On reforming PMQs

The UK’s Hansard Society released a report examining public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) and asking whether PMQs is a ‘cue’ for their wider negative perceptions of Parliament. Some of the key findings include:

  • 67% of respondents agree that ‘there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’ – 5% disagree
  • 47% agree that PMQs ‘is too noisy and aggressive’ – 15% disagree
  • 33% agree ‘it puts me off politics’ – 27% disagree
  • 20% agree that ‘it’s exciting to watch’ – 44% disagree
  • 16% agree that ‘MPs behave professionally’ at PMQs – 48% disagree
  • 12% agree that PMQs ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’ – 45% disagree

Reaction to the report in the UK has been quite interesting. Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has long called for an overhaul of PMQs. For example, he delivered a speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies back in 2010 wherein he provides an interesting history of how Prime Minister’s Questions has evolved, looks at past (failed) attempts to reform it, and outlines what he considers to be the main problems with PMQs today:

We reached the point where almost nothing was deemed beyond the personal responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day, where the party leaders were responsible for a third of all the questions asked (and often more like 50 to 60% of the total time consumed) all set against a background of noise which makes the vuvuzela trumpets of the South African World Cup appear but distant whispers by comparison. If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screetch which is a very strange concept to my mind. The academic analysis does not make for enjoyable reading either. A survey by the Regulatory Policy Institute of all PMQs posed in 2009 concluded that the Prime Minister had answered only 56 per cent of all questions asked of him. If it seems harsh to cite Gordon Brown in this fashion then it should be observed that the same survey determined that only 56 per cent of the questions asked of him were actually genuine questions in the first place. What the detailed exercise revealed, depressingly, was that PMQs had become a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum. It was emphatically not an act of scrutiny conducted in a civilised manner.

Speaker Bercow also identifies three steps that could be taken to address what ails PMQs, namely:

  1. Change the culture. “It would require the Prime Minister and a new Leader of the Opposition, as so nearly happened in 1994, to agree on a common understanding of behaviour, one which offered teeth to our existing code of conduct which states unequivocally that “Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute”.”
  2. Shift the focus back to backbenchers. “If the session is to remain 30-minutes long, the next Leader of the Opposition could usefully ask whether he or she truly needed as many as six questions of the Prime Minister in order to land a blow or whether, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, three or four would do instead.”
  3. The content of the encounter. “Is it the right device for ensuring effective scrutiny? Does it need to be supplemented by other institutions? Are open questions posed in the vain attempt to catch a Prime Minister out actually the best means of inquiry?”

In response to the recent Hansard Society report, Speaker Bercow sent a letter to the three party leaders asking them to curb the “yobbish” behavious of their own MPs during PMQs. He has received favourable responses from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, and a more cautious reply from Prime Minister Cameron. Some MPs are in full agreement with both the Hansard Society report and Speaker Bercow, while others have essentially told him to stop whining about PMQs.

There have been many suggestions put forward regarding how to improve PMQs, both on blog posts and in the comments section on media coverage of the Hansard Society report. Some of the suggestions put forward on this blog post on the Liberal Democrat Voice blog are quite typical. The most popular seems to be giving the Speaker more power to make the PM actually answer the question asked/allow the speaker to decide that a question hasn’t been answered. While understandable that people get frustrated by non-answers that don’t directly address the content of the question asked (and the problem is far greater during the Canadian House of Commons Question Period), there is a problem here. In some instances, it will be very obvious that the PM’s answer completely ignores the main (or entire) thrust of the question. In other instances, however, this will be less obvious. The reality is that the Speaker is not in a position to know if a question has been “properly” or “fully” answered because he or she is not the minister and is not briefed on that matter and simply does not know how much information the minister is in a position to make public at that time. That would call for a subjective judgement call by the Speaker, which no Speaker would want to have to do.

In fairness, Speaker Bercow has shut down the Prime Minister on a few occasions when his answer has started to deviate into obvious non-answer territory, for example, in this exchange from 6 November 2013:

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Many women face discrimination at work when they become pregnant, so how will charging them £1,200 to go to an industrial tribunal help them? Before the Prime Minister has another attack of the Lyntons and starts talking about all the dreadful trade unionists on the Opposition side of the House, I should like to make it clear that I am a trade unionist and damn proud of it.

The Prime Minister: Millions of people in our country can be very proud of being trade unionists. The problem is that they are led so badly by bully-boys—[Interruption.] They are led so badly by people who seem to condone intimidating families, intimidating witnesses and intimidating the Leader of the Opposition. That is what we have come to with Unite. They pick the candidates, choose the policy, pick the leader and bully him till they get what they want.

Mr Speaker: Order. Actually, I think the question was about tribunals, if memory serves. [Interruption.] No. It is a good idea to try to remember the essence of the question that was put.

There has also been much concern expressed over “planted” questions. It’s important to understand that planted questions in PMQs aren’t quite the same sort of planted or lob-ball questions Canadians witness from government party backbenchers in the Canadian House of Commons. It is important to remember that which MPs get to ask questions during PMQs is determined by a lottery, therefore the party whips have no control over which or how many of their MPs will get called on. Yes, there are attempts by Number 10 to suggest questions Conservative MPs might want to consider asking, but as I explained in that post, few MPs agree. However, that doesn’t stop some government backbenchers from willingly asking questions that are framed in a way to highlight something positive that the government has done. They do this for a couple of reasons: first, it can be an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the party leadership in the hopes of future promotion, and second, they often use them to highlight something in their own riding and thus promote themselves to their constituents. An example of this could be this question from the Conservative MP from Portsmouth North on 29 January 2014:

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Portsmouth is an entrepreneurial city, delivering a drop of 25% in jobseeker’s allowance claimants over the past year. With this in mind, is the Prime Minister aware of a commercial plan put forward to the Department of Energy and Climate Change to build a number of specialist vessels designed to revolutionise and facilitate the industrialisation of the tidal energy sector? Does he agree that Portsmouth would be an excellent place to build those ships?

