On irrelevance

One of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. Over time, the business of government became more complex, and legislatures had increasingly limited time available to them to consider this business. It was therefore essential to do so as efficiently as possible. Requiring that speeches (as well as questions and comments) remain relevant to the matter being debated allows the House to reach decisions without needless obstruction and excludes discussions that aren’t conducive to that end.

The practice of restraining debate that is either repetitious or irrelevant to the matter under discussion dates back to the earliest days of the English House of Commons. The practice seems to have been well established in the English House of Commons by the end of the 16th century and in 1604, a rule on relevance in debate was adopted.

There are some debates that exempt Members from being relevant. For example, it is a well-established parliamentary convention that Members may speak on any topic they choose during the debate on the motion for an Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne. Similarly, newly elected Members making their maiden speech in the House are given some leeway to talk about themselves, their constituency, why they entered politics, etc. In all other debates and proceedings, however, Members are to ensure that their comments and remarks are relevant to the matter currently before the House.

Admittedly, the rule on relevancy can be somewhat difficult to define and enforce. Often, it is difficult to judge the relevance of a Member’s comments until they have made some progress in or even completed their remarks. Presiding officers generally allow a fair degree of latitude in this area since a very strict interpretation could have the effect of severely curtailing debate.

Consequently, it isn’t that common for a presiding officer to call a Member to order for being irrelevant during the course of a debate. It is even rarer that this will happen during other proceedings, such as Oral Questions. However, in the Australian House of Representatives, the Speaker did just that – he called a Member to order for irrelevancy – and not just any Member, but the Prime Minister:

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister has been asked about a statement made prior to the election and has been asked if would she apologise for that statement. The Prime Minister has the call to answer the question.

Ms GILLARD: The senior figures of the opposition should explain why they went to the 2007 election, hands on their hearts, saying, ‘I will walk into the parliament and I will vote for a price on carbon.’

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister will become directly relevant and will answer the question.

Ms GILLARD: I am asked whether or not carbon pricing is a mistake for this country, and I am pointing out that carbon pricing in this nation has had strong bipartisan support, and that is why it is not a mistake for the nation. It has been supported fulsomely by the Leader of the Opposition. He sought election in 2007 on the basis that he would vote for carbon pricing—

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister will return to being directly relevant.

Ms GILLARD: and he probably said that in 2007 because he believed then, as did Prime Minister Howard—

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister will resume her seat. Next question?

Ms GILLARD: that it was the right thing for the nation.

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister no longer has the call. Next question?

Canadians who regularly (or even occasionally) watch Question Period in the House of Commons are probably well aware that the Government side frequently does not answer the questions asked by Opposition Members, as we can see in this example:

Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, it is very clear that after the election, in the riding of the hon. member for Mount Royal, calls were made that were authorized directly by the Conservative Party. The Speaker of the House described those tactics as reprehensible. I will ask the question again: is the government prepared to accept the Speaker’s ruling and recognize that in fact those tactics are reprehensible?

Mr. Pierre Poilievre (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities and for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the real question is whether the Liberal Party is prepared to accept the results that Canadians handed them in the election. Canadians voted in very large numbers—there was an increase in voter turnout—to reject the Liberal Party as never before. The Liberal Party is now trying to come up with explanations for its extraordinary defeat. It has to accept the results. It has to accept democracy. That is what we are doing.

Could the Canadian Speaker call them to order for irrelevancy? Yes, indeed. However, it might be a bit more difficult in the Canadian House of Commons. In the Australian House of Representatives, Government ministers have up to four minutes for their answers. In the Canadian House of Commons, only 35 seconds is allowed answers. Given what was stated above, that it might not be immediately obvious if what a Member is saying is relevant to the matter being discussed, this is particularly true during Question Period. By the time the Speaker might realize that the Minister had not at all addressed the question, the 35 seconds would have expired. If Canadian Ministers had four minutes in which to provide an answer to the questions asked, it would be much easier for the Chair to call them on the question of relevancy.

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Procedure Committee looks at e-petitions

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee heard from Leader of the House of Commons, the Rt. Hon. Sir George Young, and from MP Natascha Engel, chair of the Backbench Business Committee (BBC) on the matter of e-petitions. You can watch the meeting here, but I will summarise below some of the key issues raised.

Ms. Engel noted several times that the big problem with the e-petitions scheme was that it was conceived and implemented by the Government without consultation or debate in Parliament. Had there been consultation and debate, many of the problems which have arisen, and which she believes were entirely foreseeable, could have been avoided.

The biggest problem for the BBC is that of time. The e-petitions program was launched after the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, and thus after it had already been allocated a set number of days for debate during the course of the session. The BBC has no shortage of matters MPs wish to discuss, and thus it now must take away time from that to allow for debates on e-petitions which reach the 100,000 signature threshold.

