Keyword post: Short answers to various queries

The following are answers to questions based on recent keyword search activity which has led people to this blog.

1. How many signatures does an e-petition require for it to be debated in the UK Parliament?

First of all, there is no guarantee that any petition will be debated in Parliament. Under the UK Government’s new e-petitions scheme, if an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures that will only guarantee that it will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate in the House of Commons, however, the Committee is free to consider scheduling a debate on any petition, regardless of the number of signatures it receives. In other words, garnering 100,000 signatures will not guarantee a debate, and garnering fewer than 100,000 does not exclude the possibility of a debate. For a detailed explanation of this, please see this post. All petitions, however, will receive a response from the Government, once the period for signing them has closed.

2. If something happened to the Prime Minister, who would take over?

In countries such as Canada, the UK, etc., if the Prime Minister were incapacitated, decided to resign as his or her party leader or died suddenly, the party forming the government would simply name an interim leader from among its MPs. The interim leader would be acting Prime Minister while the party would hold a leadership race to choose a new leader, who would then automatically become the Prime Minister. These countries do not have presidential systems; prime ministers are not directly elected by voters to the post in general elections – the leader is chosen by the party. Parties can choose to change their leader at any time and for any reason, and if that party is the party that is forming the government, the new leader would become Prime Minister. Please see this post for information on how the Prime Minister becomes Prime Minister, and this post which addresses some related issues.

3. Who can force the Prime Minister out of office?

Since Prime Ministers in the UK and other countries are not directly elected by voters, they can’t really be forced out of office. The Prime Minister is simply an MP elected in a given constituency and who is also the leader of a political party which ends up forming the government. The surest way a PM can be removed from office by voters is for his or her party to be defeated in a general election. In between elections, however, a government can be removed from office if it loses the confidence of the House of Commons. Certain votes are considered confidence votes (the vote on the Speech from the Throne and the budget vote, for example). If a majority in the House vote against the government on these votes, the government is defeated. That could lead to a new election, or, depending on party standings in the House of Commons, another party might be asked to form the government. The party forming the government can also decide that it would prefer someone else to be its leader and force the current leader (and PM) to resign as party leader. The party would then choose a new leader, who would immediately become the Prime Minister. That party would still remain in power as the government, however.

4. How do I submit an e-petition to the Canadian House of Commons/provincial legislature?

Simply put, you can’t, unless you live in Quebec or in the Northwest Territories, which are the only legislatures in Canada which recognize or accept e-petitions. If you want to petition parliament or any other provincial legislature, you will have to do it the traditional way – print up your petition and collect real signatures on it. See this post for information on how to petitions legislatures in Canada.

5. Where I can find a picture of/more information about Eric Cameron Finance minister?

There is no such person as “Eric Cameron, Finance minister”. Eric Cameron is a fictional character in a novel, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis.

6. Who are the contesting parties for the post of Prime Minister in the UK?

No one contests for the post of prime minister since the prime minister is not elected directly by voters. The leader of whichever party ends up forming the government following a general election will become prime minister. In the case of a coalition government, as is currently the case  in the UK, traditionally the leader of the largest party in the coalition normally becomes prime minister. Currently in the UK, there are only two parties which have a realistic chance at forming the government on their own (i.e., winning a majority of the seats), and thus their leader would become the Prime Minister. These are Labour (currently led by Ed Miliband) and the Conservatives (led by David Cameron, who is currently Prime Minister leading a Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats). Even if the next election resulted in another hung parliament, it would be either Miliband or Cameron who would end up as PM, depending on the actual seat results.

7. What happens if we elect a minority government in the Ontario election?

Voters don’t elect governments, they elect a parliament. If the election results in a hung (minority) parliament – in which no party wins a majority of the seats, there are many forms of government which could result. Please see this post for a full discussion of the various options that would be available for the parties to consider, depending on the actual results of the election.

8. In parliamentary systems, how much influence do the opposition parties have/how effective are the opposition parties?

There is no clear answer to this as it will depend on various factors such as the type of government in place and the circumstances the opposition parties find themselves in. For example, if an election results in a single-party majority government, the opposition parties will have very little influence. If an election results in a hung parliament, and a minority government emerges from that, the opposition parties are theoretically in a much stronger position since the minority government will require the support of some opposition members or parties in order to pass its legislation. This will force the government to include policies that it thinks will appeal to the opposition, or the opposition will be able to amend the legislation during committee stage. However, even in a minority government situation, sometimes the opposition parties find themselves in a very weakened position, and thus they are keen to avoid anything that might defeat the government and lead to an election since they themselves are not ready to fight an election. Perhaps they are in the midst of a leadership change, or their party is down in the polls, or they are having trouble raising money and can’t afford to fight an election. Because of this, they will be less likely to oppose the government.

In the case of a coalition government, such as is currently the case in the UK, while it does have a majority of seats, because the government is made up of two parties, this has the potential to make it more unstable than a single-party majority government. Also, UK MPs are much more independent than are their counterparts in countries such as Canada and Australia, where party discipline is very very strong and MPs rarely defy the party whips. Therefore in the UK, even government backbench MPs often oppose their own government.

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Has the Backbench Business Commitee been a success?

A reader of this blog asked if the UK House of Commons Backbench Business Committee has been a success. This is a difficult question to answer because I am not certain how one would measure  – or even define – success in this context.

For those unfamiliar with the Backbench Business Committee, this is a new Commons select committee created on 15 June 2010 through the adoption of a new standing order. The creation of such a committee had been proposed during the previous Parliament by the Wright Committee on Reform of the House of Commons in its report of 12 November 2009.