The Prime Minister: First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything she has done in recent weeks to highlight the importance of Portsmouth and all matters maritime, in the broadest sense of the word?

I am aware of this interesting project, and I understand there will be a meeting with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shortly. It is testament to the excellent reputation of Portsmouth that there is so much interest in this commercial sector, which my hon. Friend, I and the whole Government want to see expand. The appointment of a Minister for Portsmouth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), will make a big difference. It is good news that the youth claimant count has fallen so quickly in Portsmouth, but we must stick to the economic plan and keep delivering for Portsmouth.

Who is to say if that was a planted question, or one that the Member willingly wanted to ask as it highlighted both her government’s work and her constituency? It certainly isn’t as blatantly “planted” as this exchange from the Canadian House of Commons question period (19 November 2013) which is little more than an excuse to attack the leader of the Liberal Party:

Ms. Joan Crockatt (Calgary Centre, CPC): Mr. Speaker, when it comes to protecting children, our government’s record is unequivocal. We have already passed mandatory prison sentences for child sexual offences, including aggravated sexual assault and Internet luring. Unbelievably, yesterday, when the Liberal leader was asked whether he would repeal these tougher sentences, he said, that he wouldn’t rule out repealing mandatory minimums for anyone. While the Liberals waffle, can the Minister of Justice explain how our government will strengthen sentencing for child sexual offenders?

Hon. Peter MacKay (Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, CPC): Mr. Speaker, while sexual assault against children in Canada is actually on the rise, hearing that the Liberal leader is talking about repealing mandatory sentences for sexual predators is, frankly, appalling. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have passed mandatory prison sentences. This includes an omnibus crime bill that was introduced in 1968 by—wait for it—the then justice minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Our government will soon introduce legislation to ensure multiple child sex offenders serve consecutive sentences. I hope that the Liberal Party and all parties present will support this important protection for Canadian children.

The BBC ponders if PMQs really is getting worse in this rather lengthy piece. The consensus seems to be that things have indeed deteriorated since the 1980s. In another BBC piece, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman looks into the issue, essentially arguing that passionate debate is to be preferred over decorous, consensual debate. She raises the example of Winston Churchill refusing to rebuild the bombed Commons with a circular Chamber because too many earnest parliaments had been destroyed by “the group system.” She also notes that parliament offers plenty of decorous, respectful debate – and no one turns out to watch it. This last point is very true. The House of Commons is always packed for PMQs, with some MPs even sitting in the aisles because there isn’t enough room on the benches to accommodate them all. This presents a sharp contrast with almost all other proceedings in the House – including the departmental oral questions, which are often quite sparsely attended.

My main concern is the fascination Canadians have with PMQs, and the quite prevalent desire to adopt something similar here. In my view, PMQs is the least interesting procedure on offer in the UK House of Commons. I would much rather see the adoption of the rota system for questions to ministers, the introduction of urgent questions, reformed ministerial statements, and changes to the committees system. I don’t see how adopting the most boorish proceeding the UK House of Commons has to offer will improve anything here in Canada.

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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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Fix That House?

Two of the CBC’s politics programmes – CBC Radio’s The House and Newsworld’s Power and Politics – are exploring ways to “fix” Parliament. The series is called “Fix that House” and people are being invited to send in via email or Twitter their ideas to improve Parliament. I have been reading through the list of at least some of the suggestions submitted thus far and have found a few recurring themes, as well as an unfortunate lack of understanding concerning how Parliament works and why some things are done the way they are. Consequently, I thought I would comment on some of the suggestions put forward.

First of all, there are a fair number of calls for electoral reform – this was probably the most popular suggestion. Most proposed some unspecified form of proportional representation, and one person called for adopting the preferential ballot.

Different aspects of Question Period were a favourite target. A fair few suggestions called for an end to scripted questions from backbenchers. Unfortunately, this isn’t really something that could be fixed with a rule change. It would be easy enough to add a new Standing Order formally banning the practice, but how could you prove that a question asked by an MP was scripted by their party whip if the MP were to insist it wasn’t? The only way to end this practice is for the party leadership to stop forcing their MPs to read ask these scripted questions. Or for MPs to simply refuse to ask scripted questions. If only one MP in a caucus did so, they’d probably be expelled from that caucus, but if all of the backbenchers in a party caucus refused to ask scripted questions, I would think the party leadership would have no choice to but to back down.

The asking of questions during QP wasn’t the only thing under fire; some suggested that answers to questions be required to relate directly to the question asked, rather than used to attack the opposition or provide an opportunity to sing the praises of the government. It is true that there aren’t any Standing Orders governing the content of answers provided; but even if there were, how would the Speaker – whose job it would be to enforce this new rule – be able to assess if the answer did fully relate to the question asked? In some cases it would be fairly obvious – for example, if a minister was asked about taxation and he or she replied by attacking the opposition leader instead, that is clearly an unrelated answer. However, the Speaker can’t assess this until the answer had been given – and it’s too late at that point. Some suggested imposing penalties for those who would violate this rule – what sort of penalty? Naming them and kicking them out of the Chamber for the duration of Question Period? While I fully understand where people are coming from on this, again, rules won’t really change overall behaviour. It is up to the ministers to take Question Period seriously and provide the House with serious, thoughtful answers.

