Debate, Voting and Decorum
The debate in the House of Commons must always be relevant to a definite motion. A motion initiates a discussion and gives rise to the question to be decided by the House. A motion, a debate, and a decision on the question, is the essence of the work of the House.
Process of Debate in the House
During the process of debate, the House follows a basic sequence of steps: providing notice of the motion, moving and seconding the motion, debating the motion, amending the motion, and finally, making a decision on the motion.
Moving the motion
Proposing the motion
Debating the motion
Giving a speech
Amending the motion
In some cases, members may propose to modify the original motion or present a different proposition as an alternative. Amendments must be moved during debate and require no notice. They must be submitted in writing to the Speaker. Debate on the main motion is set aside and the amendment is debated until it has been decided, whereupon debate resumes on the main motion.
Decision on the motion
When debate on a motion has concluded, the Speaker “puts the question” for the House to make a decision. Motions may be adopted or defeated with or without a vote.
The Speaker will ask: “Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?”
- If there are no dissenting voices, the motion is adopted without a vote. Motions may be adopted “on division”, meaning the decision was not unanimous but no vote was held.
- When there are dissenting voices, a vote is taken. This can be either:
- a voice vote (members call out “Yea” or “Nay” when prompted by the Speaker, who judges which side has more support) or
- a recorded vote (one after the other, members rise, their name is called out and their vote is recorded by Table Officers). Five members must rise from their seats immediately after a voice vote to request a recorded vote.
A motion is a proposal moved by a member that the House:
- do something, such as modify the sitting hours of the House;
- order that something be done, such as order a committee to undertake a study on a given subject; or
- express an opinion about some matter, such as a natural disaster.
Only one motion can be debated at any one time. A motion may be:
- defeated; or
A motion is adopted if it receives the support of the majority of the members present in the House at the time at which the decision is made. Every motion, once adopted, becomes either an order, which is an instruction to the Chair or staff, or a resolution, which is when the House expresses an opinion on a specific matter.
The following video provides an overview of what a motion is and how it is different from a bill.
Motions can either be debateable or non-debatable. The Standing Orders indicate which motions are debatable. These may include:
- motions for which written notice is required;
- Orders of the Day, such as motions for the second and third reading of bills or supply motions;
- motions taken up during Routine Proceedings under the rubric Motions; and
- motions to adjourn the House for the purpose of initiating emergency debates.
Motions decided without debate or amendment generally include dilatory motions, which are procedural methods to delay or advance the business of the House. These may include:
- motions that the House do now adjourn;
- motions to proceed to the Orders of the Day; and
- motions that the debate be now adjourned.
In most cases, notices of motion are required to be submitted in writing and published in the Notice Paper. Generally, the written notices of motion are for substantive motions—self-contained motions that are independent of any other question before the House. To bring a substantive proposal before the House, a notice of motion must generally be given. This is to provide members and the House with some warning so that they are not called upon to consider a matter unexpectedly.
There are also provisions in the Standing Orders for notices of motion to be given orally during a sitting of the House, such as notices of motion for closure and notices of motion for time allocation. Furthermore, some types of motions, such as dilatory motions, do not require any notice.
A motion or notice of motion is in the possession of the House under the following conditions:
- once a motion has been moved;
- once a private member’s motion has been transferred to the Order of Precedence; or
- once a government notice of motion or notice of a ways and means motion has been put on the Order Paper as an Order of the Day.
In such a case, a motion or notice of motion cannot be removed from the Order Paper unless ordered by the House.
Curtailment of Debate
Certain rules exist that allow the government to curtail debate (that is, put an end to debate after a specified amount of time) in cases in which it is felt a decision would not otherwise be taken in reasonable time or be taken at all. The most frequently used curtailment mechanisms are closure and time allocation.
Closure is a motion “That debate not be further adjourned”. It requires that the House decide on the matter at the end of the sitting in which the closure motion is adopted. It is a procedural mechanism to end debate on a question by a majority decision of the House, even though not all those who wish to speak may have done so.
The notice for a closure motion may be given by a minister only after debate has begun on the item to which the closure motion is to apply. It can then be moved at any future sitting of the House.
A closure motion is not debatable or amendable and must be moved by a minister. Once moved, a question and answer period of not more than 30 minutes takes place to allow members to question the minister responsible for the item subject to the closure motion, after which the question is put on the motion.