The purpose of the Backbench Business Committee is to schedule debates on 35 days during the current session. The House has decided that these days will be devoted to backbench business and that at least 27 of them will be debates in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, with the remainder to be taken in Westminster Hall. The Committee encourages suggestions for subjects suitable for debate from backbenchers (i.e., members who are not Ministers of the Crown or shadow ministers).

Why this is important/different

Prior to the creation of this committee, it was the government of the day which determined what items would be called for debate. This is exactly what happens in the Canadian House of Commons and provincial legislatures. The gradual takeover by the Government of House time began in the first half of the 19th century, in response to the growth in Government financial business and Ministerial legislation, and hasn’t abated. There is time specifically allocated for the debate of non-government business, for example Opposition days and Private members’ public business, but this made up a fraction of the overall business of the House. While the Government can call any item on the Order paper, including motions and bills moved by backbenchers, it is government business that takes precedence and dominates the business of the House.

The Wright Committee determined that:

176. Backbenchers should schedule backbench business. Ministers should give up their role in the scheduling of any business except that which is exclusively Ministerial business, comprising Ministerial-sponsored legislation and associated motions, substantive non-legislative motions required in support of their policies and Ministerial statements The rest of the business currently scheduled by Ministers—such as House domestic business, select committee reports and general and topical debates—is for backbenchers to propose and the House to decide.

178. The scheduling of backbench business by backbenchers will require a means to decide what proposals for such business should be put to the House for its agreement. The obvious route is a committee of backbenchers elected by the House for that purpose. Such a committee’s task will not be an easy one. But it is in our view time for Members of the House, through a committee of their elected colleagues, to take some responsibility for what the House debates, when and for how long; and also for what it does not wish to debate, either at all or at its current length. For example, the House must be enabled to decide whether to sacrifice or curtail or move to another forum one or more of the set piece debates to make space for other business.

179. This will reduce the current extent of Government control or influence over the Parliamentary agenda. But the matters “lost” to Government will be principally those in which it has no direct interest: for example, the timing and topics of general debates and discussion of select committee reports. Rather than Ministers seeking to prioritise the many demands for time that are presented by Members, this responsibility would be handed to a committee representative of the House as a whole.

180. We therefore recommend that a Backbench Business Committee be created. It should be comprised of between seven and nine members elected by secret ballot of the House as a whole, with safeguards to ensure a due reflection of party proportionality in the House as a whole. The Chair would also be elected by ballot of the whole House. Frontbench members of all parties and PPSs would be ineligible for membership of the committee. The committee would have its own secretariat, provided by the Clerk of the House. To ensure that it was fully informed on a range of considerations affecting the scheduling of debates, such as the availability of Ministers, it might wish to invite the attendance of the Government’s business managers for part of the meeting. The committee would meet weekly to consider the competing claims for time made by select committees and backbenchers in groups or as individuals for the protected days and/or time-slots [see below] available in the two weeks ahead, and then to come to a firm view on the backbench business in the week immediately ahead.

Has the Committee been a success?

Again, I am not certain how one would ascertain whether or not the Committee has succeeded. It has scheduled and continues to schedule, debates that are of interest to backbench MPs. The very first debate centred on the issue of Ministers making major policy announcements outside of the House of Commons. Following that debate in July last year, the House invited the Procedure Committee to consider how the rules of the House could be changed or better used to ensure that Ministers made important announcements to Parliament first. The Committee was also asked to develop a protocol governing the release of information by Ministers. The Committee reported in February, and among its recommendations, it proposed that the House adopt a resolution setting out in broad terms the behaviour expected of Ministers and that any minister who breached that protocol should make a formal apology to the House, and at a time when the House is well-attended, such as prior to PMQs. In particularly serious cases, a motion of censure could be moved.

There have been slight glitches, most recently concerning e-petitions, as explained in this post. However, the Committee recently announced two upcoming debates on both the riots and the Hillsborough documents, which will take place on October 13 and 17.

The Committee has been a success in the sense that the business of the House is no longer completely controlled by the Government. This situation may improve further still because the Coalition Government maintains that it is committed to establishing a House business committee in 2013.  A House Business Committee would be tasked with assembling a draft agenda to put to the House. According to the Wright Report, such a committee would be comprised of

representatives of all parts of the House with a direct interest: backbenchers, Government and Opposition. The members of this committee would comprise the elected members of the Backbench Business Committee, together with frontbench Members nominated by the three party leaders. We would expect the Leader and shadow Leaders of the House to be among these nominees. The House Business Committee should be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means [the Deputy Speaker], whose would have been elected by the House as a whole to that office with this function partly in mind. It would have a secretariat combining the House officers who support the Backbench Business Committee and the Government officials who currently support the usual channels.

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The Backbench Business Committee on e-petitions

As readers may know, part of the plan when the UK Government launched its new e-petitions scheme this summer was that a petition which garnered over 100,000 signatures would be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for possible debate in Parliament. Two petitions have reached the required number of signatures and have been referred to the Committee (see this post for more information on this).

Today, the Backbench Business Committee has released on statement on e-petitions noting certain problems with the e-petitions scheme as currently set up and which need to be addressed. These problems are:

1. The Government has not allocated any additional time to the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling debates on e-petitions and the Committee’s existing limited supply of debate days is already oversubscribed.

2. More importantly, the Committee has no power to schedule debates unless some MPs come forward to tell the Committee that they wish to take part in them. However the Government has not provided any way to link petitions to MPs who wish to sponsor them on the e-petitions site, or any advice to petitioners on what they might need to do to achieve this.

