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House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

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While oral questions are posed without notice on matters deemed to be of an urgent nature, written questions are placed after notice on the Order Paper with the intent of seeking from the Ministry detailed, lengthy or technical information relating to “public affairs”.[176] Forty‑eight hours’ written notice is required before a question may be placed on the Order Paper.[177] Members are allowed a maximum of four questions on the Order Paper at any one time.[178] A Member may indicate that he or she wishes to receive an oral reply to a question during Routine Proceedings by marking the written question with an asterisk at the time it is submitted.[179] Questions so designated are known as “starred questions”, and Members are permitted a maximum of three starred questions out of the allowed four at any one time.[180] Members may also request that the Ministry respond within 45 calendar days, generally by adding a sentence to that effect either before or after the text of the question, or by so indicating to the Clerk when submitting the question.[181] All questions are assigned a number when they are submitted.

*   Historical Perspective

Provisions allowing for written questions to be posed to the Ministry have been included in the rules of the House of Commons since 1867.[182] The rule, virtually identical to today’s Standing Order 39(1), provided that questions could be asked of private Members as well as Ministers, although it appears that, from the beginning, the practice saw questions directed only to Ministers.[183] That practice has continued to this day, and has been periodically reinforced with additions to the Standing Order referring to the manner that answers are to be provided to Order Paper questions; in each case, questions to Ministers appear to be assumed.[184]

Between 1867 and 1896, when a written question was called for consideration, the Member in whose name the question stood would rise and read the question, to which the Minister responsible would furnish a response. When a question was called and a response provided, the exchange was printed in full in the Debates; supplementary questions were not allowed.[185] Any questions called and not answered were automatically dropped from the Order Paper and had to be renewed if a Member still wanted a response.[186]

Beginning in 1896, reforms were made to shorten the time taken by the House to consider written questions. A numbering process for written questions was instituted, removing the necessity of a Member reading in full the text of the question when called for consideration.[187] In 1906, written questions likely to require lengthy responses could be transferred without debate to another section of the Order Paper as notices of motions.[188] This rule was adopted because it was thought that too much time was being taken up with reading the answers to the questions in the House. Also at this time, questions that had been called for consideration but not answered could be allowed, at the government’s request and with the consent of the Members involved, to stand and retain their place on the Order Paper instead of being automatically dropped.[189] In 1910, the rules were amended to allow Ministers to have their answers appear in the Debates as if they were read; Members who wished to receive an oral response to a written question could do so by marking it with an asterisk. At the same time, a new rule made it possible for the government to table lengthy or detailed responses to questions. These tabled responses were called “Orders for Return”.[190] In most cases, the returns were tabled immediately after the order was deemed made. These responses became sessional papers and were not printed in the Debates.

The procedure for answering written questions changed relatively little until 1963 when the process was further refined in order to allow the House to deal specifically with those questions that the government was ready to answer and prepared to make public. In order to dispose of the available responses, the new practice permitted the House to consider only those questions to be answered that day by the government, rather than forcing it to proceed through every written question on the Order Paper. Once these were dealt with, the government would request that all remaining questions be allowed to stand.[191] In 1986, the House agreed to a limit of four questions per Member on the Order Paper at any one time,[192] three of which could be answered orally in the House,[193] while also codifying the right of Members to request a reply to a written question within 45 calendar days of its filing.[194] In 1991, the rules were again amended to allow Members whose questions had remained unanswered after 45 days to take the matter up during the Adjournment Proceedings.[195] In 2001, the rules were further amended to provide for the referral of the matter of the failure of the government to respond to a written question to an appropriate standing committee once the 45-day period had elapsed.[196]

*   Guidelines for Written Questions

In general, written questions are lengthy, often containing two or more subsections, and seek detailed or technical information from one or more government departments or agencies. Restrictions governing the form and content of written questions are found both within the rules[197] and as a result of custom, usage and tradition. Several traditional guidelines and conditions date back to Confederation. With time and following several Speakers’ decisions, the list of restrictions enumerated in procedural texts grew very long.[198] Concurrently, some became outdated or irrelevant. Aside from a 1965 Speaker’s statement indicating that some of these restrictions no longer applied, there is no definitive breakdown of which of these are still valid.[199] Thus, a very large measure of responsibility for ensuring the regularity of written questions fell to the Clerk.

