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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Quote of the day

Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had changed greatly since, and that the experience had “undermined” him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. - Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

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Quote of the day

I do not deny that society has the right to punish a criminal, and the right to make the punishment fit the crime, but to kill a man for punishment alone is an act of vengeance. Nothing else. Some would prefer to call it retribution, because that word has a nicer sound. But the meaning is the same.

My primary concern here is not compassion for the murderer. My concern is for the society which adopts vengeance as an acceptable motive for its collective behaviour. Vengeance and violence damage and destroy those who adopt them, and lessen respect for the dignity and rights of others among those who condone them. - The Rt. Hon Pierre E. Trudeau, former Prime Minister of Canada, House of Commons debate of the Bill to Abolish Capital Punishment, 15 June 1976

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Quote of the day

I am an instinctive libertarian who abhors state prohibitions and tends to be sceptical of most government action, whether targeted against drug use or anything else. And on the drugs issue, libertarians and sceptics can have a field day. About the only thing all our witnesses agreed on was that the government’s strategy was a failure and prohibition over many decades had not worked. - David Cameron, “Shaping the debate“, The Guardian, 17 May 2002

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Reactions to e-petitions

The reaction to the UK Government’s introduction of a new e-petitions initiative has been quite interesting. You can read my original post about the e-petitions initiative here.

Government House Leader Sir George Young wrote in this piece in the Daily Mail that:

The site has been widely welcomed as a realistic way to revitalise public engagement in Parliament. But there have been some who have been concerned by some of the subjects which could end up being debated – for example, the restoration of capital punishment.

The last time this was debated – during the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998 – restoration was rejected by 158 votes.

But if lots of people want Parliament to do something which it rejects, then it is up to MPs to explain the reasons to their constituents. What else is Parliament for?

People have strong opinions, and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend that their views do not exist.

Young concludes that “if politicians want to regain the trust of the public, then they need to trust the public. Giving people more power is the right place to start.”

However, a former Tory MP disagrees. Paul Goodman writes that e-petitions could actually harm the House of Commons. Goodman asks what would happen if the House did debate, and then reject, a petition which received the requisite 100,000 (or more) signatures? While Sir George Young argues that the simple fact that the House would debate a petition would help demonstrate that Parliament was listening to the voice of the people, Goodman believes that rejecting the premise of a petition would only demonstrate that the Commons was “even more remote from voters than it was before the scheme was launched”, especially so if “it denies debate on the motion in question”:

All would depend, in my view, on the number of signatories.  (I’m assuming that the overwhelming bulk of those who sign a petition backing a debate on capital punishment, for example, want it restored.)

A hundred thousand signatories is not, in my view, a significant percentage of a nation of roughly 50 million adults.  However, five million (say) would be: others will cite their own figure.

Goodman isn’t calling for the required number of signatures to be increased to five million from 100,000, he’s simply indicating that 100,000 people does not constitute overwhelming support for a given cause in a nation of 50+ million adults (read voters – the actual population of the UK is over 60 million). Goodman concludes while some petitions will be popular, demand for whatever cause they espouse won’t be overwhelming. Because of that, the move to e-petitions will do no harm and might even do some good if only because “[I]mportant matters are likely to be debated that wouldn’t be otherwise.”

The Independent, however, is rather dismissive of the whole e-petitions idea. The editorialist dismisses Sir George Young’s claim that ignoring people’s views damages democracy:

This is a bogus notion. In a civilised society, important issues are decided after diligent research, considered debate and the careful weighing up of arguments and counter arguments. That is what we elect our MPs to do. Of course those signing e-petitions on the Government’s official website may do that. Or they may vote out of knee-jerk prejudice. Inspect the latest round of petition subjects and you may form a shrewd idea of which approach dominates. The subjects raised include the return of the death penalty, withdrawal from the European Union, a householder’s right to kill burglars, restricting prison diets to bread and water, and more of that ilk.