The Committee concludes:

The Backbench Business Committee will:

  • publish advice on their website to help organisers of petitioners know how to take their case forward;
  • continue to press the Government to provide specific time for debates on e-petitions so that there is an effective way for the public to engage with Parliament;
  • hold individual and group meetings with campaign groups and organisers of e-petitions to discuss how best to get their issues on the agenda.

What this seems to imply is simply that there will not be any debate on any e-petition which reaches the 100,000 signature requirement unless the Government allocates more days to the Backbench Business Committee specifically for this purpose, and even then only if an MP or group of MPs sponsor a debate on an e-petition. Right now, there exists no way to link MPs with e-petitioners so that the MP can sponsor the e-petition and push for it to be debated.

Update: The Government indicated today that additional time might be allocated to the Backbench Business Committee for e-petition debates.

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What’s what in Parliament: The Standing Orders

The Standing Orders are the written rules under which a Parliament conducts its business. They regulate the way Members behave, Bills are processed and debates are organised. The continuing or “standing” nature of rules means that they do not lapse at the end of a session or a Parliament; they remain in effect until the House itself decides to suspend, change or repeal them. In some instances, however, provisional or temporary Standing Orders may be adopted by a legislature and last only until the end of a sesssion or a parliament.

The Standing Orders typically provide a detailed description of the legislative process, the election and role of the Speaker, the parliamentary calender, how committees will be organized and function, etc. However, not all rules observed in the House are found in the Standing Orders. Much of parliamentary procedure is not written into the Standing Orders but exist as the custom and practice of Parliament. Some stem from Speaker’s rulings in the legislative chamber, other procedures are followed because that’s the way things have been done in the past, so a precedent has been set. These will vary from one legislative body to another. For example, in the UK House of Commons, the practice that Bills are ‘read’ three times in both Houses is not in the Standing Orders, but it is in the Canadian House of Commons Standing Orders (SO 71). Another example, in the Canadian House of Commons, Members must not use props, displays or exhibits during debate, and any Member who does so will be ruled out of order by the Speaker. However, there is no rule in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons forbidding the use of props; this is simply a long-standing parliamentary convention.

Similarly, there may be rules in place which simply aren’t followed at all any more, or else actual practice followed in the House may differ from what is stipulated in the rules.

Other aspects of how business transpires in a Parliament are governed by the country’s constitution, as well as certain Acts. Some of these constitutional provisions may be adopted as formal rules in the Standing Orders. Using Canada again as an example, we learn in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.) that:

Sections of the Constitution Act, 1867 which can be traced back to the Constitutional Act, 1791 stipulate that all questions arising in the House are to be decided by a simple majority, with the Speaker having a casting vote in the case of a tie, and that all Members must take a prescribed oath before being allowed to take their seat in the House. Those sections of the Constitution Act, 1867 which can be traced back to the Union Act, 1840 stipulate that on first assembling, the House must elect a Speaker, that it must also proceed to elect another Speaker in the case of a vacancy in that office due to death, resignation or some other cause, that the Speaker shall preside at all meetings of the House, that the quorum of the House shall be 20 Members, and that all requests for the raising or spending of money must originate in the House of Commons and must be recommended to the House by the Governor General.

The Parliament of Canada Act also contains many important provisions which are of procedural significance. Examples of these include: the power of the House and its committees to administer oaths to witnesses appearing either at the Bar of the House or before a committee; procedures to be followed when Members resign or when seats are otherwise vacated; conflict of interest rules applicable to Members; a Deputy Speaker’s ability to act in the Speaker’s absence, etc.

The Standing Orders belong to the legislative body they govern, and that legislative body is free to amend or repeal any rule, and create new ones. In some instances, this is done by an all-party parliamentary committee which will review existing rules and put forward recommendations to improve how the House conducts its business. In other instances, the government of the day will propose changes to the rules which will then be debated in House and often reviewed by a committee. Sometimes the Speaker, in a ruling on a matter which may not be explicitly covered by the Standing Orders, may refer the matter to a committee for consideration, which may result in changes to the Standing Orders.

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United Kingdom House of Commons Standing Orders – Public Business, Private Business
United Kingdom House of Lords Standing Orders – Public Business, Private Business, Authoritative Guide
Canadian House of Commons Standing Orders
Canadian Senate Standing Orders
Australian House of Representatives Standing Orders
Australian Senate Standing Orders
New Zealand Parliament Standing Orders

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Some interesting links

This blog’s author is rather swamped at work these days, and so I will take this opportunity to share with you some recent links that have caught my attention.

1. Is the tide finally turning for Nick Clegg?

Having gone from everyone’s darling after the first ever leaders’ debates last spring to the most despised person in British politics, Nick Clegg seems to be getting some respect in the press these days, and from rather unlikely sources. First up is this piece in the right-leaning, pro-Tory Telegraph by Paul Goodman, wherein he writes: “Whatever happens, Clegg will be in the midst of it – polite, influential, under-scrutinised and enduring as ever, despite the opprobrium heaped on his head. (…) His party has not split. He has faced no leadership challenge. None of the party’s MPs has called for him to go. His last party conference rallied round – as will the coming one, despite the inevitable huffing and puffing. His one-man masochism strategy is also a marathon strategy, as he strains towards the day when voters will thank him, however begrudgingly, for his role in the great mission of deficit reduction.”