Ms. Engel also noted that the 100,000 signature threshold appeared to be completely random, and that now, it would be difficult to change it (in the sense of increasing it to make it more difficult for e-petitions for qualify for referral to the BBC). She also noted that because this threshold exists, the focus is on numbers only rather than on the merit of the subject of the e-petition. This is a valid concern – some very important topics may never garner 100,000 signatures, but would certainly be worthy of debate in the House, while other more “frivolous” yet popular ideas could easily garner the required number of signatures. Consequently, the best petitions might not be the ones that ever get debated.

Ms. Engel also had serious concerns with the expectations of those who sign e-petitions. Part of the problem is that the website itself states:

e-petitions is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK.

As Ms. Engel pointed out to the Committee, this is very misleading. There is no direct link between signing an e-petition and changing a law (or influencing government policy), and Parliament needs to better explain to people what can be achieved by signing an e-petition. There was also some discussion of the fact that there is widespread belief that any petition which receives 100,000 signatures automatically gets debated in the House, which, as I have written about many times, is simply not the case.

Sir George Young was asked directly if the e-petitions were petitions to the Government or to Parliament. After some non-answers, he finally stated that they were initially petitions to Government, but once they reached the 100,000 threshold, they became petitions to Parliament. He was then asked if these were petitions to Government, why rely on the Backbench Business Committee to deal with them? Why didn’t the Government find time to schedule debates on e-petitions? Sir George didn’t really answer this question. He simply countered that to date, a very limited number of petitions had resulted in debates, and that there was little danger of e-petitions overwhelming the BBC.

Another member of the Procedure Committee pointed out that Westminster Hall was currently not in use on Monday afternoons, so why not reserve that time for e-petition debates? Sir George simply tossed that one back to the Procedure Committee, stating that it was within its purview to make such a recommendation in its report.

Ms. Engel pointed out that since the main problem with the e-petitions scheme was that it had been brought in without any consultation or debate, it would be wrong for another small group (the Procedure Committee) to further decide matters concerning e-petitions. It really was a matter that needed to be debated by the House as a whole. And she countered Sir George’s claim that while there had been only a handful of petitions which reached the 100,000 signature mark, this situation could very easily change and e-petitions could indeed end up swamping the Backbench Business Committee. She also noted that debates on e-petitions which have been held in Westminster Hall (rather than in the main Chamber proper) were considered “second rate” by many members of the public and that the BBC was flooded with angry emails over the fact that the debate had not taken place in the main Chamber.

Sir George was asked where the 100,000 number had come from, and he replied it was an “inspired and informed guess”, and that the Government had no plans to change it. Ms. Engel, however, noted again that there was a problem with the threshold because, as stated earlier, it all became a numbers game rather than a focus on the merits of the petition. She added that she appreciated that the Government had good intentions, that they wanted to avoid a situation like the Number 10 e-petitions set up by Prime Minister Tony Blair, wherein petitions could receive thousands of signatures but nothing happened, but that it was important to ask what was trying to be achieved with the e-petitions scheme. She believes that the aim is to provide better public engagement, but not public access to voteable motions on the floor of the House. She also praised the Scottish e-petitions system, where they have a focus on explaining the principle of petitioning, and a full-time Public Petitions Committee.

Ms. Engel also noted that while the e-petitions scheme has created a bridge between the public and Parliament, by referring the petitions directly to the BBC, it bypasses the MP completely, which is a very different way of doing business than is normally the case in Parliament. Citizens are normally expected to go through their MP when they have grievances. For example, MPs have their local constituency surgeries where they meet with their constituents, listen to their problems, explain how the system works, how to proceed, the best ways to deal with the problems they face, etc., in other words, there is a dialogue. The e-petition by-passes the MP and there is no dialogue.

She explained that all MPs are quite sensitive to what the public thinks of them, and the members of the BBC are quite aware that voters don’t like it when an e-petition debate occurs in Westminster Hall rather than the main chamber. As well, the committee is increasingly looking not at the merit of a matter brought forward to the committee for consideration for debate, but whether it has an e-petition attached to it. She suggested several times that the 100,000 signature threshold should be done away with and not have any threshold in place. That would allow e-petitions to be considered on their merit rather than relying solely on a numbers game.

There were a few other interesting points discussed, particularly the possible role the future House Business Committee might play in terms of scheduling debate time for e-petitions, as well as the question of what feedback was given to e-petitioners by the Government. The Procedure Committee is looking to release an urgent report in the very near future to address some of the more critical problems raised concerning e-petitions. I will keep you posted.

