House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …

12. The Process of Debate


In order to bring a proposal before the House and obtain a decision on it, a motion is necessary. [4]  A motion is a proposal moved by one Member in accordance with well-established rules that the House do something, or order something done or express an opinion with regard to some matter. [5]  A motion initiates a discussion and gives rise to the question to be decided by the House. [6]  This is the process followed by the House when transacting business.

While there may be many items on the Order Paper awaiting the consideration of the House, only one motion can be debated in the House at any one time. [7]  After a motion has been proposed to the House by the Chair, the House is formally seized of it. A motion may be debated, amended, superseded, adopted, negatived or withdrawn. [8] 

A motion is adopted if it receives the support of the majority of the Members present in the House at the time the decision on it is made. Every motion, once adopted, becomes either an order or a resolution of the House. Through its orders, the House regulates its proceedings or gives an instruction to its Members or officers, or one of its committees. A resolution of the House makes a declaration of opinion or purpose; [9]  it does not have the effect of requiring that any action be taken — nor is it binding. The House has frequently brought forth resolutions in order to show support for some action. [10] 

A motion must be drafted in such a way that, should it be adopted by the House, “it may at once become the resolution … or order which it purports to be”. [11]  For example, it is usual for the text of a motion to begin with the word “That”. Examples may be found of motions with preambles, but this is considered out of keeping with usual practice. [12]  It is customary for motions to be expressed in the affirmative. A motion should not contain any objectionable or irregular wording. It should not be argumentative or written in the style of a speech. [13] 

Debatable and Non-debatable Motions

Before 1913, the rules provided that a limited number of matters were to be decided without debate; however, the general practice until then was that all motions were debatable barring the existence of some rule or practice to the contrary. [14]  In 1913, the Standing Orders were amended to specify that all motions were to be decided without debate or amendment unless specifically recognized as debatable in the text of the rule. [15]  The Standing Orders therefore list those motions which are debatable and state that all others, unless otherwise provided in the Standing Orders, are to be decided without debate or amendment. [16] 

Debatable motions generally include:

  • motions of which written notice is required;
  • all Orders of the Day, with the exception of the concurrence in a Ways and Means motion;
  • motions taken up during Routine Proceedings under the rubric “Motions”; and
  • adjournment motions for the purpose of emergency debates.

As a general rule, every question that is debatable is amendable. Exceptions are the motion to adjourn the House for the purpose of an emergency debate and the previous question (the motion “That this question be now put”).

Motions decided without debate or amendment generally include:

  • motions that the House do now adjourn;
  • motions to proceed to the Orders of the Day;
  • motions that the House proceeds to another order of business;
  • motions that the debate be now adjourned; and
  • motions that the question be postponed to a specific day.

Classification of Motions

There is no exact way of classifying motions. [17]  Generally, they may be grouped into those motions which are self-contained and require notice and those which are dependent on some other proceeding or motion and do not require any notice. In the first group are found substantive motions. In the second group are found subsidiary (or ancillary) and privileged motions. (See Figure 12.1, Classification of Motions.)

Figure 12.1 – Classification of Motions
Image depicting, in a series of boxes linked by lines, the classification of motions into those that require notice and are independent (such as substantive motions), and those that do not require notice and dependent on another motion or proceeding (such as subsidiary or privileged motions). Privileged motions are also then further divided into amendments and superseding motions (including the previous question and dilatory motions).

Substantive Motions

Substantive motions are independent proposals which are complete by themselves, not incidental to or dependent on any proceeding before the House. They are used to elicit an opinion or action of the House. They are amendable and must be drafted in such a way as to enable the House to express agreement or disagreement with what is proposed. Such motions normally require written notice before they can be moved in the House. They include, for example, private Members’ motions, opposition motions on Supply days and government motions.

Subsidiary Motions

Subsidiary motions, also known as ancillary motions, are procedural in nature, dependent on an order already made by the House, and are used to move forward a question then before the House. [18]  For example, motions for the second and third readings of bills, and motions to commit (i.e., to refer a matter to a Committee of the Whole or other committee) are subsidiary motions which are debatable and amendable. [19]  Like privileged motions, they may be moved without notice. [20] 

Privileged Motions

A privileged motion (not to be confused with a motion based on a question of privilege) differs from a substantive motion in that it arises from and is dependent on the subject under debate. A privileged motion may be moved without notice when a debatable motion is before the House; the privileged motion then takes precedence over the original motion under debate. Privileged motions can either be amendments or superseding motions. Both types seek to set aside the question under consideration and may be moved only when that question is under debate.


