Towards a Parliament 2.0

UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow delivered a speech to the Hansard Society (PDF downloadable here) outlining his plans for a Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.

The first part of his speech highlighted the Westminister Spring – the remarkable revival of the UK House of Commons as an institution since the 2010 general election. Mr. Speaker noted that when he became Speaker in 2009,

the House of Commons as a meangingful political institution, an effective legislature, had been in decline for some decades and was close to reaching the point wher eit had become, to distort Walter Bagehot slightly, a diginified part of our constitution without any dignity.

(…)

Parliament appaered to have been reduced to the status of a small green room in which men, overwhelmingly men, shouted at each othe rfor relatively short periods of the working week and then disappeared from sight thereafter to do Lord Knows What. Certainly, it was not to strike terror in the hearts of Ministers or offer considreed criticism and surgical scrutiny either of proposed legislation in the Chamber or via the Select Committee system of the implementation of executive policy.

However, as Speaker Bercow explains, “the virtual corpse has staged an unexpected recovery.” He attributes this miracle to three facters: procedural reform, fresh blood and the novelty of coalition government.

In the dying days of the previous Parliament, the House adopted many of the Wright Committee recommendations (of which I have written about many times). These reforms were implemented for the first time in May 2010, following the general election. They include the election of the Deputy Speakers, the election of Select Committee chairs by the whole House, the election of Select committee members by their respective caucuses, and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee.

Added to this is Speaker Bercow’s revival of an existing, but almost extinct, procedure, the Urgent Question UQ), which Speaker Bercow describes as a “parliamentary intrument of inquisition.” I explain Urgent Questions in some detail here, but simply put, it is a procedure which allows any MP on any day to petition the Speaker to demand that a ministry send one of its Ministers to answer some issue or matter that has arisen very suddenly. In the 12 months under Speaker Bercow’s predecessor, only two UQs had been allowed. Since becoming Speaker, Bercow has granted 154.

The revival of the UQ has had another unexpected benefit – Ministers are now far more likely to take the initiative and deliver statements to the House “because they know that if they do not the chance of a UQ is now high.”

The 2010 general election saw a very large intake of new MPs – 227 (out of a total of 650 MPs). These new MPs were more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, career background, etc., that had been true previously. They also brought with them a new attitude – not content to simply sit quietly and do what they were told by party Whips.

Add to this mix the formation of a coalition government – the first in some seventy years, which forced both the government and Parliament to “make up new norms as we have gone along”:

The uncertainty as to what exactly is the correct way to proceed has offered the breathing space for backbench creativity and parliamentary originality which the House Backbench Business Committee chaired by the redoubtable Natascha Engel MP has eagerly exploited. It has also, I conclude, further convinced Select Committees that a more forensic approach to scrutiny is not an act of rebellion or disloyalty to their own political party but a civic obligation.

Speaker Bercow acknowledges that there is still more to do, particularly in the area of setting up a House Business Committee, improving Private Members’ Bills, and perhaps reforming Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). And beyond that, one enormous challenge remains, not only for Westminster, but for all legislatures in the 21st century, namely,

how to reconcile traditional concepts and institutions of representative democracy with the technological revolution which we have witnessed over the past decade or two which has created both a demand for and an opportunity to establish a digital democracy.

And this is where the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy comes in. The Commission will have a core membership supplemented by a circle of around 30 expert Commissioners and will solicit input by the public. it will begin its work in 2014, reporting in early 2015, just before the next general election. Digital democracy initiatives could include:

online voting, e-dialogue between representatives and those they represent, increased interconnectedness between the functions of representation, scrutiny and legislation, multiple concepts of what is a constituency, flexibility about what is debated when and how, and a much more intense pace for invention and adaptation.

Speaker Bercow goes on to explain that digital democracy is a form of “in-reach encouraging and enabling the public to become more involved in the work of Parliament and Parliament responding as a result.” In-reach used to consist of voting once every 4-5 years, but this no longer suffices. He concludes by admitting that his plan is ambitious:

The structure is one which is unfamiliar to the House of Commons, the agenda is potentially vast and the timetable for publication is tight. Universities and even our schools, because this should not be an area deemed exclusive to so-called adults, might not necessarily respond to the call to e-arms, although I suspect that they will not need to be conscripted. The recommendations might not make the impact that they should arriving as they will but a few months before a general election, although I believe that when the new Parliament assembles it will be truly interested in what it means to become a new Parliament more broadly. And technology might turn up in 2020 or 2030 that renders all that we thought before redundant.