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Thoughts on “Saving the House of Commons”

Aaron Wherry of Canada’s Maclean’s magazine recently wrote a blog post proposing a series of reforms to “save” the House of Commons. Some I have previously discussed on this blog, such as changes to Question Period. Readers proposed other reforms and ideas the comments. I thought I would offer my own thoughts on some of what was proposed.

1. Wherry proposed amending section 67 of the Elections Act “to remove the requirement that any candidate wishing to run for a party must have the signature of that party’s leader to do so”.

This is not something I have looked at or considered to any extensive degree, but on the surface, I don’t have any issues with it. I think it would complement open primaries very nicely.

2. Reform of Question Period as per the changes suggested by MP Michael Chong (fortify the use of discipline by the Speaker; lengthen the amount of time given for each question and answer; allocate half the questions each day for Members, whose names and order of recognition would be randomly selected; dedicate Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister; dedicate Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for questions to other ministers).

I have written many posts about Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons and in favour of adopting a format more akin to that used in the UK House of Commons (see this one, for example). Chong’s proposals are based on the UK model, but don’t go far enough. Rather than simply lengthening the amount of time for each question and answer, do away with time limits completely. The UK House of Commons had a target quota for questions – if a ministry gets the full one-hour of questions to itself, the target is 25 questions and answers (note, that’s a minimum). Rather than allocate “half the questions each day for Members … randomly selected”, make it completely open to all MPs. If only one ministry is up for questioning at a time (rather than the whole cabinet as is currently the case), of course each opposition party’s critic for that portfolio will be present, but they certainly shouldn’t be entitled to half of the questions. Any MP should be free to ask questions (non-scripted), including MPs from the government party. There could certainly be a dedicated PMQs on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t also be questions to a ministry that day as well. In the UK, one of the smaller departments gets a half hour of questions before the half hour dedicated to PMQs. The same could be done in Ottawa.

Side note to this, as I’ve repeatedly stated, adopting a UK-version of Questions would only work if we also adopted Urgent Questions and revamped Ministerial Statements.

3. Wherry proposes getting rid of Members’ statements.

For those who aren’t familiar with this proceeding, Members’ statements is a daily occurrence which precedes Question Period and lasts 15 minutes. During this time, backbenchers have a minute to make a statement on any topic of their choosing. Normally, this is used to promote an event in their riding, or to bring attention to the achievements of a person or school or organization, etc., in their riding. Increasingly, however, these statements are used to make partisan attacks on other parties or politicians, which is contrary to the rules. I’d have no issue with getting rid of Members’ Statements.

4. No reading of speeches during debates.

As Wherry notes, the rules already prohibit the reading of speeches and has been in place since Confederation.  The purpose of this rule, is quite simple: it exists to maintain the cut and thrust of debate, which depends upon the speeches of successive speakers referencing the arguments of previous speakers to some extent. If this rule is ignored, debate becomes nothing more than a series of set speeches prepared beforehand without reference to each other. However, as we learn in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (pp. 607-8), by 1886, it was clear that the convention was often being ignored, which prompted the House to adopt a resolution condemning the very prevalent practice of Members reading their speeches. Little changed, however, and several Speakers addressed the issue in statements to the House and rulings against the practice of reading speeches. The 1956 statement by Speaker Beaudoin remains the definitive statement on established practice in the House of Commons:

A Member addressing the House may refer to notes. The Prime Minister, the cabinet ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, the leaders of other parties or Members speaking on their behalf, may read important policy speeches. New Members may read their [maiden] speeches. The Members speaking in a language other than their mother tongue, the Members speaking in debates involving matters of a technical nature, or in debates on the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne and on the Budget may use full notes or, if they wish, read their speeches.

The use of extensive notes, even prepared notes, by Members delivering their remarks is still prevalent in the House of Commons and the Chair has been disinclined to insist that Members not read their speeches. This is in sharp contrast to what transpires in the UK, where you never see anyone reading from texts. In the UK House of Commons, the principle has been quite strongly reinforced by recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which recommended, among other things, that Members who wished to take part in a debate should be in the House to hear the opening speeches, and if not, they should not expect to be called upon to participate. If they were called, they should make some effort to respond to and reference previous speeches before pursuing their own line of argument, and remain in the Chamber after they’d finished speaking to listen to at least two more speeches in order to ascertain the reaction to their own comments. Speakers regularly reinforce the views of the Committee in a letter to Members.

Debate in the UK House of Commons perhaps also benefits from the fact that there aren’t any time limits on speeches (unlike in Canada), and because of the practice of giving way, while in the Canadian House of Commons, we have Questions and Comments. As well, Samara.org found that many MPs are told at the last minute that they are to speak in a debate and are given prepared texts by the party whips to read. This certainly doesn’t help the situation.