Related to this, someone suggested extending the time allowed for each question and answer during QP from the current 30 seconds to 90 seconds. I would go one better – get rid of time limits completely. In the UK House of Commons, there are no time limits and ministers frequently give fairly long, detailed answers to questions.

Another reader suggested moving Question Period to 20:00 and broadcasting it nationally (on what network, he didn’t say) so that Canadians could see their politicians in action. Hmmmm… Nice idea but I’m afraid they would lose badly in the rating to the multitude of US TV shows that Canadians would much prefer watching. Even if every Canadian network were forced to broadcast QP in prime time, my gut tells me that most Canadians would just switch over to a US network to catch their favourite show.

Someone suggested that the Speaker be “allowed” to recognize MPs during Question Period. The Speaker does not have to be allowed to do this – he or she has every right to do so – it’s in the Standing Orders. Yes, the parties provide a list of MPs who are to stand to ask questions on behalf of the party, but there is nothing stopping MPs not on those lists from standing to catch the Speaker’s eye and the Speaker calling on them.

One suggestion was for a more general move away from the reading from texts during debate so that “actual debate” could occur. I fully support this suggestion, and have blogged to that effect in the past. This would require a return to giving way as they do in the UK House of Commons. And for giving way to work properly, we’d probably also have to get rid of the existing time limits on speeches followed by the questions and comments section. This is what has killed proper debate in the Canadian House of Commons. If you watch any debate from the UK House of Commons, you will see the difference immediately. The MP who has the floor will give way – meaning they will sit down briefly so that another MP can ask them a question or comment on something they just said, and then the MP will get up again and respond, and then continue on with his or her remarks. We used to do this in Canada as well, but then time limits on speeches were introduced (to counter the opposition’s tendency to filibuster), and knowing they had a time limit on how long they could speak, MPs were increasingly unwilling to give way, so no other MP could ask them questions or comment on what they were saying. A brief “questions and comments” section was then added to the end of each MP’s speaking time. It makes for a very stilted, artificial “debate”.

Some suggestions were rather bizarre. One reader proposed an age limit for politicians to discourage “lifers”. First of all, I would think this would be unconstitutional, and second, it doesn’t make much sense. I think what the person has in mind might be a term limit, not an age limit. I think their goal is to prevent one person from sitting for decades – becoming a career politician, if you will. However an age limit wouldn’t necessarily change this as some people only enter politics when they’re older. If you set the age limit at say, 60, and someone was elected for the first time at age 58, they’d have to retire after only two years of service, while someone first elected at age 25 would (assuming they got re-elected) be able to serve for 35 years!

On a similar note, someone suggested that we should only elect “highly educated/experienced” Canadians to counter the perceived problem of ministers with little or no background in the portfolio to which they are appointed. This I know would be unconstitutional – section 3 of the Constitution Act, 1982 states:

3. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.

That means that every Canadian, regardless of educational background and experience, has the right to qualify to be a member of the House of Commons (or a provincial legislature).

Someone proposed that MPs vote from their constituency office via the web or social media rather than from inside the Chamber. This is completely impractical and ignores the fact that there is way more to being an MP than voting in divisions. What about participating in debates? Or sitting on committees? MPs need to be in the House.

Still on the topic of voting, another person suggested that MPs be allowed to vote “anonymously” in order to represent their constituents or beliefs rather than as their party whip tells them to vote. The reality is that most votes in the House are sort of anonymous already – they are voice votes. Most Canadians are familiar with the recorded division – where each MP stands and their name is called out as they vote for or against something. That is only one way of voting. There are also voice votes (where members call out Yea or Nay). No names are recorded during these votes, so it isn’t possible to tell exactly who voted how. See this chart from House of Commons Procedure and Practice to see the various ways voting occurs in the House of Commons. Only recorded divisions require that the MP stand and have their name recorded – the other means are, for all intents and purposes, anonymous.

One person proposed that we needed a Speaker with experience and “who has majority approval of each of the parties. Perhaps even right to recall.” The Speaker does have majority approval. He or she is elected by all MPs at the start of each new Parliament, by secret ballot. And the House can move a motion of no confidence in the Speaker if they are unhappy with their performance.

Many people had issues with MPs not being in the House and proposed posting attendance records or similar ideas. While it is true that, outside of Question Period, the chamber is often quite empty, this doesn’t mean that MPs aren’t working. They might be sitting on a committee, meeting with constituents or visiting delegation, taking part in some other House-related activity, etc. Most MPs work 70 hour weeks – you can’t judge the work they do simply by whether they are sitting in the Chamber.

One person oddly suggested that Question Period should be held only once a week for a full hour. I have no problems increasing it from 45 minutes to one hour, but only once a week? This would mean even less holding the government to account.  In the equally odd category, someone else proposed enlarging the House of Commons to “over 1000 members”. I really can’t see that going over well at all. Even with a population of 1.2 billion, India’s lower House, the Lok Sabha, has only 552 members. With a population of only 35 million, it would be very difficult to justify having over 1000 MPs here in Canada. People complain enough about the 308-soon-to-be-338 that we currently have.

There were many calls for an end to political parties, allowing each MP to be elected as an independent. Nice idea, and it works in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but I don’t think it would be practical for a larger Chamber. I think that instinctively, MPs would coalesce into like-minded informal groups.

