On Organizing House Business Sensibly

In the previous Canadian parliament, a question of privilege was raised concerning the then Government’s excessive recourse to time allocation and how these guillotine measures impacted Members from smaller parties. In the Canadian House of Commons, if a Member belongs to a party which has fewer than 12 elected members in the House, they do not have recognized party status and are treated as independents. Because virtually all procedures in the House of Commons are organized around parties (the officially recognized ones at least) rather than Members as the central agents, this means that the so-called “independent” MPs have extremely limited opportunities to participate in debates at the best of times. The recourse to time allocation on a bill more often than not eliminates any chance of “independent” MPs of speaking to a bill at all.

The then-Government House Leader responded to the question of privilege in a very interesting way. He chose to reduce the issue to a questioning of “the overall amount of time budgeted for debates for government legislation” (Debates, September 15, 2014, p. 7318). He then proceeded to provide the House with a statistical comparison of the amount of time spent debating legislation in the Canadian House of Commons with the UK House of Commons:

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. (Debates, September 15, 2014, p. 7319)

It’s difficult to disagree with Mr. Van Loan — we do have far more ample debate in the Canadian House of Commons. The question is, however, why do we waste so much time with second and third reading debate?

To put it quite bluntly, second reading and third reading are rather useless stages of the legislative process. Contrary to what some might believe, they don’t actually affect any changes to the bill being debated. In fact, at the second reading, MPs aren’t even debating what’s in the bill; they are debating the principle of the bill. They aren’t allowed to debate the specifics of the legislation, or propose amendments to the bill at second reading (they can amend the motion for second reading, but these are not amendments to the actual content of the bill). Second reading is simply the opportunity for MPs to put forth, in general terms, what they think of the general scope of the bill. And in the Canadian House of Commons, as the former Government House Leader pointed out, we do this for days.

Third reading also does not affect the bill at all in terms of making any changes to it. Third reading is the House deciding if the bill should pass or not. No amendment can be brought to the bill; an amendment to delay it (hoist or reasoned amendment) or to recommit to committee for further study could be moved, but no actual changes to the content of the bill can be made. And again, third reading debates in Canada go on, and on, and on.

The former Government House Leader conveniently omitted any mention of the one stage where actual study of, and changes to the content of the bill occurs, and that is Committee stage. After second reading, a bill is typically referred to a committee which will study it, propose amendments, hear from expert witnesses, etc. and go over it clause-by-clause. This is arguably the stage that matters the most, and perhaps the reason why Mr. Van Loan failed to provide any helpful comparison with the UK is because the Canadian House of Commons would come up woefully short. The main reason why the UK House of Commons spends so little time (compared to Canada) on second and third reading is because they tend to allot weeks, if not months, of time for a bill at committee stage. In Canada, the time allocation motions that were at the heart of this question of privilege tend to severely limit how much time a bill spends in committee — often just a few days. Canadian House of Commons committees also have far less independence in organizing their time than do their UK counterparts.

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee is currently reviewing their procedures regarding private Members’ bills. At a meeting held on February 24, 2106, the main witness was the Clerk of the House of Commons, David Natzler. The Clerk was asked about possible ways to ensure that some private Members’ bills actually come to a vote, because current procedure sees most of them talked out rather than voted on. In considering ways of perhaps achieving this, Mr. Natzler rejected the idea of time limits on speeches:

I don’t think that speech limits is one. I think speech limits are a consequence and a means to an end and shouldn’t be used. I think it’s unfair on the Chair to use them as the principal means of bringing debate to a close. On a government bill on second reading it is a reasonable question to ask why is it that they always end very neatly at 9:59 on a Monday and the answer is indeed the use of time limits on speeches. And if they weren’t there, would the bill be talked out? No because we know the government, for its own legislative program, has the numbers for the closure which of course we don’t know for a private Member’s bill. And so the convention is now strong enough that unlike, say, Canada, where second readings take day after day because there is no such convention that a single day is enough of a reading of a program bill, we can organize business sensibly. (Note to Canadian readers — the closure referred to in this quote is not the same closure procedure as used in the Canadian House of Commons, but more akin to the previous question. I transcribed this from video as the official transcript is not yet available.)

Yes, they can organize business sensibly.

I don’t know why Canadian legislatures (because many provinces aren’t any better on this front) quite literally waste so much time with second and third reading debates. That time would be so much better spent in committee, where the bill could be properly studied, dissected, amended, etc. Yes, I know each party in the House wants to get their position on the bill across, but do they really need to have every member of their caucus speak to it at second reading? Surely they would require only a few speakers to deliver their main points? When you combine this with the regulations on time limits on speeches (20 minutes), you end up with MP after MP standing up to read — yes, they all mostly read — their views on the bill. There isn’t proper debate because we don’t allow for giving way anymore, we just have the “questions and comments” at the end of each speech. It’s stilted, usually boring, and goes on for days. Why? The same applies to third reading debate. It’s shameful that the Canadian House of Commons averaged 1.55 days of debate for third reading — not something to boast about.

There has been a lot of talk about possible reforms to make parliament more “family friendly” of late, and one idea bounced around is to get rid of the Friday sitting, which currently is from 9:00 to 2:30. Not much happens on Fridays. There is a question period, but in the previous parliament at least, few ministers were ever present, letting their parliamentary secretaries answer instead (which shouldn’t be allowed at all — the parliamentary secretaries are not responsible for anything), and no debates of importance take place because they know many MPs are absent. Many oppose losing the Friday since this would reduce available debate time. The issue of lost debate time could be easily made up a number of ways. First of all, the House could stop wasting so much time at second and third reading, and instead give bills way more time at committee stage. If we’re currently wasting almost three days on second reading, cutting that down to one (hell, a single afternoon would more than suffice), that would make up for a couple of Fridays right there. If the Canadian House of Commons also came back earlier in January and September, and sat longer in December and into July, as does the UK House of Commons, that would also more than make up for losing Fridays. In return, more time could be allotted to the committee stage of bills, and in all likelihood, governments wouldn’t need to resort to time allocation as often — if at all.

There is a real need to reassess how time is used in the House, and wasting so much time on second and third reading debate isn’t at all necessary or justifiable.

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