After the adoption of a closure motion, debate on the question can not be adjourned and the votes for the closured business must be put no later than 8:00 p.m.
The time allocation rule allows for specific lengths of time to be set aside for the consideration of one or more stages of a public bill.
The notice for time allocation may be given only after debate has begun on the stage of the bill to which the time allocation motion is to apply. It can then be moved at any future sitting of the House. No notice is required to move a time allocation motion if there is agreement among the representatives of all or a majority of the recognized parties to proceed with time allocation.
The wording of a motion for time allocation must specify the terms (sitting days or hours) of the time allocation. A motion for time allocation must be moved by a minister in the House, and it is neither debatable nor amendable. A period of not more than 30 minutes is set aside for members to question the minister responsible for the bill, after which the question is put on the time allocation motion.
After the adoption of a motion for time allocation, debate on the bill then becomes subject to the time limits imposed by the motion.
The will of the House is determined by way of a vote. Once debate on a motion has concluded, the Speaker puts the question and the House pronounces itself on the motion. A simple majority of the members present and voting is required to adopt or defeat a question.
A vote in the House can take place by a voice vote or by a recorded division, which is where the names of those voting for and against a motion are registered in the official record of the House.
A recorded division on a motion, if demanded, need not be held immediately. At the request of the Chief Government Whip or the Chief Opposition Whip, it may be deferred to a later time pursuant to various provisions in the Standing Orders or by a special order of the House.
When members have been called in for a recorded division, no further debate is permitted. From the time the Speaker begins to put the question until the results of the vote are announced, members:
- are not to enter or leave the Chamber, cross the floor of the House or make any noise or disturbance;
- must be in their assigned seat in the Chamber and must have heard the motion read for their votes to be recorded; and
- must remain seated until the result is announced by the Clerk.
Unanimous consent is the consent of all members present in the House. It is required when the House wishes to set aside its rules or usual practices without notice. Actions taken by unanimous consent do not constitute precedents.
Unanimous consent is frequently used as a means of extending the courtesies of the House, such as:
- briefly extending the length of speeches or the length of the questions and comments period following speeches;
- permitting the sharing of speaking time;
- permitting a member who has already spoken once to a question to make additional comments; and
- allowing a private member to table a document referred to in debate.
The organization and expedition of House business is also commonly accomplished by unanimous consent. This may involve:
- changes to the order of business;
- the suspension of sittings;
- alterations in adjournment hours or sitting days; and
- special orders respecting procedures for individual events.
With unanimous consent, bills have been advanced through more than one stage in a single day, have been referred to a committee of the whole rather than a standing committee, and have even been amended.
During recorded divisions, unanimous consent may be sought to apply the results of one vote to another vote. It may also be used to deem recorded divisions be demanded and be deemed deferred.
Rules of Debate & Decorum
The Speaker is given the authority by the Standing Orders to maintain order in the Chamber by ensuring that the House’s rules and practices are respected, and to decide on any matters of procedure that may arise.
In addition, the Speaker has the duty to maintain the orderly conduct of debate by restoring order when disorder arises, either on the floor of the Chamber or in the galleries, and by ruling on points of order and questions of privilege raised by members.
Nonetheless, while it is the Speaker who is charged with maintaining the dignity and decorum of the House, members have been reminded on multiple occasions by the Chair that they, themselves must take responsibility for their behaviour and conduct their business in an appropriate fashion.
The Speaker has the authority to decide which members will speak. He or she is guided by lists created by the whips of the various political parties. Independent members may also speak at the Speaker’s discretion.
Members seek recognition to speak by rising in their place.
Any member who wishes to participate in the proceedings must:
- be in their assigned seat to be recognized and to speak;
- address their remarks to the Chair;
- be in contemporary business attire (including a jacket and tie for male members); and
- not use any displays or props in the Chamber.
Members may address the House in English, French or an indigenous language. Simultaneous interpretation is always available in English and French. Members may also request to have simultaneous interpretation into English and French of their interventions in an indigenous language in both the Chamber and committees.
The Standing Orders contain provisions determining the length of members’ speeches during debate. In most cases, the maximum length of a speech is either 20 minutes or 10 minutes, plus an additional 10 or 5 minutes for questions and comments, although there are instances where members may speak for an unlimited amount of time. For more information, see the document Time Limits on Debate and Lengths of Speeches.
