House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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4. The House of Commons and Its Members

Responsibilities and Conduct of Members

Members sit in the House of Commons to serve as representatives of the people who have elected them to that office. They have wide-ranging responsibilities which include work in the Chamber, committees, their constituencies and political parties. As Professor C.E.S. Franks has noted:

The member of parliament represents his constituency through service in the House of Commons. This does not mean, however, that he spends most of this time sitting in the House, or even that attendance there is the most important part of his work. An MP spends far more of his working life outside the House than in it … . The job is people-oriented, involving talking about and listening to ideas, proposals, and complaints, reconciling opposing viewpoints, explaining party or government policy to citizens and citizens’ views to party and government, getting action out of the government on problems of constituents, and examining how the government uses or abuses the power it exercises on behalf of the people of Canada. [252] 

Besides participating in debates in the Chamber and in committees, and conveying their constituents’ views to the government and advocating on their behalf, Members also have responsibilities in many other areas:

  • They act as ombudsmen by providing information to constituents and resolving problems.
  • They act as legislators by either initiating bills of their own or proposing amendments to government and other Members’ bills.
  • They develop specialized knowledge in one or more of the policy areas dealt with by Parliament, and propose recommendations to the government.
  • They represent the Parliament of Canada at home and abroad by participating in international conferences and official visits.

Members, once elected and sworn in, are bound to observe certain rules of conduct in carrying out their parliamentary functions. Although there is no statute which dictates a code of conduct for parliamentarians at the federal level, some provisions regarding conduct for Members and conflict of interest matters exist in the Standing Orders of the House, [253]  the Parliament of Canada Act [254]  and the Criminal Code[255]  Also in place is the Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office-Holders, in particular for Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, issued by the Prime Minister’s Office. A number of these provisions are discussed later in this chapter.


One of the Member’s primary duties is to attend the sittings of the House when it is in session, unless the Member has other parliamentary or official commitments, such as committee meetings, constituency work or parliamentary exchanges. [256]  Indeed, the Speaker has traditionally discouraged Members from signalling the absence of another Member from the House because “there are many places that Members have to be in order to carry out all of the obligations that go with their office”. [257] 

The Parliament of Canada Act provides for deductions for non-attendance from the Member’s sessional allowance. [258]  At the end of each month and at the end of each session, each Member is required to provide the Clerk of the House with a statement of the number of days of attendance during the month or session, as the case may be, for which they are entitled to receive their sessional and expense allowances. [259]  For the purposes of this declaration, those days on which a Member was absent due to illness, a military commitment, the adjournment of the House or because the Member was on “public or official business”, are considered days of attendance. [260]  Since there is no regulatory mechanism to monitor Members’ attendance, calculations of Members’ allowances are made on the basis of their statements and deductions are made only when absences exceed 21 sitting days. [261] 

While the Parliament of Canada Act gives the House the power to impose more stringent regulations respecting Members’ attendance or deductions from sessional allowances, [262]  the presence of Members in the Chamber is largely a function of politics, not procedure or law. Consequently, it has fallen to the whips to ensure an adequate representation of Members in the Chamber for debates and votes. Thus, through the use of a roster system and other controls, the party whips are able to regulate the attendance of Members in the Chamber, in committees and in other parliamentary functions.

Conflict of Interest Matters

On being elected, Members of the House of Commons become trustees of public confidence. Members must be seen to be impartial and to derive no personal benefit or gain from their decisions. Various attempts have been made over the past 25 years to define what constitutes a conflict of interest and to devise rules regarding Members improperly using their influence, using insider information, and furthering their private interests.

Historical Perspective

In 1973, the Federal Government issued a Green Paper on Members of Parliament and Conflict of Interest. [263]  During the next Parliament, the Green Paper was referred to the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections. [264]  The Committee reported it back to the House with numerous recommendations. [265]  In 1978, the government introduced Bill C-6, An Act respecting the independence of Parliament and conflicts of interests of Senators and Members of the House of Commons and to amend certain other Acts in relation thereof or in consequence,which would have extended the provisions in the Green Paper and incorporated some of the recommendations made by the Committee. [266]  The bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Elections and Privileges after second reading, [267]  but Parliament was dissolved before the Committee could report back to the House.