A motion in amendment arises out of debate and is proposed either to modify the original motion in order to make it more acceptable to the House or to present a different proposition as an alternative to the original. It requires no notice [21]  and is submitted in writing to the Chair. The provision that a motion be in writing ensures that, if the motion is in order, it is proposed to the House in the exact terms of the mover. After the amendment has been moved, seconded and examined as to its procedural acceptability, the Chair submits it to the House. 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 and other amendments may be proposed. Just as the text of a main motion may be amended, an amendment may itself be amended. A sub-amendment is an amendment proposed to an amendment. In most cases, there is no limit on the number of amendments which may be moved; however, only one amendment and one sub-amendment may be before the House at any one time. [22]

An amendment must be relevant to the main motion. It must not stray from the main motion but aim to further refine its meaning and intent. [23]  An amendment should take the form of a motion to:

  • leave out certain words in order to add other words;
  • leave out certain words; or
  • insert or add other words to the main motion.

An amendment should be framed so that, if agreed to, it will leave the main motion intelligible and consistent with itself. [24] 

An amendment is out of order procedurally, if:

  • it is not relevant to the main motion [25]  (i.e., it deals with a matter foreign to the main motion or exceeds the scope of the motion, [26]  or introduces a new proposition which should properly be the subject of a substantive motion with notice [27] );
  • it raises a question substantially the same as one which the House has decided in the same session or conflicts with an amendment already agreed to; [28] 
  • it anticipates a notice of motion on the Order Paper[29] 
  • it is the direct negative of the main motion and would produce the same result as the defeat of the main motion; [30]  or
  • one part of the amendment is out of order. [31] 

When an amendment is being debated, the mover of that amendment may not move an amendment to his or her amendment. If the Member wishes to amend the amendment, he or she must seek the consent of the House to withdraw the original amendment and propose a new one. [32] 


Most of what applies to amendments also applies to sub-amendments. Sub-amendments must be strictly relevant to the amendment and seek to modify the amendment, not the original question; [33]  they cannot enlarge on the amendment, introduce new matters foreign to the amendment or differ in substance from the amendment. [34]  They cannot strike out all the words in an amendment and thus deny it; the Speaker has ruled that the proper course in such a case would be for the House to defeat the amendment. [35]  Debate on a sub-amendment is restricted to the words added to or left out of the original motion by the amendment. Since sub-amendments cannot be further amended, a Member wishing to change one under debate must wait until it is defeated and then offer a new sub-amendment.

Superseding Motions

A superseding motion is one which is moved for the purpose of superseding (or replacing) the question before the House. There are two types of superseding motions: the previous question [36]  and several motions known collectively as dilatory motions. While the text of an amendment is dependent on the main motion, the text of a superseding motion is predetermined and proposed with the intention of putting aside further discussion of whatever question is before the House.

Superseding motions can be moved without notice when any other debatable motion is before the House. The Member moving a superseding motion can do so only after having been recognized by the Speaker in the course of debate. It is not in order for such a motion to be moved when the Member has been recognized on a point of order or during the period for questions and comments. [37]  With the exception of the previous question, superseding motions are not debatable and cannot be applied to one another.

The Previous Question

When debate on a motion concludes (i.e., no further Member wishes to speak, or the House has ordered debate to conclude), the question is put by the Chair, enabling the House to agree or disagree with the proposition before it. The act of putting the question assumes that the House has finished debate and wants to make a decision. Normally, this is implicit in the process, as seen when the Chair asks if the House is “ready for the question”; however, it can be tested by asking the House to make a formal decision as to whether or not the question should be put. In such a case, a decision is required prior to the one on the main motion. This is achieved by proposing, “That this question be now put”, a motion known as the previous question. [38] 