Another idea put forward was to have an election every 18 months. This would raise some problems. First, the reality is that people don’t like voting that much and I think if we were forced to go to the polls every year and a half, our already low voter turnout rates would just drop even further. Second, it’s not practical. Many policies require a long-term view and if parties had to focus on elections every 18-months, they’d completely forfeit any policy other than short-term, quick-fix ones.

One reader proposed giving the Ethics Commissioner “real teeth” so that they had the power to remove a sitting MP for infractions. The problem with this is that it would violate parliamentary privilege. Under section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which endowed the House with the same privileges, immunities, and powers as enjoyed by the British House of Commons, the House of Commons possesses the power of expulsion. The Ethics Commissioner could at best recommend expulsion; it would ultimately be up to the House itself to decide the matter.

A few people suggested getting rid of the desks and having MPs sit tightly together on benches as they do in the UK House of Commons. I am not certain what problem this is intended to “fix”, but I don’t dislike the idea.

Most of the suggestions were aimed at improving decorum and increasing the independence of MPs/lessening the influence of political parties.

There were a number of suggestions that had little to do with fixing the House – such as abolishing the Senate, or changes affecting the Parliamentary Budget Office, or changes affecting Elections Canada, so I’ve ignored those.

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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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Contrasts in Question Periods

Today during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the UK House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron was asked a question by a Labour MP about his government’s plans to combat rising child poverty figures. Rather than explain his government’s policies, Cameron launched an attack on the previous Labour government’s financial record. This prompted the Speaker to cut Cameron off in mid-sentence and move on to another question. You can watch the incident in this clip:

This is not the first time that Speaker Bercow has intervened in such a way, and while he is sometimes criticised in the British press for such actions, it was the right thing to do. The point of PMQs, and the daily questions to ministries, is to provide an opportunity for the House to hold the government of the day to account and to seek information. While rules vary somewhat in various jurisdictions, in general, the questions asked by MPs of government ministers are supposed to focus on government policy and the administrative and other responsibilities of the minister being questioned. In return, the answers are supposed to provide insight and information about the government’s/minister’s policies and actions. Speaker Bercow was quite right when he said “We will concentrate on the policies of the Government. Nothing further requires to be said, so we shall move on.”

This presents a sharp contrast with how Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons unfolds. See for example, this recent exchange wherein the leader of the third party attempts to question the government about an ongoing scandal involving the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff and money paid to a Senator:

Mr. Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, when the House rises, the government will have deliberately left crucial questions answered on the $90,000 cheque—the government will have left unanswered questions on the $90,000 cheque in the—

The Speaker: Order, please. The hon. member for Papineau has the floor.

Mr. Justin Trudeau: Mr. Speaker, the unanswered questions are as follows. What was the secret agreement? Will they release the correspondence? When did the PMO tell Mike Duffy not to co-operate with the Deloitte audit and, most of all, why? What real reason did Nigel Wright give the Prime Minister for cutting that $90,000 cheque to Mike Duffy?

Hon. James Moore (Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, CPC): Mr. Speaker, of course, I agree with the first half of the first rendition of his question, where he said our government has indeed answered these questions. What is also important to note is that when the House does rise, our government will be very proud not only of the questions we have answered, but the actions we have delivered for Canadians. Just yesterday, we passed Bill S-2 to provide aboriginal women with equal rights to non-aboriginal women in this country. That was reported equally last week. That is great news for all Canadians. It was reported last week by Statistics Canada that the Canadian economy has created over a million new jobs since the recession. On all these questions and on all these answers, we are proud to go into summer standing up as—

The Speaker: The hon. member for Papineau.

Mr. Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, there is more spin, bluster and blunder, but not answers. No answers to those or to these. How could the PMO put out a statement on May 14, about the deal, when on May 15, the Prime Minister still said he did not know about the cheque? Secondly, why did the PM give Nigel Wright his full confidence, instead of firing him on the spot? When will the government release a copy of the cheque? Most of all, why? The excuse of wanting to repay the taxpayers does not jive. What real reason did Nigel Wright give for writing that cheque?

The Speaker: Order, please. There is still far too much noise while members are putting forward their questions and ministers are answering. Members have to come to order. The hon. Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages.

Hon. James Moore (Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, CPC): Mr. Speaker, first of all, the real question is can I have the last 30 seconds of my life back? The leader of the Liberal Party puts forward a number of questions. Indeed, those questions have been answered by the Prime Minister directly and by me. We have our own questions for the leader of the Liberal Party.

Does he still believe, for example, that Canadians who do not speak both of Canada’s official languages are lazy? Does the Liberal Party leader still believe that the Senate should not be reformed because it benefits the province of Quebec? Does the leader of the Liberal Party still believe that it is okay for Liberal Senator Mac Harb to owe $50,000 in payments that he took from taxpayers and be welcomed back as a Liberal member of their caucus?

Mr. Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, yet again, we are not getting an answer. The real question remains: why? No one is buying the pitiful excuse from the chief of staff that he wrote a $90,000 cheque to a parliamentarian to supposedly save taxpayers money. There were other ways of doing that. What real reason did Nigel Wright give the Prime Minister for writing Mike Duffy a cheque for $90,000?

Hon. James Moore (Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, CPC): Mr. Speaker, we have already answered that question very clearly. There are other very simple questions that we as parliamentarians want answers to.

The House leader of the NDP has put forward a motion.