In 1983, the government established a Task Force on Conflict of Interest to devise a regime dealing with conflict of interest whereby public confidence would be ensured and the integrity of the political process protected. In May 1984, the Task Force identified nine activities as involving conflicts of interest and recommended that these forms of conduct be dealt with, depending on the severity of the conflict, by using a code of conduct. [268] 

In 1985, the Standing Committee on Management and Members’ Services was asked to consider matters related to the establishment of a Register of Members’ Interests. [269]  The Committee concluded that such a Register was not warranted and that the current laws regarding conflict of interest were adequate. [270] 

At the end of 1987 came the Report of the Parker Commission on Conflict of Interests regarding the allegations of conflict of interest involving the Hon. Sinclair Stevens. Mr. Justice Parker made a number of recommendations, and in particular the requirement that conflict of interest guidelines include public disclosure of a Minister’s assets, interests and activities. In 1988, the government introduced Bill C-114, Members of the Senate and House of Commons Conflict of Interest Act, which was referred to a legislative committee after the second reading, [271]  but Parliament was dissolved before the committee could report back.

Another conflict of interest bill (Bill C-46, Members of the Senate and House of Commons Conflict of Interest Act) was introduced during the Second Session (April 1989-May 1991) of the Thirty-Fourth Parliament [272]  but was not proceeded with. Two similar bills were introduced during the Third Session (May 1991-September 1993): Bill C-43, Members of the Senate and House of Commons Conflict of Interest Act[273]  and Bill C-116, Conflict of Interests of Public Office Holders Act[274]  The House of Commons gave second reading to Bill C-116 and referred it to the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on Conflict of Interests on March 30, 1993. [275]  On June 3, 1993, the Special Joint Committee recommended to the House that the bill not be proceeded with. [276]  The Thirty-Fourth Parliament was dissolved shortly thereafter.

Each conflict of interest bill provided for an annual declaration of the private interests of Senators, Members of the House of Commons, their spouses and dependent children to an independent three-member conflict of interests commission. The bills also contained rules against using confidential information to further one’s own private interests and against trying to influence others’ decisions from one’s own private interests; rules on gifts and on post-employment conduct; and special rules for Ministers regarding outside activities. Proposed penalties for non-compliance ranged from fines to loss of the Member’s or Senator’s seat, but their imposition remained in the hands of the Member’s Chamber.

During the First Session (January 1994-February 1996) of the Thirty-Fifth Parliament, a special joint committee of the Senate and of the House of Commons was established to develop a code of conduct to guide parliamentarians in reconciling their official responsibilities with their personal interests, including their dealings with lobbyists. [277]  The Committee was re-established during the Second Session (February 1996-April 1997) [278]  and reported to the House on March 20, 1997 [279]  with the recommendation that the Senate and the House of Commons adopt a “Code of Official Conduct”. [280]  The Thirty-Fifth Parliament was dissolved a month later without the report being concurred in.

Governing Prohibitions

Statutory provisions and guidelines governing aspects of conflict of interest presently exist. The Parliament of Canada Act contains several conflict of interest prohibitions. A number of them govern the eligibility of Members to sit in the House of Commons and accept any other office, commission or employment in the service of the Government of Canada, with exceptions such as the offices of Cabinet Minister, Parliamentary Secretary or active service in the Armed Forces in wartime. [281]  Anyone who contracts with the government or who works for such a contractor is not eligible to be a Member of the House of Commons and may not sit or vote in the House, although a Member may be a shareholder with a company having a government contract that does not involve building any public work. [282]  If a Member contravenes these provisions, his or her seat is vacated, his or her election is declared void, and the Member forfeits the sum of $200 for each day he or she sat or voted. [283] 

All public office holders are subject to the Criminal Code’s general provisions on corruption, including bribery, influence-peddling and breach of trust. [284]  For example, breach of trust occurs when a Member pays a person for work not performed, accepts payment from a person in return for hiring that person as an employee or contractor, and uses public funds for private travel. Should a person be convicted of one of these offences and sentenced to more than two years of imprisonment, that person is incapable of being elected or sitting or voting as a Member of Parliament. [285]  Nonetheless, in terms of its membership, the House of Commons retains the right to regulate its own internal affairs and procedures, free from any interference from the courts. This includes the right to enforce discipline on its Members by suspension or expulsion. Even where a Member has been convicted of bribery, or sentenced to imprisonment for an indictable offence for a period longer than the life of the Parliament, the Member cannot be deprived of his or her seat unless the House decides so. [286] 

