Cabinet vs the Ministry

The Executive Government consists of the Cabinet and the Ministry led by the Prime Minister. The Ministry is derived from the party (or parties) that command the confidence of the legislature.

The Ministry consists of all those Members of Parliament chosen by the Prime Minister (or in some countries, the party caucus). They serve as members of the executive arm of government and administer the various government departments.

There is often confusion between the ministry and the cabinet. In some countries, there is a clear distinction between the ministry and cabinet. In these instances, only the most senior Ministers, including the Prime Minister, form the Cabinet. So while all Cabinet Ministers are members of the ministry, not all members of the ministry are members of the Cabinet.

Other countries don’t observe this distinction, or if they do, the distinction between the two is much less clear.

In the UK, the number of paid ministerial posts is set out in the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act, 1975. This Act limits the size of paid cabinet positions to 22 (21 MPs and one peer). The ministry, however, is much larger. The same Act limits the ministry to 109 paid appointments. If the maximum number of Cabinet Ministers are appointed, a maximum of 29 Ministers of State and 33 paid Parliamentary Secretaries may be appointed. Of course, the Prime Minister can have an even larger ministry – the Act only limits how many ministers can be paid appointments, that is, MPs who will receive additional remuneration above the base salary of an MPs. There is no limit on the number of non-paid appointments.

Another interesting note is that the House of Commons Disqualifications Act, 1975, limits the number of ministers who can be in the House of Commons at one time to 95. This limit does not depend on whether or not the office holders are paid. You can see the current list of UK ministers (Cabinet and department ministers) here. The list starts with the Cabinet, followed by the nine ministers who also attend Cabinet, but aren’t Cabinet ministers, then the list of all ministers by department, including Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under Secretaries of State.

Some MPs in the UK are also appointed Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs). They do not receive any additional remuneration for this, however, and are not considered to be part of the ministry.

In Canada, the division between the ministry and Cabinet doesn’t exist. As you can see on the official Ministry page, there is no distinction between Cabinet ministers and other ministers – all members of the ministry are part of the Cabinet. There is also no legislation limiting the number of Cabinet and other ministers as there exists in the UK. The current Canadian Cabinet totals 39 ministers.

As in the UK, the Prime Minister can also appointment a number of parliamentary secretaries. Yet unlike PPSs in the UK, parliamentary secretaries in Canada do receive additional remuneration above the base pay for an MP. However, they are not part of the Ministry. When Paul Martin became prime minister in December 2003, he appointed parliamentary secretaries to the Privy Council and said they would be invited to cabinet meetings when a policy matter for which they had specific duties was to be discussed. The current Prime Minister has returned to the earlier practice of not appointing parliamentary secretaries to the Privy Council. Under the Parliament of Canada Act, the number of parliamentary secretaries may not exceed the number of ministers.

Australia distinguishes between Cabinet and the Ministry. There are 20 Cabinet Ministers (including the PM), but a total of 30 ministers (an additional 10 ministers do not attend cabinet), and 12 parliamentary secretaries. All Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries become members of the Executive Council. They receive the title “Honourable”. The Council’s full membership never meets. In practice the minimum number of Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries (that is, two in addition to the person presiding) are rostered to attend. Meetings of the Council are presided over by the Governor-General or a deputy appointed by the Governor-General (usually the Minister with the title Vice President of the Executive Council). The matters dealt with at each meeting are recommendations by Ministers, for the approval of the Governor-General in Council, that something be done—for example, that a regulation be made, a treaty be ratified, or a person be appointed to a position.

While the Executive Council may seem no more than a rubber stamp, the processes involved in bringing matters before the Council ensure that Ministers’ actions are properly documented, are legally and constitutionally valid, and are in accordance with government policy.

New Zealand also has 20 Cabinet Ministers, plus five Ministers outside Cabinet who may attend Cabinet if needed, and three support party Ministers (link). Support party ministers are from the parties with support and confidence agreements with the governing National Party. New Zealand also has Parliamentary under-secretaries who are government MPs who are appointed to assist ministers with their portfolio duties. They do not have the powers of ministers, and are not members of the Executive Council. All ministers are members of the Executive Council, whether or not they are members of cabinet. The Executive Council is the highest formal institution of government in New Zealand, and is the means by which the government provides collective and formal advice to the governor general. The Executive Council generally meets weekly, following the meeting of cabinet, and is presided over by the governor general. The Executive Council implements decisions that require the force of law through regulations made by orders in council. It is the legislative executive, while cabinet is the political executive.

For further reading:
The Australian System of Government
Limitations on the number of Ministers and the size of the Payroll vote
The Role of Parliamentary Secretaries

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The Westminster System of Parliamentary Government

I frequently refer to the “Westminster system of parliamentary government” in posts, and thought it might be a good idea to fully explain how the Westminster system of government works.