We are very curious for the leader of the Liberal Party to answer his own questions on his expenses on the taxpayer’s dime. Did taxpayers foot the bill for the cost of him travelling to his speaking events and his private speaking business while he was a member of Parliament? Did he bill taxpayers for the cost of his speaking tours while having the worst voting attendance record of any leader in the House?

A quick perusal shows that the Minister in question deflected every question and “answered” by questioning the actions and statements of the Liberal Party leader. This is far from a isolated example. Indeed, the times where government ministers actually do answer questions openly and thoroughly in the Canadian House of Commons seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

There is also the problem in the Canadian House of Commons of government backbenchers asking extremely partisan scripted questions which more often than not attack one of the opposition parties while also effusively praising the government. Questions such as this one:

Mr. Brian Storseth (Westlock—St. Paul, CPC):  Mr. Speaker, our government supports Canadian jobs from coast to coast to coast. We have a plan for jobs, growth and long-term prosperity. Our message does not change, whether we are in Canada or abroad. The leader of the NDP on the other hand, pits one region against another by referring to our natural resource sector as “a disease and a curse”. Could the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources update the House on the work the minister is doing to promote Canada’s natural resource sector?

Mr. David Anderson (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and for the Canadian Wheat Board, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Westlock—St. Paul for this timely question. The Minister of Natural Resources is in Europe this week to advocate in favour of Canadian jobs and Canadian natural resources. The Leader of the Opposition takes a very different position. He said yesterday that he agrees with the claim that our resources are a curse. First a disease, then a curse. This is a real embarrassment to all of us that the NDP never misses a chance to oppose Canadian jobs. Our government is determined to defend Canadians, Canadian jobs and Canadian communities.

I am not saying that scripted questions never occur in the UK House of Commons. They do, of course, as we can see from this exchange from today’s PMQs:

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Occasionally, one should be grateful. May I warmly commend my right hon. Friend for being the first Conservative Prime Minister ever to commit to a referendum on Europe and for leading a Government who have done more than any other to tackle welfare dependency, to reduce immigration and to bring in academies, thereby showing that one can be Conservative, popular and right all at the same time?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and may I, on behalf of everyone in the House, congratulate him on his richly deserved knighthood? He has served in this House for many decades and also in the vital role of overseeing the Public Accounts Committee, which does such important work in our parliamentary system. I am grateful for what he says about the referendum and I would urge all colleagues to come to the House on 5 July and vote for this Bill.

I don’t know if the above question was scripted for the MP, but it certainly is a very friendly one. Other Conservative MPs, however, don’t shy away from raising concerns they have with the government’s stated policy:

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Some of us on the Government Benches believe that Government plans to replace 20,000 regulars, including the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, with 30,000 reservists will prove a false economy. The present Territorial Army mobilisation rate of 40% suggests instead that we need 50,000 reservists, and financial incentives will mean that an ex-regular reservist will be on a better scale of pay than a serving brigadier. Given that we have already raised this matter with the Secretary of State, and further to our letter to the Prime Minister on 9 April, will my right hon. Friend meet us to discuss this and other concerns, including the wisdom of this policy in this increasingly uncertain world?

The Prime Minister: I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss these and other issues. In the spending review, we produced £1.5 billion to provide the uplift for the Territorial Army that it requires. I am absolutely convinced that it is right to have a different balance between regulars and reserves, as other countries have done, but obviously it is absolutely vital that we get that new recruitment of our reserve forces. That is why the money is there.On the wider issues of defence that I know my hon. Friend cares about, we will have some of the best equipped forces anywhere in the world. We will have the new aircraft carriers for our Navy, the hunter killer submarines, the joint strike fighter and the excellent Typhoon aircraft, and the A400M will soon be coming into service. Our troops in Afghanistan now say that they are better equipped, better protected and better provided for than they have ever been in our history.

In fairness, it should be noted that the current Standing Orders of the Canadian House of Commons do not require that a minister answer a question put to him or her. Consequently, as Andrea Ulrich observes, “many  of  the  responses  do  not  contain  an  answer.” While many regular observers of Question Period in Ottawa would like to see the Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons disallow questions and, more importantly, answers the way Speaker Bercow does, given that ministers here aren’t even obligated to reply at all, what rule would the Speaker be attempting to enforce?

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The real problem is MP irrelevancy

Recently, Canada’s federal Official Opposition proposed measures for improving decorum in the House of Commons. These measures would require changes to the Standing Orders in order to increase the Speaker’s authority to discipline unruly MPs:

who use harassment, threats, personal attacks, or extreme misrepresentation of facts or position in the House, particularly regarding Statements by Members and Oral Questions, including:

i.  Revoking questions during Oral Questions from parties whose Members have been disruptive
ii. Issuing a warning to Members for a first offense
iii. Suspending Members from the service of the House for one sitting day for a second offense; five days for a third offense; and twenty days for a fourth offense
iv. Suspending Members’ sessional allowance for the duration of their suspension from the service of the House

Reaction has been varied. Sun Media’s David Akin pointed out that new rules aren’t required – if MPs want to stop this sort of behaviour, they can simply stop it. He also suggests that if the rules governing broadcasting of House proceedings were relaxed to allow reaction shots, that too might lead MPs to think twice about behaving boorishly:

The rules require that whenever the Speaker stands, the cameras may only show him. When he is not standing, the cameras may only show the MP who is speaking.

If TV networks – Sun News Network, CPAC, CTV, CBC, etc. – were able to control the cameras, we would certainly zoom in on sleeping MPs, on MPs giving others the finger, and so on.

Knowing that their hijinks would be beamed into the nation’s living rooms would surely be the best corrective.

