House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

House of Commons Procedure and Practice - 14. The Curtailment of Debate - Closure


Closure is a procedural device used to bring debate on a question to a conclusion by “a majority decision of the House, even though all Members wishing to speak have not done so”.[32] The closure rule[33] provides the government with a procedure to prevent the further adjournment of debate on any matter and to require that the question be put at the end of the sitting in which a motion of closure is adopted. Apart from technical changes as to the hour at which debate is to conclude,[34] the rule has remained virtually unchanged since its adoption in 1913.

Closure may be applied to any debatable matter, including bills and motions. The rule was conceived for use in a Committee of the Whole[35] as much as in the House, but it cannot be applied to the business of its standing, special, legislative or joint committees. When these committees are considering bills, the House may, however, use the time allocation rule[36] to impose a deadline on the committee stage or to force a committee to report the bill under consideration to the House.

*   Historical Perspective

Introduced at Westminster in 1881 and in the Australian House of Representatives in 1905, the closure rule was not adopted by the Canadian House of Commons until 1913.[37] The idea of closure had, however, been discussed on a number of occasions, but the House had never been able to adopt a closure rule satisfactory to both government and opposition. By 1913, strong and organized opposition had managed to delay the adoption of government legislation on at least four occasions.[38] Speeches from that period allude to the occasional inability of the House to come to a vote on a question and, in 1911, during one of these protracted debates, a Member of the opposition spoke of the possibility of “illimitable discussion”.[39]

Opposition Leader Robert Borden, who would eventually introduce the new rule, had himself suggested that a closure mechanism would be “undesirable”,[40] but nearly two years of discussion on naval policy convinced him of the necessity to bring forward a motion which, among other things, would introduce the closure rule. These changes, vigorously attacked by the opposition, were debated for nearly a month before being adopted.[41] The new closure rule was immediately tested by the government only a few days after its adoption during debate at the Committee of the Whole stage of the Naval Aid Bill.[42]

Applied 11 times from 1913 to 1932, the closure rule was then not used again for 24 years, until 1956, when the Pipeline Debate took place. In May 1956, the government presented a bill entitled An Act to establish the Northern Ontario Pipeline Crown Corporation aimed at providing financial assistance to an American‑owned consortium that was building a gas pipeline from Alberta to Quebec. During the acrimonious debate on the bill, which continued from May into June, closure was invoked at each stage of the legislative process.[43]

Since its introduction, closure has been applied more than 60 times: in order to hold a vote more quickly on an array of motions, primarily resolutions;[44] and motions to amend the Standing Orders,[45] to regulate House proceedings and hours of sitting,[46] and to reinstate bills on the Order Paper at the beginning of a new session[47] or to examine them at other stages of consideration.[48]

The closure rule has been the subject of scrutiny and discussion many times and the issue of repealing the closure rule surfaces occasionally.[49] The Pipeline Debate, which gave rise to wide analysis and commentary, has had a lasting impact on Members’ perception of how the House operates.[50]

In December 1957, the new Diefenbaker government placed a notice of motion to repeal the closure rule on the Order Paper, but the motion was never debated.[51] In July 1960, Prime Minister Diefenbaker expressed the hope that “the rules committee will give consideration to removing from the rule book the closure procedure”.[52] The Committee never acted on that matter. In March 1962, another special committee was set up to consider the procedures of the House and, in particular, “to consider the desirability of repealing” the closure rule;[53] it did not report on this issue. The Throne Speech in September 1962 indicated that the House would be asked to abolish closure, but this also was not acted upon.[54] During the Thirtieth Parliament (1974‑79), a subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization recommended, in its report on the use of time, that a new Standing Order based on the British House of Commons’ closure rule be adopted,[55] but this was never recommended to the House by the Standing Committee.

The most recent development of significance occurred in October 2001, when the House adopted a new Standing Order allowing for a questions and answers period of at most 30 minutes when a motion of closure is moved.[56] The intent of the questions and answers period is to promote ministerial accountability, and it provides an opportunity for the government to justify its use of this measure.[57]

Generally speaking, how much debate the government will allow on a measure before moving closure depends on a number of factors, including its desire to adhere to its legislative timetable. The Speaker has occasionally been asked to use discretionary authority to refuse to put a closure motion to the House on the grounds that the measure had not yet been given enough debating time. Invariably, the Speaker has declined to interfere with the application of the rule, deciding in each case that the Chair has no authority to intervene in the process when the closure rule is applied properly.[58]