The Westminster System of Parliamentary Government

The Westminster System is a democratic system of government modelled after that of the United Kingdom, as used in the Palace of Westminster, the location of the UK parliament. The system is a series of conventions and procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once also used, in most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth nations. There are other parliamentary systems, for example those of various European countries, whose procedures differ considerably from the Westminster system.

Aspects of the Westminster system include:

  1. a head of state, who is different from the head of government, and who may possess reserve powers, which are not normally exercised, and whose role is largely ceremonial. In most countries, this is either a monarch or a representative of the monarch (e.g. Governor General), or a president;
  2. a head of government (usually called the Prime Minister or Premier or First Minister) who is appointed by the head of state, but who, by convention, must have the support of the majority of the Members of Parliament;
  3. an executive branch, usually called the Cabinet, made up of Members of the legislature and led by the head of government;
  4. the presence of opposition parties;
  5. an elected legislature, or a system in which one house is elected and the other appointed, although in some countries with bicameral systems, both Houses are elected;
  6. the confidence convention, by which the lower House can dismiss a government by either withholding Supply (not passing the budget) or via a vote of non-confidence (either by passing a motion of non-confidence or defeating some other measure which was deemed a matter of confidence);
  7. parliamentary privilege, which allows the legislature to discuss any issue deemed by itself to be relevant, without fear of consequences stemming from defamatory statements or records thereof;
  8. a parliament which can be dissolved and elections called at any time, even when there exists fixed election dates.

Most of the procedures of the Westminster system originated with the conventions, practices and precedents of the UK parliament, which are a part of what is known as the British constitution. Unlike the UK, most countries which use the Westminster system have codified the system in a written constitution. However convention, practices and precedents continue to play a significant role in these countries, as many constitutions do not specify important elements of procedure: for example, older constitutions using the Westminster system (e.g. Canada’s) may not even mention the existence of a head of government or Prime Minister, with the office’s existence and role evolving outside the primary constitutional text.


The pattern of executive functions within a Westminster System is complex. The head of state exercises a largely ceremonial role, even though they are the de jure source of executive power. The head of state does not normally exercise their executive powers; rather, these powers are exercised in their name by the head of government (Prime Minister),  the Cabinet and other junior ministers. For example, in the UK, the Queen theoretically holds executive authority, even though the PM and the Cabinet effectively implement executive powers. In a parliamentary republic like India, the President is the de jure executive, even though executive powers are essentially instituted by the PM and his Council of Ministers.

In a Westminster system, some members of parliament are elected by popular vote, while others may be appointed. Most Westminster-based parliaments which are bicameral have a House of Commons or House of Representatives, comprised of local, elected representatives of the people, and an upper house, which can come in a variety of different forms, such as the British House of Lords (with membership previously determined only by heredity, but changed to a mixed appointment-heredity system), or the Canadian Senate (appointed by the Prime Minister), or the Australian Senate (elected using a proportional system, the Single Transferable Vote). In Britain, the Commons is the de facto legislative body, while the House of Lords practices restraint in exercising its constitutional powers and serves as a consultative body. In other Westminster countries, however, the equivalent upper house of parliament can sometimes exercise considerable power. The head of government is usually chosen by being invited to form a government by the head of state or the representative of the head of state (e.g. the Governor General), not by parliamentary vote. There are notable exceptions to the above in the Republic of Ireland, where the President of Ireland has a mandate through direct election, and the Taoiseach (prime minister) prior to appointment by the President of Ireland is nominated by the democratically elected lower house, Dáil Éireann. In two of the Canadian territories, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, which don’t have political parties but a system of consensus government, the Premier is elected by the other Members of the legislature.

The head of government, usually called the Prime Minister, must be able to either control a majority of seats within the lower house,  or to ensure the existence of no absolute majority against his or her government. If the parliament passes a motion of no confidence or if the government fails to pass a major bill such as the budget, then the government must either resign, so that a different government can be appointed, or seek a parliamentary dissolution so that new elections may be held in order to re-confirm or deny their mandate. In bicameral jurisdictions, government is formed in the lower house alone. Although the dissolution of the legislature and the call for new elections is formally done by the head of state, by convention the head of state acts according to the wishes of the head of government.

Cabinet Government

Members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy. All Cabinet decisions are normally made by consensus. All ministers, whether senior and in the Cabinet, or junior ministers, must support the policy of the government publicly regardless of any private reservations. A cabinet member may be forced to resign, or may choose to resign, if they oppose one aspect of a government’s agenda. The power to appoint ministers to the Cabinet – and to dismiss them – is perhaps the single most powerful constitutional power which a Prime Minister has in the political control of the Government in the Westminster system.

Linked to Cabinet government is the idea, at least in theory, that ministers are responsible for the actions of their departments. It is no longer considered to be an issue of resignation if the actions of members of their department, over whom the minister has no direct control, make mistakes or formulate procedures which are not in accordance with agreed policy decisions. One of the major powers of the Prime Minister under the Westminster system is to be the arbitrator of when a fellow minister is accountable for the actions of his or her department.