Acting on the Speaker’s behalf, the Clerk has full authority to ensure that questions placed on the Notice Paper conform to the rules and practices of the House.[200] In so doing, the Clerk applies a set of guidelines derived from the Standing Orders and from the practice of the House similar to the guidelines used for oral questions. Thus, a question must not:

*       concern a subject matter which does not pertain to public affairs;

*       contain an expression of opinion, or request the government’s opinion;

*       supply information to the House;

*       be hypothetical;

*       request information which could be obtained through a notice of motion for the production of papers;

*       raise matters under the control of local authorities not responsible to the government or Parliament;

*       seek information about matters which are in their nature secret, such as decisions or proceedings of Cabinet or advice given to the Crown by law officers; or

*       seek from a former Minister information regarding transactions which took place during that person’s term of office.[201]

Given that the purpose of a written question is to seek and receive a precise, detailed answer, it is incumbent on a Member submitting a question for the Notice Paper “to ensure that it is formulated carefully enough to elicit the precise information sought”.[202] Since questions must be coherent and concise, the Clerk may split a question into two or more questions if it is too broad or if it contains unrelated subquestions.[203] If there are any irregularities in a question, the Clerk communicates this to the Member who then has the opportunity to amend the question before it is placed on the Notice Paper.[204] It is not the responsibility of the Clerk to assess the merit of the question or the government’s ability to respond to a question.[205]

Withdrawal of a Written Question

A Member may withdraw a written question from the Order Paper by advising the Clerk of the House in writing that he or she wishes the question to be withdrawn. A Member may also rise in the House to request that the Speaker withdraw the question.[206]

*   Replies

Replies to written questions may be presented each sitting day during Routine Proceedings under the rubric “Questions on the Order Paper”.[207] A Member, usually the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader, rises to announce the numbers of the questions being answered that day; the text of the question(s) and the answer(s) appear in that day’s Debates. At the same time, the Parliamentary Secretary provides oral responses to starred questions.[208] Normally, the Parliamentary Secretary seeks the consent of the House to deem a starred question answered orally without actually reading aloud the text of the answer.[209] The text of the question and the answer are published in the Debates.[210] If there is no agreement, then the Parliamentary Secretary would proceed to read the answer. The Parliamentary Secretary may also seek consent to table a document in response to a question, a process known as transforming a reply into an Order for Return.[211] This is done by the Speaker asking the House whether there is agreement to proceed in that way.[212] If there is no agreement, then the government would either not proceed with the question on that day,[213] or alternatively have a Minister table the answer since a Minister does not need consent to do so. Finally, the Parliamentary Secretary requests that any remaining unanswered questions be allowed to stand and retain their place on the Order Paper. This request is routinely made and granted.[214] The Speaker has indicated that, as this procedure has evolved to become an automatic proceeding, this request is not debatable.[215] If no questions are to be answered that day, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader requests that all questions be allowed to stand on the Order Paper.

The guidelines that apply to the form and content of written questions are also applicable to the answers provided by the government. As such, no argument or opinion is to be given and only the information needed to respond to the question is to be provided in an effort to maintain the process of written questions as an exchange of information rather than an opportunity for debate.[216] As with oral questions, it is acceptable for the government, in responding to a written question, to indicate to the House that it cannot supply an answer.[217] On occasion, the government has supplied supplementary or revised replies to questions already answered.[218] The Speaker, however, has ruled that it is not in order to indicate in a response to a written question the total time and cost incurred by the government in the preparation of that response.[219]

There are no provisions in the rules for the Speaker to review government responses to questions. Nonetheless, on several occasions, Members have raised questions of privilege in the House regarding the accuracy of information contained in responses to written questions; in none of these cases was the matter found to be a prima facie breach of privilege.[220] The Speaker has ruled that it is not the role of the Chair to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate nor to “assess the likelihood of an Hon. Member knowing whether the facts contained in a document are correct”.[221]