5. Requiring justification for the use of time allocation and/or closure

One of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. While the political parties in the House may disagree on what a ‘reasonable period’ might be, they would all agree that eventually, debate must end and the House must decide a matter. Therefore, time allocation and closure motions do have their place; the problem is that they are often used to avoid debate and scrutiny. Therefore I don’t have any real objections to what Wherry proposes: require a Minister “to provide justification for the curtailment of debate; the Speaker would be required to refuse such a request in the interest of protecting the duty of MPs to examine legislation thoroughly, unless the government’s justification sufficiently outweighed said duty; criteria would be set out for assessing the government’s justification, which would provide the Speaker with the basis for a decision to allow for the curtailment of debate.”

6.  The Aucoin/Turnbull/Jarvis reforms

I admit to being less familiar with these proposals, which Wherry sumarizes thusly: “Codify the following: that elections occur every four years on a specific date unless a majority of two-thirds of MPs approve a motion to dissolve Parliament for a new election; that  the opposition can only bring down the government via an explicit motion of non-confidence that also identifies the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government that has the support of a majority of MPs in the House; and that the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons be required to prorogue Parliament.”

This sounds somewhat similar to what the UK recently adopted with its Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. That Act fixes elections at every five years and stipulates that while a motion of confidence in the Government will still require the current 50%+1 to pass, this now won’t automatically trigger the dissolution of Parliament. There will now be a 14-day period to see if a new Government can be formed which will command the confidence of the House. If no alternative Government emerges, then Parliament would be dissolved. If the House wanted to dissolve Parliament before the 5-year term was up without recourse to a motion of non-confidence as described above, this would require a majority of tw0-thirds of MPs to approve a motion to dissolve Parliament.

I am not a strong supporter of fixed-term parliaments. I am not convinced that they solve the problems they are supposed to address, and I do think that they create new problems while exacerbating others. I do like the UK changes re: non-confidence motions not automatically leading to the dissolution of Parliament, and I don’t have objections per se to requiring a super-majority vote in favour of a motion to dissolve Parliament before the usual end of a parliamentary term. I don’t think a motion of non-confidence would need to identify “the name of the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government”.

Ultimately, it is only the House of Commons itself which can initiate any sort of change in how it conducts its business. Also, a lot of the issues these suggestions are meant to address could be “fixed” by the political parties themselves if they simply decided to ease up on their control of their own members. It is interesting to see these issues debated in the media since it means that many Canadians are concerned about the health of their democratic institutions. The question is – do our politicians share this concern?

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Comparing UK and Canadian House of Commons procedure

Going by the keyword search activity on this blog, there seems to be much interest in comparisons of parliamentary procedure in Canada and the United Kingdom. I have written many posts about various parliamentary proceedings which differ notably in both countries, and so I thought I would regroup that information into one post, with links to the more detailed posts for those who wish to find out more. Please note that this is not a comprehensive explanation of all of the differences between the two countries – I am looking only at major areas of interest. Read more

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On closure and time allocation

As O’Brien and Bosc explain in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.), one of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. While the political parties in the House may disagree on what a ‘reasonable period’ might be, they would all agree that eventually, debate must end and the House must decide a matter.

Over the years, changes to the Standing Orders have been made to expedite the business of the House. Chief among these was the introduction of time limits on speeches by Members. In the Canadian House of Commons, in most debates, MPs may speak once, for a maximum of 20 minutes. There are some exceptions to that rule, for example, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have unlimited speaking time. If debate extends beyond a certain number of hours, Members’ speaking time is reduced to 10 minutes. This differs from the UK House of Commons, where there are no time limits on how long MPs may speak. However, at the outset of certain debates, the Speaker may impose a time limit on speeches due to the great number of MPs who have indicated they wish to participate in the debate.

However, there are times when, despite the existing limits on debate, the Government believes there is a need to cut short the debate. Certain rules exist which allow the Government to do just that. This is called “curtailing debate” and the means by which this is usually done are via closure and time allocation.

Closure

Closure is a procedural device which is used to bring debate on a question to an end by a majority decision of the House even if not all the MPs who wish to speak on the matter have had the chance to do so. The Closure rule was adopted in the Canadian House of Commons in 1913, during a filibuster by opposition parties. It has already been introduced in the UK House of Commons much earlier, in 1881, and in the Australian House of Representatives in 1905. In those days, in Ottawa, there were no time limits on how long Members could speak on a question, and opposition parties had managed to significantly delay the passage of government legislation, with some debates on bills stretching out over two years. Since its introduction in 1913, closure has been used over 60 times in the Canadian House of Commons.