Debates normally continue until no member wishes to speak. Some Standing Orders or special orders provide for deadlines within which the Speaker can put the question, such as motions subjected to time allocation or closure.
Referring to Members
When referring to other members in the House, a member must refer to other members by their constituency name, or by their title or portfolio they hold (such as a minister, parliamentary secretary, House leaders and party whips).
Members must also refrain from mentioning the presence or absence of a member in the Chamber. Remarks directed specifically at another member that question that member’s integrity, honesty or character are also not in order. Should such remarks be made, the offending member will be requested to withdraw the comments.
Reflections on the House and the Senate
Disrespectful reflections on Parliament or on the House and the Senate as component parts of Parliament are not permitted.
Reflections on the Speaker
It is unacceptable to question the integrity and impartiality of a Presiding Officer, and if such comments are made, the Speaker will interrupt the member and may request that the remarks be withdrawn.
References to the Sovereign, Royal Family, Governor General and Members of the Judiciary
Members are prohibited from speaking disrespectfully of the Sovereign, the Royal Family or the Governor General. Additionally, all attacks and censures of judges and courts by members in debate have always been considered unparliamentary.
Reference by Name to Members of the Public
Members are generally discouraged from referring by name to persons who are not members of Parliament and therefore do not enjoy parliamentary immunity, to protect the member of the public’s reputation from being damaged. In exceptional circumstances, members may refer to a member of the public by name should they deem it to be in the national interest, as they often do during “Statements by Members”.
The use of offensive, provocative or threatening language in the House is strictly forbidden.
Repetition and Relevance in Debate
The Speaker has the authority to call a member to order if they persist in repeating an argument already made during debate or in addressing a subject that is not relevant to the question before the House.
The Sub Judice Convention
The sub judice convention prevents members from referring to matters during debate that await judicial decisions. Such matters are also barred from being the subject of motions or questions in the House. The convention, however, does not apply to legislation. No rule exists in the Standing Orders to prevent the House from discussing a matter that is sub judice; the Speaker considers precedents and interprets the convention. This convention is in place to protect any party in a court case or judicial inquiry from any prejudicial effect of a debate in the House on their case.
To prevent unnecessary interruptions when a member is speaking:
- no other member is permitted to cross between the Chair and the member who is addressing the Chair;
- no member is to pass between the Chair and the table;
- the members must sit down when the chair occupant rises; and
- the only interruption permitted is for a member to raise a point of order.
While in the Chamber, members:
- must not consume food or any beverage other than water;
- should bow to the Speaker when leaving the Chamber or crossing the floor;
- must not take photos; and
- must not make noise or disturbances through the use of cellular phones in the Chamber.
The Speaker may use several options if a member breaches a rule of debate, is disruptive to the Chamber or challenges the authority of the Chair by refusing to obey the Speaker’s call to order. In such instances, the Speaker may:
- recognize another member; or
- refuse to recognize the member until the offending remarks are retracted and the member apologizes.
Should a member persistently disregard the authority of the Speaker and their request to follow the rules and practices of the House, the Speaker may “name” a member. In this instance, the Speaker addresses the member by name rather than by constituency or title and order the member’s withdrawal from the Chamber for the remainder of the sitting day. This disciplinary action is a coercive measure of last resort.
Points of Order
A point of order is raised when a member believes that the rules or practices of the House have been incorrectly applied or overlooked during the proceedings. A member may not engage in debate under the guise of a point of order.
A point of order may be raised at most times in the proceedings, provided it is raised and presented concisely as soon as possible after the irregularity occurs. Notable exceptions include:
- points of order arising out of adjournment proceedings, which are taken up the next sitting day; and
- points of order arising out of Statements by Members or Question Period are delayed until after Question Period.
It is the responsibility of the Speaker to determine the merits of a point of order and to resolve the issue. The Chair may call the attention of the House to an irregularity in debate or procedure, without waiting for the intervention of a member.
When a point of order is raised, the Speaker may rule on the matter immediately, or may take the matter under advisement and come back to the House later with a formal ruling. The Speaker may also seek guidance from members on the point of order before coming to a decision.
Once the decision is rendered, the Speaker’s ruling cannot be appealed. For more information about Speaker’s rulings, see the Our Procedure article on parliamentary procedure.
For more information:
- House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, 2017
- Standing Orders of the House of Commons