*   Notice of Closure

Prior to moving a motion for closure, an oral notice of intention to do so must have been given by a Minister at a previous sitting of the House or a Committee of the Whole. The rule is not specific as to when such notice may be given, and there are, therefore, a variety of precedents. For example, notices have been given when there was no question before the House,[59] when the motion to be closured was under debate[60] and when the question before the House was not related to the notice.[61] Sometimes, notice was given on the first day of debate on the motion to be closured,[62] and sometimes after one or more days of debate.[63] Regardless, debate on the item which is the subject of the notice must have begun before notice of closure may be given.[64]

Although there is no requirement to give notice more than once, Ministers have on occasion provided the same notice in several sittings so as to avoid any objection that notice had not been given at the previous sitting.[65] Moreover, no obligation exists to proceed with moving the closure motion even if notice has been given; there have been cases where the notice was not followed up.[66] On one occasion, the government gave notice of closure on four separate bills, all at the same time: three at second reading and one at third reading; however, four motions proposing closure, one for each bill, had to be moved separately.[67]

*   Motion of Closure

After notice has been given of the intention to move a motion of closure, the motion may be moved during a subsequent sitting, whether the following day or later. The motion for closure must be moved by a Minister, and the debate on the motion or bill to which closure is to apply must have been adjourned at least once before a closure motion can be moved.[68] The motion for closure must be moved immediately before the Order of the Day for resuming debate on the item to which the closure motion is to apply is called, either in the House or in a Committee of the Whole.

The motion of closure in the House will read simply, “That debate be not further adjourned”. In a Committee of the Whole, closure can be applied to a resolution or to the particulars of a bill, such as the title, preamble, or clauses, individually or in groups. It is not necessary for all parts of a bill to be called and then postponed before invoking closure.[69] In fact, the parts affected by the closure motion are normally those whose consideration has not yet been completed by the Committee, on which debate has not yet ended, which have not yet been called or where consideration of specific parts has been postponed or stood by decision of the Committee. The motion of closure will require that these parts of the bill be the first business taken up in Committee of the Whole that day and not be further postponed. Basically, the adoption of a motion of closure in a Committee of the Whole ensures that the committee stage will be completed in that sitting.[70]

Closure motions are neither debatable nor amendable. However, once moved, the House or the Committee of the Whole proceeds to a questions and answers period of not more than 30 minutes, when Members may put brief questions to the Minister responsible for the item subject to the motion of closure or to the Minister acting on his or her behalf.[71]

In the House, at the expiry of the time provided for questions and answers, or when no other Member rises to speak, the Speaker puts the question immediately: “That debate … shall not be further adjourned”. If a recorded division is demanded in the House, the bells will sound for up to 30 minutes. If the motion for closure is adopted, debate resumes on the now‑closured business, but the debate becomes subject to the restrictions imposed by the closure rule.[72] No Member (including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition) may speak more than once, nor for longer than 20 minutes; each speech may be followed by a period of not more than 10 minutes for questions and comments.[73] A Member who has spoken to the main motion prior to the adoption of the closure motion may speak again if an amendment or subamendment is moved during the closured debate. However, a Member who speaks to the main motion after the adoption of the closure motion may not speak to any subsequent amendment or subamendment.

In a Committee of the Whole, following the questions and answers period, the Chair will put the question on the motion for closure. If closure is adopted, the resolution, or a specific part in the event the Committee is considering a legislative measure, is immediately taken under consideration.[74] In the case of a bill, the first clauses will likely be at issue. During the ensuing debate, as is the case in the House, no Member may speak more than once, nor for longer than 20 minutes. If consideration of one clause ends and debate begins on the next clause, Members have a further 20 minutes to speak to that clause.[75]

All questions necessary to dispose of the closured item are to be put no later than 8:00 p.m., or as soon as possible thereafter, allowing any Member who might have been recognized prior to 8:00 p.m. to finish speaking.[76] No Member may rise to speak after 8:00 p.m.[77] At that time, or soon thereafter if a Member is bringing his or her speech to a close,[78] the Speaker of the House or the Chair of the Committee of the Whole will put all questions necessary to dispose of the closured item, including any amendments and subamendments.[79]

In the House, if a recorded division is demanded, the bells will sound for up to 15 minutes.[80] Should the debate conclude before 8:00 p.m., the bells for any recorded division will sound for not more than 30 minutes.[81] A recorded division may be deferred by unanimous consent of the House to a later day, as has been done on occasion,[82] or with the agreement of the Whips of all recognized parties.[83]

During a sitting in which a motion of closure is carried and the closured item is called and debated for the remainder of the sitting day, Private Members’ Business takes place as usual, if applicable, at the time designated in the daily order of business.[84] On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, the House debates the closured item until Private Members’ Business and resumes the debate immediately afterward. However, the Adjournment Proceedings are suspended in sittings where closure is applied.[85]

[32] Wilding, N. and Laundy, P., An Encyclopaedia of Parliament, 4th ed., London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1972, p. 139.