The Official Opposition and other major political parties not in the Government, will mirror the governmental organisation with their own Shadow Cabinet made up of Shadow Ministers.


The Westminster system is characterized by the presence of well-disciplined legislative parties in which it is highly unusual for a legislator to vote against their own party, whether they are part of the governing party or an opposition party, and in which no-confidence votes are very rare occurrences, usually occurring only during times of minority government. Also, Westminster systems tend to have strong cabinets. Conversely, legislative committees in Westminster systems tend to be weak, though they often have the ability to force a government to reveal certain pieces of information. The degree to which this is true varies from one jurisdiction to another, of course. Party discipline is extremely strong in Canada and Australia, but much less so in the United Kingdom. Also, recent reforms of select committees in the UK have given committees there much more independence and influence.

Ceremonies and Traditions

Parliaments using the Westminster system are greatly influenced by, and continue to follow many very ancient British customs. A Westminster-style parliament is usually a long, rectangular room, with rows of seats or desks on either side. The chairs are positioned so that the two sides are facing each other. The intended purpose of this arrangement is to create a visual representation of the adversarial nature of parliamentary government. Traditionally, the opposition parties sit on the side to the left of the Speaker, and the government party will sit to the Speaker’s right. This is how the UK House of Commons and the Canadian House of Commons are laid out, but the Australian House of Representatives and New Zealand parliament are not. Those two chambers both adopted a horseshoe arrangement, but the government side is still to the right of the Speaker and the opposition parties to the left. Tradition holds that the distance between the to sides in the UK House of Commons is that of the length of two swords although no documentary evidence exists to support this and in fact, weapons have never been allowed in the Palace of Westminster at any time.

At one end of the room sits a large chair, for the Speaker of the House. The Speaker usually wears a black robe, and in many countries, a wig. Robed parliamentary clerks often sit at narrow tables between the two rows of seats.

Other ceremonies sometimes associated with the Westminster system include an annual Speech from the Throne (or equivalent) in which the Head of State gives a special address (written by the government) to parliament about what kind of policies to expect in the coming year, and lengthy State Opening of Parliament ceremonies that often involve the presentation of a large ceremonial mace carried by the Sergeant-at-Arms.

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Some notable parliamentary traditions

Parliamentary traditions and procedure in Canada and the United Kingdom are very similar, which is not at all surprising since Canada largely adopted the same form of parliamentary government, with slight modifications to better accommodate the realities of a federation. While some of these conventions and traditions might strike many as quaint and anachronistic, they are still practiced out of homage to the long fight for Parliament’s independence from the Crown.

For example, the tradition that a newly-elected Speaker should “resist” being led up to the Speaker’s Chair is simply an acknowledgement to the past, when the role of Speaker was often a very dangerous one. Indeed, several Speakers were executed by the Monarch for being bearers of news the Monarch didn’t want to hear. Consequently, many were reluctant to take on the role of Speaker, knowing its inherent dangers. Today’s Speakers pay tribute to their courage and, in some cases, sacrifice, by feigning reluctance to take the Chair.

While many such traditions are practiced both at Westminster and on Parliament Hill, there are other traditions which never managed to cross the Atlantic.

One such example involves the Queen’s Speech – what Canadians call the Speech from the Throne or Throne Speech. In the UK, a Government Whip is held “hostage” at Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Speech in order to guarantee the safe return of the Monarch. This tradition naturally harkens back to times when the relationship between the Monarch and the House of Commons wasn’t on the best of terms. In Canada, this does not occur, although it would be quaint indeed if the Government Whip were to be held at Rideau Hall pending the safe return of the Governor General.

Other historical “precautions” are observed for the Queen’s Speech. The Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest of the royal bodyguards, armed with lanterns, search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a practice which dates back to the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605. The Gunpowder Plot is the name given to the conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605, which was discovered the night before. You can read more about the Gunpowder Plot here. This is followed by a more scientific police search.

While the basement of the Parliament Building in Ottawa isn’t searched by the Yeomen of the Guard, I am fairly certain that a thorough security sweep is performed by the RCMP prior to the Speech from the Throne in Ottawa, not in memory of the Gunpowder Plot, but simply because such security measures are warranted for such an event.

The Queen’s Speech/Speech from the Throne isn’t the only parliamentary procedure steeped in tradition. In the United Kingdom, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivers the Budget statement, the Speaker leaves the chair to be replaced by the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Deputy Speaker. This is a procedure which dates back several hundred years to the days when the Commons did not want its Speaker presiding over debates on money matters because he was seen as a creature of the King. This does not occur in Canada – the Speaker presides over the Budget Speech.