The editorial concludes: “The only online petition that deserves to succeed will be the one that demands an end to these exercises in specious democracy.”

New Stateman blogger Dan Hodges isn’t any more supportive of the idea:

The e-petition system is a grubby, tacky, sordid, sleazy, headline-grabbing gimmick. It is the worst sort of X Factor style politics, cheapening and debasing our politicians and our political process.

Far from placing power in the hands of the people, e-petitions serve only to put more power in the hands of those who have ways of influencing the people. The lobbyists, the activists, the business interests; those who have the time, money and resources to manipulate them in their favour.

If our politicians want to demonstrate empathy with those who elected them, they should get out into the country and engage with them, not lock themselves in the Cabinet Office, hiding behind a website. And they can explain face-to-face how they have absolutely no intention of withdrawing from the Human Rights Act, re-opening our libraries or abolishing the monarchy.

Meanwhile,  over at the Guardian, Anthony Barnett has a rather bleak view of all forms of petitions – paper and electronic:

Parliamentary petitions modernise and intensify the old reactionary political culture rather than replacing it. The notion of the petition takes us back to the “popular touch” of monarchy with cult of supplication. It is a device of subjecthood, not citizenship. It delivers neither democratic power nor popular deliberation. It reproduces the backwardness of Britain in constitutional terms. Indeed, by taking the UK in a plebiscitary direction, it infantilises voters and weakens understanding of democracy. For this does not mean the rule of majority, which has long been known as another form of tyranny; “democracy is constitutional or it is nothing”. It protects minority rights and entrenches fundamental laws. To take a current issue it is illegal to torture people. Even if 90% of the public supported British officials torturing people, those 90% would be supporting something illegal.

Most of the UK media coverage has focused on the petitions calling for the reinstatement of capital punishment. As of writing, there are approximately 25 e-petitions currently active calling for the return of the death penalty, with total signatures adding up to 8,415. There are seven e-petitions opposing the reintroduction of capital punishment, and together, they have a total of 12,635 signatures (note that I opted to not include in this count a petition which calls for public hanging for those who call for public hanging, since, if you read it, it’s more of a joke petition). Indeed, the petition with the most signatures at the moment is this one, which calls on Parliament to retain the ban on capital punishment.

Obviously, the Government will have to do something about the number of duplicate petitions. While some of these may well be attributable to the problems the e-petition site was experiencing yesterday, which meant that many weren’t able to search to see if a petition on a given subject had already been created, I think it’s fairly clear now that people aren’t bothering to search at all and simply going ahead and creating new petitions.

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HM Government E-Petitions go live – sort of

(Note to readers: This site is not in any way affiliated with the UK Government or its e-petitions website. If the e-petitions website is experiencing technical problems, please do not email this blog as there is nothing the blog administrator can do about that. If you wish to complain to someone about problems with the e-petitions website, please contact Directgov.)

The UK Government’s new e-petitions have gone live, and the initial interest in this initiative seems to be causing some problems.

My first attempts to access the list of petitions repeatedly resulted in the following message:

Sorry if you’re experiencing problems accessing e-petitions. There is currently a much higher level of demand than we expected.

However, I have been able to get various parts of the petition site to work, at least sporadically, which has allowed me to make a few early observations. Please note that as I write this, the site is still experiencing problems due to heavy traffic load, and so if you click on any of the links herein, you may only get an error message.

Quickly perusing the list of accepted petitions, I noticed that there seem to be a lot of petitions addressing the same issue. This is not supposed to be allowed. On the How e-petitions work page, the first step is to “Search existing petitions before creating a new one”. If you click on the little information icon, you are informed that:

Before you create a new e-petition, search the site to make sure there isn’t one that covers your issue. If a new e-petition is the same as one that’s already on the site, it will be rejected.