Closure is a motion “That debate not be further adjourned”. It provides the government with a procedure to require that the question be put at the end of the sitting in which a motion of closure is adopted. Closure may be applied to any debatable matter, including bills and motions.

Prior to moving a motion for closure, an oral notice of intention to do so must have been given by a Minister at a previous sitting of the House. Debate on the item that is the subject of the notice must have begun before notice of closure may be given. No obligation exists to proceed with moving the closure motion even if notice has been given.

After notice has been given, the closure motion may be moved during a subsequent sitting. It must be moved by a Minister immediately before the House resumes debate on the item. While the closure motion is not debatable or amendable, a 30-minute question period is permitted, during which Members may ask questions of the Minister responsible for the closured item. At the end of this period, the Speaker immediately puts the question on the closure motion.

When a motion for closure is adopted, debate resumes on the now-closured business, subject to the restrictions imposed by the closure rule. Any Private Members’ Business scheduled during that sitting day is still taken up at its regular time. All questions necessary to dispose of the closured business are put no later than 8:00 p.m.

Time Allocation

Time allocation, like closure, came about following a filibuster by the opposition during the Pipeline Debate in 1956. During that debate, closure was the only rule the government could use to advance its legislation but it was becoming clear that it was rather inflexible and inadequate. Consequently the House and its committees began deliberations on better ways to allot time for the consideration of specific pieces of legislation and planning of the session’s work, which the closure rule could not do. However, it wasn’t until 1969, after a debate which lasted 12 hours and that was, ironically, curtailed by a motion of closure, that a report recommending time allocation measures was adopted. The rule has evolved over the years, with the current version adopted in 2001.

The time allocation rule, which is used much more frequently than closure, allows for specific lengths of time to be set aside for the consideration of one or more stages of a public bill. Although the rule permits the government to negotiate with opposition parties towards the adoption of a timetable, it can also be used by the government to impose strict limits on the time for debate.

The rule is divided into three distinct sections with specific conditions applying depending on the degree of support among the recognized parties in the House of Commons. As explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice:

1. All Parties Agree: The first section of the rule envisages agreement among the representatives of all the recognized parties in the House to allocate time to the proceedings at any or all stages of a public bill. No notice is required. In proposing the motion, a Minister first states that such an agreement has been reached and then sets out the terms of the agreement, specifying the number of days or hours of debate to be allocated. The Speaker then puts the question to the House, which is decided without debate or amendment.

2. Majority of Parties Agree: The second section of the rule envisages agreement among a majority of the representatives of the recognized parties in the House. In these circumstances, the government must be a party to any agreement reached. The motion may not cover more than one stage of the legislative process. It may, however, apply both to report stage and third reading, if it is consistent with the rule requiring a separate day for debate at third reading when a bill has been debated or amended at report stage. Again, no notice is required, and it is not necessary for debate on the stage or stages specified in the time allocation to have begun. Prior to moving the motion, the Minister states that a majority of party representatives have agreed to a proposed allocation of time. The motion specifies how many days or hours are to be allocated.

3. No Agreement: The third section of the rule permits the government to propose an allocation of time unilaterally. In this case, an oral notice of intention to move the motion is required. The motion can only propose the allocation of time for one stage of the legislative process, that being the stage then under consideration. However, the motion can cover both report stage and third reading, provided it is consistent with the rule which requires a separate day for third reading when a bill has been debated or amended at report stage. The amount of time allocated for any stage may not be less than one sitting day.

The wording of a motion for time allocation must be specific as to the terms of the allocation of time. In most cases, time is allocated in terms of sitting days or hours. When there is no agreement between the parties, the amount of time allocated may not be less than one day. The motion can propose only the allocation of time for one stage of the legislative process, that being the stage then under consideration, with the exception of report stage and third reading, which can be covered in one motion. A motion for time allocation must be moved by a Minister in the House, and is neither debatable nor amendable. However, there is a 30-minute period set aside for Members to ask questions of the Minister responsible for the bill in question.

After the adoption of a motion for time allocation, debate at the stage or stages of the bill in question then becomes subject to the time limits imposed by the motion. The day on which the time allocation motion is adopted may be counted as one sitting day for that purpose, provided the motion is moved and adopted at the beginning of Government Orders and the bill is taken up immediately. At the expiry of the time allocated for a given stage, any proceedings before the House are interrupted, and the Chair puts every question necessary for the disposal of the bill at that stage. (source: Compendium of Procedure Online)

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MP confusion over e-petitions

While listening to the debate in the UK House of Commons on a backbench motion calling for a referendum on membership in the EU, I was struck by regularly repeated claims by MPs concerning the role that petitions, particularly e-petitions, played in instigating the debate.