Another Budget-related tradition from the UK which isn’t observed in Canada: the Chancellor is the only MP allowed to drink alcohol in the House of Commons, on Budget day. Previous Chancellors have chosen whisky (Kenneth Clarke), gin and tonic (Geoffrey Howe), brandy and water (Benjamin Disraeli), sherry and beaten egg (Gladstone) and spritzer (Nigel Lawson). Gordon Brown chose to drink mineral water. Alistair Darling and George Osborne also drank water.

HM Treasury

Chancellor with Budget Box, HM Treasury

In the UK, the Chancellor has his Budget Box, the red, leather-covered box containing the Budget Speech. Traditionally the Chancellor is photographed on Budget day on the steps of 11 Downing Street holding up the Budget Box. In Canada, the Finance minister traditionally buys a new pair of shoes for the Budget. This practice isn’t as ingrained as the UK tradition of the Chancellor being photographed with his or her Budget Box, however. The observance of this tradition has been inconsistent among federal ministers; indeed, for two or three finance ministers, this tradition only holds if “new shoes” is interpreted to mean “new footwear”.

Another difference regarding the Budget Speech concerns the budget lock-up. In Canada, members of the media as well as Opposition MPs are sequestered hours before the budget speech and briefed on the contents of the budget. This is in part to ensure that the details of the budget do not leak out before the document is tabled in the House, but also to help both the media and opposition familarise themselves with the contents of the budget. This allows the media to be able to report on it as soon as the media ban is lifted, and helps the Opposition prepare a detailed response to the budget.

In the UK, there is no budget lock-up. The Opposition are not privy to the contents of the budget ahead of time. Indeed, they learn of the contents of the budget as the Chancellor delivers his or her statement to the House. It is often said that making the very first response to the Budget statement, which is the task of the Leader of the Opposition, is one of the hardest speaking jobs in the House, because he or she has no idea what will be in what is arguably the most important Government statement made during the Parliamentary Session.  Indeed, if one watches the statement being made, one will see the Opposition front bench furiously making notes to help the Leader craft what he is going to say, as soon as the Chancellor finishes.  The media are in the same position, although of course in the run up to the Budget, there is very often indication in the press that some form of private briefing may have been given to select journalists on individual measures that might be in the statement.

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Parliamentary Privilege and Prayers in the House

Recently, in response to legal action brought by the National Secular Society, Britain’s High Court ruled that Bideford Town Council had acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said during meetings. This decision prompted quite a backlash in the UK media, and the Government announced that it would bring in early part of the Localism Act that aims to give councils greater powers and freedom, in essence reversing the High Court’s ruling.

Partly in response to this incident, the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders wrote an interesting column on the place of religion in public life. I don’t intend to enter into a discussion of the rightness or desirability of prayers at the start of public meetings, or the role of religion in public life. Instead, I would like to address this part of Mr. Saunders’ column:

(…) Britain’s High Court ruled that the practice of holding prayers during municipal council meetings is unconstitutional (as, by extension, may be those held during sittings of the House of Commons). Prayer, the judge ruled, is a private matter that has no place in the formal proceedings of a legal assembly.

Saunders is implying that the Court could just as easily strike down the UK House of Commons’ tradition of beginning each sitting day with a prayer. However, before any individual or group decide to take the Commons or Lords to court over this, they might well want to look at what happened in the Canadian province of Ontario between 1999 and 2001.

In 1999, Henry Freitag, a local resident of the small Ontario town of Penetanguishene who frequently attended council meetings, successfully challenged the town council’s practice of starting each council meeting with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. He did so on the basis that it infringed his freedom of religion under s. 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Buoyed by his success, Freitag brought a similar complaint against the Legislative Assembly of Ontario through the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The Legislative Assembly’s Standing Orders require the Speaker to begin the day’s legislative session by reading prescribed prayers. At the time, the Standing Orders specified that either of two prayers could be used: the Lord’s Prayer (which is associated with Christianity), or a general, non-sectarian prayer. In practice, it was the Lord’s Prayer that was normally used. Freitag, who was not a member of the Legislative Assembly and did not attend the legislative sessions, brought a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission alleging that the use of the Lord’s Prayer was discriminatory against him as a “person of non-Christian faith”. The Ontario Human Rights Commission was requested by the Speaker to exercise its discretion not to deal with the complaint on the basis that the Commission did not have jurisdiction over the internal procedures of the Legislature. The Commission, however, argued that it did have jurisdiction, before proceeding to consider (and ultimately reject) Freitag’s complaint. On judicial review of the Commission’s judgment that it had jurisdiction, the Divisional Court ruled in favour of Ontario.

What is important here is that what was appealed was not whether or not the Assembly’s use of the Lord’s Prayer was discriminatory, but whether the Ontario Human Rights Commission even had the jurisdiction to rule on the matter. The Appeal Court ruled that it did not because the practice of federal and provincial legislatures is immune from review by the Courts due to parliamentary privilege.