None of which should be an alibi for inaction. When I was elected Speaker I made it clear that while I would be a non-partisan figure withinour democracy, I would not be neutral about our democracy. Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what it is to be representative has to be re-examined constantly. It is a process, not an event. I am a passionate advocate of democracy. I do not feel that it is stretching the  nature of the office in which I serve to champion that democracy. I am by choice politically celibatebut I am not a political eunuch. The fantastic people who work in and for the House of Commons arenot party political figures and should not be either but from the top downwards they share my desire to see Parliament and the people connected as closely as humanly possible and we recognise that technology can be our best friend and ally in this regard. All those who care about Parliament, and I  appreciate that with this audience I am preaching to the long-time converted, should want to embrace this  cause and deliver us their thoughts on the development of digital democracy. I am convinced that we can really make a difference.

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Holding ministers to account

Continuing on my recent post regarding ministerial statements, an interesting exchange occurred in the UK House of Commons today following a ministerial statement by the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Phillip Hammond.

Hammond delivered a statement on the future of the UK’s reserve forces. He announced that the government was publishing a White Paper setting out its vision for the reserve forces and the detail of how it will make reserve service more attractive. An important part of the announcement was that the overall number of Army Reserve bases will be reduced from the current total of 334 to 308. Hammond then said:

“With your permission Mr Speaker, I will distribute a summary sheet that identifies the reserve locations being opened and those being vacated.”

At the conclusion of Hammond’s statement, his Labour opposite (Mr. Jim Murphy) rose to respond, and the following exchange took place between Mr. Murphy and the Speaker:

Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State and his officials for giving me advance briefing, but I am disappointed by the fact that we have been given only half a statement. The House does not have the luxury of possessing a list of the bases that the Government intend to close, because that has not been shared with Members on either side the House. It does not appear to be in the Library either, and it is not contained in the White Paper. I will happily accept your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on whether or not I should continue.

Mr Speaker: It is certainly open to the right hon. Gentleman to continue. If it was the Government’s intention that such further details should be available in the Vote Office and they are not, that is at the very least regrettable, and arguably incompetent. If it was not the intention for the material to be available, it should have been.

Order. I do not think that the Secretary of State can respond at this stage. He will have to do his best to respond to questions later, and we shall have to cope as best we can, but the situation is deeply unsatisfactory.

Mr Murphy: Is it your advice that I should continue, Mr. Speaker, on the basis that the House has not been provided with the information relating to the statement?

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Order! I cannot take points of order in the middle of a statement.
The shadow Secretary of State is his own best adviser. He has material, he is a dextrous fellow, and I suggest that he will wish to continue.

Mr Murphy: Under your guidance, Mr. Speaker, I shall of course do so, but I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will, like me, consider it utterly unacceptable that we are being expected to comment on a statement that has not been shared with the House. (…)

At the conclusion of Mr. Murphy’s response and questions for the Secretary of Defence, the Speaker again intervened to admonish the minister for failing to provide the list of bases to be closed to the Members of the House:

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State rises to respond, he said in his statement:

“With your permission Mr Speaker, I will distribute a summary sheet that identifies the reserve locations being opened and those being vacated.”

It was not clear from that wording quite when the intention to distribute was, but clearly significant numbers of Members had not received a copy of the tri-service site summary by location, which is a detailed piece of information on one sheet. It was, however, apparently available to members of the media. I hope that the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Order. I hope that the Secretary of State can clarify the situation, but on the face of it, it is a very considerable discourtesy to the House of Commons, and I hope he can either prove it is not, or if he recognises or accepts that it is, I am sure he will be gracious enough fulsomely to apologise to the House of Commons.

Mr Hammond: I was intending to open my remarks by apologising for the evident delay in distributing these summary sheets. The summary sheet I referred to relates to the basing and structure statement that has been made today as a written statement. However, I felt that Members would wish to have a summary of the most important element of that—the base closures—and it was my intention, Mr Speaker, with your permission to distribute that sheet as I sat down at the end of my statement, and I deeply regret that it was not available until just a few moments ago. I am also not aware that it has been distributed outside this House.

A series of questions from other Members were posed to the Secretary of Defence, and then Mr. Speaker again intervened with yet another sharp rebuke to the minister:

Mr Speaker: Order. I gather—I have just been informed and seen evidence for myself—that the oral statement, or copies thereof, is now being distributed around the Chamber, in what is an unedifying spectacle. I have, in all sincerity and candour, to say to the Secretary of State that, as he will know, the content of statements is not a matter for me and I take no view of them, but the administration of this matter has been woefully inadequate and, frankly, utterly incompetent. I have not known a worse example during my tenure as Speaker. I know that the Secretary of State has expressed himself in his usual, rather understated, terms, but I hope he genuinely does feel some sense of embarrassment and contrition at what has been a total mishandling by his Department, for which he is solely responsible—it is as simple as that.

