At the time
this article was written Terry Moore was a procedural clerk with the Table
Research Branch of the House of Commons
Some knowledge of procedure
in necessary to be an effective Member of Parliament or staffer. To assist new Members
and staff to get up to speed on procedural issues, the Library of Parliament,
in co-operation with the House of Commons, offered some orientation sessions
prior to the opening of the 37th Parliament. This is a revised
version of a presentation for new Members and staff held on January 24, 2001.
Let me begin by outlining the three functions of the
House of Commons. The primary function is to participate in the legislative
process through the discussion and passage of both government and private Members’
bills. Legislation is debated, changes may be proposed and in the end the House
decides in favour of or against the measure.
A second function is to
scrutinize or criticize government action. There are many ways this is done
including the 45-minute daily question period, with oral questions and also by
means of written questions. The former is usually more about politics whereas
the latter is used to seek out detailed information from the government. A
Member may submit a total of only four written questions at a time. He or she
can ask that the government respond with a written answer within 45 days.
Written questions may also be answered orally in the House. However, if the
answer contains a great deal of information, the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary
will usually request that the answer be provided in writing. Written answers
are printed in the Debates.
If the written question is
seeking a lot of detail about many departments, it might take longer than 45
days and often the delay leads to Members asking questions in the House about
the delay. The Minister or Parliamentary Secretary may reply that it takes a
lot of research to provide the information. As there are no penalties in the
Standing Orders if the Government fails to meet the 45-day deadline, it is a
matter of continuing to press the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary for an
If a Member is not happy with
the answer received in Question Period or with a delay in the reply to a
written question, he or she may request the issue be taken up during the
adjournment debate. This takes place on Mondays to Thursdays from 6:30 to 7:00.
At that time there are five 6-minute exchanges between Members and Ministers or
Parliamentary Secretaries. The Member can speak for four minutes and the Minister
or Parliamentary Secretary replying gets two minutes.
Another way to scrutinize the
government is to ask for documents. This is known as a notice of motion for the
production of papers. The Member asks the government to supply a document that
falls within their departmental mandate. The actual procedure for doing this is
described in the Standing Orders and there are people in the Journals Branch
who can help you with this procedure, which can be a bit daunting for new
Members may also seek documents
through the Access to Information Act but that is governed by a separate
statute and is a process completely outside of parliamentary procedure.
Parliamentarians use the same process as ordinary citizens. We are seeing more
examples of Members using both avenues to request information and sometimes,
believe it or not, the answer obtained to the same question from the two
procedures can be different.
Information can also be obtained
by using a petition, which requests the government to take certain action and
provide a response to any petition presented. The public petition process is
laid out in the Standing Orders and, once again, the Journals Branch or the
Private Members’ Business Office can help new Members and staff to become
familiar with this process.
Another major function of
Parliament is to authorize the spending and raising of public monies. However,
this article will not go into detail about financial procedures nor will it
look in depth at the committee system which has a special role in scrutinizing
government both by calling witnesses and in presenting reports which the
government may be required to respond to within 150 days. I will focus on the
principles of parliamentary procedure and look at some aspects of the
legislative process in the Chamber.
Some Principles of
The first principle of
parliamentary procedure is that discussion and debate in the House are intended
to lead to a decision. Debate on the motion for second reading of a bill or on
a resolution will normally result in a decision being taken either to approve
or reject the item.
The second principle is that the
Speaker of the House of Commons, an impartial official, presides over the
deliberations of the House. The Speaker makes sure that the rules are obeyed
and that there is a flow to what goes on in the House.
Procedure is meant to be the servant and not the master of the
House. The House can, at any time, change its rules or procedures if it finds
that something is not working.
The third principle is that
debate and discourse in the House is to be free and civil. It is free in the
sense that Members can say what they want on the floor of the House or in
committee in debate, and their speech is protected by parliamentary privilege
from prosecution for libel. The notion that debate shall be civil gives rise to
a number of peculiar customs. For example, a Member may not refer to another
Member by name. You must always use a title such as Minister of Justice,
Parliamentary Secretary or simply the Honourable Member for such and such a
riding. The idea is to depersonalise debate and focus on the fact that Members
are sent to Ottawa as representatives and they do not necessarily speak in
their own name or for their own interests. In theory, one Member is supposed to
present an argument that will convince other Members of the correctness of that
view. In practice, of course, party positions are often presented.
Nevertheless, Members are expected to be civil, if not polite, to each other and
it is up to the Speaker to ensure that civility is respected.
Another principle, perhaps the
most controversial one, is that there be a balance between the government’s
right to get its legislation through the House and the opposition’s right to
discuss it. While everyone may agree on the objective, it is often difficult to
find agreement on what constitutes sufficient debate on a particular item. As a
result, there are mechanisms in the Standing Orders that allow the Government
to truncate the length of debate in order to proceed to a decision. This
usually upsets the opposition.