Then there’s Rafael Behr’s piece in the left-leaning, pro-Labour New Statesman: “Speculation along these lines is a diverting political parlour game, but it ignores the current reality that Clegg is the Deputy PM, leading a party with enough seats in parliament and enough ministers in cabinet to leave yellow fingerprints all over government. The best testimony to the Lib Dems’ power is the fury it routinely provokes on the Tory right. Hawkish on the deficit, liberal on social policy and populist on bankers; thriftier than Labour but nicer than the Tories, the Lib Dems are squatting stubbornly, sometimes chaotically, in the middle of British politics. The voters might not thank Nick Clegg for it in the opinion polls; the other parties resent him for it. One thing he cannot be, however, is ignored.”

2. Political perceptions run amok

Recently, in The Observer, we learned that Labour’s new strategy would be to attack David Cameron as a “recognisably rightwing” leader. This view of Cameron was roundly rejected by readers of the more right-leaning Spectator (note the reader comments on this piece, rather than the blog post itself) and over at ConservativeHome, where the general consensus among right-wing Tories is that David Cameron may be many things, but right-wing is not one of them.

3. Parliamentum

For anyone who generally enjoys reading this blog, I would like to recommend another blog to you, Parliamentum, written by James W. J. Bowden. He writes about “Westminster parliamentarism in the core Commonwealth (The UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), particularly the unwritten constitution, the reserve powers of the crown, and the evolution of parliament, the cabinet, and the crown as institutions.” His approach is more academic than mine, since my goal is more to explain how parliament and parliamentary procedure works to people who aren’t very familiar with either, but I think both blogs complement each other quite well.

4. The Cabinet Manual and the Working of the British Constitution

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) released  a report analyzing the draft Cabinet Manual, a potentially powerful document that codifies and unites the often unwritten conventions and rules that have governed and guided governmental activity for decades. I have mentioned this draft Cabinet Manual in a few posts. You can download the PDF of this report here.

5. For anyone going through Parliament withdrawal

Some good news: the UK Parliament resumes sitting next week. The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy provides a handy look-ahead as to what to expect. If any of that sounds interesting to you, you can livestream proceedings in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and committee hearings thanks to Parliament Live TV. Canada’s Parliament doesn’t come back from its summer holidays until September 19.

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Speaker Bercow and accusations of bias

British House of Commons Speaker John Bercow annoys many MPs. There have been a rash of articles over the course of the past year hinting at behind-the-scenes plots to get rid of him. Having regularly livestreamed proceedings from the UK House of Commons, I find it difficult to assess why there is such animosity towards Speaker Bercow.

Reasons oft-advanced is that he is arrogant and overbearing, and that he hates the Conservative Party. It is this last point that raises some eyebrows. Bercow was a member of the Conservatives, until he became Speaker of course. Like all MPs elected Speaker in the UK, once elected to the post, Bercow resigned his party membership in order to maintain the highest degree of impartiality. And is perhaps because he does strive to be impartial that some Conservative MPs think he now “hates” the party.

Recently, the Daily Mail ran an article claiming that Bercow reprimands Conservative MPs twice as often as the does Labour MPs. This conclusion is based on figures compiled by Rob Wilson, the parliamentary private secretary to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who counted the number of times Mr Bercow shouted “order” at MPs since the general election in May 2010. He found that Conservative members were admonished 257 times compared with 109 times for Labour MPs. The article quotes Mr. Wilson saying: “Those MPs who have suggested bias in the Speaker’s handling of the Commons would feel vindicated by these figures.”

Of course, there was no suggestion anywhere that perhaps, just perhaps, Conservative MPs were called to order more often because it was deserved.

Conservative backbench MP Douglas Carswell addressed some of the complaints made against Speaker Bercow earlier this year. He dismissed the claims that Bercow was biased:

Bercow’s biased, complain others. If by that you mean he shows favour to one side of the Commons chamber or party, that is demonstrably not true. If anything he can be tediously even handed.

What bias Bercow does undoubtedly have is one which favours backbenchers against the frontbenches - and in support of the legislature over the executive.

Under Bercow, even tiddly little backbenchers like me can force ministers to come before the Commons and answer urgent questions. It makes their life difficult – and keeps them on their toes.

Commentators have observed the way in which this Parliament is more rebellious than others. One of the key reasons for this is the way the Speaker calls amendments. Under previous Speakers amendments tabled by backbenchers that the government might have found inconvenient would almost never get called. Now, there is every chance that they will.

I suspect that is precisely why part of the Tory hierarchy has taken against Mr B. It is because the legislature is slowly getting off its knees, no longer lying prostrate before the executive, that some inside the government remember fondly the days when Whips anointed Speakers – and Speakers behaved accordingly.

This is the impression I have from watching proceedings in the House of Commons. If Bercow is biased, as Carswell notes, it is towards the legislature at the expense of the executive. He is helped in that role by some of the new procedures that were voted on by the House in the dying days of the previous Parliament, such as the creation of a Backbench Business Committee, new rules for electing committee chairs and choosing committee membership, etc., which have also strengthened the legislature vis à vis the executive. But Bercow has also appeared more willing to make use of existing rules, such as Urgent Questions. His predecessor, Speaker Martin, allowed only two urgent questions during his last year as Speaker; Bercow has granted over 60 in the first year of this new Parliament.

If the legislature is being strengthened at the expense of the executive, it is natural that the party forming the executive would perceive that as bias against them. Once in power, a party develops a sense of entitlement; having that undercut doesn’t always sit very well.