Mr Hammond: First, I am indeed embarrassed by what appears to have just occurred. As you would expect, Mr Speaker, I will be investigating precisely what has happened and I will write to you to let you know what has gone wrong this afternoon. I understood that copies of the statement and copies of the spreadsheet would be distributed as soon as I sat down, and I apologise for the fact that that did not happen.

Speaker Bercow has come under some criticism for admonishing the Secretary of State for failing to provide the full statement and supporting documentation to the House. Alex Stevenson from politics.co.uk wasn’t impressed, arguing that:

Bercow needs to stop using up his very limited political goodwill on these small-fry issues of administrative incompetence. He needs to concentrate on the bigger struggle for power between the government and parliament.

The relationship between the two institutions is so biased that most voters don’t even realise they are separate. The government dominates parliament. Its Commons majority allows it to trample on the backbenchers trying to scrutinise it. Worse laws and bigger abuses of power are the result.

Stevenson goes on to plead the case for a House Business Committee, which the Coalition Government had promised to bring forward by 2013, but which, as I explained in an earlier post, they’ve been unable to agree on a suitable, workable model.

While Stevenson isn’t entirely wrong, he seems to miss the point that ministerial statements are a key opportunity for these much maligned backbenchers to scrutinise the government and hold it to account. If a minister fails to provide them with the needed information, as occurred on this occasion, then backbenchers cannot do their job properly.

Consequently, in the absence of a House Business Committee, which may never come into being, it is important that all other tools available to backbenchers be protected and enforced by the Speaker. Hammond’s failure to provide important data to the House was not a “smallfry administrative incompetence”; it hampered MPs’ ability to question the minister effectively.

Was Speaker Bercow somewhat over the top in his admonishment of Hammond? Perhaps, but one thing few will disagree with is Bercow’s strong commitment to backbenchers and empowering the legislature vis-à-vis the executive.

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A fascinating bit of history concerning ministerial statements in Canada

I have previously written about how, in my opinion, the UK House of Commons format for statements by ministers, or ministerial statements as they are also called, is superior to the procedure followed in the Canadian House of Commons. In that post, I explain how ministerial statements unfold in both Houses. The key differences between the two are:

  1. In the UK, ministers deliver statements to keep the House informed of on-going developments and government policy while in Canada, they are used primarily to mark commemorative events or to pay tribute to certain individuals; and
  2. In the UK, MPs have the opportunity to comment on the statement, and more importantly, ask questions of the minister to seek further information and better hold the government to account, while in Canada, no such opportunity exists, although representatives from each of the opposition parties can respond to the minister’s statement with a statement of their own on the same topic.

While doing a bit of research, I was fascinated to discover that for a very brief period of time, between 1975 and 1985, the rules for ministerial statements in Canada were changed and the Canadian House of Commons adopted essentially the very same format used in the UK House of Commons.

In its Second Report, presented on March 14, 1975, the Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization recommended that rules governing ministerial statements be modified to allow not only the comments/responses from opposition representatives, but to also allow Members to ask questions of the minister. The Speaker was given full discretion in deciding how much time would be taken up by the statement and the corresponding comments and questions. This is the case in the UK. In general, the time allocated for a ministerial statement and questions averages about an hour, but the Speaker can, and does, allow them to last longer than that if there is significant interest from Members. Some have lasted close to three hours.

According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, the new procedure worked quite well at first, but eventually became “lengthy and difficult to regulate“. In fact, this became such a problem that it essentially put an end to ministers making statements in the House because the ministers felt the procedure was taking too much time away from more important matters, namely, Government Orders.

To counter the growing practice of ministers making important announcements outside of the House rather than to the House, the Special Committee on Standing Orders and Procedure recommended in its 1983 report that the Standing Orders be changed again to eliminate the opportunity for Members to question a minister following a statement and by adding the time used up by a ministerial statement to the total sitting time of the House. This recommendation was eventually adopted in 1985.