The previous question has been used irregularly since Confederation. There are only four recorded instances of its use in the nineteenth century. [39]  In 1913, a noteworthy event occurred in relation to the previous question when the government, seeking means to bring an end to the lengthy debate on its Naval Aid Bill, moved a motion introducing three new Standing Orders — including the closure rule — and then precluded any possibility of amendment by moving the previous question immediately thereafter. [40]  The rules were adopted after days of acrimonious debate [41]  and the immediate effect was the application of the closure rule to the Naval Aid Bill. [42]  In the late 1920s, and afterwards in the 1940s and early 1950s, the previous question was used fairly regularly and, following an almost 19-year lapse in which it was not used at all, [43]  it came into more frequent use in the 1980s and 1990s. [44]

The motion, “That this question be now put”, has two functions:

  • to supersede the question under debate since, if negatived, thus resolving that the question be not now put, the Speaker is bound not to put the main question at that time, and the House proceeds to its next item of business; and
  • to limit debate since, until it is decided, it precludes all amendment to the main motion. [45]  If adopted, thus resolving that the original question be now put, it forces the House to proceed to an immediate decision on the main question. [46] 

The previous question has been applied to many substantive motions before the House. For example, it has been moved to the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne, [47]  to the various stages of a bill, [48]  to motions for concurrence in reports from committees [49]  and to motions sponsored by private Members [50]  and the government. [51] 

The previous question cannot be proposed by the mover of the main motion; nor can it be moved by a Member who has been recognized on a point of order. It can only be moved by a Member recognized to speak in the regular course of debate. The previous question is a debatable [52]  superseding motion which is given priority once it is proposed during debate. The same time limits for speeches and questions and comments during debate on the main motion apply to the debate on the previous question. It cannot be proposed while an amendment to the main question is being considered, but once the amendment is disposed of by the House and debate resumes on the main motion itself, amended or not, the previous question can then be moved. [53]  While the previous question is debatable, it is not amendable [54]  and can be only withdrawn by unanimous consent. [55]  The previous question cannot be moved in a Committee of the Whole nor in any committee of the House. [56] 

A unique feature of the previous question is that it does nothing to hinder debate on the original motion. What is relevant to the previous question is also relevant to the original motion. Nonetheless, after the previous question has been moved, it constitutes a new question before the House and Members may participate in debate even if they have already spoken on the main motion or any amendment which has been disposed of. [57]  The previous question not being a substantive motion, its mover is not granted the right to speak a second time in reply. [58] 

Debate on the previous question may be superseded by a motion to adjourn the debate, a motion to adjourn the House or a motion to proceed to the Orders of the Day; [59]  however, such motions are not in order once the House has adopted the motion for the previous question. [60]  If debate on the previous question is adjourned or interrupted by the adjournment of the House or otherwise, debate on the previous question and the original motion ceases and both are retained on the Order Paper[61]  In some of these cases, the main motion and previous question were again brought before the House and decided; in others, there was no further debate or decision and the motions lapsed when the session ended. [62] 

When debate on the motion for the previous question has been concluded, the question is put to the House. [63]  Members moving the previous question have, when a recorded division was held, voted in favour, against or not voted at all. [64]  If the previous question is resolved in the affirmative, the Chair immediately, without further debate or amendment, puts the question on the original motion. [65]  If negatived, [66]  resolving that the question be not now put, the Speaker is bound not to put the main question at that time; the main motion is superseded, the House proceeds to its next item of business, and the main motion is removed from the Order Paper.

A recorded division on the previous question may be deferred. [67]  However, when a deferred division on the previous question is held and the motion is adopted, the question is put immediately on the main motion and the vote cannot be further deferred. [68] 

Dilatory Motions

Dilatory motions are superseding motions designed to dispose of the original question before the House either for the time being or permanently. Although dilatory motions are often used for dilatory tactics and resorted to for the express purpose of causing delay, they may also be used to advance the business of the House. Thus, dilatory motions are used both by the government and the opposition.

Dilatory motions can only be moved by a Member who has been recognized by the Chair in the regular course of debate, and not on a point of order. [69]  Dilatory motions include motions: [70] 

  • to proceed to the Orders of the Day;
  • to proceed to another order of business;
  • to postpone consideration of a question until a later date;
  • to adjourn the House; [71] 
  • to adjourn the debate.