The Sources of Parliamentary
There are basically four sources
for parliamentary procedure. The first is the Constitution and statutes. Among
other things, the Constitution provides that the quorum for the House is twenty
Members. Thus it is beyond the power of the Members or the Speaker to say that
the quorum shall be different. To change this would requires a constitutional
amendment. Among other things, the Constitution also provides that decisions in
the House are taken by simple majority, not two thirds or any other majority,
and that the first item of business at the opening of a Parliament be the
election of a Speaker. (It does not describe the manner by which one is
The second source is the
Standing Orders. These are the written rules of the House. They stay in
effect from Parliament to Parliament and session to session until the House decides
to change them. Here we find such things as how long a Member may speak in
debate, the number of opposition days, the procedure for private Members
business, the parliamentary calendar and pretty much everything about how the
House runs. The House may also go outside the Standing Orders and adopt Special
Orders, usually by unanimous consent.
The third source is practice.
These are ways of doing things are not found in the Standing Orders. Question
Period is a good example. The rules provide only that there shall be a
question period, how long it will last and when it will take place. Practices,
such as allowing the Leader of the Opposition the first question and two
supplementaries are not found anywhere in the Standing Orders. These are
practices that are followed by the Speaker usually following agreement of the
House Leaders of all parties. In the last Parliament, by agreement, there was a
strict time limit – 35 seconds – for questions and the same amount of time for
answers in order to allow as much participation as possible in Question Period.
The final source of
parliamentary procedure is found in the rulings of Speakers. These decisions
allow everyone to determine how to interpret the procedures. Not only do we
have several volumes of Speakers’ Rulings, but if you look at the footnotes
(some 6000 of them) in the recent book House of Commons Procedure and
Practice, many relate to Speakers rulings because these deal with the day
to day task of interpreting the rules.
The Legislative Process
The first thing to remember
about the legislative process is that you must give notice. The House
does not want to be caught by surprise when it has to make major decisions.
If you want to bring a bill forward you have to give 48 hours written notice.
Your notice is sent to the Journals Branch, where it is printed in the Notice
Paper and Order Paper, the official agenda of the House. This applies to
both government and Private Members’ bills. For certain motions there is a
requirement for a 24-hour notice. Sometimes oral notice is required as in the
case of time allocation that the government may want to bring in for a stage of
a bill. Notice can be waived by unanimous consent and this is done frequently
to speed up business. However, a single Member can withhold consent,
necessitating a return to the notice provision provided in the Standing Orders.
For all the complex legislation
that the House deals with, we still transact business in a very simple way – by
way of a motion, which, when put to the House in the form of a question,
solicits an affirmative or negative answer. In other words you are always
being asked to vote for or against a particular motion. For example, shall this
bill be read a second time and referred to committee. No matter how complex or
simple the underlying issue, the Speaker always asks a simple question – Is it
the pleasure of the House to adopt this motion? And the House responds yea or
nay. A bill can be huge and the ideas very complex but technically what the
House is voting on is always a motion. If you do not like the terms of a motion
you usually have the possibility of introducing an amendment to that motion.
Generally, the rules allow the moving of one amendment and one sub-amendment at
a time. The House decides on changes in reverse, dealing with the
sub-amendment, then the amendment and then the main motion. Not all decisions
require a formal vote. Frequently the Speaker will ask for yeas and nays
and based on the response will declare a motion carried or defeated. On routine
matters you may hear nothing before the Speaker declares the fate of a motion.
However, if when the Speaker puts the question to the House, five members rise
in their places to demand a recorded vote, then a recorded vote will take
As I mentioned previously, time
is one of the real dilemmas faced by parliamentary reformers. The government
wants the House to decide on its legislative items quickly, the opposition
wants more debate. To address the problem of time we have fixed daily, weekly
and yearly schedules. So the total time available to the House is
limited. This means the government is always trying to find ways to speed
things up. To try and accommodate all the demands of the government, the
opposition parties and 301 Members, the Standing Orders lay out all kinds of
time limits on speeches. Generally, Members can speak for 20 minutes in debate.
This is followed by a 10-minute question and comment period. There are
exceptions. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, a Minister moving
a government order and the first Member speaking after the Minister have more
time. For some debates, there is a ten-minute limit for all speakers.
There are several ways that
debate may be curtailed. The first and most frequently used is called time
allocation. This only applies to the stages of bills (S.O. 78). This should not
be confused with closure (S.O. 57), which can be used for any motion before the
House, not just bills. Closure is used much less frequently.
Another way to stop debate is to
move the previous questions: “That the question be now put”. When that is moved
it means you cannot have any further amendment to the motion being debated.
How a Bill Becomes Law
Before a government bill is ever
introduced in Parliament it has gone through many steps in the originating
department, scrutiny by the Cabinet and by the Privy Council Office. Government
bills are drafted by the Department of Justice. Drafting in Canada is very
interesting in that bills are not drafted in one language and then translated.