However, the new rules didn’t put an end to the trend of ministers preferring to make statements outside of the House rather than to the House:

In 2001, the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons looked into concerns expressed by many Members that government announcements, regarding legislation or policies, were increasingly being made outside the House of Commons. To remedy the situation, the Committee recommended that Ministers and their departments make greater use of the forum provided by the House of Commons and that more statements and announcements be made by Ministers in the House, during “Statements by Ministers”. The Committee also suggested reordering the Routine Proceedings items to call for the “Introduction of Government Bills” prior to “Statements by Ministers”. The Committee was of the view that this change “would encourage Ministers to give brief explanations of their legislation in the House, following introduction”. The concurrence in the Special Committee’s report led to the rearrangement of the Routine Proceedings rubrics to their present order. (source)

Was the change successful in increasing the number of announcements made in the House? Out of curiosity, I counted up the number of Statements by Ministers delivered in the House of Commons during the first (and current) session of the 41st Parliament (from June 2011 to June 2013 and ongoing) and found that there were exactly six (6) statements made in the House. For comparison’s sake, during the first session (May 2010 to May 2012) of the current UK Parliament, there were 186 statements by ministers delivered to the House. Remember that each one of those lasted roughly an hour, meaning that provided at least 186 hours of questioning of ministers by MPs on specific, important policy matters and events.

This is not to imply that UK ministers never make important announcements outside of the House. They do, and are regularly chastised for doing so. The UK House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure even produced a report recommending that ministers who routinely made announcements outside of the House be censured. Still, UK cabinet ministers do this much less often than their Canadian counterparts. It would seem UK ministers don’t have issues with ministerial statements taking time away from Government Business, or with keeping the House apprised of important developments.

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Parliamentary reform would work

In a recent article, Don Lenihan argues that parliamentary reform won’t “force a government to engage in meaningful debate” and reverse the fact that Parliament is, in his words “broken”. Lenihan writes:

MPs like Michael Chong and Nathan Cullen remain hopeful. They think that the right combination of rules and procedures can fix Parliament. Unfortunately, if “fixing” it means rekindling meaningful debate, they are wrong. House Speaker Andrew Scheer’s ruling on the F-35s last week inadvertently shows why.

Scheer argues that a minister cannot be charged with misleading the House unless it can be proved that he/she intended to do so. Intentions, however, are slippery things.

(…)

Scheer’s point is that, when a minister declares that he/she is not lying, it is very hard to prove otherwise, which usually results in a standoff between the government and the opposition.

The disconcerting lesson for parliamentary reform is that no package of rules or procedures can force a government to engage in meaningful debate. As long as its members pretend to be sincere, they can weave and bob, dance and spin, and there is little anyone can do to stop them. Good politicians have this down to an art.

I disagree heartedly with Mr. Lenihan. I strongly believe that there are a number of procedural and Standing Order changes which could be implemented in the Canadian House of Commons which would not only greatly improve the quality of debate, but also make it much more difficult for the ministry to shirk its responsibilities and force them to be much more accountable to the House. I will leave aside the matter of Speaker Scheer’s recent ruling referred to above, since the issue of misleading the House is in many ways completely separate from simply making Parliament more effective and functional.

I have written in depth about many of these in earlier posts, and so won’t go into great detail herein. I will provide links to my earlier posts, so that any reader interested in some of these changes can read the older posts. Most of what I will propose are practices which currently exist in the UK House of Commons. I know Mr. Lenihan writes that a similar trend to what he describes here in Canada is occurring in the UK, but again, I disagree. As someone who follows the UK House of Commons very closely (much more closely than I do the Canadian parliament, I must admit), the reality is that ministers in the UK are far more accountable to the House, and the House has been greatly empowered in the past few years.

The first procedure Canada could borrow from the UK is the UK format for Questions to ministers. I have written extensively about everything that is wrong with the current Question Period in Ottawa. The biggest problem is the time limits on both questions and answers (35 seconds for each). How anyone thinks for one instant that they’re going to solicit any sort of detailed exchange of information in 35 seconds is quite beyond me. The UK format sees one ministry only face questions each day (or the one-hour time slot can be split between two or more smaller agencies and ministries). Questions are submitted three days beforehand to give ministers the time to prepare comprehensive answers. They are very civil, even dull at times, exchanges, but at least actual information is exchanged. Ministers must answer the questions. They cannot refuse to do so, as they can here, nor can another minister from a different ministry answer on their behalf, as occurs here.

Along with the UK format for Questions to ministers, we should also adopt both Urgent Questions (UQ), which don’t exist here at all, and revamp our ministerial statements. UQs are initiated by any backbench MP – if the Speaker approves the question, a minister is hauled before the House on relatively short notice to address the question. Other MPs can also question the minister on that particular matter. This normally lasts about an hour. (Urgent questions are described in the blog post linked to above.)

Ministerial statements in the UK are also very useful, unlike their Canadian counterparts. While initiated by the minister, MPs are then able to question the minister following his or her statement. This isn’t allowed in Canada. Ministerial statements also normally last about an hour, but the Speaker can let them go on much longer if there is sufficient interest. Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance minister) was kept at the despatch box taking questions following his statement for close to three hours. This post has video clips from the UK of oral questions (not PMQs), an urgent question and a ministerial statement, to give you a better idea of how these procedures actually work.

