House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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21. Private Members’ Business

Historical Perspective

From 1867 to 1984

Time Reserved for Private Members’ Business

In the early years of Confederation, a large proportion of the time of the House was devoted to private bills or to private Members. In 1867, the Standing Orders gave precedence to Private Members’ Business on particular days in each week. [8]  However, governments found such a distribution inadequate for the conduct of their own legislative programs, and regularly gave precedence to their own business via special and sessional orders.

Over the years, changes were made to the Standing Orders to give more House time to the government for its own business. By 1906, this pattern had established itself to such a degree that, in that year, the weekly order of business was officially amended so that after four weeks from the start of each session, one of the three private Members’ days — Thursday — was given over to government business. [9] 

Between 1906 and 1955, the use of special and sessional orders to give precedence to government business had appropriated virtually all the time remaining from private Members. In 1955, amendments to the Standing Orders once again formalized the practice of giving precedence to government business: the number of private Members’ days was reduced from each Monday, Wednesday and four Thursdays per session to six Mondays and two Thursdays per session. [10]  Depending on the length of each session, this change at least guaranteed that these eight days would not be further nullified by the suspension of private Members’ time through the use of special or sessional orders.

In 1962, the House abandoned the allocation of a certain number of days each session for Private Members’ Business and, instead, set aside one hour per day for that purpose. However, after this hour had been used 40 times per session, its use on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday would lapse and Private Members’ Business would take place only on Thursday and Friday thereafter. [11]  In 1968, Private Members’ Business was removed from the order of business on Wednesday, and the rule establishing a maximum 40 considerations per session was retained for Monday and Tuesday only; thereafter, Private Members’ Business was only held on Thursday and Friday. [12] 

In 1982, the practice of considering Private Members’ Business for one hour on certain days was replaced by a single private Members’ day on Wednesday. This resulted in a reduction of one hour of debating time per week, from four hours to three. [13]  In late 1983, however, the House reverted to the consideration of Private Members’ Business for one hour per day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, without the previous provision for a maximum number of times for consideration on Monday and Tuesday. [14]  The omission of this part of the former rule meant that the amount of time provided for Private Members’ Business actually increased. (Further changes to the Standing Orders, adopted in April 1991, increased the number of Private Members’ Business days from four to five per week, adding an extra hour to the sitting on Wednesday. [15] )

Precedence of Items

From Confederation until the late 1950s, the two criteria which determined the order in which items of Private Members’ Business were considered were their date of notice and, in the case of bills, their stage in the legislative process. During this period as well, secondary criteria, aimed primarily at distinguishing the different categories of business from one another, also became important.

In 1910, for example, an amendment to the Standing Orders [16]  established a higher precedence for unopposed Private Members’ Notices of Motions for the Production of Papers. Meanwhile, opposed motions of this kind continued to be considered with other notices of motions until 1961, when they were given a specific category (“Notices of Motions (Papers)”) in the order of business and were debated on a designated day. [17] 

Similarly, rule changes in 1927 limited each Member to one notice of motion on the Order Paper at any one time. Such notices would be dropped from the Order Paper if called twice and not proceeded with. [18]  In addition, other rules allowed private Members’ bills or notices of motions to stand over from one day to the next. [19]  These kinds of exceptions to the usual chronological, stage-based ordering, coupled with frequent changes to the day-by-day order of business, eventually led to a fixed sequencing of items for each category of Private Members’ Business. [20] 

Throughout this period, the volume of Private Members’ Business increased, leading to further innovations in procedure. In 1958, Speaker Michener instituted a ballot system for notices of motions. [21]  One notice per Member could be submitted at the start of a session and placed in a container. In the presence of the Speaker, the Clerk, and the representatives of the parties, notices of motions were drawn to establish a sequence for consideration. Notices given after the draw were placed on the Order Paper after those which had been drawn.

At the start of a subsequent session, a similar practice was extended to private Members’ public bills. There were now two draws: one for notices of motions and one for bills. In the latter case, however, each Member could give notice of several bills, there being no limit as with notices of motions. In either case, when an item had been considered but not disposed of, it fell to the bottom of the list. Notices of motions called twice and not proceeded with were dropped from the Order Paper, as before.

