House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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19. Committees of the Whole House

Historical Perspective

Great Britain

In the British Parliament, two sorts of committees began to evolve in the sixteenth century: small committees composed of no more than 15 members known as “select committees”, and large committees whose membership numbered between 30 and 40 called “standing committees”. Bills were often considered in detail in select committees and only members appointed to these committees were allowed to participate. In contrast, it became common in standing committees to allow whoever attended to speak. These standing committees eventually evolved into “general” or “grand” committees comprising as many members as the House itself. During the reigns of James I (1603-25) and Charles I (1625-49), they became known as Committees of the Whole. [11]  These committees were established as forums for discussing bills of great interest (such as bills to impose a tax or constitutional questions prevalent during the Parliaments of the Stuarts) and provided members the opportunity to speak to a question as often as they wanted. [12]  A further reason for considering bills in this forum was the greater freedom of debate secured by the removal of the “constraining presence of the Speaker, who was at this period expected to look after the interests of the King”. [13]  By the beginning of the eighteenth century, it had become common to refer all bills to grand committees for detailed discussion following second reading. [14]  This development proved to be an efficient method of discussing matters of detail and, in the latter half of the century, for the House to establish its control over financial matters. [15] 


In Canada, the colonial legislatures generally modelled their procedures on those of the British House. The Assemblies of Upper Canada and Lower Canada adopted, in 1792, the British practice of resolving into a Committee of the Whole to consider legislation, or procedural and constitutional matters. Nonetheless, the Upper Canada Assembly made wider use of its select committee system than Great Britain at the time and many bills were referred to select committees after second reading. [16]  Beginning in 1817 in Lower Canada, four committees whose membership was composed of all Members were appointed at the commencement of each session and were directed by the Assembly to sit on certain days in each week. They were called the Grand Committees for grievances, courts of justice, agriculture and commerce. In 1840, after the union of Upper and Lower Canada, most of the parliamentary rules that had been in place in Lower Canada were adopted, [17]  and the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada continued to do a significant part of its business in Committees of the Whole. [18] 

At Confederation in 1867, the House of Commons adopted the rules of the former Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, including the procedures and practices pertaining to Committees of the Whole. [19]  Thus, all matters affecting trade, taxation or the public revenue had to be first considered in a Committee of the Whole House before any resolution or bill could be passed by the House of Commons. [20]  Addresses to the Crown were also frequently founded on resolutions first considered in a Committee of the Whole. [21] 

From 1867 to 1968, there were three types of committees composed of the membership of the whole House: the Committee of Supply, the Committee of Ways and Means and Committees of the Whole House. The Committee of Supply would debate each request for Supply (Interim Supply, Main Estimates and Supplementary Estimates), item by item. [22]  When that Committee recommended to the House that the Supply requested be granted, and the House had concurred, the Members went into the Committee of Ways and Means. [23]  The Committee of Ways and Means would subsequently consider resolutions to authorize the expenditures from the Consolidated Revenue Fund; [24]  once the resolutions were reported from the Committee of Ways and Means, and concurred in by the House, an appropriation bill based on the resolutions would then be introduced in the House. [25]  The Committee of Ways and Means would also give preliminary authorization to taxation proposals outlined in the Minister of Finance’s budget. [26]  A Committee of the Whole would routinely debate resolutions preceding bills involving the expenditure of public monies. [27] It would only debate the advisability of the measure proposed since the details of the bill would not yet be known. Debate could be very lengthy. After the resolution was approved, the House would proceed with the introduction and first reading of the bill. [28]  A Committee of the Whole would also consider in detail most bills after second reading, [29]  and other matters such as reports from committees appointed to review House rules and procedures, [30]  and resolutions concerning international treaties and conventions. [31]  Few government bills (typically non-contentious ones) were sent to standing or special committees for consideration. At that time, the work of standing and special committees was investigative, not legislative. Standing committees were not given the power to adopt clauses of the bill. After a standing or special committee had made its report, the proposed text of the bill had to be reconsidered again, clause by clause, in a Committee of the Whole. It was the Committee of the Whole’s report that the House concurred in at report stage. [32] 

Only minor changes to Committee of the Whole proceedings were made during the first hundred years of Confederation. In 1910, the House adopted rules codifying the requirement for relevance during debate in a Committee of the Whole and empowered the Chairman of Committees of the Whole House to direct a Member who persisted in irrelevance or repetition to discontinue his or her speech, the rule being copied verbatim from the British House of Commons’ rules. [33]  In 1955, the House adopted a committee report recommending restrictions on the length of debate in a Committee of the Whole and on the motion for the House to resolve into Committee of Supply. [34]  In October 1964, rules were adopted pertaining to the limitation of debate on a resolution preceding bills involving the expenditure of public monies, and to the rearrangement of the order of consideration of a bill in a Committee of the Whole. [35] 

In 1968, a special committee appointed to revise the rules of the House [36]  criticized, among other things, the study of legislation in a Committee of the Whole. It argued such studies were too cumbersome and inefficient to handle the increased volume and complexity of legislation and public spending. The special committee recommended the elimination of the preliminary resolution stage in a Committee of the Whole for taxation bills, and the reference of all bills, except those based on Supply and Ways and Means motions, to standing committees, where the clauses could be meticulously examined. It also recommended that bills referred to standing committees not be reconsidered in a Committee of the Whole, that bills considered in a Committee of the Whole not be debatable at report stage, and that all speeches in that forum be limited to 20 minutes. [37]  The House subsequently adopted new Standing Orders which implemented these recommendations. [38] 

In 1975, provisional amendments were made to the Standing Orders concerning Supply proceedings whereby selected items in the Estimates could be withdrawn from standing committees and examined in a Committee of the Whole. [39]  This provisional Standing Order was continued for the following session through agreement, [40] but was not renewed thereafter. Changes to Committee of the Whole procedures occurred again in 1985 when the House amended its Standing Orders provisionally to reflect a recommendation made by the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons. The Committee recommended that bills based on Ways and Means motions be referred to legislative committees, established specifically to examine bills in detail, rather than a Committee of the Whole. Only bills based on a Supply motion to concur in Estimates or Interim Supply would be referred to a Committee of the Whole. [41]  This change was adopted permanently in 1987. [42]  Today, any public bill, except one based on such a Supply motion, stands referred to either a standing, special or legislative committee. [43]

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