A few thoughts on House sittings

There has been a lot of discussion around making the Canadian House of Commons more “family friendly” for MPs. A number of ideas have been put forward by MPs and others as to how this might be achieved. One of the more popular ideas seems to be doing away with the Friday sitting since it already is very sparsely attended and mostly dedicated to private members’ business. Others aren’t too keen on that idea, arguing that the time lost by cancelling the Friday sitting would have to be made up somewhere else. Dale Smith, a freelance journalist in the parliamentary press gallery, argues this point:

The first suggestion tends to be doing away with Friday sittings, which seems easy enough as they are more sparsely attended and the early question period is often the scripted duels of deputy critics versus parliamentary secretaries, with but a couple of cabinet ministers or “designated front bench babysitters” in the chamber. It’s a nice enough idea, but the problem is that the sitting hours during which legislation gets debated would need to be made up somewhere else. That means either evening sittings, or sitting into the summer.

Are those really the only options — evening sittings or sitting into the summer?

The Canadian House of Commons currently sits Monday to Friday on the following schedule:

Mon: 11:00 to 19:00
Tue: 10:00 to 19:00
Wed: 14:00 to 19:00
Thu: 10:00 to 19:00
Fri: 10:00 to 14:30

The Friday sitting represents 4.5 hours. That could easily be made up during the rest of the week. The obvious block of time is Wednesday, where the morning is reserved for caucus meetings (where the entire caucus — all MPs belonging to the same party — meet to discuss business and plan their strategy). Does this really require that much time? But if they don’t want to mess with caucus time, then the 4.5 hours could be made up quite easily by starting at 9:00 instead of 10:00 on Tuesday and Thursday (there’s 2 hours), by extending the Monday and Tuesday sittings by a half hour to 19:30 (another hour), and starting at 13:00 instead of 14:00 and adjourning at 19:30 on Wednesday (the remaining 1.5 hours). That would still leave a large block of time for caucus.

The UK House of Commons changed its sitting hours a couple of years ago to be more “family friendly”. The House now sits Monday to Thursday and some Fridays. There are 13 Friday sittings per session, and a session runs from May to April of the following year.

The sitting hours of the UK House of Commons are as follows:

Mon: 14:30 to 22:30
Tue: 11:30 to 19:30
Wed: 11:30 to 19:30
Thu: 9:30 to 17:30
Fri: 9:30 to 15:00 (13 Fridays per session)

There is also a second debating chamber, Westminster Hall, which is used primarily for backbench business debates. Sitting hours for those debates are:

Mon: 16:30-19:30
Tue and Wed: 9:30 to 11:30 and 14:30 to 17:00
Thu: 13:30 to 16:30

And what about recesses? The 2014 parliamentary calendar for the Canadian House of Commons reveals that the House returned on January 27 and met until June 20, but not continuously. There were what are called constituency weeks, one week off in both February and May, and two consecutive weeks off in both March and April. The summer recess ran from June 23 to September 13, with the House returning on September 15, and sitting until December 12, again broken up by constituency weeks (one each in October and November).

The UK House of Commons started earlier, on January 6, 2014, and sat longer, until July 22 (and it gets pretty hot and sticky in London too), but not continuously. They recessed from 13-24 February, 10-28 April and 1-6 May. The summer recess lasted from July 23 to August 31, and MPs were back in the House on September 1 and sat until December 18. There were recesses during the fall: the notable Conference recess from 12 September to 13 October, and then 11-17 November.

I think a case could certainly be made for Canadian MPs to return to work earlier in January and September, like their UK counterparts, and even for sitting a bit longer in December. That would more than make up for any time lost by cancelling the Friday sitting, as I will demonstrate.

In 2014, the House of Commons sat on 27 Fridays, for a total of 121.5 hours (4.5 hours/Friday x 27 Fridays). Without the Friday sitting of 4.5 hours, and without changing the sitting hours of the other four days, the House sits for 31 hours/week Monday to Thursday. If the House had come back on January 6 instead of January 27, those additional three weeks alone would add up to 93 hours. Add one extra week in September, and we’ve got 124 hours  — 2.5 hours more than what would be “lost” by cancelling the Friday sitting.

My only point here is that yes, there are alternatives to evening sittings or sitting into the summer to make up the time lost by cancelling the Friday sitting. All they need to do is start earlier in January and September, which I don’t think would be that onerous.

 

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