Canada would also do well to get rid of time limits on debate and members speeches. Again, these don’t exist in the UK, and the quality of debate reflects that. We should return to the practice of giving way, which we used to do, until time limits on speeches were brought in. By allowing members to interrupt the MP speaking to ask a question or comment on what they’ve just said, the debate becomes much more interactive. Our debates tend to sound like a rota of read speeches.

Make all MPs refer to each other as “honourable”. This may sound quaint, but I think it contributes greatly to a greater sense of decorum and respect in the UK House of Commons. All members refer to each other as “the honourable lady”, “my honourable friend”, “the Rt. Hon. Prime Minister”, etc.

Ban the reading of speeches. The rules already prohibit this, but it is never enforced. No one reads from prepared texts in the UK House of Commons, and any MP who wishes to participate in a debate must refer to comments made by the 3 or 4 MPs who spoke before they did before moving on to their own comments. This is a sign of respect that one was in the Chamber, following the debate, paying attention, etc. Members must also stay around after they’ve delivered their comments to see how their comments are received by the next few speakers. Participating in debates should not be some form of torture or punishment – it should be something MPs want to do and look forward to doing.

The biggest problem in the Canadian House of Commons is the dominance of the Executive, and in particular the Prime Minister, on the one hand, and party discipline on the other. MPs are so whipped in the Canadian House of Commons, they don’t dare speak out against their own party’s position on anything. The Whips have virtual control over everything – when they speak, what they say, if they participate on a committee, etc. This is not healthy and greatly undermines the effectiveness of our Parliament.

The UK has a huge advantage on that front simply because of the sheer number of MPs – 650 compared to 308 in Canada. Most backbenchers in the UK know they will not sit on committees or be on the front bench, and so it is more difficult for the Whips to exert total control over them. Consequently, MP rebellions are very common – on both sides of the House. But while we don’t have the same numbers of MPs here in Canada, there are still many things which could be done which would lessen the dominance of party Whips.

First, Canada could introduce the UK’s system of one- , two- and three-line whips, which would allow MPs more freedom in how they vote on various measures.

Next, committee reform. I’ve written at length about the committee reforms in the UK, but to summarise: committees chairships are divided up amongst the main parties roughly in proportion to their representation in the House. Chairs of most of the select committees are now elected by their fellow MPs. Members of the committees are now elected by their respective caucuses. This has made the committees much more independent and much more accountable to the House, rather than to party Whips. I’ve written about how Committees in Ottawa could be strengthened.

The UK now has a Backbench Business Committee which determines what business will be debated on 35 days each session. This will be business that is of interest to backbenchers. There are plans to bring in a House Business Committee, which in theory would program all business in the House – which is currently controlled by the Executive.

In the UK, ministers regularly appear before the Select Committee oversees their department. Even the Prime Minister is not immune from this: the PM appears before the Liaison Committee, which is a sort of super-committee whose membership consists of the chairs of all of the other select committees, and is grilled by the committee for a couple of hours. You can see Prime Minister David Cameron’s most recent appearance before the Liaison Committee here. (Side note, around the 37:30 mark, they start discussing accountability in general, then more specifically ministerial accountability.)

There are undoubtedly more rules from the UK House of Commons which would be of interest, but as you can see from the above, it is false to say that different rules wouldn’t improve things. If the House of Commons were empowered, if MPs were less whipped, the Ministry would have to adopt a different attitude towards it and engage more fully. The simple reality is that the current government here in Canada wouldn’t survive two minutes in the UK House of Commons if they attempted to conduct themselves in Parliament there the way they do here. They’d be ripped to shreds by the Speaker, the Opposition, and perhaps more importantly, the press and the general public. It simply wouldn’t be tolerated.

And that is another important difference. I think there is a greater public awareness of Parliament in the UK, and greater media focus as well. If you take the time to look at any UK media source online, there is no shortage of political liveblogging and detailed coverage of happenings in Parliament (well beyond PMQs). Perhaps that is in part because it is the only parliament (not counting the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Canadians – those who bother at least- find their attention divided between City Hall, their provincial or territorial legislature, and Ottawa. And for many, Ottawa is very, very far away.