I am not convinced that reaction shots would change much. The cameras in UK House of Commons do not stay focused on the Member who has the floor, and this does not stop other MPs from gesturing, making faces at, or heckling their counterparts on the opposite side. Akin is closer to the mark when he ends his column with:

But more unworkable and impossible-to-enforce rules?

Newsflash: They won’t work.

The problem isn’t really not enough rules, but that over the years (decades) the rules have been changed in ways that increasingly weaken the opposition and empower the government side – essentially rendering backbenchers – and the legislature – largely irrelevant. And I refer not only to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, but also Canada’s Elections Act, as Aaron Wherry of Macleans explains in this post. The real problem in the Canadian House of Commons is that backbenchers are not free to ask questions of interest to them, they are given scripted questions by their party Whips. Ditto for most of the highly partisan Members’ Statements – I am certain most MPs would prefer to use their Member’s Statement as intended – to speak of something of interest to them and their constituents. Instead, they are given prepared, highly partisan statements by their party leadership.

What would be needed, more than new penalties the Speaker could impose on disruptive Members, would be rule changes to strengthen the Opposition, and to ease the control party leaders have over their MPs. A lot, maybe most, of the heckling and boorishness occurs because MPs other than those on the front bench are frustrated.

While the clip from the UK’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the above link might not show it, overall, the UK House of Commons is far more respectful and decorous than its Canadian counterpart. And the  main reason for that, I believe, is because backbenchers in the UK have far more freedom than do their Canadian counterparts. Part of that is due to sheer numbers – there are 650 MPs in the UK House of Commons – the Conservative party alone has almost as many MPs as does the entire Canadian House of Commons – and so it is simply impossible for the whips to exert the same level of control over backbenchers that Canadian party whips do. As well, MPs have more control over their party leader. For example, in the UK Conservative Party, a vote of confidence in the party leader can be triggered by 15% of the party’s MPs. This means that if 46 sitting Conservative MPs write letters indicating they are unhappy with Prime Minister David Cameron as their party leader, a confidence vote is held. If Cameron were to lose that vote, he would have to resign as party leader. He would not be permitted to run again for the post of party leader either. The Liberal Democrats require that a majority of sitting MPs pass a motion of no confidence in the leader to trigger a leadership contest, but the defeated leader is allowed to stand again. Labour has no such non-confidence provisions.

The UK House of Commons has also embarked on a series of reforms in recent years which have served to strengthen the House vis à vis the executive. I have blogged extensively about many of these (see, for example, my “Fixing Ottawa” series, first post here). Governing parties in the UK do not expect that bills that they put forward will go through un-amended – or that they will even pass, which is not the case here in Canada. Because the opposition parties in the UK know that they will most likely be able to amend any government bill, there is less need to resort to tactics to try to stymie Government business in the House.

I know some will argue that if a party “wins” an election, then it has a mandate to govern and to get its legislation through the House. This argument would have more weight if our electoral system actually reflected how people voted. I don’t know how anyone can argue that a party elected to majority government with less than 40% of the popular vote (and often dismal voter turnout) has a real “mandate” to push through any piece of legislation virtually unopposed. And no piece of legislation is ever perfect – amendments should be welcomed, not defeated at every turn.

The problems in the Canadian House of Commons are mostly due to the excessive control parties have over their Members, and to years of changes to the Standing Orders which have only served to strengthen the Executive at the expense of the legislature. Fining an MP for being disruptive during Question Period won’t change anything. The problems go much deeper than that.

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Inside the New Zealand House of Representatives

Like its Australian counterpart, the New Zealand House of Representatives’ debating chamber is arranged in a horseshoe shape. The Chamber measures 19.3 by 13.12 metres, which is  smaller than the Canadian  and UK Houses of Commons. As in the other chambers, the Speaker sits at one end, on a dais, and the Clerk and other Table officers are seated at a Table in front of and below the Speaker’s Chair.

The Members sit at desks arranged in three to five tiers. The MPs who are members of the Government side sit on the Speaker’s right, with the members of the executive nearest to the Speaker. The members of the Opposition parties sit on the left, with the members of the shadow cabinet nearest the Speaker, as we can see in this image from Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:

The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and deputy to the Leader of the Opposition sit facing each other in recognised front bench seats. Their respective whips are seated immediately behind them. Other Ministers and members are allocated seats within the area of the Chamber occupied by the party to which they belong on a basis determined by the party. As far as practicable, each party occupies a block of seats in the Chamber, so that its members are seated contiguously. It is also a recognised practice that, if at all possible, every party leader should have a front-bench seat. Because New Zealand uses Mixed-Member Proportional voting rather than First-Past-The-Post, coalition government is the norm and so the government side of the House will include all of the parties forming the coalition.

In this image, we note that the horseshoe shape of the Chamber is divided at three points by gangways. One gangway at the far end of the Chamber leads beyond the bar of the House to an exit. The other two gangways are on either side of the Chamber. The one on the Speaker’s right leads into a lobby known as the Ayes Lobby, and the one on the left leads into the Noes Lobby. New Zealand MPs used to use these lobbies for divisions as is done in the British House of Commons, but since adopting MMP voting in 1996, the lobbies are used only for what are called “personal” votes. Party votes – which would be the equivalent of a whipped vote in other parliaments – don’t even require that all MPs be present. If a party indicates that is it voting in favour of a bill or motion, then a number of votes equivalent to the number of MPs that party has is attributed to the Ayes. Because of this, even the Speaker votes in New Zealand, which is not the case in other Westminster-style parliaments. The Speaker’s vote is included in any party vote cast and the Speaker votes in a personal vote, though without going into the lobbies personally – the Speaker’s vote is communicated to the teller from the Speaker’s chair. Because the lobbies are rarely used for divisions, they are now set aside for the exclusive use of members while the House is sitting as a place where they can go to relax.