Many MPs stated that the day’s debate came about thanks to the Government’s own e-petitions scheme, triggered by an e-petition gaining over 100,000 signatures. For example:

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend also acknowledge that not only is he moving this motion, but more than 100,000 people have signed an e-petition to 10 Downing street calling for him to do just this?

and:

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I understand that I have only five minutes, so I will take only two interventions—if people want to intervene—if colleagues do not mind.

I would like to address first the process and principle of the motion and then present-day Europe, if colleagues will forgive the alliteration. The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue. The Backbench Business Committee then decided that to be the right debate to bring before Parliament and, as Members will know, that Committee is elected by the House. This debate has not been brought about by a small or large number of Conservative Back Benchers, therefore; it is a response to the will and the voice of the British people.

and

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): (…) Let us not forget, as many Members have said, that this issue has reached us today not only because of the 100,000 e-petition signatories, but because of the many organisations that have brought together different types of petition and written to people. It is not just about e-petitions.

and

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate. It is, in fact, a historic debate because it is the first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system. I believe that that system is a wonderful one; it is absolutely right to hold this debate today. I also think it right in principle that this House should debate issues of particular importance to the public, of which this is one.

and finally:

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain why this was the second most popular issue on the e-petitions list?

Kris Hopkins: As I said in response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), if there is such support for the matter, we should campaign to ensure that it is part of our party’s next election manifesto.

You get the idea – these samples are from the online Hansard of the debate, which you can access here.

The problem is, these statements aren’t exactly accurate, and some are simply false.

Despite what many MPs claimed, there was no e-petition calling for a referendum on the EU on the official Government E-Petitions website which garnered over 100,000 signatures. There were many separate petitions, both traditional paper and electronic, which together surpassed 100,000 signatures, but these were collected independently of the official e-petitions scheme. In fact, a campaign to petition for a referendum on the EU began in March of this year, over four months before launch of the Government e-petitions scheme at the end of July of this year.

So if there was no single e-petition calling for an EU referendum on the Government e-petitions site that had over 100,000 signatures,  how did the debate come about?

The Backbench Business Committee, which is responsible for scheduling debates on backbench business, issued a press release explaining how the EU referendum debate came about:

The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business committee following a representation by Mr David Nuttall MP at a public meeting of the committee on 18 October 2011. A large number of backbench Members indicated their support for the debate. This issue has also been raised in public petitions.

This issue has also been raised by various organisations through both paper and online petitions. Between them they have collected more than 100,000 names.

In other words, the Committee decided to schedule the debate primarily because a backbench Member, Mr. Nuttall, requested one, and had the backing of  “a large number of backbench Members”. That there were also petitions in support of such a debate was incidental to, not the driving force behind, the decision to schedule the debate. Mr. Nuttall may well have decided to make the representation to the Committee because of the number of petitions in support of a referendum on EU membership, but the Committee’s decision was based on his representation and support from other MPs for such a debate, not because of various petitions.

Queries to this blog have revealed that there is a fair bit of confusion about the whole e-petitions scheme amongst the general public in the UK. It is somewhat disheartening to see that some MPs also don’t really seem to grasp how it works. For example, in the first quote above, Nadine Dorries refers to “an e-petition to 10 Downing street”. Ms. Dorries is perhaps confused with the e-petitions scheme that had been set up in November 2006 by former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the 10 Downing St. website, which was shut down by the Coalition Government just after it took office last year.

MP Mark Pritchard stated: “The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue.” As mentioned above, this is completely false. The petitions, both paper and electronic, in favour of an EU referendum were in circulation before the launch of the new HM Government e-petition’s website. I am not disputing that these petitions got over 100,000 signatures, but they weren’t related to the “Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions”, nor are they the origins of the debate.

Mr Davies claims that the EU referendum debate was the “first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system”. Again, this is false. A backbench debate was held only a week earlier (17 October 2011) on the issue of the release of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough tragedy – which was the subject of an e-petition on the Government e-petition site which garnered over 100,000 signatures. That was the first debate triggered by the public through the petitions system, as it clearly states on the press release issued by the Backbench Business Committee.

As for Mr. Tomlinson’s comment that the EU petition is supposedly the “second most popular issue on the e-petition list”,  that is simply false. The second most popular issue on the e-petitions list (assuming he is referring to the official Government e-petitions site and not some independent e-petitions site), is the e-petitions calling for full disclosure of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough disaster mentioned above. The first e-petition mentioning a referendum on the EU is seventh on the list.

I can appreciate that debates triggered by e-petitions are a very new development for the UK House of Commons, and so it is not entirely surprising that some MPs seem rather confused about the process. I do hope some effort is made to clarify exactly how the e-petitions scheme works, so that in the future, MPs will not further add to the misinformation and misunderstanding already out there.