It is a constitutional principle that the provincial legislatures (as well as the Parliament of Canada) are independent of the executive and judicial branches of the government. The Speaker of the Ontario Legislature therefore had the authority, on behalf of the Legislature, to establish and regulate the House’s own internal affairs without interference from the other two branches of government. Once it is determined that the Standing Orders are necessary for governing the House’s internal affairs, then parliamentary privilege holds that no court or tribunal has the jurisdiction to question the content of those orders.

The Court of Appeal distinguished the Legislative Assembly case from its earlier judgment in Penetanguishene, the Town Council case. Unlike provincial legislatures, the proceedings of town councils are not protected by parliamentary privilege, and were thus open to judicial review under the Charter.

What is key to note here is that as part of the judgement, the Court quoted a 19th century English case to the effect that an appeal against the House’s internal procedures lies to the constituents, that is, the elected Members of that body, and not to the courts:

[36]          The author’s authority for this proposition, Bradlaugh v. Gossett (1884), 12 Q.B.D. 271 (Q.B.), is instructive.  In that case, Charles Bradlaugh was elected to serve in the English House of Commons and was entitled to take the oath prescribed by law to be taken by members of the House of Commons, and to sit and vote as one of its representatives.  Bradlaugh required the Speaker to call him to the table for the purpose of taking the oath, but the Speaker refused.  The Speaker was supported by the House of Commons, which passed a resolution directing the Sergeant-at-Arms to exclude Bradlaugh from the House. Bradlaugh brought an action against the Sergeant-at-Arms seeking an injunction restraining him from carrying out the resolution.

[37]          The report of the Queen’s Bench proceedings does not attribute to the Speaker any reasons for his refusal to allow Bradlaugh to take the oath, but counsel for the respondent told this court that it was because Bradlaugh was an acknowledged atheist.  However, what is important is that the panel of the court of Queen’s Bench, comprised of Lord Coleridge C.J., Mathew J. and Stephen J., who heard the matter on a demurrer, was prepared to proceed on the assumption that the House of Commons had passed a resolution inconsistent with the Parliamentary Oaths Act, 1866 (29 Vict. c.19) (see p. 280).  Stephen J. summarized the matter this way at p. 278:

The legal question which this statement of the case appears to me to raise for our decision is this: – Suppose that the House of Commons forbids one of its members to do that which an Act of Parliament requires him to do, and, in order to enforce its prohibition, directs its executive officer to exclude him from the House by force if necessary, is such an order one which we can declare to be void and restrain the executive officer of the House from carrying out?  In my opinion, we have no such power.  I think that the House of Commons is not subject to the control of Her Majesty’s Courts in its administration of that part of the statute-law which has relation to its own internal proceedings, and that the use of such actual force as may be necessary to carry into effect such a resolution as the one before us is justifiable. [Emphasis added.]

[38]          And at pp. 280-281:

… It seems to follow that the House of Commons has the exclusive power of interpreting the statute, so far as the regulation of its own proceedings is concerned; and that, even if the interpretation should be erroneous, this Court has no power to interfere directly or indirectly. …

[39]          It is evident that the court of Queen’s Bench regarded the internal workings of Parliament as protected by privilege and it was not prepared to scrutinize conduct that fell within that category, even if such conduct violated a statutory right.  As stated by Lord Coleridge C.J. at p. 277:

… The history of England, and the resolutions of the House of Commons itself, shew that now and then injustice has been done by the House to individual members of it.  But the remedy, if remedy it be, lies, not in actions in the courts of law…, but by an appeal to the constituencies whom the House of Common represents.

Unlike Ontario, the UK House of Commons Standing Orders do not state that the Speaker shall read the prayers at the start of each sitting day, but as stated above, this is a long-standing practice, believed to have originated in 1558. It is also worth noting that the prayers are not public. Members of the public are not allowed into the public galleries during prayers, nor are they shown in the broadcast proceedings of the House. Regardless, any attempt by the courts to rule this practice unconstitutional would fail because parliamentary privilege guarantees that Parliament has the collective right to regulate its own proceedings. It would be up to the Members themselves to decide to change current practice. Certainly, there is a debate to be had regarding what purpose is believed to be served by the practice of beginning legislative sessions with prayer, but this won’t be a matter decided by the courts.

Update: In a recent interview, UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow addressed the issue of prayers in the House of Commons and among his comments, said this:

You could ask, and you rightly say, we’re not bound by the courts on this, and the National Secular Society won’t have any impact as far as I can see on what we in the house do and nor should it, is it in anyway discriminatory to go back to this point about whether prayers are before or after the start of official business, you can argue the toss on this, the prayers that we have in the house are before the start of our main business, no significant item of, no item of business takes place before prayers at all, they are not compulsory, nobody has to come along if they don’t want to do so.”

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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.