Yet, perusing the list of submitted petitions submitted to the Department of Justice (at least the first page – trying to get subsequent pages to load results in the aforementioned “Sorry…” message), there are certainly more than one petition calling for the reinstatement of capital punishment/the death penalty. Quite a few more, in fact.

If these various petitions on essentially the same topic are allowed to stand, it could well undermine efforts by pro-capital punishment supporters to garner the required 100,000 signatures. Or, the government could end up with several petitions calling for essentially the same thing, which all end up with the required number of signatures.

It is quite likely, however, these identical petitions are appearing because the site is having trouble coping with demand. Every time I have attempted to use the search function, it has resulted in an error message. Therefore, I am assuming that people are unable to search for existing petitions and so are simply going ahead with creating new ones. I won’t be at all surprised if in coming days, once the novelty has worn off and the site stops breaking down, many of these repeat petitions will disappear.

Calls for a return of the death penalty aside, I have noticed a few amusing petitions listed (when the site cooperates, that is). There are at least three e-petitions about e-petitions. One calls on the government to do away with e-petitions while another asks that the Government remove “the requirement for citizens to find out which department deals with the subject of their e-petition” – I guess because a lot of people simply don’t have any idea which Government department does what. The third petition asks that the Government revise the 100,000 signature requirement, since this may be difficult to achieve for some petitions that are nonetheless very good petitions.

I have to say that I am surprised that the Government didn’t properly anticipate that traffic to the e-petitions site might be quite heavy. They’ve had issues previously. When the Your Freedom site, which asked people to tell the government which laws and regulations it should get rid of, was launched in July last year, high demand in the first 24 hours caused the site to crash repeatedly. One would hope governments would learn from experience.

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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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Quote of the day

Question time in its contemporary manifestation symbolises everything that’s wrong with political discussion in Australia — an exchange of manufactured sound bites and confected television “moments” signifying nothing at all. It is at once uncomfortably aggressive, spiteful and gladiatorial, and completely soporific. - Katharine Murphy, There’s no question, Britain’s Parliament showed how it’s done, The Age, 25 July 2011

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Is the grass really greener, Part 2

In an earlier post, I discussed Question Time, the Australian House of Representatives oral question period, which a British blogger had described as “unbelievable behaviour” and attributed much of the problems to the Speaker himself. After listening to a few archived Question Times on the House of Representatives website, I ended up agreeing with that assessment.

Today, I’ve come across an article by Katharine Murphy, the national affairs correspondent at Australia’s The Age, in which she sharply criticizes Question Time. Some of her observations:

Question time in its contemporary manifestation symbolises everything that’s wrong with political discussion in Australia — an exchange of manufactured sound bites and confected television “moments” signifying nothing at all. It is at once uncomfortably aggressive, spiteful and gladiatorial, and completely soporific.

(…)

As a mechanism for genuine accountability, it’s a joke. As a spectacle, it’s pathetic — community theatre, not even Off Broadway. As a focal point for the political day it confirms the most crushing of truths: politics is progressively breaking all of our hearts.

(…)

Its sheer awfulness has a strange lulling effect — like the victim of an abduction, you slowly develop Stockholm syndrome, becoming too worn down to hope for something better.

Murphy then goes on to heap praise on proceedings in the UK House of Commons. Like many Canadian political correspondents, Murphy became enthralled with David Cameron’s performance in the House in the wake of the phone hacking scandal:

In two gripping hours, British Prime Minister David Cameron answered 138 questions pertaining to what he knew, his decision-making and his relationships with executives from News International.

The exchanges, moderated by an adroit Speaker with well honed reflexes for containing frippery and grandstanding, was fast, free flowing and informative. Oddly, given the high political stakes involved for Cameron, the tone of the debate was respectful; striking a functional balance between persistent interrogation, critique and basic civility.

Watching that broadcast was more effective than a dose of smelling salts. Water-cooler discussion in Canberra the next day was alive with it. Did you see the Commons debate? Did you see politics actually working?