[33] Standing Order 57.

[34] Originally the time for putting all questions to dispose of the closured business was set at 2:00 a.m. (Journals, April 23, 1913, pp. 546‑8). In 1955, it was changed to 1:00 a.m. (Journals, July 12, 1955, pp. 881, 910‑1, 945), in 1991, to 11:00 p.m. (Journals, April 11, 1991, pp. 2905, 2913) and, in 2001, to 8:00 p.m. See the First Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, par. 25, presented to the House on June 1, 2001 (Journals, p. 465), and concurred in on October 4, 2001 (Journals, pp. 691‑3), following the adoption of a Special Order (Journals, October 3, 2001, p. 685).

[35] See, for example, Debates, December 21, 1988, p. 541.

[36] Standing Order 78. For further information, see the section in this chapter entitled “Time Allocation”.

[37] Journals, April 23, 1913, pp. 507‑9. Although both Westminster and the Canadian House of Commons have closure rules, some differences are worth noting. First, the wording of the British version of the motion is in the affirmative: “That the question be now put”. Second, in the United Kingdom, closure is moved without notice, must be decided forthwith and, if adopted, ends debate immediately. Third, unlike in Canada, the Speaker can refuse to put the motion if it appears “that the motion is an abuse of the rules of the House, or an infringement of the rights of the minority”. Fourth, at least 100 Members must vote in favour of the closure motion for it to be adopted. See Standing Orders 36 and 37 of the Standing Orders of the British House of Commons. The Australian House of Representatives makes a distinction between “Closure of Member”, which reads: “That the Member from … be not further heard” (Standing Order 80) and “Closure of Question”, which reads: “That the question be now put” (Standing Order 81).

[38] These are the franchise bill in 1885, the Manitoba school legislation in 1896, the franchise bill in 1908 and the reciprocity debate in 1911. See Dawson, p. 121.

[39] “It is therefore altogether probable that, if the government can force the matter to a vote, it will be carried. On the other hand, the opposition can, if it sees fit, probably prevent a vote. There are 300 items which will give opportunity for illimitable discussion” (Debates, April 28, 1911, col. 8038).

[40] Debates, December 14, 1909, cols. 1441‑2.

[41] Journals, April 23, 1913, pp. 546‑8. For a detailed account of the Naval Aid Bill episode, see Borden, H., (ed.), Robert Laird Borden: His Memoirs, Vol. I, 1854‑1915, Toronto/Montreal: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1969, pp. 186‑99; and Dawson, pp. 122‑4.

[42] Debates, May 9, 1913, col. 9445.

[43] Between May 15 and June 5, 1956, closure was used at all four stages of the legislative process as it was then: resolution (Debates, May 15, 1956, p. 3895); second reading (Debates, May 22, 1956, p. 4165); Committee of the Whole (Debates, May 31, 1956, p. 4498) and third reading (Debates, June 5, 1956, p. 4689).

[44] See, for example, Journals, June 29, 1987, pp. 1274‑6 (on capital punishment); December 9, 2002, pp. 280‑1 (on the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol).

[45] See, for example, Journals, February 27, 2001, pp. 139‑40.

[46] See, for example, Journals, June 23, 2005, pp. 974‑6.

[47] See, for example, Journals, February 10, 2004, pp. 34‑6.

[48] See, for example, Journals, June 11, 1999, pp. 2101‑2.

[49] In 1998, the opposition actually managed to have the rule repealed temporarily (Journals, June 12, 1998, pp. 1027‑8).

[50] Some writers have commented that the use of closure during the Pipeline Debate produced a lingering distaste for the closure rule, already in disrepute. See, for example, Stewart, pp. 242‑6; Laundy, P., The Office of Speaker in the Parliaments of the Commonwealth, London: Quiller Press, 1984, pp. 112‑9.

[51] Journals, December 9, 1957, p. 255.

[52] Debates, July 21, 1960, p. 6676.

[53] Journals, March 26, 1962, p. 277.

[54] Journals, September 27, 1962, p. 15.

[55] Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, September 30, 1976, Issue No. 20, p. 57.

[56] Standing Order 67.1(1). This rule also concerns the use of time allocation under Standing Order 78(3), a matter discussed later in this chapter. First Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, par. 21‑4, presented to the House on June 1, 2001 (Journals, p. 465) and concurred in on October 4, 2001 (Journals, pp. 691‑3) following the adoption of a Special Order (Journals, October 3, 2001, p. 685).

