ministerial statement and questions averages about an hour, but the Speaker can, and does, allow them to last longer than that if there is significant interest from Members. Some have lasted close to three hours.

According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, the new procedure worked quite well at first, but eventually became “lengthy and difficult to regulate“. In fact, this became such a problem that it essentially put an end to ministers making statements in the House because the ministers felt the procedure was taking too much time away from more important matters, namely, Government Orders.

To counter the growing practice of ministers making important announcements outside of the House rather than to the House, the Special Committee on Standing Orders and Procedure recommended in its 1983 report that the Standing Orders be changed again to eliminate the opportunity for Members to question a minister following a statement and by adding the time used up by a ministerial statement to the total sitting time of the House. This recommendation was eventually adopted in 1985.

However, the new rules didn’t put an end to the trend of ministers preferring to make statements outside of the House rather than to the House:

In 2001, the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons looked into concerns expressed by many Members that government announcements, regarding legislation or policies, were increasingly being made outside the House of Commons. To remedy the situation, the Committee recommended that Ministers and their departments make greater use of the forum provided by the House of Commons and that more statements and announcements be made by Ministers in the House, during “Statements by Ministers”. The Committee also suggested reordering the Routine Proceedings items to call for the “Introduction of Government Bills” prior to “Statements by Ministers”. The Committee was of the view that this change “would encourage Ministers to give brief explanations of their legislation in the House, following introduction”. The concurrence in the Special Committee’s report led to the rearrangement of the Routine Proceedings rubrics to their present order. (source)

Was the change successful in increasing the number of announcements made in the House? Out of curiosity, I counted up the number of Statements by Ministers delivered in the House of Commons during the first (and current) session of the 41st Parliament (from June 2011 to June 2013 and ongoing) and found that there were exactly six (6) statements made in the House. For comparison’s sake, during the first session (May 2010 to May 2012) of the current UK Parliament, there were 186 statements by ministers delivered to the House. Remember that each one of those lasted roughly an hour, meaning that provided at least 186 hours of questioning of ministers by MPs on specific, important policy matters and events.

This is not to imply that UK ministers never make important announcements outside of the House. They do, and are regularly chastised for doing so. The UK House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure even produced a report recommending that ministers who routinely made announcements outside of the House be censured. Still, UK cabinet ministers do this much less often than their Canadian counterparts. It would seem UK ministers don’t have issues with ministerial statements taking time away from Government Business, or with keeping the House apprised of important developments.

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