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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Who’s Who in Parliament: the Sergeant-at-Arms

The Sergeant-at-Arms (or Serjeant-at-Arms) performs a dual role in the House of Commons, ceremonial and administrative.

An article in “The Table”, the journal of Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments, notes that in England people who were permanently retained by the Sovereign to perform certain services became known as Sergeants. It suggests that Sergeants-at-Arms were originally the King’s bodyguard.

The Sergeant-at-Arms was a personal attendant upon the King, especially charged with arresting those suspected of treason. Richard I had 24 with him on the Crusades. They were formed into a 20-strong Corps of Sergeants-at-Arms by King Edward I in 1278, as a mounted close escort. In 1399 King Richard II limited the corps to 30 Sergeants, and King Charles II had 16. The number was reduced to 8 in 1685 and gradually declined thereafter.

Around 1415, the British House of Commons received its first Sergeant-at-Arms. From that time onwards the sergeant has been a royal appointment, the sergeant being one of the Sovereign’s Sergeants-at-Arms.

There are several theories to account for the introduction of the Sergeant-at-Arms into Parliament, and later, the House of Commons. Some are presented below.

One theory holds that the assignment of a Sergeant-at-Arms to attend upon the Commons Speaker was a scheme by the King in 1415 to extend his power over Parliament. However, it is debatable if this was the true reason. In the early 15th century, the House of Commons was still quite subservient and certainly did not command enough power to warrant such a move by the King. More likely, the introduction of a Serjeant-at-Arms came at the request of the House of Commons itself in order to enforce parliamentary privilege. By virtue of the King’s insignia on his mace, the Serjeant-at-Arms was empowered to exercise royal authority over ordinary citizens through the instructions of the Speaker. When Parliament was not sitting, he returned to duty in the Royal Household.

The article in The Table proposes that since Parliament met where the King lived (the Palace at Westminster), it was only natural that he should have seconded two Sergeants-at-Arms to attend upon the Houses. A pamphlet written about 1322 suggests that the function of the first parliamentary Sergeant-at-Arms was that of a door-keeper.

Another theory, one advanced by I.T.P. Hughes, a former British Sergeant-at-Arms, proposes the Sergeant-at-Arms was appointed to protect the Speaker. The demands placed on the Speaker by his master, the Commons, often conflicted with the demands placed on the Speaker by the King, who had appointed him. Violent disagreement was often the result. Richard II, therefore, appointed a Sergeant-at-Arms to attend upon the Speaker about 1391.

The position of Sergeant-at-Arms was obviously introduced during a critical stage in the evolution of Parliament. The House of Lords and the House of Commons were both trying to consolidate their powers at a time of great confusion over roles, authority and privilege, which explains why there is disagreement surrounding the Sergeant-at-Arms’ precise date and purpose of introduction.

Original Role of the Sergeant-at-Arms in Parliament

As mentioned above, the Sergeant-at-Arms was essentially a door-keeper, meaning that he was the Commons’ Usher, Keeper of the Doors, and Housekeeper. As the public became more aware of the activities of Parliament and began to attend sittings, someone was needed to maintain order.

The maintenance of law and order, and the execution of warrants were among the earliest functions of the Sergeant-at-Arms. In the 16th century, however, saw a shift in the authority of the position. Until then, it had come from the Sovereign, through the Speaker. Henry VIII now delegated the wielding of the Sergeant’s authority to the House of Commons.

Because he attended the Speaker, he was involved in all ceremonial functions connected with that office.

By the 17th century, the Sergeant’s department was fairly well established and consisted of the Vote Office (which was primarily concerned with the distribution of the journals of the day to Members), the Deputy Housekeeper, two door-keepers, four messengers and various watchmen and firelighters.

Role of the Sergeant-at-Arms today

The office of Sergeant-at-Arms continues to serve legislatures across the Commonwealth that adhere to British tradition. A sense of the position’s medieval origins persists, particularly in its ceremonial role in parliamentary proceedings. Over time and in many jurisdictions, maintaining order in the Chamber and housekeeping duties have evolved into responsibility for security beyond the walls of the Chamber and property management functions.

The Sergeant-at-Arms’ ceremonial duties involves carrying the House of Commons mace during the Speaker’s procession. This is when the Speaker and his staff walk to the House of Commons chamber before each sitting. The Sergeant-at-Arms occupies a desk at the Bar of the House when the House is sitting. In accordance with the Standing Orders, the Sergeant-at-Arms preserves order in the galleries, lobbies, and corridors and is responsible for taking into custody strangers who misbehave in the galleries. Under the direction of the Speaker, the Sergeant-at-Arms is also the Chief Security Officer responsible for the overall security within the Parliamentary precinct.