Members soon realized that by placing several bills on notice, their chances in the draw improved. Inevitably, this approach resulted in some Members receiving more House time than others. To ensure a more equitable distribution, the party Whips limited Members to one bill in the first 50 bills drawn. In a separate development begun in the 1970s, the business to be considered during Private Members’ Business was organized by the Office of the Government House Leader, a practice criticized by some Members as undue government interference. Eventually, the Clerk of the House became responsible for the organization of this part of House Business. [22] 

The last major change prior to the adoption of the current system for precedence occurred in 1982, when all categories of Private Members’ Business (except private bills) were combined into one group, for which a single draw of Members’ names was held at the start of each session. A limitation, similar to that which had previously applied to bills, was retained for the first 50 items drawn and, at the same time, the limit of one notice of motion per Member was lifted. [23] 

Since 1984

The modern rules relating to the conduct of Private Members’ Business developed largely from recommendations of the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (the “McGrath Committee”), established in December 1984. In its final report to the House in June 1985, the Committee made the following observations:

The House does not attach any great importance to private members’ business as it is now organized (…) members are seldom greatly concerned to claim the priorities they have drawn in the ballot governing the use of private members’ time, and this is largely because private members’ bills and motions rarely come to a vote. [24] 

The subsequent recommendations in the report resulted in Standing Order amendments adopted provisionally after lengthy debate in the House in February 1986. [25]  These amendments to the Standing Orders formed the basis for the modern rules relating to Private Members’ Business — the establishment of the order of precedence, the process for determining which items should be made votable, and the manner in which items would be debated. Since February 1986, a number of further adjustments have been made to the rules.

In response to problems caused by the absence of Members whose items were scheduled for debate, a special order was adopted in December 1986 allowing the Speaker to exchange non-votable items should one Member notify the Chair that he or she cannot be present in the House when his or her item is due for consideration. [26] 

In June 1987, the provisional Standing Orders were made permanent and other changes were adopted in regard to the order in which items of Private Members’ Business were considered. [27]  The Speaker was given the power to exchange a non-votable item of a Member who cannot be present with a similar item of a Member who can. In addition, the Order Paper was changed to contain all types of items in one list, including private bills and private Members’ public bills originating in the Senate.

In 1989, the House adopted a motion to have the Standing Committee on Elections, Privileges, Procedure and Private Members’ Business consider and report on various practices and procedures relating to the conduct of Private Members’ Business. [28]  On December 6, 1989, the Committee presented its Seventh Report, which included several recommendations regarding such matters as the selection of items for the order of precedence, the selection of votable items, and the time limit for debate on votable items. [29]  Although the report was not concurred in, it did form the basis of Standing Order amendments adopted on May 10, 1990. [30] 

There were several significant changes to the Standing Orders, as recommended by the Standing Committee: Members’ names rather than individual items would be drawn, which meant that Members with one motion or bill would have the same chances as those with several motions or bills; separate lists of bills and motions were established, and the number of votable items was set at three bills and three motions; the time for debate on votable items was reduced from five hours to three; and Private Members’ Business was suspended on Supply days. The amendments were adopted on a provisional basis until the last sitting day in December 1990.

In December 1990, the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, after reviewing the success of the provisional Standing Orders that had been approved in May 1990, recommended in its Twenty-First Report that they be made permanent. [31]  It went on to propose a number of other changes, including the exchange of votable items, Private Members’ Hour on Monday, and the deferral of any recorded division with respect to Private Members’ Business at the request of the Whips. Further changes to the Standing Orders governing Private Members’ Business adopted on April 11, 1991, which were largely based on the Twenty-First Report of the Committee, clarified the procedures to be followed in the draw to select items for debate, reduced the number of hours for debate on an item, increased the number of days per week on which Private Members’ Business would be considered, and refined the process to be followed for an exchange of items to be debated during Private Members’ Hour. [32] 

On April 29, 1992, two reports of the Standing Committee on House Management were adopted, thereby amending the Standing Orders to increase the number of votable items and the total number of items on the order of precedence and to clarify the procedures to be followed for deferring recorded divisions on items of Private Members’ Business. [33]  With the adoption of the Twenty-Fourth Report [34]  regarding recorded divisions on private Members’ bills or motions, it became the practice for the vote of the sponsoring Member to be recorded first, and then the rest of the votes on that side of the chamber to be recorded before proceeding to the other side. With the adoption of the Twenty-Seventh Report, the order of precedence was increased from 20 to 30 items, draws were to be held before the list dropped below 15 items instead of 10, and the maximum number of votable items increased from three bills and three motions to five of each. [35] 

In 1998, the reference to five bills and five motions was removed so that the reference is now only to ten votable items, and a new procedure was established allowing for a specific item supported by 100 Members to be added to the order of precedence. [36] 

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