In the Canadian House of Commons, during any debate, each Member of Parliament (MP) who rises to speak does so uninterrupted for a pre-determined length of time, normally 10 or 20 minutes. During that time, a Member may only interrupt another Member for very specific, procedural reasons, for example, to:
- call attention to a point of order;
- call attention to a matter of privilege suddenly arising;
- call attention to the lack of a quorum. etc.
Beyond these procedural reasons, however, no Member may interrupt a Member who has the floor to question some aspect of the remarks the speaking Member is making.
In the UK House of Commons (and in the New Zealand House of Representatives), however, the Member who has the floor can be interrupted by another MP who wishes to question a point the Member has just made. This is called “to give way” or “giving way”. The interjector seeks to rise during the course of another Member’s speech with a question or comment relevant to a point made by that member. The member who has the floor may “give way” and resume his or her seat temporarily (or refuse to do so) so that the question can be asked or the comment made.
If a member does give way to another, this can only be for the purpose of allowing the other to refer to matters raised by the member speaking. Giving way is a way of making an interjection, not a speech. It should only be for a brief period, after which the member with the call resumes speaking. Giving way is not a means of transferring the call or of developing a subject at length. If more than a reasonable time has been taken by the member who intervenes, the Speaker will interrupt and ask the original member to resume his or her speech.
As stated, the Member who has the floor can refuse to give way, or they can insist on delaying giving way in order to make more progress in their own remarks. Here is an example from a recent debate in the UK House of Commons on the subject of Lords Reform, where Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who opened the debate, both gives way and refuses to do so in order to progress with his opening remarks:
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has, say, six Members of the European Parliament floating around, as he puts it, in his area already, and I assume that relations are perfectly cordial. I do not want to cast aspersions on the future reformed House of Lords by comparing it too directly to the European Parliament, but the idea that politicians with different mandates, elected on different cycles and different systems, cannot co-exist, is patently not the case. It happens now, and I think it will happen in the future.
By reforming the upper House so that it is more legitimate but still independent, we can ensure that it continues to function as an effective revising Chamber, able to hold Government to account, but with a new democratic mandate. We can preserve everything that is good about the other Chamber—expertise, independence and wisdom—but at the same time we can inject democracy into the mix and reform the Lords so that it is fit for modern times.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I am probably in a minority on the Government Benches, but I support a democratic House of Lords. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise, however, that the complications that he has already put in place in the 20 minutes that he has spoken so far will help opponents of reform to frustrate what he is trying to achieve, whether it be 15-year terms, a partly elected or fully elected Chamber, or a proportional representation system? It is literally seven and a half weeks since the people of this country, in a plebiscite, had a chance to say, overwhelmingly, that they did not want a PR system in our Parliament. How can he possible consider that this is the right way forward for democratising the House of Lords?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The two issues are wholly separate. More than that, if my hon. Friend has other ideas about how we can arrive at our shared objective of a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords, that is precisely why we are now creating a Joint Committee. That is precisely why we have published not a final Bill but a draft Bill with a White Paper and why that followed a process of cross-party discussion in a Committee that I chaired, and which in turn built on many recommendations of a cross-party nature over the years and the decades. It was not just an invention of this Government. The Wakeham commission, the Straw committee and others came up with many of the recommendations that we are now suggesting. If he thinks they are too complicated, I look forward to his suggestions about how they can be made simpler.
Mr Gray: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
The Deputy Prime Minister: If I may make a little progress, because I know many others wish to speak.
Our proposals are a comprehensive blueprint for change—there are 68 clauses and nine schedules. There is a lot to discuss. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) will respond to points raised in the debate in his closing speech.
The next stage, as I have just mentioned, is pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill and White Paper on a cross-party basis by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am sure that the Committee will take note of today’s debate in its deliberations, and we look forward to hearing its conclusions in due course. The Government’s plan is then to introduce a Bill next year in order to hold the first elections to the reformed House in 2015. There is clearly a lot of detail to be hammered out between now and then, and I hope that both sides of this House and of the other place will work together constructively as we move forward.
The truth is that no one seriously supports the status quo. [Interruption.] The vast majority of people do not support the status quo. I am delighted, by the way, by the enthusiasm for change from Opposition Members, which is excellent progress compared with the previous debate. Everyone has committed to change and we must now be pragmatic on the detail, never losing sight of the basic principle at stake: in a modern democracy, people must choose their representatives. Let us complete the long journey of Lords reform once and for all.
The practice of giving way or yielding did exist in the Canadian House of Commons up until 1982, when questions and comments were introduced. Prior to 1982 and the advent of the questions and comments period following most speeches, a Member wishing to ask a question during debate had first to obtain the consent of the Member who was speaking. The Member allowing the interruption was under no obligation to reply, and was often reluctant to do so, as the time taken up in this way was subtracted from his or her speaking time. Questions and Comments is a procedure during the course of certain debates that allocates 5 or 10 minutes (depending on how the time limit for Members’ speeches in the debate) following Members’ speeches to be used by other Members to comment on or question the contents of the remarks just made and for the speaking Member to respond. This rule was introduced to provide an opportunity for exchanges between Members in the spirit of debate without Members’ losing speaking time by having to yield to other Members during the time allocated for them to speak during a debate.
Having frequently observed debates in both the Canadian and UK Houses of Commons, I personally find the UK debates, with their practice of giving way somewhat more fluid and more like actual debate and discussion. The Canadian format, with each Member having a specific block of time during which they speak, uninterrupted, followed by a 5 or 10 minute time during which there may or may not be any questions and comments from other Members feels more stifled or artificial.