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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Recalling Parliament

Most parliaments follow a parliamentary calendar, which provides a fixed timetable of sittings and adjournments for a full calendar year. Once a session begins, the calendar alternates sitting periods with adjournments at set points throughout the year.

A sitting is simply a meeting of the legislature in question during a session. While the legislature’s Standing Orders will normally provide times and days for sittings of the House, it should be noted that a sitting is not synonymous with a calendar day. Some sittings are very brief, some last for more than a day, and sometimes, there can be two sittings in a single calendar day. A sitting ends with an adjournment, either as per a Standing Order which indicates that the legislature adjourns at a specific time each day, or pursuant to a motion to adjourn. An adjournment covers the period of time between the end of one sitting and the start of the next, therefore it can last a few hours, overnight, over a weekend, a week, or even longer. The power to adjourn rests with the House, unlike prorogation and dissolution, which are prerogative acts of the Crown.

Most legislatures will have at least two extended periods of adjournment during the course of a parliamentary calendar year. These typically occur in the winter (or summer if one is in Australia or New Zealand), usually coinciding with the Christmas and New Year period, when the House will adjourn some time in December and resume sitting in January or February (or later); and during the summer (or winter for those south of the equator), with the House adjourning in June or July until September or October (or later). You can see the Canadian House of Commons parliamentary calendar here. If you view the calendar for 2011, you will note that the House resumed sitting on January 31 (after adjourning on December 16, 2010). The Canadian House of Commons normally alternates between sitting  five days a week for three consecutive weeks, then adjourning for one week to allow MPs to return to their constituencies. The UK House of Commons normally sits four days a week (Monday to Thursday and sometimes on Friday if there are Private Members’ bills to consider), and MPs return to their constituencies every Friday. Because Canada is a much larger country than is the United Kingdom, it isn’t realistic for most MPs to return to their constituencies every weekend, hence the week-long constituency breaks every three weeks.

The Australian House of Representatives parliamentary calendar for 2011 can be viewed here and the New Zealand Parliament’s here. The UK Parliament has no definitive timetable for a parliamentary session, but you can view the provisional recess dates for 2010-2012 here.

Parliamentary calendars can be altered by the will of the House or the Crown. The Canadian House of Commons’ 2011 calendar was interrupted by a general election. The minority government was defeated on a confidence vote on March 25, 2011. Parliament was dissolved the next day by the Governor General, and a general election held on May 2, 2011. The new Parliament met for the first time on June 2, 2011, and sat until June 26 before adjourning for the summer recess.

Similarly, the UK House of Commons was scheduled to adjourn for the summer recess on July 19, but was recalled for an extra day (July 20) to address the phone hacking scandal. The House of Commons has been recalled again to sit on August 11 to address the outbreaks of rioting that began on August 6.

Recalling Parliament is initiated by the Government making a request in writing to the Speaker, setting out reasons why it is in the public interest to recall the House. The Speaker will consult with the Government, and if satisfied that the public interest would be served by recalling the House, he or she does just that. Ultimately, it is the Speaker’s decision whether or not to recall Parliament. The BBC has prepared a timeline of the 14 recalls of Parliament that have occurred over the past 30 years.

The first motion granting the Speaker the power to recall Parliament was adopted in Canada in 1940:

In 1940, however, given the uncertainty of the wartime situation, it was deemed advisable to adjourn rather than to prorogue in order to enable the House to reconvene quickly if necessary. The House adopted a motion to adjourn which empowered the Speaker to recall the House if, after consultation with the government, it was concluded that it was in the public interest to do so. Similar motions were adopted in subsequent sessions and became routine when the House adjourned for an extended period of time.

The first recall under these circumstances occurred in 1944 when the government wished to apprise the House of the situation arising from the resignation of the Minister of National Defence. Several other recalls took place before 1982, at which time the practice was codified by the adoption of a Standing Order worded similarly to the adjournment motions used before 1982. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed.)

There have been 12 recalls of Parliament in Canada since 1944.

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Perceptions of parliamentary procedure: is the grass really greener?

Last week’s appearance by Rupert and James Murdoch before the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport (which you can view here if you missed it) as well as Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement in the House of Commons the following day (viewable here) received global media attention. Many Canadian journalists who normally report on proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons seemed enthralled by the often small, yet significant differences in how the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons function – the very same differences which I have been writing about here for over a year now.

CBC reporter Kady O’Malley, who regularly liveblogs proceedings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, has since written two posts outlining some of the differences which she observed and, for the most part, would like to see adopted in Canada (first post on committee procedure, second post on procedure in the House of Commons). One highly respected political commentator, Andrew Coyne, national editor of Macleans Magazine, tweeted on July 20 “Everyone should be watching the UK phone-hacking debate, if only to see what a real parliament looks like”.