The Standing Orders indicate that dilatory motions are receivable “when a question is under debate”; [72]  however, they have also been moved when there was no question under debate during Routine Proceedings. [73]  The Chair has found in order motions that the House proceeds to the next item under Routine Proceedings, [74]  and that the House proceeds to the Orders of the Day. [75]  However, a motion to move to another item under Routine Proceedings, other than the next one in the sequence, was ruled out of order on the grounds that the House should proceed from item to item in the usual order. [76]  Unlike the previous question, dilatory motions may be proposed when an amendment to a motion is under debate. [77] 

When a dilatory motion is moved and seconded, its text must be provided to the Chair in writing. [78]  Dilatory motions do not require notice, are not debatable or amendable and, if in order, are put by the Chair immediately. Until 1913, dilatory motions were debatable and the consideration of the superseded question would be delayed by the debate and decision on the dilatory motion. [79]  When a dilatory motion is now moved, a recorded division is usually demanded and only the time used to summon the Members and take the vote serves to delay debate on other matters before the House. Obviously, when a motion to adjourn the House is adopted, the time remaining in the sitting day is also lost.

A motion to proceed to the Orders of the Day or to proceed to another order of business, while classed as a dilatory motion, is often used by the government during Routine Proceedings to counteract dilatory tactics or to advance the business of the House. A motion to proceed to the Orders of the Day, if adopted, supersedes whatever is then before the House and causes the House to proceed immediately to the Orders of the Day, skipping over any intervening matters on the agenda. [80] 

•  Motions to Proceed to the Orders of the Day

The motion “That the House do now proceed to the Orders of the Day” may be moved by any Member prior to the calling of Orders of the Day; however, once the House has reached this point, the motion is redundant. [81]  The Chair has ruled that a motion to proceed to the Orders of the Day is in order during Routine Proceedings [82]  which, in recent practice, is the only time that it is proposed. [83]  If the motion is adopted, the item of Routine Proceedings then before the House (and all further items under Routine Proceedings) and requests for emergency debates are superseded and stood overuntil the next sitting while the House moves immediately to the Orders of the Day. [84]  Furthermore, if a motion is being debated at the time a motion to proceed to the Orders of the Day is moved and adopted, it will be dropped from the Order Paper. If the motion to proceed to the Orders of the Day is defeated, the House continues with the business before it at the time the motion was moved. This motion has been moved by both the government and the opposition as either a dilatory tactic or to counter dilatory tactics. [85] 

•  Motions to Proceed to Another Order of Business

A motion “That the House proceed to (name of another order)”, if adopted, supersedes whatever is then before the House. The House proceeds immediately to the consideration of the order named in the motion. If a motion to proceed to another order is defeated, debate on the main motion or question before the House continues.

When the House is considering Government Orders, a motion to proceed to another Government Order is not in order if moved by a private Member, since the government is entitled to call its business in the sequence it wants. [86]  On one occasion during Government Orders, a motion was moved proposing that the House proceed to consider an item of Private Members’ Business. The Speaker ruled that while the House may move from one item to another within the same type of order, a motion to move from one type of order (Government Orders, in the case at hand) to another in a different section of the Order Paper (Private Members’ Business, in this case) is seeking to suspend the normal course of House business and, as such, is a substantive motion which could only be moved after providing notice. [87] 

A motion to proceed to another order has been interpreted to allow the House to move from one rubric or item of Routine Proceedings to the next in the sequence of items under Routine Proceedings, even though there may be no substantive motion before the House. [88]  Use of this motion has become obsolete outside of Routine Proceedings as the sequence of business during Government Orders and Private Members’ Business is now determined by various Standing Orders. The House tends to proceed by unanimous consent when it wishes to vary the order of business as set out in the rules.

•  Motions to Postpone Consideration of a Question Until a Later Date

The purpose of the non-debatable motion “That consideration of the question be postponed to (date)” is to delay the question until the day specified in the motion. It is linked to an old practice of the House, whereby each order was called each day and then postponed if it was not to be considered that day. This motion has rarely been used in the House of Commons [89]  and is now totally obsolete.