(Sources: House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd Edition, The Table, Office of the Speaker, Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan website, Legislative Assembly of Ontario website, Wikipedia, Parliament of Australia House of Representatives website, UK Parliament website)

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On giving way

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.

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Ministerial responsibility

Ministerial responsibility takes two forms — collective cabinet responsibility (or ‘cabinet solidarity’) and individual ministerial responsibility. Both concepts are governed by conventions inherited from Westminster and both are central to the working of responsible government.

Cabinet is collectively responsible to the people, through the Parliament, for determining and implementing policies for national government. Broadly, it is required by convention that all Ministers must be prepared to accept collective responsibility for, and defend publicly, the policies and actions of the Government. Part of this, of course, requires that the loss of a vote on a no-confidence motion or on a major issue is expected to lead to the resignation of the whole Government. You may want to have a look at this post on collective ministerial responsibility and coalition government.

What I want to look at in this post, however, is the matter of individual responsibility.

As explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed., p. 32):

The individual or personal responsibility of the Minister derives from a time when in practice and not just in theory the Crown governed; Ministers merely advised the Sovereign and were responsible to the Sovereign for their advice. The principle of individual ministerial responsibility holds that Ministers are accountable not only for their own actions as department heads, but also for the actions of their subordinates; individual ministerial responsibility provides the basis for accountability throughout the system. Virtually all departmental activity is carried out in the name of a Minister who, in turn, is responsible to Parliament for those acts. Ministers exercise power and are constitutionally responsible for the provision and conduct of government; Parliament holds them personally responsible for it.

We’ve seen some good examples of this with the Coalition government in the United Kingdom. By my count, there have been at least four such instances during the Coalition’s first year in power. It isn’t that surprising that the Coalition has had a bit of a rocky start – few in cabinet have had previous government experience, and the merging of two very different parties was bound to create a few headaches along the way. What is interesting to me, however, is that the apologies have occurred promptly after the incident that triggered them.

The first minister to issue a full apology was Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, on 7 July 2010. On 5 July, Gove had made a ministerial statement to the House announcing the cancellation of a Schools Rebuilding Fund, which meant that many schools would see planned renovations cancelled. Accompanying his statement, Gove tabled a list of the affected schools. It turned out that many schools had been miscategorized, which caused great confusion and consternation among local councils across the country. In his 7 July statement before the House, Gove apologised for the way information accompanying his earlier statement was provided to Members, for the inaccurate information provided, and for the confusion caused by the inaccurate information and  media speculation over the nature of his apology.

On 17 February 2011, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, apologised for the Government’s plan to sell off public forests. According to many accounts I’d read, the policy in itself was a good one; the initial problem was how the government presented it and its failure to communicate it effectively, allowing environmental activists to mount strong opposition. Spelman took full responsibility “for the situation” and ended her statement with “I am sorry we got this one wrong, but we have listened to people’s concerns.”

A couple of weeks later, Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for botched attempts to rescue UK citizens from Libya. The House was not sitting at the time, so his apologies were made to the press. Cameron stated:

Of course I am incredibly sorry. They have had a difficult time. The conditions at the airport have been extremely poor.

There are going to be lessons to be learned from this and we will make absolutely sure that we learn them for the future but, right now, the priority has got to be getting those British nationals home. (…)

This is not an easy situation to deal with. It is immensely frustrating for the people on the ground and we will do everything we can to get those people home.

Cameron also delivered a full statement to the House of Commons when it met again on 28 February 2011. He didn’t apologise, but updated Members on the situation in Libya and the Government’s response.

This contrasts sharply with Canada’s own problems rescuing Canadians from Libya. Neither the Prime Minister, Minister of Defense nor the Minister of External Affairs apologised for the problems, and in some interviews, the Minister of Defense seemed to be laying the blame on External Affairs (which violates the convention of collective responsibility) and denied planes had left Tripoli empty. The Prime Minister also announced sanctions and other measures, not in the House of Commons, but in a televised address.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, on 7 March 2011, Foreign Secretary William Hague took full responsibility for what had gone wrong with a special forces’ mission to Libya. Hague didn’t apologise, but he did assume full responsibility for the botched mission.