They are drafted simultaneously by both French and English speaking
lawyers and both versions of the law are equally valid. A private Member of
Parliament who wants to introduce a bill is well advised to go to the Law Clerk
and Parliamentary Counsel of the House whose staff will prepare the bill. If a
bill is going to spend money it will require something called a Royal
Recommendation which can only be obtained by a Minister. This is obviously very
easy for the government to obtain but usually very difficult for a private
Member whether he is on the government side or the opposition side. It is
possible for a spending bill to be introduced and debated without a Royal
Recommendation provided the Recommendation is obtained before third reading.
Bills that propose to raise taxes require a Ways and Means motion, which again
can only be obtained by a Minister.
Once the bill is ready and
notice has been given, it can be introduced by the Member any day during
routine proceedings. Introduction and first reading are pro forma. There is no
vote and no debate. The sole purpose of first reading is to get the bill
printed and distributed. Government Bills are numbered C-1 to C-200. Private
Members’ Bills are numbered C-201 to C-1000. Senate Bills are numbered as they
are introduced starting with S-1.
Second reading is a major step
as it constitutes debate on the principle and object of the bill and referral
to committee. The motion for second reading is amendable although only certain
types of amendments may be moved. One of these is the hoist which moves that
the bill not be read now but 3 months or 6 month hence. If adopted it means
that the bill is dead. A second type of amendment is known as the
reasoned amendment which moves that the bill not be read because it is a bad
idea and you explain why it is a bad idea. Once again this kills the bill. A
third type of amendment is a motion to discharge the bill, which means that the
bill is finished but the subject matter may be referred to a committee.
If the bill is adopted at second
reading it goes off to a committee where witnesses may be heard and the details
of the bill are examined clause by clause. Here the text of the bill can be
amended. Once the bill is adopted by the Committee, with or without amendments,
it is reported back to the House for report stage. This is an opportunity for
all Members of the House to amend the text of the bill. In the last Parliament,
the report stage of a few controversial bills led to several all night sittings
as the House voted on hundreds of amendments proposed by Members.
Once report stage has been
concluded, the bill goes to third reading, which is the last chance to debate
the bill. Amendments are limited to reasoned amendments, a hoist or a motion to
recommit which means the House is asking that the bill be sent back to
committee for further study. If the bill is adopted at third reading it then
goes to the Senate where it follows a similar, although not identical process.
(For example there may be no report stage if a committee has not amended the
bill. However, Senators can amend the text of a bill at third reading)
The Senate rules provide for a
procedure called pre-study which allows a committee to study the subject matter
of a bill before the actual bill is sent to the Senate by the House of Commons.
Thus when a bill arrives, even if it is very complicated, the Senate may deal
with it quickly since the committee is already familiar with the content, has
heard the relevant witnesses, and considered the issues.
Assuming the Senate adopts the
bill in exactly the same form as did the House of Commons, then the bill goes
on to Royal Assent. If the Senate amends the text of the bill it must be sent
back to the House. In that event the Minister, (or the private Member if it is
a Private Member’s bill) gives written notice of a motion describing how he or
she intends to respond to the Senate changes. When called for debate, this
motion is amendable and votable. If the changes are acceptable, then they are
adopted by the House and the bill goes for Royal Assent. The changes can also
be rejected, or some changes can be accepted or amended and others rejected. In
this case the bill is then sent back to the Senate and this process continues
until an identical text is adopted by both Houses or the bill is left on the Order
Paper with no further action.
There is provision in the
Standing Orders for a conference of Members of the two Houses to work to
resolve impasses over the wording of a bill, but this is rarely used – the last
time being in 1947. Of course the Senate can also defeat any bill, as can the
Let me conclude with a few words
about Royal Assent. We are one of the few Parliaments left where the Royal
Assent ceremony takes place in Parliament. Even the British have gone to a much
simpler procedure. In Canada the Crown and the two Houses of Parliament meet in
the Senate Chamber for Royal Assent. The Governor General or her Deputy, a
Supreme Court Justice, gives a nod of the head when the title of the Bill is
read and that constitutes Royal Assent. The simple nod turns a bill into an Act
of Parliament and a Statute of Canada. However, that does not mean the Act is
now in force.
If there is no clause relating
to proclamation, the Act comes into force on midnight of the day Royal Assent
is given. However, many bills contain a clause setting a date when the bill
will come into force, which may be a month or a year or even longer in the
future. It may even be retroactive as is often the case for tax legislation. A
final way for a bill to be proclaimed is by Order in Council. Such Orders are
published in the Canada Gazette. Some bills with multiple parts may come
into force in all three ways, immediately, on a specific date and by Order in
Of course it is not possible to
cover all aspects of parliamentary procedure in a short article. The committee
system, Private Members’ Business, parliamentary privilege and many other
topics would require much more elaboration. Insofar as procedure in the Chamber
is concerned, the Table Officers are available to assist Members to understand
the rules. Publications in both written and electronic format are available.
Both the House and the Library of Parliament have staff members who can help new
or returning Members learn more about parliamentary procedure.