•  Motion to Adjourn the House

The Standing Orders provide for the House to adjourn every day at a specified time. [90]  However, a Member may move a motion “That the House do now adjourn” at some other time during the sitting. If the motion is agreed to, the House adjourns immediately until the next sitting day. With the exception of non-votable items of Private Members’ Business, the motion under consideration by the House at the time is not dropped from the Order Paper, but is simply put over to the next sitting day when it may be taken up again. [91] 

Motions to adjourn are referred to as dilatory motions when they are used as a dilatory tactic to supersede and delay the proceedings of the House. However, motions to adjourn are not to be referred to as dilatory motions when they are used by the government for the management of the business of the House. A motion to adjourn the House may be proposed by the government simply to end a sitting. [92]  For example, this motion has been used by the government to adjourn late in the sitting but before the scheduled hour of adjournment, rather than call another item of business; [93]  or to adjourn because of extraordinary circumstances. [94]  A motion to adjourn the House is not debatable. The House has nonetheless used this motion, by unanimous consent or special order, as the vehicle for a debate on a matter deemed important but which was not necessarily connected to any business before the House. [95]  In addition, the motion to adjourn the House is debatable when used to hold an emergency debate [96]  or, at the end of a sitting, for the adjournment proceedings. [97] 

A motion to adjourn the House [98]  is in order when moved by a Member who has been recognized by the Speaker to take part in debate on a motion before the House, [99]  or to take part in business under Routine Proceedings. [100]  A motion to adjourn the House is not in order if conditions are attached to the motion (e.g., where a specific time of adjournment is included), since this transforms it into a substantive motion which may only be moved after notice. [101]  In addition, a motion to adjourn the House may not be moved in the following circumstances:

  • during Statements by Members or Question Period; [102] 
  • during the question and comment period following a speech; [103] 
  • on a point of order; [104] 
  • by a Member moving a motion in the course of debate (the same Member cannot move two motions at the same time); [105] 
  • during the election of the Speaker; [106] 
  • during emergency debates or the Adjournment Proceedings since, at these times, the House is already considering a motion to adjourn; [107] 
  • on the final allotted day of a Supply period; [108] 
  • during debate on a motion that is the object of closure; [109] 
  • when a Standing or Special Order of the House provides for the completion of proceedings on any given business before the House, except when moved by a Minister; [110]  or
  • during proceedings on any motion proposed by a Minister in relation to a matter the government considers urgent. [111] 

If a motion to adjourn is defeated, a second such motion may not be moved until some intermediate proceeding or item of business has been considered. [112]  Members may move repeatedly and alternately the motions to adjourn the debate and to adjourn the House, as these motions do not have the same effect and are considered intermediate proceedings. [113] 

•  Motion to Adjourn the Debate

The purpose of a motion to adjourn a debate is to set aside temporarily the consideration of a motion. It can be used as a dilatory tactic or for the management of the business of the House. If the House adopts a motion “That the debate be now adjourned”, then debate on the original motion stops and the House moves on to the next item of business. However, the original motion is not dropped from the Order Paper; it remains on the House agenda and is put over to the next sitting day when it may be taken up again. Thus, the adoption of a motion to adjourn the debate has the effect of delaying further debate on a motion on that day. [114] If the motion to adjourn the debate is defeated, then debate on the original motion continues.

A motion to adjourn the debate is in order when moved by a Member who has been recognized by the Speaker to take part in debate on a question before the House [115]  (but unlike a motion to adjourn the House, it may not be moved during Routine Proceedings except during debate on motions moved under the rubric “Motions”). The other restrictions which apply to motions to adjourn the House also apply to motions to adjourn the debate. [116]

Please note —

As the rules and practices of the House of Commons are subject to change, users should remember that this edition of Procedure and Practice was published in January 2000. Standing Order changes adopted since then, as well as other changes in practice, are not reflected in the text. The Appendices to the book, however, have been updated and now include information up to the end of the 38th Parliament in November 2005.

To confirm current rules and practice, please consult the latest version of the Standing Orders on the Parliament of Canada Web site.

For further information about the procedures of the House of Commons, please contact the Table Research Branch at (613) 996-3611 or by e-mail at