Questions Not Responded to Within 45 Calendar Days

When filing questions, a Member may request that the Ministry respond within 45 calendar days.[222] If a written question has not been answered within the required 45‑day period, the failure of the government to respond to the question is deemed referred to a standing committee selected by the Member in whose name the question stands.[223] The question is designated on the Order Paper as “referred to committee”. The Chair of the committee is required to convene a meeting within five sitting days and the committee may then investigate the failure of the government to respond to the written question and report back to the House.[224] However, the committee is not obliged to report back to the House, or to follow any specific procedure in considering the matter.[225] On occasion, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister responsible for tabling the response has been invited to appear before a committee to explain the delay;[226] departmental officials have also appeared.[227] If the response to the written question has been tabled or the committee has been advised that the tabling is imminent, no further action is usually taken.[228] The question remains on the Order Paper designated as “referred to committee”, which allows the Member to submit an additional question; however, the Member is still restricted to a maximum of four “non-designated” questions at any one time.

If the Member does not wish to have the question transferred to committee, the Member may rise in the House during Routine Proceedings under the rubric “Questions on the Order Paper” and give notice of his or her intention to have the subject matter of the question transferred to the Adjournment Proceedings.[229] The question is then removed from the Order Paper, and the order for referral to a committee is dropped. This procedure also allows Members to submit an additional question for placement on the Order Paper.

While the Standing Orders do provide for the referral to committee of the failure of the government to respond to a written question within 45 days, the Ministry is not compelled to reply within this time, and Members have raised this complaint in the House on numerous occasions. In these discussions, the Chair has indicated that it has no power under the rules to order the government to produce an answer within the allotted 45 days.[230]

Orders for Return

In some cases, long and complex questions which require information from a number of government departments, or which would require lengthy replies not compatible with publishing in the Debates, are transformed to become Orders for Return (that is, documents that must be provided following an order adopted by the House). Although the rule specifies that it is a Minister who must be of the opinion that a reply to a question should be in the form of a return, and that it is a Minister who must state that he or she has no objection to laying such a return upon the Table,[231] in practice the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader assumes the responsibility for communicating that opinion to the House. The agreement of the House is requested and usually granted.[232] The return is tabled and becomes a sessional paper.[233] As such, it is available to all Members on request from the Clerk, but is not published in the Debates. It is not necessary for the return to answer every part of the original question.[234]

The rules also provide the Speaker with the authority to transform a written question into a notice of motion, if he or she believes that a question would require a lengthy reply and if he or she is asked by the government to have the question stand as a notice of motion.[235] Such a notice of motion could then be considered only during Private Members’ Business. However, this rule has been invoked only once,[236] and in a ruling by Speaker Fraser in 1989, the Chair refused a request to transform a written question into a notice of motion. In choosing not to proceed with the government’s request, the Speaker stated that the Chair was:

unable to comply with the terms of the Standing Order in today’s context without prejudicing the right of private Members to control fully their business by choosing for themselves how best to seek information: by placing questions on the Order Paper, perhaps requesting an answer from the Government within a 45‑day period; or by having a Notice of Motion, if chosen after a draw, debated during Private Members’ Business.[237]

The Speaker remarked that the rule, adopted by the House in 1906, had been unused for many years and, as a result, its invocation decades later would be counter to the series of reforms concerning written questions that had been implemented since then. The Speaker suggested that the government, in responding to a written question requiring a lengthy or detailed response, could make it an Order for Return, a procedurally acceptable and widely used practice. The Chair also submitted that the government may decline to answer a written question but, at the same time, may furnish a reason for its refusal. Similarly, the government may provide a reason why the response could not be provided within 45 days.

