On 15 September 2014, MP Elizabeth May raised a questions of privilege in the Canadian House of Commons over the Government’s “unprecedented” use of time allocation, which she argued, has “obstructed, undermined and impeded” her rights and the rights of her colleagues, in particular those from smaller parties and independents.
In his response to Ms. May’s question of privilege, the Government House Leader dismissed her concerns that the House had insufficient time to properly scrutinize legislation and hold the Government to account by comparing the Canadian House of Commons to the UK House of Commons, which I will quote in its entirety:
Contrary to the arguments of many in the opposition and media pundits, we actually have more extensive debate here than ever occurs in the British parliament.
For example, the average Canadian government bill in this Parliament, or since the last election, is debated at second reading for almost three sitting days, or 2.74 days, which is the average number. To compare with Britain, instead of three days at second reading, a typical bill in that current parliament since the last election is debated about one day, or just over that at 1.16 days. Therefore, we have almost three times as much debate on average for each bill in the Canadian Parliament as does the British parliament.
At report stage, the comparison is even more dramatic. Our average is 1.41 sitting days in Canada and in Britain it is 5.8 hours, not days, which is less than a full sitting day, for consideration. Then at third reading, the difference is even more stark where in Canada we spend on average 1.55 sitting days on third reading of a bill while the House of Commons of the mother parliament can deal with third reading on average in 41 minutes. That is 41 minutes compared with our over one and a half sitting days at third reading.
This tells you, Mr. Speaker, that notwithstanding the complaints and carping of the opposition, we actually have more ample debate here than they do in the British House of Commons.
The opposition says that we are shortening debate. No, we are actually a real talk shop compared with what they do across the ocean. Once more, this does not reflect the individual members’ of Parliament right to speak. We have only 308 members, but their 650 MPs can get the same amount of work done in well less than half the time because they are not quite such a talk shop. I guess they are a little more efficient. Perhaps they have a culture that actually focuses on getting things done as our government seeks to do.
Mr. Van Loan does have a point, but he also misses a few other very important points.
First, it is very true that second and third reading debates in the UK House of Commons tend to be much shorter in duration than those in the Canadian House of Commons. But there is a good reason for that, namely, they aren’t the most important part of the legislative process. As I’ve previously explained in an earlier post, nothing actually happens to the bill during either second or third reading debate. Second reading debate isn’t a debate on the contents of the bill; MPs don’t discuss the bill’s various clauses. It is a debate on the principle of the bill. Third reading is little more than a formality; the bill has gone through (hopefully) intense scrutiny during other parts of the legislative process and 3rd reading simply confers the House’s final OK, so to speak.
Related to this is the reality that while debates in the UK House of Commons during 2nd and 3rd reading are shorter, they are, I must say, of better calibre. In the UK, any MP who wishes to speak to a bill during either of these debates does not have to get his or her party whip’s approval to do so – they simply sign up for the debate on sign-up sheet outside the Speaker’s office. There aren’t any official time limits on speaking time in the UK House of Commons (although the Speaker may ask MPs to not exceed a certain amount of time if there is a large number of MPs who have indicated they wish to speak). MPs in the UK do not read out prepared scripts handed to them minutes before by their party whips. Other MPs can rise to ask questions of them at any point and the Member speaking will usually give way and take the question.
In his run-down of how much time is spent on various stages of debate in Canada compared with the UK, Mr. Van Loan neglected to mention Committee Stage, which is where the real scrutiny of the bill occurs. In the UK, it is not usual for major government bills to spend a very long time, often months, in committee. For example, the Coalition Government’s major Welfare Reform Act was in committee for two months with a total of 26 meetings held.
More importantly, the UK has been using draft bills more and more often when it comes to major pieces of legislation. Draft bills are published to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. After consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny has taken place, the Draft Bill may be introduced formally in House of Commons or the House of Lords. Most Draft Bills are examined either by select committees in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords or by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament. See for example the Defamation Act which had a shorter passage through the various stages in the House, but it was a Draft bill first and so was being looked at from Oct 2011 to March 2012 before it was introduced formally. Draft bills exist in Canada, but they aren’t used very often.
Another important difference Mr. Van Loan failed to mention was the simple fact that in the UK, there isn’t the same reliance on or tendency to introduce omnibus bills. There is no precise definition of an omnibus bill. In general, an omnibus bill seeks to amend, repeal or enact several Acts, and it is characterized by the fact that it has a number of related but separate parts. However, there use is, according to O’Brien and Bosc, unique to Canada. In the UK, the fact that these sorts of bills are brought forward is an issue of concern. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report on Ensuring standards in the quality of legislation, did discuss the issue of omnibus bills (often called “portmanteau” or “Christmas tree bills”):
11. “Omnibus”, “portmanteau” or “Christmas tree bills” attracted particular criticism. These are large multi-topic bills, upon which a Department “hangs” a number of areas of policy, like baubles on a Christmas tree. Dr Ruth Fox, Director of the Parliament and Government Programme at the Hansard Society, highlighted some of the problems this type of bill can present:
If you look at the size of the bills that are going through, the Conservative party, when it was in Opposition, would talk strongly against the number of large Christmas-tree, omnibus bills that the previous Government took through Parliament after Parliament, yet we are seeing some of that happening again. The Localism Bill had to be published in two parts, for example, with a lot of disparate provisions.
She noted, however, that additional time had often been allowed to consider such bills at Report stage.
12. First Parliamentary Counsel noted that the Government “on the whole does not like big bills because the scope is broad and amendments can come in on any subject”. He stated that “[a]mendments can come in on new subjects late in a bill’s passage and that is quite often an area where mistakes creep in, so you might see more of that in a multi-purpose bill than in a small confined bill”.
13. The Rt Hon Mr Andrew Lansley MP, Leader of the House, noted that “[t]here are substantially more candidates for legislation than there is time available.” Some caution therefore needs to be exercised in criticising large multi-topic bills, as they can enable Parliament to consider provisions that would not otherwise find a place in the legislative timetable. For example one of the amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill, accepted by the Government, was to include section 24, Appeals relating to the regulation of the Bar. This section was originally included within a draft bill that the Ministry of Justice consulted on, but which was not taken forward because of lack of time.
14. We recognise that legislation is not made in a vacuum. The parliamentary legislative process reflects the inherent constraints and negotiations present in the process of turning policy into statute, and we accept that the introduction of large multi-topic bills is, on occasion, a legitimate and appropriate use of parliamentary time. We acknowledge that the greater breadth of such bills allows greater scope for amendments by backbench MPs, and that without such bills, some “worthy” but “unglamorous” statutory sections might not become law because of lack of parliamentary time. However, multi-topic bills risk becoming simply too big to be scrutinised effectively.
15. We recommend that for large multi-topic bills, the Minister in charge of the bill explain to Parliament why this large scale format has been chosen. If there is a good reason for the legislation being brought forward then Parliament can be confident that the Government has given proper consideration to the importance of parliamentary scrutiny.
Another difference between these two jurisdictions is that a rather large number of Government bills will start off in the House of Lords rather than being introduced in the Commons first. They get a thorough going over in the Upper House, and so by the time the bill moves to the Commons, there is less work required by the Commons since the Lords have done a lot of the heavy lifting.
And finally, one more important difference between the UK and Canadian bill process: in the UK, the Government does expect that its bills will be amended, either at Committee stage, Report Stage, or by the House of Lords. They also know that they can’t count 100% on a bill even going through. Unlike in Canada, MPs don’t always toe the party line. So while yes, it is true, there is a bit more debate time available on bills here in Canada, overall, it really comes down to a question of quality over quantity.