In Canada, on 25 May, 2010, following requests that ministers’ staff members appear before committees to testify, the Government House Leader stated in the Canadian House of Commons that:

In our system of government, the powers of the Crown are exercised by ministers who are, in turn, answerable to Parliament. Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the House of Commons for the policies, programs and activities of the government. They are supported in the exercise of their responsibilities by the public servants and by members of their office staffs.

It is the responsibility of individual public servants and office staff members to provide advice and information to ministers, to carry out faithfully the directions given by ministers, and in so doing, to serve the people of Canada. These employees are accountable to their superiors, and ultimately to their minister, for the proper and competent execution of their duties.

Ours is a system of responsible government because the government must retain the confidence of the House of Commons and because ministers are responsible to the House for everything that is done under their authority. We ministers are answerable to Parliament and to its committees. It is ministers who decide policy and ministers who must defend it before the House and ultimately before the people of Canada.

Accordingly, responsibility for providing information to Parliament and its committees rests with ministers. Officials have no constitutional responsibility to Parliament, nor do they share in that of ministers. They do, however, support ministers in their relationship with Parliament, and to this extent, they may be said to assist in the answerability of ministers to Parliament.


There is a clear case to be made that the accountability of political staff ought to be satisfied through ministers. Ministers ran for office and accepted the role and responsibility of being a minister. Staff did not.

Interestingly, the new version of the “Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State” published in May 2011, contains the following passage:

Ministerial accountability to Parliament does not mean that a Minister is presumed to have knowledge of every matter that occurs within his or her department or portfolio, nor that the Minister is necessarily required to accept blame for every matter. (p. 3)

When a minster does take responsibility and apologises to the House, there are frequently calls for the minister to resign. Many are quick to assume that if a minister apologises, then there was some error or wrongdoing that occurred, otherwise, the minister wouldn’t apologise. And if some wrongdoing occurred, then the minister is ultimately responsible, and should therefore resign. However, ministerial responsibility is not that black and white. Taking responsibility for mistakes made by staff does not mean the minister is directly responsible for those mistakes occurring. It simply means the minister acknowledges that mistakes were made in his or her deparment, the department regrets that fact, and the matter will be corrected.

Unless there is very clear evidence linking the minister directly to whatever departmental wrongdoing has come to light, ministers can accept responsibility, but lay the blame on department staff. What is far more likely to bring down a minister is a matter of personal misconduct. Sexual or financial scandals, rather than administrative failure, have been far more likely to destroy a ministerial career.

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What’s what in Parliament: the Bar of the House

On April 17, 2002, angry with the outcome of a vote on his private Member’s bill, a Canadian Member of Parliament grabbed hold of the Mace. This action was considered to be in contempt of the House and a prima facie breach of privilege was found. A week later, the House adopted a motion calling not only for the Member to appear at the Bar of the House, but also to apologize for his actions. The next day, the Member appeared at the Bar and apologized to the House.

What is the Bar of the House? It is, quite literally, a barrier at the entrance into the Chamber which marks its boundaries. In the UK, the Bar is actually a white line across the width of the floor of the  Chamber of the House of Commons. In the Canadian House of Commons, the Bar of the House is a brass rod extending across the floor of the Chamber inside its south entrance. In the Australian House of Representatives, the Bar is a cylindrical bronze rail which can be lowered across the entrance. In New Zealand, the Bar is a brass rod that can be placed across the entry to the chamber of the House of Representatives. Other chambers also have Bars, the above are but a few examples.

The Bar plays an important symbolic role. It is a barrier past which uninvited representatives of the Crown, including Members of the Upper Chamber, and other non-Members are not welcome. Strangers – which includes everyone who is not a Member of the House or an official of the House, are not allowed on the floor of the Chamber. They must remain behind the Bar. The Bar is a point outside which no Member may speak to the House or over which no visitor may cross and enter the Chamber unless invited by the House.

The Bar also has a procedural role. In theory a person may be brought to the Bar of the House to receive thanks, to provide information or documents, to answer charges or to receive punishment. When an individual – be it a Member or a stranger – is found to be in contempt of the House, meaning guilty of an offense against the dignity or authority of Parliament, they may be summoned to the Bar of the House to answer to the authority of the House, or to be reprimanded by the Speaker in the name of the House. This was fairly common procedure in the early days of Parliament, but happens rarely now. In the Canadian House of Commons, it has occurred only twice since 1913. It has occurred only once in the Australian House of Representatives, in 1955.