*   Effect of Prorogation on Written Questions

Prorogation of a session of Parliament clears the Order Paper and cancels any requests for information contained under the rubric “Questions on the Order Paper”. Members who wish to pursue their requests for information from the Ministry must resubmit their questions in order for them to be reconsidered in a new session.[238]

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[176] Standing Order 39(1). The procedure for submitting written questions for the Order Paper is identical to that for placing bills and motions on the Order Paper. See Chapter 12, “The Process of Debate”, and Chapter 24, “The Parliamentary Record”.

[177] Standing Order 54.

[178] Standing Order 39(4).

[179] Standing Order 39(3)(a).

[180] Standing Order 39(3)(a).

[181] Standing Order 39(5)(a).

[182] Rules, Orders and Forms of Proceeding of the House of Commons of Canada, 1868, Rule No. 29.

[183] Bourinot, J.G., Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in the Dominion of Canada, South Hackensack, New Jersey: Rothman Reprints Inc., 1971 (reprint of 1st ed., 1884), p. 321. Standing Order 39(1) states that written questions may also be addressed to private Members concerning any bill, motion or other public matter connected with the business of the House with which such Members may be concerned, but it does not address how these responses are to be provided. Despite the rule, the practice is that recipients of inquiries by way of written questions have always been Ministers. Indeed, there are no known precedents of written questions being addressed to private Members. Any attempt to do so would be contrary to the long‑established practice and to the real purpose of asking questions of the Ministry.

[184] Standing Order 39(3), (5), (6), and (7).

[185] Debates, May 31, 1895, cols. 1882‑3.

[186] Rules, Orders, and Forms of Proceeding of the House of Commons of Canada, 1876, Rule No. 25.

[187] Debates, September 16, 1896, cols. 1303‑4. This change was made at the direction of the Speaker and was not formalized into the rules. A written question would be read if any Member so requested (Debates, March 21, 1900, cols. 2367‑97).

[188] Debates, July 10, 1906, cols. 7602‑3.

[189] Rules, Orders, and Forms of Proceeding of the House of Commons of Canada, 1906, Rule No. 31.

[190] Debates, April 29, 1910, cols. 8367‑9.

[191] Debates, July 17, 1963, p. 2295. Until then, when the House reached “Questions on the Order Paper”, the Speaker called each question in turn with the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary interrupting occasionally to say “Answered” when they wished to send an answer to the Table (Stewart, p. 65).

[192] Standing Order 39(4). See Journals, February 6, 1986, pp. 1653‑4; February 13, 1986, p. 1710. Prior to 1986, there was no limit to the number of written questions requiring written responses and, as a result, there were many sessions where the number of questions on the Order Paper exceeded 2,000. In several sessions in the 1970s, one Member alone, Tom Cossitt (Leeds), had several hundred questions standing in his name.

[193] Standing Order 39(3)(a).

[194] Standing Order 39(5)(a). See Journals, February 6, 1986, pp. 1653‑4; February 13, 1986, p. 1710.

[195] Journals, April 11, 1991, pp. 2905, 2909‑10.

[196] Standing Order 39(5)(b). See the Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, par. 18, presented to the House on June 1, 2001 (Journals, p. 465) and concurred in on October 4, 2001 (Journals, p. 693).

[197] Standing Order 39(1) and (2).

[198] See list of restrictions published in successive editions of Bourinot and Beauchesne.

[199] Journals, March 30, 1965, pp. 1191‑4, in particular pp. 1193‑4.

[200] Standing Order 39(2).

[201] See Standing Order 39(1) and the list of restrictions for written questions enumerated in Beauchesne, A., Beauchesne’s Rules & Forms of the House of Commons of Canada, 6th ed., edited by A. Fraser, W.F. Dawson and J.A. Holtby, Toronto: The Carswell Company Limited, 1989, pp. 124-6. For an example of a question deemed inadmissible, see the point of order and subsequent Speaker’s ruling in Debates, December 11, 2002, pp. 2564‑5.

[202] Debates, February 9, 1995, pp. 9425‑7, in particular p. 9426. Speaker Parent was responding to a question of privilege raised in regard to a reply to a written question which a Member felt was inaccurate. The Speaker ruled that it was a matter of interpretation of the wording of the question placed on the Order Paper.