This is not meant to downplay many of the other criticisms levelled at both Speaker Bercow, and in particular, his very out-spoken wife. However, the charges of “hating” the Conservatives, and bias in the Chamber are, I believe, undeserved. The rules have changed, voted on and adopted by the House itself, and Speaker Bercow is simply applying those rules. Perhaps some MPs belonging to one of the parties forming the government believe they are entitled to more of a free ride in the House. Speaker Bercow disagrees.

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On Members’ attire

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I pay tribute to all the public sector workers we rely on time and time again, and in particular those in Staffordshire. Over many months, I have had letters from serving police officers concerned about the Winsor report and the knock-on effect on morale, and about A19 and losing senior officers. Now they are concerned about the fact that having been called on at our time of need—out on the streets, putting themselves in the firing line—they are having their leave cancelled and having to give up holidays due to overtime requirements. It was an hour and a half before we heard the words “Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary”, and we have heard nothing about Mayor Boris Johnson’s view about policing cuts. Will the Prime Minister finally get to his feet and address the loss of 16,000 jobs?

The Prime Minister: I do not know whether we need an inquiry into safety in the House, Mr Speaker, but someone seems to have stolen the hon. Gentleman’s jacket.

I accept that we are asking police officers to do a difficult job and, yes, we are asking them to undergo a pay freeze, as other public sector workers are doing, but we are giving them the backing they want by cutting paperwork and enabling them to get out on the street and do the job they want to do.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s concern, but I assure the House that nothing disorderly has happened. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) was perfectly in order. He was focusing not on sartorial matters but on violence, and he was perfectly in order. We will leave it at that. I ask the House to try to rise to the level of events. (Source: House of Commons Hansard, 11 August 2011)

This exchange took place during Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement on the civil unrest which had occurred in the United Kingdom earlier in the week. The fact that a Labour MP appeared in the House of Commons sans jacket caused somewhat of a stir. Despite the overall seriousness of the subject being debated, ConservativeHome still felt it noteworthy to blog about Mr. Flello’s perceived lack of disrespect for House rules.

The blog post’s author, Matthew Barrett, cites Erkine May, the “bible” of Parliamentary procedure:

This seems to be very much the opinion of Mr Speaker Bercow. Erskine May specifically says:

“The Speaker has also stated that it is the custom for gentlemen members to wear jackets and ties.”

It appears that Mr. Barrett doesn’t have the most current edition of Erskine May, which was published this year. In the 24th edition, it states:

It remains the custom for gentlemen Members to wear jackets and ties, but the Speaker has not enforced the practice in all circumstances. (p. 451)

Examples cited of Speakers not enforcing this practice pre-date Speaker Bercow, and so contrary to comments made by readers and Mr. Barrett’s insinuation, this isn’t simply the opinion of Speaker Bercow, who has been criticized by some for shunning the Speaker’s traditional garb and wig. Here is one such example from 1989:

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes) :On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I clearly heard you call the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). It is the third time in the past half hour that you have called him. We are in danger of a precedent being set as not only is he not wearing a jacket when you have called him, but he has his shirt sleeves rolled up. Will you please ask him to withdraw from the Chamber until he is properly dressed, or not call him again?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I know that Mr. Speaker has dealt with this matter on a number of occasions. He has requested normal dress in the Chamber, but he has never said that it is an absolute condition for an hon. Member being called. He has merely deprecated abnormal dress. I call Mr. Nellist.

The Canadian House of Commons has a similar tradition. As we learn from House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.), p. 603-4:

While the Standing Orders prescribe no dress code for Members participating in debate, Speakers have ruled that all Members desiring to be recognized at any point during the proceedings of the House must be wearing contemporary business attire. Current practice requires that male Members wear jackets, shirts and ties. Clerical collars have been allowed, although ascots and turtlenecks have been ruled inappropriate for male Members participating in debate. The Chair has even stated that wearing a kilt is permissible on certain occasions (for example, Robert Burns Day). Members of the House who are in the armed forces have been permitted to wear their uniforms in the House. Although there is no notation to this effect in the Journals or in the Debates, a newly-elected Member introduced in the House in 2005 wore traditional Métis dress (including a white hooded anorak bearing an embroidered seal emblem) on that occasion without objection from the Chair.

In certain circumstances, usually for medical reasons, the Chair has allowed a relaxation of the dress standards allowing, for example, a Member whose arm was in a cast to wear a sweater in the House instead of a jacket.

Interesting to note that Members who are in the armed forces can wear their uniform in the Canadian House of Commons, but Erskine May states that “the wearing of military insignia or uniform inside the Chamber is not in accordance with the long-established custom of the House.”

New Zealand and Australia also have specific guidelines governing proper attire for their elected representatives. In the Australian House of Representatives, while the standard of dress is left to the individual judgement of each Member, the ultimate discretion rests with the Speaker. In 1983, the Speaker explained that his rule in the application of this discretion was “neatness, cleanliness and decency.” In 1999, another Speaker noted that Members traditionally chose to dress in a manner similar to that generally accepted in business and professional circles. It was generally accepted that the standards should involve “good trousers, a jacket, collar and tie for men and a similar standard of formality for women” but that he would not apply these standards rigidly. For example, should the air conditioning fail, it would be acceptable for male Members to remove their jackets. Clothing with slogans, however is not generally allowed (House of Representatives Practice, p. 157).