Finally, regarding Mr. Lenihan’s references to the problems of ministers lying or misleading Parliament, this isn’t really the issue. The Canadian House of Commons is very weak, and it is very easy for the Executive to undermine it – even without outright lying. Adopting any or all of the measures described above of course would not stop a minister from lying, but they would go a long way towards empowering the House vis-à-vis the Executive, and giving backbenchers more freedom from their own parties (it’s not just the government that is the problem here – all of our parties need to stop controlling their MPs to the degree that they currently do). It would be more difficult for a minister to mislead the House, deliberately or otherwise, if the House wasn’t so impotent.

Also, as I explained in this post, charges of misleading the House are extremely difficult to prove. I know that there has been a lot of criticism of Speaker Scheer over the 7 May 2012 ruling, but it was a given that he wouldn’t be able to find that the minister had lied or deliberately misled the House. To the best of my knowledge, there has been only one instance anywhere in the Commonwealth of a minister found in contempt for misleading the House, and that was in 1963, the case of John Profumo in the UK. And he was only found in contempt after he admitted to the House that he had indeed lied, and deliberately so, with intent to mislead. You may disagree with this, but procedural convention is what it is.

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A video is worth a thousand words

I have written many posts about various procedural measures used in the British House of Commons that I think would be welcomed additions to the Canadian House of Commons. While I have attempted to describe these measures in detail, viewing them in action would probably be far more enlightening. The BBC’s Democracy Live website makes available clips of specific proceedings from the UK House of Commons (and Lords), making it quite easy for me to provide readers with clips of urgent questions, ministerial statements and other proceedings.

Note – I don’t expect anyone to watch any of these in their entirely, but even if you watch them for only 10-15 minutes, you will gain a better sense of what is an urgent question, how oral questions to departments and ministerial statements differ from what we have in Canada, and why I prefer British procedure to what transpires in Canada. Some readers may disagree and prefer Canada’s chaotic (and in my view, rather unproductive) Question Period. That is fine. At the very least, you will better understand these procedures when I write about them in the future.

Oral Questions

When it comes to Oral Questions in the UK House of Commons, most people will immediately think of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) – the weekly half hour where the Prime Minister alone takes questions from the House. The “highlight” of that is of course the 6-question exchange between the PM and the Leader of the Official Opposition.

However, in my view, PMQs is not that interesting, and more of a distraction than anything else. I much prefer the daily Oral Questions to ministers other than the PM. Each day, it is a different ministry (or group of ministries/agencies in the case of some of the smaller departments) which take questions. You can read more about the process here.

The above is the clip of the one hour questions to the Treasury of 8 February 2011. The first thing viewers will notice is that unlike for PMQs, the Chamber isn’t full. There is always sparser attendance for the department-specific oral questions, but at least the MPs who are present are there because they have specific concerns they seek to raise with the Minister. Unlike during Oral Questions in the Canadian House of Commons, where most ministers are present and take questions, only the Minister and parliamentary secretaries associated with the specific ministry facing questions are present. In this clip, we see Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, seated to his right is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander (the ginger-haired bloke with the glasses), to Osborne’s immediate left are MP Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary, David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, and Justine Greening, who was then Economic Secretary (Ms. Greening has been promoted to a different ministry since, and this position is now held by Chloe Smith). These ministers will alternate answering questions, taking the ones which fall under their areas of responsibility within the ministry.

What you won’t see is a minister refusing to answer a question, or a minister from a completely unrelated department answering a question – common occurrences in the Canadian House of Commons.

Urgent Questions

Because government departments face oral questions on a rotating schedule, with each ministry facing questions once every 2-3 weeks, when an urgent matter arises that falls under the purview of a given ministry, any MP may request an Urgent Question. If the Speaker grants the request, the minister responsible will be summoned to the Chamber immediately following that day’s oral questions and will field questions relating to the urgent matter. These sessions normally last about an hour, but on some occasions, have lasted longer than that.

On Monday, 23 January 2012, the European Union agreed sanctions banning all new oil contracts with Iran and freezing the assets of Iran’s central bank in the EU. The following day, Foreign Secretary William Hague was in the Chamber to answer an urgent question tabled by Conservative Robert Halfon, who wanted to know what action was being taken against the country over its nuclear ambitions. Again, what Canadian viewers will note is that we have one minister taking questions on a specific matter from MPs from all parties.

Ministerial Statements

Ministerial statements in the Canadian House of Commons are, in my view, rather pointless affairs. In Canada, ministers are expected to make brief and factual statements on government policy or announcements of national interest. Members speaking on behalf of parties recognized by the House are normally the ones who speak in response to a Minister’s statement. In responding to the statement, Members are not permitted to engage in debate or ask questions of the Minister. Most ministerial statements tend to focus on commemorative matters (i.e. commemorating Veterans’ Week or the anniversary of some event) and explaining key pieces of government legislation. You can read more about ministerial statements here.