[203] Standing Order 39(2). See, for example, Debates, February 8, 1999, pp. 11531‑3; October 18, 2006, pp. 3933-4.

[204] Bourinot, 4th ed., p. 313.

[205] Debates, February 6, 2003, pp. 3254-6.

[206] Journals, January 13, 1910, p. 154. See, for example, Debates, March 14, 1956, p. 2124; May 3, 1993, pp. 18822‑3; February 11, 1998, p. 3740. The authorities in the Privy Council Office coordinating responses are informed when questions are withdrawn.

[207] Standing Order 30(3).

[208] See, for example, Debates, May 15, 1989, p. 1694; May 14, 1990, pp. 11372‑3; June 6, 2002, p. 12226; November 5, 2003, p. 9200.

[209] Although the practice is almost invariably to deem a starred question answered orally, the Speaker indicated, in response to a point of order, that, strictly speaking, the rule requires oral responses to be given to written questions and it must be observed unless it is the disposition of the House to dispense with this procedure (Debates, May 24, 1989, p. 2102).

[210] See, for example, Debates, March 10, 2005, pp. 4236‑7.

[211] See, for example, Debates, March 10, 2005, p. 4237.

[212] See, for example, Debates, December 12, 1991, p. 6181; September 18, 2006, pp. 2912‑5.

[213] See, for example, Debates, March 13, 1995, p. 10397; March 17, 1995, p. 10671.

[214] Standing Order 42(1) reads: “Questions put by Members and notices of motions not taken up when called may (upon the request of the government) be allowed to stand and retain their precedence; otherwise they will disappear from the Order Paper. They may, however, be renewed”. See Debates, February 28, 1977, pp. 3473‑4 and May 27, 1977, p. 6015 where the Speaker indicated that this procedure is followed each day for the benefit of the questioner who would otherwise have to resubmit his or her question for insertion on the Order Paper. It is not clear what would happen if consent to stand the remaining questions were denied, although it may be that the Speaker would revert to the pre‑1963 practice of calling each question in turn with the Parliamentary Secretary interrupting occasionally to say “Answered”. See Bourinot, 4th ed., p. 315; Stewart, p. 65. If the Parliamentary Secretary were to forget to ask that the remaining questions be allowed to stand, the Speaker would remind him or her to make the request (see, for example, Debates, October 9, 1996, p. 5299).

[215] Debates, May 12, 1971, p. 5733.

[216] Standing Order 39(1).

[217] Debates, May 5, 1971, p. 5515. See also Debates, February 25, 1991, p. 17590; March 8, 1991, p. 18237; September 15, 2003, p. 7352; November 15, 2005, pp. 9664‑5.

[218] See, for example, Debates, November 18, 1994, pp. 7993‑4; December 13, 1994, pp. 9003‑6; December 15, 1994, pp. 9116‑8; April 29, 2004, p. 2565; November 14, 2005, p. 9593; March 19, 2007, p. 7571.

[219] Debates, October 2, 1991, p. 3147. The government has circumvented this procedural limitation by having a government Member place a question on the Order Paper requesting cost amounts for the preparation of responses to written questions for specified time periods. See, for example, Debates, April 7, 1992, pp. 9410‑1; May 8, 1992, p. 10435; June 19, 1992, p. 12455; April 26, 1993, p. 18462.

[220] See, for example, Debates, December 12, 2002, pp. 2637‑8; February 6, 2003, p. 3256; February 8, 2005, pp. 3233-4.

[221] Debates, February 28, 1983, p. 23278. The Speaker has also suggested that if a Member is not satisfied with a response, the Member could resubmit the question for placement on the Order Paper (Debates, March 26, 2003, pp. 4719‑20) or ask that the question be transferred for debate under the Adjournment Proceedings (Debates, March 29, 2001, p. 2500).

[222] Standing Order 39(5)(a). If the Member does not specifically request that this timeframe be respected, the government has no obligation to do so (Debates, June 15, 2005, p. 7190).