O’Malley’s post on committee procedure ignores one very important difference between Canadian and UK House of Commons committees: the majority of Select Committee Chairs are now elected by their fellow MPs. This applies to departmental committees and the Environmental Audit, Political and Constitutional Reform, Procedure, Public Administration and Public Accounts committees. Canadian committee chairs are elected by that committee’s members. Similarly, committee members in the UK are elected by their respective caucuses, while members of Canadian committees are appointed by their party whips. I have discussed this in detail in this post, and so I won’t repeat myself here, but it should be fairly obvious to most why having elected chairs and committee members would make for a more responsive and less partisan committee.

There are also a couple of other inaccuracies in O’Malley’s post on committee procedure. UK select committees do allow witnesses to make opening statements or general comments. Some witnesses decline to do so, but others take advantage of the offer. To her credit, Kady notes:

The following observations were inspired by what I saw when I was liveblogging the Home Affairs and Culture Select committees on Tuesday; as we are so often reminded, committees are, of course, masters of their own respective destinies, which means it is distinctly possible that other select committees operate on slightly – or even substantially – different rules.

O’Malley also writes that there aren’t time limits for questions and answers, nor on the length of time witnesses are expected to stick around to answer. Again, this isn’t entirely true. Each committee hearing has a set duration, for example, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30. The committee may well decide to go on longer, or to cut proceedings short. Some witnesses do have to leave at a certain time because of other commitments, and so the committee knows it has only a half hour, or an hour, etc., with that specific witness. It is true, however, that unlike the Canadian House of Commons committees I have watched, the UK committees don’t have time limits for questions and answers.

While Kady O’Malley highlighted some key differences (based on having observed one committee hearing), a recent piece on the BBC website questions if MPs are really up to the task of questioning witnesses, stating that “[T]here had been criticism of earlier hearings for not asking sharp enough questions, or following up lines of enquiry.” One MP defended MP inquiries this way:

“We are asking questions as non-experts, as representatives of the public.

“You can’t prepare those questions in advance because you can’t always anticipate the way that the discussion will go.”

The comment by UK MP Nicola Blackwood that MPs are asking questions “as non-experts” also reminds me of former Prime Minister John Major’s recent calls for reforms to increase the number of MPs with expertise in specific areas, which I discussed in this post.

This is a legitimate criticism of parliamentary committees. For example, there has been much criticism of one MP on the Culture, Media and Sports committee, Louise Mensch, for making some comments during the July 20 hearing accusing former News of the World Editor Piers Morgan of phone hacking because he had supposedly admitted to this in his autobiography. This led to a fierce row between Morgan and Mensch, who refused to repeat the allegations outside of Parliament, where she would no longer be protected by parliamentary privilege. Here in Canada, other committee investigative hearings have been less than stellar. In 2007, the Canadian House of Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics conducted an investigation into the Mulroney Airbus settlement. The questioning of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by MPs appeared often amateurish and boorish, and Mulroney’s legal counsel, Guy Pratte, described committee hearings as “damaging”:

“At a parliamentary committee there are absolutely no rules. Zero rules. At least at inquiry commissions some rules of fairness apply. Parliamentary immunity means things are said that never would be said if MPs were subject to defamatory libel.”

He remembers New Democrat MP Pat Martin saying to Mulroney: “I won’t call you a liar, but I don’t want anyone here to think that I believe you.” Pratte says, “That sort of thing would never be tolerated in a court of law. Never, never, never!” Mulroney fumed at the insult and his son Ben, the television host, had to be restrained in the audience. “Parliamentary committees play with peoples’ reputations sometimes in a very dangerous and damaging way,” says Pratte. “I understand they have work to do, and it is a political forum. I suppose there is a political advantage to be gained from getting a big headline the next morning.

“I’ve said it many times in the Mulroney affair. It should resemble an ordinary court.” Pratte says. “We should at least try to respect the basic principles of fairness. I wanted to present myself in politics several times, but my experience as much with Mr. Pelletier as Mr. Mulroney left me discouraged by the performance of certain, but not all, MPs and the lack of concern with which they threw out any sort of accusation.”

Kady O’Malley’s second post looked at differences between the UK and Canadian House of Commons in general. On Twitter on July 21, many Canadian journalists were enthralled by the ministerial statement delivered by David Cameron on the phone hacking scandal and the questions and debate which followed. I have also explored the vast differences between Canadian and UK ministerial statements, O’Malley, for some reason, did not comment on that at all. While UK ministerial statements are always far more productive affairs than their Canadian counterparts, this one was quite noteworthy: Cameron took 136 questions from MPs during his statement.