In New Zealand, while there are no fashion codes prescribed, the Speaker normally takes issue with any Member not dressed in appropriate business attire. However, the Speaker regularly polls male Members regarding their attitude to wearing a jacket and tie in Chamber. (Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, p. 125)

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Recalling Parliament

Most parliaments follow a parliamentary calendar, which provides a fixed timetable of sittings and adjournments for a full calendar year. Once a session begins, the calendar alternates sitting periods with adjournments at set points throughout the year.

A sitting is simply a meeting of the legislature in question during a session. While the legislature’s Standing Orders will normally provide times and days for sittings of the House, it should be noted that a sitting is not synonymous with a calendar day. Some sittings are very brief, some last for more than a day, and sometimes, there can be two sittings in a single calendar day. A sitting ends with an adjournment, either as per a Standing Order which indicates that the legislature adjourns at a specific time each day, or pursuant to a motion to adjourn. An adjournment covers the period of time between the end of one sitting and the start of the next, therefore it can last a few hours, overnight, over a weekend, a week, or even longer. The power to adjourn rests with the House, unlike prorogation and dissolution, which are prerogative acts of the Crown.

Most legislatures will have at least two extended periods of adjournment during the course of a parliamentary calendar year. These typically occur in the winter (or summer if one is in Australia or New Zealand), usually coinciding with the Christmas and New Year period, when the House will adjourn some time in December and resume sitting in January or February (or later); and during the summer (or winter for those south of the equator), with the House adjourning in June or July until September or October (or later). You can see the Canadian House of Commons parliamentary calendar here. If you view the calendar for 2011, you will note that the House resumed sitting on January 31 (after adjourning on December 16, 2010). The Canadian House of Commons normally alternates between sitting  five days a week for three consecutive weeks, then adjourning for one week to allow MPs to return to their constituencies. The UK House of Commons normally sits four days a week (Monday to Thursday and sometimes on Friday if there are Private Members’ bills to consider), and MPs return to their constituencies every Friday. Because Canada is a much larger country than is the United Kingdom, it isn’t realistic for most MPs to return to their constituencies every weekend, hence the week-long constituency breaks every three weeks.

The Australian House of Representatives parliamentary calendar for 2011 can be viewed here and the New Zealand Parliament’s here. The UK Parliament has no definitive timetable for a parliamentary session, but you can view the provisional recess dates for 2010-2012 here.

Parliamentary calendars can be altered by the will of the House or the Crown. The Canadian House of Commons’ 2011 calendar was interrupted by a general election. The minority government was defeated on a confidence vote on March 25, 2011. Parliament was dissolved the next day by the Governor General, and a general election held on May 2, 2011. The new Parliament met for the first time on June 2, 2011, and sat until June 26 before adjourning for the summer recess.

Similarly, the UK House of Commons was scheduled to adjourn for the summer recess on July 19, but was recalled for an extra day (July 20) to address the phone hacking scandal. The House of Commons has been recalled again to sit on August 11 to address the outbreaks of rioting that began on August 6.

Recalling Parliament is initiated by the Government making a request in writing to the Speaker, setting out reasons why it is in the public interest to recall the House. The Speaker will consult with the Government, and if satisfied that the public interest would be served by recalling the House, he or she does just that. Ultimately, it is the Speaker’s decision whether or not to recall Parliament. The BBC has prepared a timeline of the 14 recalls of Parliament that have occurred over the past 30 years.

The first motion granting the Speaker the power to recall Parliament was adopted in Canada in 1940:

In 1940, however, given the uncertainty of the wartime situation, it was deemed advisable to adjourn rather than to prorogue in order to enable the House to reconvene quickly if necessary. The House adopted a motion to adjourn which empowered the Speaker to recall the House if, after consultation with the government, it was concluded that it was in the public interest to do so. Similar motions were adopted in subsequent sessions and became routine when the House adjourned for an extended period of time.

The first recall under these circumstances occurred in 1944 when the government wished to apprise the House of the situation arising from the resignation of the Minister of National Defence. Several other recalls took place before 1982, at which time the practice was codified by the adoption of a Standing Order worded similarly to the adjournment motions used before 1982. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed.)

There have been 12 recalls of Parliament in Canada since 1944.

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Some interesting links

1. Time to salute the post-2010 election Parliament

BBC parliamentary correspondent Mark D’Arcy has a good column providing an interesting overview of the current UK Parliament and an assessment of some of the many reforms introduced in the dying days of the previous Parliament and at the outset of this one: “So I’m afraid, as I head off for my holidays, I’m going to indulge in a little optimism. A stronger Parliament is doing a better job. And that is a good thing for the country.”

2. The Death Penalty: A Matter of Emotion, Not Reason

With efforts underway by pro-capital punishment forces to force the House to debate the issue by gathering 100,000 signatures on an e-petition, the Spectator’s Alex Massie provides a thoughtful piece on the subject: “I have a little more faith in the British justice system than I do in its American counterparts but not so much that I’m happy to grant the state this kind of sanction. If I won’t trust the state to issue an ID card why should I trust it with the death penalty?”

3. Can David Cameron and George Osborne defy history and remain friends?

The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt looks at the long history of Prime Ministers falling out with their Chancellors of the Exchequer, and ponders if Cameron and Osborne can avoid a similar outcome.

4. MPs find their voice at last

Complementing Mark D’Arcy’s article about how reforms have made the UK Parliament stronger, Steve Richards writes in The Independent about how these reforms have shifted power to MPs and away from the executive: “Until recently the committees were something of a backwater for MPs, largely ignored by the media and viewed with indifference by ministers. They produced their reports. Some of them were extremely insightful and provided an important alternative commentary on various governments. Rarely did they get much publicity. No member acquired such an aura that he or she became associated with sex appeal. This has changed. Suddenly committees are sexy.”