In Australia in 1921, the Prime Minister of the day put forward a proposal that the House of Representatives allow a Senate Minister to address the House on the administration of his department from the floor of the House.  The Speaker stated that he knew of no authority which would permit anyone who wasn’t a member of the House to address the House from the floor of the Chamber, but that if the members agreed, the Senator could address the House from the Bar. After much debate, the Prime Minister decided not to proceed with the proposal. (Source: House of Representatives, Debates, (2.12.21) 13585.)

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On debating bills (Canada)

(Note: this post is not intended as a detailed explanation of the legislative process. For an explanation of how a bill becomes law (in Canada), please click here. For an explanation of how a bill becomes law in the UK, click here.)

For a bill to become law, it must receive three readings. Anyone who has paid any attention to parliamentary debate will be familiar with terms such as “second reading debate of bill XYZ”, for example.

However, while we refer to these three stages of a bill as readings – first, second and third reading,  the bill is never actually read in the House of Commons:

The practice of giving every bill three separate readings derives from an ancient parliamentary practice which originated in the United Kingdom. At that time, when the technology was not yet available to reproduce large numbers of copies at low cost, bills were introduced in handwritten form, one copy at a time. In order for Members to discern the content of the bill, the Clerk read it to them; thus, the idea of “reading” the bill was originally taken literally.

Today, while a bill is no longer read aloud, the readings have remained as formalities. When the Speaker declares that the motion for first reading has passed, a clerk at the Table rises and announces “First reading of this bill”, thus signifying that the Order of the House has been obeyed. This scenario is repeated when the House has ordered a second and then a third reading of the bill. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed., p. 735)

Not only is the bill not read in the House, it may surprise many to learn that the bill itself is not ever the subject of debate on the floor of the House of Commons. While each bill must proceed through the aforementioned three stages (first reading, second reading and third reading), it does so via a series of motions. It is these motions, not the bill, that the House debates and then adopts (or defeats).

These motions, that the bill be read a first (or second, or third) time may seem similar, but they each have very different meanings.

Motion for First Reading

The motion for first reading of a bill allows a bill to be formally brought before the House, printed and distributed to all Members. It is also assigned specific bill number. Passing the motion for first reading does not commit the House to anything beyond agreeing that the bill be made available for the information of Parliament and the public. There is no debate or discussion at this stage.

Motion for Second Reading

Second reading debate is perhaps the stage of the bill that people are most familiar with and may consider the most important. There is a perception that this is the stage where MPs will argue for or against the measures put forward in the bill. Some may even think that amendments to the bill will be made during this stage of debate. This is not the case.

Second reading debate is a general debate on the principle of the bill. This means that the debate must focus on the principle of the bill and not on its individual provisions. Debate on second reading begins when the Minister or Member, as the case may be, rises when the Order of the Day is read for the second reading of the bill and moves the motion “That Bill (number and title) be now read a second time and referred to the (name of committee) Committee”.

During second reading debate, the bill itself cannot be amended. The motion for second reading, however, can be amended. Only three types of amendments can be moved without notice: a three or six months’ hoist; a reasoned amendment; and a motion for referral of the subject matter to a committee.

Committee Stage

After second reading debate, a bill is normally referred to a Committee. It is in committee that the actual provisions of the bill will be studied, debated and possibly amended. When the Committee has finished its study of the bill, it is reported back to the House for the “report stage”. At this stage, Members may, after giving written notice, propose amendments to the text of the bill as it was reported by the committee. Those motions are then debated.

Motion for Third Reading

Third reading is the final stage through which a bill must pass in the House of Commons. It requires that Members decide whether the bill should be adopted by the House. Often regarded as a formality, third reading is in fact a decisive stage in the legislative process. The motion for third reading of a bill also calls for the passage of the bill. The debate begins when the Minister or Member, as the case may be, moves: “That the bill be now read a third time and do pass”. Debate at this stage of the legislative process focuses on the final form of the bill.

As stated in the note at the outset, this post is not a comprehensive overview of the legislative process – I have deliberately left out many aspects, including such procedures as referring a bill to committee before second reading, and how bills at committee stage are handled somewhat differently depending on whether they have received second reading or not, consideration by the Senate, royal assent, etc. My purpose here is to point out that bills are not really read in the House of Commons, nor are they actually debated. Motions to move a bill through its various stages are the subject of debate, and each motion for each stage has a different purpose. The actual contents and provisions of a bill are really only debated in committee.

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