In the UK House of Commons, ministers use ministerial statements to actually brief the House on ongoing developments such as a disaster relief effort, an on-going military engagement, the economy, etc. The minister makes a brief-ish statement to the House, the Shadow minister responds, and asks a series of questions in his or her response, and then any MP can rise and ask a question of the minister. Like urgent questions, ministerial statements usually last about an hour, but the Speaker is free to let them go on longer than that is there is strong interest from a great number of MPs.

For example, on 21 July 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled the House of Commons (which had adjourned for the summer recess the day before) to make a statement to the House in which he updated MPs on the remit of the judicial inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, which will be led by Lord Justice Leveson, and named the members of the panel for the inquiry. Mr. Cameron took questions from MPs for over two hours.

You will note that the House is very well attended for that particular ministerial statement. This isn’t always the case.

Prime Minister’s Questions

For anyone who may not have actually ever seen PMQs, you can catch up with the most recent ones on the UK Parliament’s youtube channel.

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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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Some interesting numbers

During Questions to the Leader of the House on 8 September, a few interesting statistics were made available.

First, in response to a question regarding the use of ministerial statements to make major government announcements, the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons informed Members that 139 oral ministerial statements and more than 1,500 written ministerial statements were made to the House thus far this session (since May 2010).

This is a relatively impressive number, and indeed, the parliamentary secretary added that the Government had a “much better record than the previous Government”.

Ministerial statements in the UK House of Commons are much more informative than are their Canadian namesakes, as I have explained previously. They involve a minister making a statement on key policy or events to the House, and then taking questions on said matter. There isn’t really any official time limit on a ministerial statement. Indeed, back in July, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a ministerial statement to the House on the phone hacking scandal, and took 136 questions from MPs over the course of two and one half hours. Not all ministerial statements involve as many questions or last as long, but it isn’t uncommon for there to be more than one ministerial statement delivered on the same day.

What is equally impressive is that Members remain remarkably on topic. They are allowed to question the minister only on the matter that is the focus of the statement. Today for example, Chancellor George Osborne delivered a statement on the Report of the Independent Commission on Banking (aka the Vickers Report). Earlier in the day, news had come out that alleging certain improprieties on Mr. Osborne’s part involving drugs and prostitutes. There must have been great temptation among some MPs to raise the matter during Osborne’s statement – or to at least make some oblique (or not so oblique) references to this. However, that didn’t happen. The MPs present, including the Shadow Chancellor, remained focused on the content of the Vickers report and nothing else. I’m certain Mr. Osborne was quite relieved about that.

The other interesting statistics revealed during this same Oral Questions session concerned e-petitions. The parliamentary secretary informed the House that since its launch in early August, the Government’s new e-petitions website now hosts over 6,500 e-petitions which have received more than 1.5 million signatures in total. He also addressed the misconception that e-petitions with over 100,000 signatures would automatically be debated in the House:

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): But does the Minister agree with the Daily Mail, which says that this amounts to an e-petition con? The Government said to the public, ‘If 100,000 of you sign one of these petitions, there’ll be a debate.” What discussion did the Government have with the Backbench Business Committee about how the time for those debates would be allocated?

Mr Heath: May I caution the hon. Lady, first against reading the Daily Mail , and secondly against agreeing with what it says? The Government have never said that when a petition reaches the threshold it will have an automatic right of debate. It will be considered with a view to seeing whether the matter raised has already been debated or is already going to be debated in a different context or whether the request has already been met by the Government. If there is then a need to debate something that the public have registered as an interest, the Backbench Business Committee will respond to that request. That seems to me an entirely proper way of doing things and it is a huge improvement on the old No. 10 petition site on which the petitions went precisely nowhere.

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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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On Ministerial Statements

In this post, I compared the UK format for oral questions to the Canadian format, and argued that the UK format provided for more, not less accountability. In that post, I also referred to Urgent Questions, which is another means available to Members of the UK House of Commons to question a minister on an urgent, topical matter, regardless of whether it is that ministry’s turn in the oral questions rotation.

There is yet another option available to Members in the UK that provides greater accountability, and that is statements by ministers, where a minister – including the Prime Minister, elects to address the House on a topical issue.

Now, ministerial statements exist in Canada as well. However, there is a huge difference in how they are used in both countries.