5. An interview with the creator of PMQs – The Game

Helen Lewis-Hasteley interviews Mark Richards, creator of the PMQs computer game I’ve previously blogged about: “I had really enjoyed doing retro video game-style caricatures of political figures and, one day, it just occurred to me that Prime Minister’s Questions is a real-life turned based battle, like those bits from the old Pokemon games.”

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Perceptions of parliamentary procedure: is the grass really greener?

Last week’s appearance by Rupert and James Murdoch before the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport (which you can view here if you missed it) as well as Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement in the House of Commons the following day (viewable here) received global media attention. Many Canadian journalists who normally report on proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons seemed enthralled by the often small, yet significant differences in how the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons function – the very same differences which I have been writing about here for over a year now.

CBC reporter Kady O’Malley, who regularly liveblogs proceedings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, has since written two posts outlining some of the differences which she observed and, for the most part, would like to see adopted in Canada (first post on committee procedure, second post on procedure in the House of Commons). One highly respected political commentator, Andrew Coyne, national editor of Macleans Magazine, tweeted on July 20 “Everyone should be watching the UK phone-hacking debate, if only to see what a real parliament looks like”.

O’Malley’s post on committee procedure ignores one very important difference between Canadian and UK House of Commons committees: the majority of Select Committee Chairs are now elected by their fellow MPs. This applies to departmental committees and the Environmental Audit, Political and Constitutional Reform, Procedure, Public Administration and Public Accounts committees. Canadian committee chairs are elected by that committee’s members. Similarly, committee members in the UK are elected by their respective caucuses, while members of Canadian committees are appointed by their party whips. I have discussed this in detail in this post, and so I won’t repeat myself here, but it should be fairly obvious to most why having elected chairs and committee members would make for a more responsive and less partisan committee.

There are also a couple of other inaccuracies in O’Malley’s post on committee procedure. UK select committees do allow witnesses to make opening statements or general comments. Some witnesses decline to do so, but others take advantage of the offer. To her credit, Kady notes:

The following observations were inspired by what I saw when I was liveblogging the Home Affairs and Culture Select committees on Tuesday; as we are so often reminded, committees are, of course, masters of their own respective destinies, which means it is distinctly possible that other select committees operate on slightly – or even substantially – different rules.

O’Malley also writes that there aren’t time limits for questions and answers, nor on the length of time witnesses are expected to stick around to answer. Again, this isn’t entirely true. Each committee hearing has a set duration, for example, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30. The committee may well decide to go on longer, or to cut proceedings short. Some witnesses do have to leave at a certain time because of other commitments, and so the committee knows it has only a half hour, or an hour, etc., with that specific witness. It is true, however, that unlike the Canadian House of Commons committees I have watched, the UK committees don’t have time limits for questions and answers.

While Kady O’Malley highlighted some key differences (based on having observed one committee hearing), a recent piece on the BBC website questions if MPs are really up to the task of questioning witnesses, stating that “[T]here had been criticism of earlier hearings for not asking sharp enough questions, or following up lines of enquiry.” One MP defended MP inquiries this way:

“We are asking questions as non-experts, as representatives of the public.

“You can’t prepare those questions in advance because you can’t always anticipate the way that the discussion will go.”

The comment by UK MP Nicola Blackwood that MPs are asking questions “as non-experts” also reminds me of former Prime Minister John Major’s recent calls for reforms to increase the number of MPs with expertise in specific areas, which I discussed in this post.

This is a legitimate criticism of parliamentary committees. For example, there has been much criticism of one MP on the Culture, Media and Sports committee, Louise Mensch, for making some comments during the July 20 hearing accusing former News of the World Editor Piers Morgan of phone hacking because he had supposedly admitted to this in his autobiography. This led to a fierce row between Morgan and Mensch, who refused to repeat the allegations outside of Parliament, where she would no longer be protected by parliamentary privilege. Here in Canada, other committee investigative hearings have been less than stellar. In 2007, the Canadian House of Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics conducted an investigation into the Mulroney Airbus settlement. The questioning of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by MPs appeared often amateurish and boorish, and Mulroney’s legal counsel, Guy Pratte, described committee hearings as “damaging”:

“At a parliamentary committee there are absolutely no rules. Zero rules. At least at inquiry commissions some rules of fairness apply. Parliamentary immunity means things are said that never would be said if MPs were subject to defamatory libel.”

He remembers New Democrat MP Pat Martin saying to Mulroney: “I won’t call you a liar, but I don’t want anyone here to think that I believe you.” Pratte says, “That sort of thing would never be tolerated in a court of law. Never, never, never!” Mulroney fumed at the insult and his son Ben, the television host, had to be restrained in the audience. “Parliamentary committees play with peoples’ reputations sometimes in a very dangerous and damaging way,” says Pratte. “I understand they have work to do, and it is a political forum. I suppose there is a political advantage to be gained from getting a big headline the next morning.

“I’ve said it many times in the Mulroney affair. It should resemble an ordinary court.” Pratte says. “We should at least try to respect the basic principles of fairness. I wanted to present myself in politics several times, but my experience as much with Mr. Pelletier as Mr. Mulroney left me discouraged by the performance of certain, but not all, MPs and the lack of concern with which they threw out any sort of accusation.”