It was interesting to see the many comments from Canadians on Twitter, some of whom lamenting that Canada doesn’t have a Prime Minister’s Questions (not that there was a PMQs on 20 July). It reminded me that only days earlier, the Independent had run an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of PMQs. The sub-headline of that article reads: “No other parliament has anything like Prime Minister’s Questions.” Quite a few readers took exception to that and rattled off a series of countries that they said had PMQs: Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, to name a few. It was clear to me that people were confusing a general oral question period where all ministers, including the PM, take questions, which is what both Canada and Australia have, with a questions session where only the PM and no other ministers takes questions. It made me wonder if the Canadian journalists on Twitter, who were expressing such enthusiasm for PMQs, were aware of the UK House of Commons’ other daily questions – the department-specific oral questions, which I’ve written about in detail here. I don’t know if they’d be as impressed by those since they are such staid affairs when compared to PMQs. They should be, however, since again, they are far more productive than the Canadian version of Question Period for both getting information from the government and holding it to account.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally believe that the UK House of Commons functions far better than its Canadian counterpart, but as we all well know, the grass usually does look greener on the other side of the fence – or in this case, ocean. At least one very prominent figure in the UK believes there is still room for further reforms at Westminster.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow spoke to the Guardian and stated that while “MPs and peers have “rediscovered their collective balls” over the phone-hacking affair”, more could be done to strengthen Parliament. First on his list is finding a way to allow Parliament to compel witnesses to appear before committees.

Parliamentary committees (both in the UK and Canada and other jurisdictions) have the power to request witnesses to give evidence to them via an informal invitation issued by the committee clerk or the committee chair. They can also draw on their formal powers to summon witnesses via a Speaker’s warrant. That power is unqualified, “except to the extent that if conflicts with the privileges of the Crown and of Members of the House of Lords, or with the rights of Members of the House of Commons.” (Erskine May, 24th edition, p. 820). Should a witness fail to comply with such a warrant, however, they will be found in contempt of Parliament. In theory, the House of Commons has the power to send for persons whose conduct has been brought before the House on a matter of privilege by an order for their attendance. In practice, however, as Bercow notes, this isn’t really an enforceable power:

“If the Murdochs had refused the warrant to attend, we would have been in an extremely awkward situation. I don’t think there is much we could have done. There has been a complete ambiguity, a lack of clarity, an uncertainty about what our powers are.”

Bercow says select committees should have enforceable powers to compel witnesses in British jurisdiction to attend, and not, as at present, “depend on a toxic blend of bad publicity and the entirely implausible threat of imprisonment.

“I don’t think frankly it should be the Speaker on behalf of the house imprisoning a witness. We have got a creche in the parliamentary estate, but not so far as I know a cell.”

I sort of agree with Bercow that there probably needs to be a better way to compel witnesses to attend when summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee. Currently, the most likely outcome of a witness’s refusal to appear before a committee will be for that person to be found in contempt of Parliament. They may be called before the Bar of the House to be reprimanded by the Speaker or asked to apologize, but again, there is no way to compel them to do so:

The problem is that the sanctions – involving fine or imprisonment – to enforce any punishment are constitutionally somewhat rusty. Vernon Bogdanor, the former professor of government at Oxford University, has suggested they may have fallen into “desuetude” [disuse]. The House of Commons is not believed to have fined anybody since 1666 and has not “committed anyone to custody”, apart from temporarily detaining them, since the 19th century.

The last time the Commons attempted to reprimand anyone at the bar of the house was in 1957 when the Sunday Express editor John Junor was criticised after offending MPs by publishing an editorial accusing them of abusing their petrol allowances. “Such a sanction would now appear high-handed,” the recent standard and privileges committee report acknowledged.

Another MP, Adrian Bailey, who chairs the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, has called for new laws to be introduced to force witnesses to appear before select committees. In the US, a federal act makes contempt of Congress a misdemeanor “punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 nor less than $100 and imprisonment.., for not less than one month nor more than twelve months.” Perhaps something along these lines would be what Bailey and Bercow have in mind.

Bercow also would like to see witnesses before committees examined under oath “as a matter of course”. Committees do have the power to administer oaths to witnesses, however, more often than not, they aren’t. This too has ramifications. If a witness was not sworn in before testifying, and then found to have provided false evidence or misled the committee, the worse that will happen is that they may be found in contempt. However, again according to Erskine May (p. 824), “[B]y the Perjury Act 1911, s 1, where evidence is given upon oath, the giving of false evidence is punishable as perjury. The power of either House to punish for false evidence is not, however, superseded by this Act.” Meaning that it would still be up to the house to administer any punishment – the range of which are similar to those available for anyone deemed to be guilty of contempt. And again from Erskine May:

it should be borne in mind that in 1978, the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible, and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so. Thus many acts which might be considered to be contempts are either overlooked by the House or resolved  informally.  (p. 251)

And while Canadian journalists and political watchers were so enthralled by PMQs, that item of business remains a source of great frustration and embarrassment for Bercow:

“I cannot think of any business that would put its worst product in the shop window and in some respects it’s our worst product. I think the level of heckling, the extent of catcalling, the sheer decibel level, are not conducive to reasoned debate.”

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