This is how Statements by Ministers unfolds in Canada, as explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice:

During “Statements by Ministers”, Ministers are expected to make brief and factual statements on government policy or announcements of national interest. Members speaking on behalf of parties recognized by the House are normally the ones who speak in response to a Minister’s statement. However, with the unanimous consent of the House, independent Members have been allowed to respond. In responding to the statement, Members are not permitted to engage in debate or ask questions of the Minister. The length of each response may not exceed the length of the Minister’s statement; Members who exceed this length are interrupted by the Speaker. The rules provide no explicit limitation of time allotted to the Minister or the overall time to be taken for these proceedings, although the duration of the proceedings can be limited at the discretion of the Chair.

This is the list of Statements by Minister from the most recent parliamentary sessions (the index for the 2nd and 3rd (current) sessions of the 40th parliament are not yet online):

38th Parliament (04/10/2004-29/11/2005)

  • Canada Labour Code, federal labour standards, Part III, review
  • Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 15, Equality Rights, 20th anniversary
  • Chicoutimi, HMCS, submarine, October 2-6, 2004, fire, injuries, damage, adrift in North Atlantic, Lt Chris Saunders, death, condolences
  • Holocaust Memorial Day, commemoration
  • Veterans Week (November 5-11, 2004), commemorating
  • Veterans Week (November 5-11, 2005), commemorating

39th Parliament, 1st session (03/04/2006-14/09/2007)

  • Accountability and transparency, improving, Federal Accountability Act (Bill C-2)
  • Afghanistan, Canadian aid, reconstruction support (Harper), 282
  • Air India, flight 182, June 23, 1985, terrorist attack, public inquiry
  • Chinese Canadians, Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Immigration Act, 1923: Apology/compensation and Repeal, 60th anniversary
  • Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting (Nassau, Bahamas, May 24-26, 2006), youth development and empowerment theme
  • Democracy, women, participation, Equal Voice Canada position
  • Employment Equity Act, 20th anniversary, tribute
  • Indian residential schools, compensation agreement
  • Judges, salaries and benefits, Legislation (Bill C-17)
  • National Day of Mourning, workplace fatalities, occupational health and safety, April 28th, commemoration
  • Québécois, nation within a united Canada
  • Slave trade, abolition, 200th Anniversary of the Act to Abolish the African Slave Trade in the British Empire
  • Softwood lumber, Canada-United States trade dispute, settlement agreement
  • Veterans Week (November 5-11, 2006), commemorating
  • Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 1917), World War I battle, anniversary

39th Parliament, 2nd session (16/10/2009-07/09/2008)

  • Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma, political prisoner, honorary Canadian citizenship
  • Indian residential schools, apology to former students
  • Queen Elizabeth II and H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, Diamond Wedding Anniversary
  • Veterans Week (November 5-11, 2007), commemorating

40th Parliament, 1st session (18/11/2008-04-12/2008)

  • Economic and Fiscal Statement (November 27, 2008)

As is fairly clear by the list of topics, most ministerial statements tend to focus on commemorative matters and explaining key pieces of government legislation. There are some exceptions, of course, such as the Prime Minister’s statement on the softwood lumber agreement with the United States (27 April 2006), a long-standing trade dispute. However, if you read the transcript from the Debates, there is no holding the government to account in these statements. The Prime Minister trumpets his government’s success in ending this dispute, then the leader of each opposition party has a chance to reply, and they do, in very partisan terms. There is no questioning of the PM for further information, no discussion, only partisan one-upmanship.

In the UK, after Question Time (and any urgent questions that may have been allowed) a government minister may make an oral statement to the House. Notice of statements is not usually given until the day they are to be made. The statements usually relate to matters of policy or government actions. At the end of a statement, unlike in Canada, MPs can respond or question the government minister on its contents – all MPs, not solely the leaders of recognized parties.

To see how this contrasts to Statements by ministers in Canada, I will provide a couple of recent examples from the UK House of Commons. Just yesterday (14 March), Prime Minister Cameron made a statement on events in Japan and the Middle East, which you can read here. As you can see, Cameron outlines what that UK government is doing in both cases, and takes questions from MPs. On 28 February, the first day back after a week-long recess, Cameron used a ministerial statement to brief the House on what had transpired during that week with regards to the situation in Libya and the efforts by the government to extricate British nationals from that country.

If you’ve taken the time to at least briefly look at the Canadian example and the UK examples, which to you appears to be the most informative and the best way to hold the government to account? In my view, there’s really no comparison to be made – ministerial statements in the Canadian House of Commons are rather self-serving affairs that more often than not fail to address urgent or topical issues. Because there is no opportunity for MPs to then question the minister, ministerial statements cannot be considered a means of holding the government to account.

Consequently, when you combine the focused, ministry-specific form of oral questions with the regular use of Urgent Questions and Statements by Ministers, there exists far more opportunity for the opposition to hold the government to account in the UK House of Commons than there are in the Canadian House of Commons.

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