Kady O’Malley’s second post looked at differences between the UK and Canadian House of Commons in general. On Twitter on July 21, many Canadian journalists were enthralled by the ministerial statement delivered by David Cameron on the phone hacking scandal and the questions and debate which followed. I have also explored the vast differences between Canadian and UK ministerial statements, O’Malley, for some reason, did not comment on that at all. While UK ministerial statements are always far more productive affairs than their Canadian counterparts, this one was quite noteworthy: Cameron took 136 questions from MPs during his statement.

It was interesting to see the many comments from Canadians on Twitter, some of whom lamenting that Canada doesn’t have a Prime Minister’s Questions (not that there was a PMQs on 20 July). It reminded me that only days earlier, the Independent had run an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of PMQs. The sub-headline of that article reads: “No other parliament has anything like Prime Minister’s Questions.” Quite a few readers took exception to that and rattled off a series of countries that they said had PMQs: Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, to name a few. It was clear to me that people were confusing a general oral question period where all ministers, including the PM, take questions, which is what both Canada and Australia have, with a questions session where only the PM and no other ministers takes questions. It made me wonder if the Canadian journalists on Twitter, who were expressing such enthusiasm for PMQs, were aware of the UK House of Commons’ other daily questions – the department-specific oral questions, which I’ve written about in detail here. I don’t know if they’d be as impressed by those since they are such staid affairs when compared to PMQs. They should be, however, since again, they are far more productive than the Canadian version of Question Period for both getting information from the government and holding it to account.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally believe that the UK House of Commons functions far better than its Canadian counterpart, but as we all well know, the grass usually does look greener on the other side of the fence – or in this case, ocean. At least one very prominent figure in the UK believes there is still room for further reforms at Westminster.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow spoke to the Guardian and stated that while “MPs and peers have “rediscovered their collective balls” over the phone-hacking affair”, more could be done to strengthen Parliament. First on his list is finding a way to allow Parliament to compel witnesses to appear before committees.

Parliamentary committees (both in the UK and Canada and other jurisdictions) have the power to request witnesses to give evidence to them via an informal invitation issued by the committee clerk or the committee chair. They can also draw on their formal powers to summon witnesses via a Speaker’s warrant. That power is unqualified, “except to the extent that if conflicts with the privileges of the Crown and of Members of the House of Lords, or with the rights of Members of the House of Commons.” (Erskine May, 24th edition, p. 820). Should a witness fail to comply with such a warrant, however, they will be found in contempt of Parliament. In theory, the House of Commons has the power to send for persons whose conduct has been brought before the House on a matter of privilege by an order for their attendance. In practice, however, as Bercow notes, this isn’t really an enforceable power:

“If the Murdochs had refused the warrant to attend, we would have been in an extremely awkward situation. I don’t think there is much we could have done. There has been a complete ambiguity, a lack of clarity, an uncertainty about what our powers are.”

Bercow says select committees should have enforceable powers to compel witnesses in British jurisdiction to attend, and not, as at present, “depend on a toxic blend of bad publicity and the entirely implausible threat of imprisonment.

“I don’t think frankly it should be the Speaker on behalf of the house imprisoning a witness. We have got a creche in the parliamentary estate, but not so far as I know a cell.”

I sort of agree with Bercow that there probably needs to be a better way to compel witnesses to attend when summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee. Currently, the most likely outcome of a witness’s refusal to appear before a committee will be for that person to be found in contempt of Parliament. They may be called before the Bar of the House to be reprimanded by the Speaker or asked to apologize, but again, there is no way to compel them to do so:

The problem is that the sanctions – involving fine or imprisonment – to enforce any punishment are constitutionally somewhat rusty. Vernon Bogdanor, the former professor of government at Oxford University, has suggested they may have fallen into “desuetude” [disuse]. The House of Commons is not believed to have fined anybody since 1666 and has not “committed anyone to custody”, apart from temporarily detaining them, since the 19th century.

The last time the Commons attempted to reprimand anyone at the bar of the house was in 1957 when the Sunday Express editor John Junor was criticised after offending MPs by publishing an editorial accusing them of abusing their petrol allowances. “Such a sanction would now appear high-handed,” the recent standard and privileges committee report acknowledged.

Another MP, Adrian Bailey, who chairs the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, has called for new laws to be introduced to force witnesses to appear before select committees. In the US, a federal act makes contempt of Congress a misdemeanor “punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 nor less than $100 and imprisonment.., for not less than one month nor more than twelve months.” Perhaps something along these lines would be what Bailey and Bercow have in mind.

Bercow also would like to see witnesses before committees examined under oath “as a matter of course”. Committees do have the power to administer oaths to witnesses, however, more often than not, they aren’t. This too has ramifications. If a witness was not sworn in before testifying, and then found to have provided false evidence or misled the committee, the worse that will happen is that they may be found in contempt. However, again according to Erskine May (p. 824), “[B]y the Perjury Act 1911, s 1, where evidence is given upon oath, the giving of false evidence is punishable as perjury. The power of either House to punish for false evidence is not, however, superseded by this Act.” Meaning that it would still be up to the house to administer any punishment – the range of which are similar to those available for anyone deemed to be guilty of contempt. And again from Erskine May:

it should be borne in mind that in 1978, the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible, and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so. Thus many acts which might be considered to be contempts are either overlooked by the House or resolved  informally.  (p. 251)

And while Canadian journalists and political watchers were so enthralled by PMQs, that item of business remains a source of great frustration and embarrassment for Bercow:

“I cannot think of any business that would put its worst product in the shop window and in some respects it’s our worst product. I think the level of heckling, the extent of catcalling, the sheer decibel level, are not conducive to reasoned debate.”

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