Ministerial advisers are able to converse with their Minister from a bench situated immediately to the right of the Speaker’s chair (not shown in the diagram). Immediately to the left of the chair there are seats available for former members of Parliament, heads of diplomatic missions and visiting members of overseas parliaments.

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Inside the Australian House of Representatives

The Australian House of Representatives Chamber differs from the British and Canadian Houses of Commons in that the seating arrangements for Members are in a horseshoe shape rather than the Government and Opposition sitting on opposite sides directly facing each other. The Speaker’s Chair faces the main entrance, and the Government is seated to the right of the Speaker, the opposition to the left. Like the Canadian House of Commons, Members have allotted seats.

There are other notable differences in the Australian Chamber. There are two chairs on either side of the Table which are reserved for Prime Minister [#3] and Deputy Prime Minister on the Government side, and for the Leader of the Opposition [#4] and Deputy Leader of the Opposition on the other side.

You will also note the presence of sandglasses (hourglasses) [#1] on the Table. Before any division or ballot is taken, the Clerk rings the bells for the period specified in the Standing Orders, as indicated by the sandglasses kept on the Table for that purpose. For most divisions, a four-minute sandglass is used; a one-minute sandglass is used when successive divisions are taken and there is no intervening debate after the first.

While the Australian Chamber doesn’t have division lobbies like the British Chamber, recorded divisions do proceed differently than they do in the Canadian House of Commons. When not less than four minutes have elapsed since the question was first put, the Speaker orders that the doors to the Chamber be locked, and directs that the Ayes proceed to the right side of the Chamber, and that the Noes proceed to the left. Members then take seats on the appropriate side of the Chamber, rather than entering a lobby, and then the Speaker appoints tellers for each side, unless fewer than five Members are seated on one side, in which case the Speaker calls off the division and declares the result for the side with the greater number of Members. If the division is still on, the tellers count and record the names of the Members. The Speaker announces the result, but does not himself vote unless there is an equality of votes.

As in the British House of Commons, there are two despatch boxes on the Table [#2], exact replicas of the ones used at Westminster prior to their loss when the Chamber was destroyed by bombs in 1941. The Prime Minister, Ministers and members of the Opposition executive speaker from the despatch box.

The Chamber is designed to seat up to 172 Members with provisions for an ultimate total of 240. This means that there are currently more seats in the Chamber (172) than there are elected Members (150).

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Inside the UK House of Commons

In an earlier post, I described the interior of the Canadian House of Commons. In this post, I will provide readers with an overview of the layout of the British House of Commons.

The Chamber of the House of Commons is at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster; it was opened in 1950 after the Victorian chamber had been destroyed in 1941 and re-built under the architect Giles Gilbert Scott. The Chamber measures 14 by 20.7 metres, which is smaller than the Canadian Chamber (16 by 21 metres). This is noteworthy because there are more than twice as many MPs elected to the UK House of Commons (650). It is impossible for all MPs to sit in the Chamber at the same time; indeed, only about 427 MPs can be accommodated at any one time. Another noteworthy difference between the Canadian and British Chambers is that British MPs do not have individual desks or assigned seats; rather, all MPs sit on benches.

Legend

1. Speaker’s Chair
2. Table of the House
3. Despatch boxes
4. The Mace
5. The Bar of the House
6. Aye division lobby
7. No division lobby
8. Division Clerks’ Desks
9. Entrances to lobby
10. Exits from lobby
11. Petition bag
12. Prime Minister
13. Government Whips
14. Other ministers
15. Parliamentary Private Secretaries
16. Government backbenches
17. Leader of the Official Opposition
18. Opposition whips
19. Shadow ministers
20. Opposition backbenches
21. Third party
22. Other smaller parties
23. Clerks at the Table
24. Serjeant at Arms
25. Public servants
26. Strangers

The above schematic is how the Chamber would normally look when there is a single-party majority government in place. For example, when Labour formed the government, the parties were arranged thusly:

As we can see, the Government side, indicated in red, occupies most of the right side of the Chamber, except for one small area which is seating for members from smaller parties [#22]. The Opposition side was dominated by the Conservative party (blue), who formed the Official Opposition, and the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in the House, were seated to left of the Conservatives [#21].

Because the current government is a coalition government comprised of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, the government side would be both blue and yellow. The front bench [#14] would consist of both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, as would the section reserved for parliamentary private secretaries [#15]. On the government backbenches, however, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs tend not to intermingle, with the Lib Dems MPs sitting as a block to the right of the Conservatives. On the Opposition side of the House, the section numbered 21 is now occupied mostly by Labour MPs as the third party, the Lib Dems, are now on the Government side of the Chamber. (See this interactive guide from the BBC for a better view of the current seating arrangements.)

Another interesting difference between the Canadian and British chambers is the presence of division lobbies. Because not all MPs can be present in the Chamber at one time, MPs do not stand to vote in their place as they do in Canada. Voting is done in division lobbies [#6 and #7]. MPs have to walk through the two Division Lobbies on either side of the House and give their name to the Division Clerks [#8] at the end of the respective Lobbies to vote. They are then counted by the Tellers as they leave the Lobby. After all members have voted in the lobbies, the vote totals are written on a card and the numbers are read out to the House by the Tellers. The Speaker then announces these numbers a second time, announcing the final result by saying ‘The Ayes/Noes have it, the Ayes/Noes have it’.