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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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You can’t say that!

While parliamentary privilege grants Members of Parliament the right to exercise of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings, there are still certain rules in place that curtail what an MP can say and how they can say it. Some of these restrictions are age-old parliamentary conventions and exist in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., while others are country-specific. Here is a quick overview.

In general, the following rules governing the content of speeches exist in most Westminster-style parliamentary parliaments.

Members cannot refer to each other by their names. They must refer to another Member by their title, position or constituency name. The purpose of this rule is to make debate less personal and avoid the direct confrontation of Members addressing one another as “you”. Indeed, only the Speaker can be addressed as “you”. A degree of formality helps the House remain more dignified and tolerant when political views clash and passions may be inflamed. There are some variations to this rule. For example, in the UK House of Commons, the Speaker calls on Members to speak by their name, while in other Commonwealth countries, the Speaker calls on Members by their constituency name. In Australia, it is the practice of the House that, when appointments to committees or organisations are announced by the Speaker or a Minister, the name of a Member is used.

Members must not cast disrespectful reflections on Parliament as a whole or on the upper and lower chambers individually. In Canada and the UK, the upper Chamber (the Senate in Canada, the House of Lords in the UK) is usually referred to as “the other place” and Senators or Lords as “members of the other place.” I haven’t found a similar restriction on naming the other place in Australian parliamentary practice. Offensive words cannot be used against either the Senate or Senators in the Australian House of Representatives, but I haven’t found any indication that the Senate must be referred to as “the other place.”

Members must not cast reflections on the conduct of the Speaker or other presiding officers. It is unacceptable to question their integrity and impartiality. Such comments have been ruled breaches of privilege.

Members are also prohibited from speaking disrespectfully of the Sovereign, Royal Family, and in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., the Governor General. Attacks on judges and courts by Members in debate are also considered unparliamentary.

Members are discouraged from reviving a debate that has concluded, unless the remarks are relevant to the current matter under discussion. In the past, reference to prior debates of the current session were generally discouraged in order to conserve the time of the House. Similarly, they are not to speak against or reflect on any decision of the House. This stems from the well-established rule which holds that a question, once put and carried in the affirmative or negative, cannot be questioned again. Such reflections are not in order because the Member is bound by a vote agreed to by a majority.

The use of offensive, provocative or threatening language in the House is forbidden. Personal attacks, insults and obscenities are not in order. This is because proceedings of the House are based on a long-standing tradition of respect for the integrity of all Members. Similarly, all imputations of improper motives to a Member and all personal reflections on other Members, the misrepresentation of the language of another Members and the accusation of misrepresentation are considered to be highly disorderly. Members are not to accuse another Member of lying. One can criticize their statement as being contrary to the facts, but no imputation of intentional falsehood is permissible. In the Canadian House of Commons at least, Members are also not to call attention to the absence of another Member or Members, since there are many legitimate reasons why a Member may have to attend to other parliamentary duties.

Matters that are currently before the courts should not be discussed. This convention is called the sub judice convention. The origin of the convention appears to have been the desire of Parliament to prevent comment and debate from exerting an influence on juries and from prejudicing the position of parties and witnesses in court proceedings. It is by this self-imposed restriction that the House not only prevents its own deliberations from prejudicing the course of justice but prevents reports of its proceedings from being used to do so.

Most chambers also have rules concerning repetition and relevance in debate. To quote House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.):

The requirement that speeches remain relevant to the question before the House flows from the latter’s right to reach decisions without undue obstruction and to exclude from debate any discussion not conducive to that end. The rule against repetition helps to ensure the expeditious conduct of debate by prohibiting the repetition of arguments already made. To neglect either rule would seriously impair the ability of the House to manage its time efficiently.

Repetition is prohibited in order to safeguard the right of the House to arrive at a decision and to make efficient use of its time. (…)

Although the House now has rules to limit the length of speeches, at one time there were few limits and debate often strayed beyond the subject in question. In 1882, J.G. Bourinot, then Clerk of the House, felt the need to add this comment to his overview of parliamentary practice:

A just regard to the privileges and dignity of Parliament demands that its time should not be wasted in idle and fruitless discussion; and consequently every member, who addresses the house, should endeavour to confine himself as closely as possible to the question under consideration.

This advice still applies today as the business of government grows ever more complex and the time of the House is limited.

These are some of the main rules commons to most, if not all, Commonwealth jurisdictions which govern the rules of debate and what can and cannot be said in the House. It isn’t by any means exclusive, but should still help readers understand why debate takes the form it does.