[223] Standing Order 39(5)(b). See, for example, Journals, January 28, 2002, pp. 965‑9; January 27, 2003, pp. 316-7; March 22, 2004, pp. 187-8. The government often tables responses to outstanding questions within days of their referral to committee. See, for example, Journals, April 26, 2004, pp. 313-4 (referred to committee); April 28, 2004, pp. 331-2 (response tabled); September 18, 2006, pp. 391-2 (referred to committee); September 19, 2006, pp. 393‑4 (response tabled). Once the matter has been referred to committee, Members have been encouraged to raise any concerns with the committee rather than in the House (Debates, January 29, 2002, p. 8446).

[224] See, for example, Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, Minutes of Proceedings, February 3, 2005, Meeting No. 17. Pursuant to an order of reference made on January 31, 2005 (Journals, pp. 365-6), the Committee considered the failure of the government to respond to a written question, heard statements from government officials, and adopted a motion “expressing displeasure” in the Ministry for failing to respond to the question. The Committee did not report back to the House on the matter.

[225] In response to a point of order concerning a committee’s decision not to deal with the failure of the government to respond within 45 days, Deputy Speaker Kilger outlined various options a committee could follow. He stated: “The committee decides how it wishes to proceed. It may decide to proceed no further with the matter; to invite witnesses to appear; not to report back to the House; or to report back to the House: one, stating that it has considered the matter and considers it closed; two, stating that it has considered the matter and recommending improvements in the departmental or agency responsiveness; three, stating that it has considered the matter and recommending to the Member certain actions to facilitate a timely response; four, stating that it has considered the matter and making other pertinent recommendations” (Debates, February 4, 2002, pp. 8664‑5).

[226] See, for example, Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, Evidence, January 30, 2003, Meeting No. 15; Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, Evidence, May 14, 2003, Meeting No. 45.

[227] See, for example, Standing Committee on Finance, Evidence, February 4, 2002, Meeting No. 76; Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Evidence, September 22, 2003, Meeting No. 37.

[228] See, for example, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Evidence, May 27, 2003, Meeting No. 36; Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, Evidence, April 29, 2004, Meeting No. 11.

[229] Standing Order 39(5)(b). The transfer of a question directly from the Order Paper into an Adjournment Proceedings item has occurred only twice (Debates, November 20, 1992, p. 13720; September 25, 1995, p. 14819). Members’ reluctance to avail themselves of this opportunity in part led to the rule changes in 2001, which allowed the matter of the government’s failure to respond to a written question to be referred to committee.

[230] See, for example, Debates, May 18, 1989, p. 1891; March 10, 1992, p. 7938; May 6, 1996, pp. 2366‑7; February 8, 1999, pp. 11531‑3.

[231] Standing Order 39(7).

[232] Consent has been denied on occasion (Debates, June 1, 1992, pp. 11169‑70; March 13, 1995, p. 10397). The same request was later made and granted (Debates, June 5, 1992, p. 11477; March 17, 1995, p. 10671).

[233] See, for example, Journals, September 23, 1994, p. 725; December 13, 1996, pp. 1018‑9; September 18, 2006, pp. 2912-5. The government has also presented a revised or supplementary return. See, for example, Journals, April 2, 1998, p. 664; April 30, 2004, pp. 359‑60; March 19, 2007, pp. 1101‑3.

[234] Journals, November 16, 1962, pp. 285‑7, in particular p. 286. See also Debates, November 22, 1994, pp. 8077‑8 where a Member rose on a point of order to complain that the government had tabled only one part of an answer to his question. The government replied that the responses would not be forthcoming because the cost of supplying the information would be substantial. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader suggested that if the Member insisted on additional information, the question could be placed again on the Order Paper.

[235] Standing Order 39(6).

[236] Debates, February 16, 1923, pp. 343‑4.

[237] Debates, June 14, 1989, pp. 3023‑6. See also Debates, May 30, 1989, pp. 2333‑44. The process for selecting private Members’ motions for debate has since been changed. See Chapter 21, “Private Members’ Business”.

[238] Debates, April 12, 1991, p. 19459; February 4, 2004, pp. 107‑8.

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