Government Response to Petitions

Since 1986, the Standing Orders have provided that the Ministry shall respond within 45 calendar days to every petition referred to it.94 After petitions are presented to the House, the Clerk of the House ensures the original petition is forwarded to the Privy Council Office,95 which makes arrangements with the appropriate government departments and agencies for the preparation and collection of replies. Government responses to petitions are generally tabled in the House during Routine Proceedings under the rubric “Tabling of Documents”, but may also be deposited with the Clerk.96 Petitions receive individual responses. Any Member who has presented a petition is provided with a copy of the response after it is tabled. After being tabled in the House, government responses to petitions (unlike the petitions themselves) become sessional papers.97

The tabling of government responses to petitions is entered in the Journals. If the tabling is done during Routine Proceedings, the government spokesperson, usually the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, simply informs the House that responses to a certain number of petitions are being tabled; no reference is made to specific petitions or the content of the responses, and the intervention is transcribed in the Debates.

Until 1993, the Standing Orders provided no sanction to apply in the event the government failed to respond to petitions within the prescribed 45-day time frame. Complaints have been raised about breaches of this rule.98 In a ruling on a prima facie question of privilege concerning the failure to table an Order in Council, the Speaker made reference to earlier complaints that responses to petitions, answers to written questions and responses to committee reports were not always tabled within the prescribed time limits.99 The matter of timeliness was referred to a committee, which stated in a report to the House that “statutory and procedural time limits must be complied with … It may be that the time periods set out in the Standing Orders and certain statutes need to be reviewed … Until this is done, however, it is essential that the deadlines be respected”.100

In 2003, the House added Standing Order 36(8)(b), ensuring that the failure of the government to respond to a written question within the requested 45 days would be deemed referred to a standing committee selected by the Member who presented the petition. The Standing Order also provides that the committee must consider the lack of a government response within five sitting days of such a referral.101 The House was of the opinion that this procedure, like the change introduced in 2001 regarding written questions,102 would have a salutary effect in that it would encourage Ministers and departments to comply with the timelines and requirements in the Standing Orders. This presumption has since turned out to be true.103

While normally all proceedings would be terminated when Parliament is prorogued, the Speaker has ruled that government responses to petitions have the same status as Orders for Return (documents which the House has ordered to be produced and presented to the House).104 Pursuant to the rules, such orders continue from one session to the next without a motion to that effect.105 Thus, government responses to petitions ordered in a previous session must be tabled in the new session following a prorogation.106