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Some thoughts on the debate format

I feel somewhat compelled to write something about last night’s leaders debate, but since I cannot engage in partisan blogging, I will focus on the format of the debate, and ways I would like to see it improved.

1. No more questions from “Ordinary Canadians”

Recently, the trend in Canada has been to ask Canadians to submit questions they would like to ask the leaders. These questions are then reviewed by the consortium which organizes and runs the debate, and they select which questions will be asked. The problem with this is that the questions tend to be incredibly generic, predictable and rather pointless. They are vague, unfocused, and this in turn results in equally vague and non-specific replies from the the party leaders (assuming they even address the question and don’t simply launch into an attack on the sitting PM over an issue unrelated to the question asked).

For future debates, I would like “ordinary Canadians” left out of the equation and see a return to a panel of journalists and experts from specific fields asking very specific, pointed questions that would force the candidates to actually discuss substance rather than generalities.

Ideally, we could have a rotating panel of questioners; for example, a series of questions could focus on economic affairs, and the questions would be asked by financial experts. Then questions could focus on constitutional issues, and the questions would be asked by constitutional experts, etc. This would, in my opinion at least, greatly elevate not only the quality of the debate but the usefulness of the debate since it would force the leaders to address specifics rather than hide behind generalities.

2. Challenge the BS

Related to the above, if the questions were asked by a rotating panel of experts in specific fields, they should challenge any leader who says anything that is patently untrue or misleading.

For example, in last night’s debate, the current PM trotted out the lie that whichever party wins the most seats forms the government. As I hope we all know now, this is simply false. I’ve blogged about this as recently as yesterday and again here, and it’s come up in other posts of mine as well, but I won’t go digging them all up. What irked me is that the moderator in last night’s debate did not challenge the PM on this point, nor did any of the other party leaders (maybe they believe that to be true as well). Gross misinformation such as that should not be allowed to stand unchallenged. There are already far too many people in this country who do not understand how our parliamentary system works. Allowing blatant untruths to stand unchallenged will only exacerbate the matter.

3. Bring back bilingual debates, and more of them

In Canada we currently have two leaders debates, one in English and a second in French. It wasn’t always this way. In the past, the debates took place in both languages. Questions were asked in either language, and the leaders could answer in the language of their choice. We’re extremely good at simultaneous translation in this country, and a fair number of us understand both English and French sufficiently well enough to follow a bilingual debate.

By switching to a bilingual format, we could then increase the number of debates, which would allow the debates to focus more specifically on a given topic or topics. For example, one could be dedicated to the economy. One could address foreign policy. Another could look at justice and social policy. Or, if the leaders don’t want three debates, we could have one longer debate, say 3 hours, with one hour dedicated to a given topic, or a half hour per topic, etc. You get the idea.

4. Cabinet debates

I’ve floated this idea in the past as well. If the leaders aren’t interested in participating in more than one debate, have cabinet debates. Even if the leaders are interested in more than one debate, have cabinet debates anyway. By cabinet debates, I mean a debate on a specific matter between the sitting minister responsible for that portfolio and the shadow critics from the other parties. For example, a cabinet debate on the economy would feature the sitting Finance minster and the Finance critics from the other parties. A debate on Foreign policy would feature the current minister of Foreign Affairs and the Foreign Affairs shadow critics.

The goal here is twofold. First, it would deflect some of the attention away from the leaders of the party, which I think is important. We don’t elect the PM directly, yet we are increasingly turning the post into something almost presidential. Westminster-style government is cabinet government; the PM is just one minister among many. This leads into the second point: by deflecting some attention away from the party leaders, it would focus more attention on the teams each party is putting forward. Parties have become too closely associated with the leader. We need to refocus on the team.

5. Question one leader at a time

Inevitably, the debates end up as a mass attack on the sitting PM, no matter what debate format is used. Last night saw a 6-minute one-on-one between two leaders, and then the other leaders were allowed to wade into the discussion. It was rarely very productive or informative.

I would prefer to see the moderators/panel of experts direct questions to one leader at a time, quite literally grilling them over their answers and not letting them get away with vagueries and non-specifics. There is little gained by from watching the leader of the third party go head to head with the leader of the fourth party, or the sitting PM taking on the leader of the third party.  Even the one-on-one interactions between the only two leaders who have an actual shot at being PM wasn’t that productive. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any interaction between the leaders, but it should be limited – very limited. Have the panel grill each leader on a given topic for about 5-10 minutes, then let engage in a limited free-for-all for another 5 minutes or so. We need to put an end to the PM-pile-ons. They accomplish very little, and if anything, may actually generate a bit of sympathy for the PM for being dumped on that way. Each leader needs to be held to account for their own party’s record and policies. This is a national job interview, after all.

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