Murphy also comments on the independence of backbenchers in the UK to ask actual questions “seemingly beyond the control of their puppet masters on the frontbench.”

As impressed as she is with the spectacle she witnessed, Murphy cautions that it is unfair to compare “a special sitting of the British Parliament in some extraordinary circumstances with a routine question time in Australia” and that the “British outing last week was a special debate, with conditions allowing spontaneous questions and free-flowing exchange”. Perhaps I am misreading her, but this isn’t entirely true. Yes, it was a special sitting since Parliament had been scheduled to adjourn for summer recess the day before, and was quickly recalled to sit one extra day to address the phone hacking issue, but ministerial statements are not what I would classify as a special debate, but rather routine occurrences in the UK House of Commons. The format they follow, as I have previously discussed, is quite different from the ministerial statements we have in the Canadian House of Commons. It would seem that Ministerial statements in the Australian House of Representatives more closely resemble their Canadian counterparts:

By leave of the House Ministers may make statements concerning government policy or other matters for which they have ministerial responsibility. Ministerial statements are often made after the presentation of documents, however they may also be made at other times. An opposition spokesperson is usually granted leave to make a statement on the same matter or a motion may be moved ‘That the House take note of the document’, on which debate may take place either at that time, at a later hour or at a later sitting. On occasions leave has not been sought by the Government or has been refused by the Opposition and standing orders have been suspended to enable a statement to be made. Ministerial statements are not an everyday occurrence and their frequency has decreased in recent years. (House of Representatives Practice, 5th ed., p. 254)

Ministerial statements in the UK House of Commons are not daily occurrence either, but as I have stated, at least during this current Parliament, they are fairly regular occurrences. It is not unheard of to even have two or three ministers delivering ministerial statements one after the other, and at the end of each one, MPs are free to question the minister on its contents.

I also disagree with Murphy that this was an exceptional example of a ministerial statement, and because of this, the House of Commons rose to the occasion. I have watched many such statements delivered in the House over the course of the past year, and while the subjects were perhaps less high-profile (and that is somewhat debatable), the conduct of the MPs was as commendable. Backbenchers still freely asked whatever questions they wanted, debate was respectful, the ministers did their best to answer the questions asked. Nor was this the first time that the Prime Minister has delivered a ministerial statement to the House. The only real difference about proceedings on 20 July was that the phone-hacking had become an international story, consequently, the world was watching, to an extent anyway. Ministerial statements on reforms to the NHS, or the UK’s military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya played out to much smaller audiences.

I’ve noted with some dismay that many of the readers who have commented on Murphy’s story are confusing the ministerial statement with Question Time, and in some cases, even PMQs. This confusion is perhaps due to Murphy’s contrasting Question Time to the ministerial statement, which is understandable since Question Time may well be the only real opportunity Members get to question ministers, including the PM. I got the sense here in Canada that many of our journalists also failed to understand that Cameron was not participating in an extended round of PMQs, but delivering a ministerial statement. This is one area were proceedings in the UK House of Commons are clearly superior to proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons (and by the sounds of, the Australian House of Representatives). MPs have far more opportunity to question and hold the government to account. Everyone seems to forget about the daily Questions, focusing only on PMQs, but as we have seen here, there are also ministerial statements and urgent questions.

Urgent questions are dependent on the Speaker being willing to grant them, and current Speaker John Bercow certainly has been willing to do just that. He has granted 60 urgent questions debates since May 2010, compared to only two granted by the previous Speaker over the course of the nine years he presided over the House.

As I’ve written many times on this blog, when you combine the UK House of Commons’ focused, ministry-specific form of oral questions with the regular use of Urgent Questions and ministerial statements, there exists far more opportunities for the Opposition to hold the Government to account in the UK House of Commons than there are in the Canadian House of Commons or, by the sound of it, the Australian House of Representatives. Sometimes, the grass really is greener.

 

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