Other differences include the despatch (or dispatch) boxes and the Petition Bag. The despatch boxes are two ornate wooden boxes [#3], one box on the Government side and one on the Opposition side of the table [#2] that divides the opposing frontbenches. Whereas backbenchers in both Parliaments generally deliver addresses to the chamber while standing at their seat, frontbenchers (ministers and shadow ministers) deliver their addresses from their side’s despatch box. For this reason, the expression “speaking from the despatch box” is often used to describe the performance of a member of parliament (even backbenchers) in addressing the Chamber. Here is a photo showing both despatch boxes, as well as the Mace [#4]:

The Petition Bag [#11] hangs on the back of the Speaker’s Chair [#1]. MPs present petitions by either giving a short statement in the Chamber or by simply placing the petition in the Petition Bag. The Bar of the House [#5], is not an actual bar as it is in the Canadian House of Commons, but simply a white line painted on the floor of the Chamber.

 

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Inside the Canadian House of Commons

(Note: If you’re looking for information about the British House of Commons, see Inside the UK House of Commons.)

I have written a number of posts explaining the role and purpose of various persons and objects in the House of Commons, but some readers want to know how the House of Commons is arranged – who sits where, who are those people at the table in the centre, etc.  The Canadian and UK Houses of Commons follow a similar lay-out, with government and opposition facing off on either side of the Chamber, while the Australian and New Zealand chambers have members seated in more of “U” lay-out. I will begin with a description of the lay-out of the Canadian House of Commons.

This diagram from House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.) shows the House of Commons as viewed from the Bar of the House at the south end looking into the Chamber up towards the north end of the Chamber. The Speaker sits on a Chair on a dais [#2 in the diagram], and the Government side is on the Speaker’s right [#5] (but on the left in this image), and the Opposition parties sit on the Speaker’s left (but on the right in the image) [#3, 4 and 6]. You can see that the opposition side is divided between the opposition parties. The front bench of the Official Opposition party sits directly opposite the front bench of the Government party, with the Leader of the Official Opposition [#3] sitting directly opposite the Prime Minister [#1]. The other opposition parties are seated based on the size of their caucus (in decreasing order) in the House [#4]. Independent members wlll occupy the seats on the opposition side which are the furthest away from the Speaker.

Canadian House of Commons - lay-out
Unlike in the UK House of Commons, MPs in the Canadian House of Commons have individual desks assigned to them and must speak and vote from their assigned seat. The desks are equipped with microphones, an electrical outlet for laptop computers, access to the Internet, and a locked compartment in which Members may store belongings.

As stated, the Speaker sits on a Chair on a dais at the north end of the Chamber. The Speaker’s Chair is an exact replica of the original Speaker’s Chair at Westminster, made circa 1849, and then destroyed when the British House of Commons was bombed in 1941. It is approximately four metres high, surmounted by a canopy of carved wood and the Royal Coat of Arms. The oak used for the carving of the Royal Arms was taken from the roof of Westminster Hall, which was built in 1397. House of Commons Procedure and Practice also informs us that:

In recent years, the Chair has undergone some minor renovations. Microphones and speakers have been installed and lights placed overhead. The armrests now offer a writing surface and a small storage space. A hydraulic lift was also installed to permit more comfortable seating for the various occupants of the Chair. At the foot of the Chair, visible only to its occupant, is a computer screen which allows the Chair Occupant to see information generated by the computers at the Table, the countdown timer used to monitor the length of speeches and interventions when time limits apply, and a portion of the unofficial rotation list for Members wishing to speak. The screen also displays a digital feed from the television cameras in the Chamber, allowing the Speaker to see the image being broadcast.

The pages sit at the foot of the Speaker’s Chair [#20]. Pages are first-year university students who work for the House of Commons. They deliver messages and documents to MPs during sittings. The Table referred to above [#7] is where the Clerk of the House, chief procedural advisor to the Speaker, sits with other Table Officers. The Mace [#9] rests on the south end of the Table when the House is sitting.

The Proceedings and Verification Officers (PVOs) [#19] are part of the Hansard team, tasked with capturing Debates in the House. They are the eyes and ears of the production team, capturing details such as the name of the Member speaking, the item of business being discussed, the name of the occupant of the Chair, and using a stenomask to dub names of speakers, off-mike comments and other information that might be reflected in the Official Report.

The Canadian House of Commons conducts business in both English and French, and thus enclosed booths for interpreters are located in the corners of the Chamber opposite the Speaker’s Chair [#21]. Members’ desks are equipped with interpretation devices in order to receive simultaneous interpretation of the proceedings into French or English. Visitors in the galleries also have access to the sound reinforcement and interpretation systems and may choose to listen to the proceedings with interpretation in the official language of their choice, or without interpretation. Proceedings in the House have been broadcast on television since 1977, and TV cameras [#22] are located throughout the Chamber. Since 2003, proceedings are also carried over the Internet via the Parliament of Canada website.

There are several galleries from which proceedings can be watched and which can accommodate about 500 people [#11-18]. Some are reserved for specific purposes, such as visiting dignitaries, members of the diplomatic corps, parliamentary delegations, etc., Senators, departmental officials, and the press, while others are open to the public.

The Sergeant-at-Arms sits at the south end of the Chamber [#8], near the Bar of the House [#10].

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