In addition to statutory prohibitions, Prime Ministers have issued conflict of interest guidelines for Ministers and other public office holders (Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders). [287]  The code is voluntary and applies to Cabinet Ministers, Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Secretaries and other senior public office holders (full-time Governor in Council appointees). It requires that, on appointment to one of these offices, the office holders are to arrange their private affairs so as to prevent real, potential or apparent conflicts from arising. [288]  They are not to solicit or accept money or gifts; not to assist individuals in their dealings with government in such a way as to compromise their own professional status; not to take advantage of information obtained because of their positions as insiders; and, after they leave public office, not to act so as to take improper advantage of having held that office. After leaving office, Ministers are prohibited for two years, and other public office holders for one year, from certain activities in order to ensure impartiality while in office and to avoid preferential treatment upon leaving office. These guidelines are administered by an ethics councillor who is a public servant reporting directly to the Prime Minister. [289] 


Bribery, the most extreme form of conflict of interest, is a criminal offence. One of the parliamentary privileges or rights Members enjoy is the freedom to carry out their parliamentary duties without fear of intimidation or interference. An attempt to tamper with this privilege through bribery undermines the independence of Members and, by extension, the independence of the House itself. The Standing Orders define any attempt to offer a Member any advantage for promoting any matter before Parliament as a “high crime and misdemeanour”, which “tends to the subversion of the Constitution”. [290] 

There are few recorded instances of attempted bribery. In 1873, a Member rose in the House to say that someone had attempted to buy his vote. The House immediately ordered the accused party taken into custody, but Parliament prorogued before the individual could be questioned at the Bar and the matter was never again taken up. [291]  In 1964, it was alleged that a bribe had been offered to a Member on condition that he change his party allegiance by crossing the floor of the House. The Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections was ordered to study and report on the charge, but on investigation concluded that the allegation was unfounded and the matter went no further. [292] 

Instances where a Member accepts the offer of a bribe or even arranges for one in consideration of his or her work in Parliament are not foreseen by the rules of the House. However, there have been many cases in which allegations of accepting bribes in exchange for favours or influence formed the substance of motions against Members by their colleagues. [293]  The Parliament of Canada Act prohibits a Member from receiving outside compensation for services rendered on any matter before the House, the Senate or their committees. [294]  Pursuant to that Act, a Member found guilty of such an offence is liable to a fine of $500 to $2000 and is disqualified from being a Member of the House of Commons and from holding any office in the public service of Canada for five years after conviction of that offence. [295]  In addition, the Criminal Code provides for 14 years’ imprisonment for a parliamentarian who accepts or attempts to obtain any form of valuable consideration for doing or omitting to do anything in his or her official capacity. [296] 

Pecuniary Interests

While no legislation exists to enforce the disclosure of a Member’s financial interests, the Standing Orders of the House provide that Members may not vote on questions in which they have direct pecuniary interests; any such vote will be disallowed. [297]  The pecuniary interest must be immediate and personal, and belong specifically to the person whose vote is contested. Measures with a wide application, such as matters of public policy, are not generally considered in this light. Even voting a pay increase to Members themselves does not constitute direct monetary interest because it applies to all Members. [298] 

A Member with a pecuniary interest in a matter simply refrains from voting. In the event the Member votes, the vote may be questioned and eventually disallowed. When a Member’s vote is questioned, his or her word usually prevails, [299]  although the Member’s vote may be challenged by way of a motion to disallow it. [300]  While no Member’s vote has ever been disallowed by the House on grounds of direct pecuniary interests, several Members have either voluntarily refrained from voting [301]  or have had their votes questioned. [302] 

Registry of Foreign Travel

Members are sometimes called upon to travel outside Canada in their capacity as Members of the House of Commons. When visits are made outside of Canada and are not paid for out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund (i.e., paid by individuals or organizations other than the Member personally, any registered Canadian political party, or an inter-parliamentary association or friendship group recognized by the House of Commons), the Member must register the trip and the name of the sponsoring individual or organization with the Clerk of the House who keeps a public record of this information. [303]  The Member may register the trip before or after it takes place by sending the Clerk of the House a personally signed letter [304]  and the Clerk enters the information into the registry. Staff members or other representatives may not provide the information to the Clerk for the registry in the Member’s place.

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