[57] Since the measure was introduced, some questions and answers periods have been held on motions of closure. See, for example, Journals, April 17, 2007, pp. 1216‑7.

[58] Following a question of privilege protesting the government's intent to invoke closure on the motion relating to the reinstatement of capital punishment, Speaker Fraser ruled that the timing of closure in a debate is not a procedural matter and that the Chair has no discretionary power to refuse the motion and is without authority to intervene when a Standing Order is used according to the House's rules and practices (Debates, June 29, 1987, pp. 7713‑4). See also Journals, July 24, 1969, pp. 1397‑9; Debates, February 7, 1990, pp. 7953‑4.

[59] See, for example, Journals, February 9, 2004, p. 29 (notice given between Oral Questions and Routine Proceedings).

[60] See, for example, Debates, March 1, 1926, p. 1431; Journals, October 4, 2002, pp. 23‑4.

[61] See, for example, Debates, April 6, 1981, p. 9014; April 16, 2007, p. 1209.

[62] See, for example, Journals, August 29, 1917, p. 605; June 22, 2005, pp. 960‑1, 968. In December 1988, notice of closure was given on the first day of debate at the second reading, Committee of the Whole and third reading stages of Bill C‑2, Canada‑United States Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (Journals, December 15, 1988, pp. 36‑7; December 20, 1988, p. 61; Debates, December 20, 1988, p. 500; Journals, December 22, 1988, pp. 72‑3).

[63] On March 1, 1926, after some 25 days of debate, the government gave notice of closure on the motion for the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne; the motion was moved and adopted on March 2 (Journals, pp. 121, 123).

[64] See Speaker Fraser’s ruling, Debates, December 15, 1988, p. 78.

[65] In 1969, three notices of closure were given in respect to a motion for concurrence in the report of a procedure committee (Journals, July 22, 1969, p. 1383; July 23, 1969, p. 1386; July 24, 1969, p. 1393). The closure motion was moved on July 24, 1969 (Journals, p. 1396). In 2002, two notices of closure were given, on December 5 and 6 respectively, regarding a government motion on the Kyoto Protocol (Journals, December 5, 2002, p. 264; December 6, 2002, p. 277). The closure motion was moved on December 9, 2002 (Journals, p. 280).

[66] Journals, December 4, 1986, pp. 272, 274; August 26, 1987, p. 1384; August 28, 1987, pp. 1396‑7. In 1999, during Routine Proceedings, a Minister moved a motion authorizing travel by the Standing Committee on Finance. The ensuing debate was finally adjourned, and the Minister gave notice of closure on the motion. The notice was not followed up: on the next sitting day, the House authorized travel by the Committee by unanimous consent (Journals, October 29, 1999, pp. 142‑4; November 1, 1999, p. 145).

[67] Debates, June 16, 1989, pp. 3146‑8.

[68] See Speaker Fraser’s ruling, Debates, December 15, 1988, pp. 76‑8.

[69] See, for example, Debates, April 1, 1932, pp. 1599‑600; May 31, 1956, pp. 4581‑3; December 21, 1988, pp. 539‑41.

[70] See, for example, Debates, May 15, 1956, pp. 4115‑9.

[71] Standing Order 67.1. The rule does not, however, specify the manner in which this questions and answers period is to proceed. The Speaker’s practice to date has been to recommend that speeches take about one minute each in order to allow as many Members as possible the opportunity to ask a question. See, for example, Debates, November 27, 2001, p. 7532. The first questions and answers period on a motion of closure was held in the House on October 7, 2002 (Debates, pp. 335‑40). To date, there have been no questions and answers periods in Committee of the Whole.

[72] Standing Order 57.

[73] Standing Order 43.

[74] See, for example, Debates, May 24, 1956, pp. 4286‑93.

[75] See, for example, Debates, April 28, 1919, p. 1796.

[76] See, for example, Journals, December 14, 1964, p. 1000.

[77] See, for example, Debates, April 13, 1921, p. 2094; October 23, 1980, pp. 4049‑53.

[78] See, for example, Debates, March 23, 1999, pp. 13360‑3 (the Chair Occupant allowed the Member to complete his speech before interrupting the proceedings at 11:05 p.m.); February 10, 2004, pp. 422‑4 (the Chair Occupant interrupted the proceedings at 8:00 p.m.).

[79] In 1969, Speaker Lamoureux delivered a ruling in which he reviewed the precedents and concluded that if the debate as a whole is to be closured, then any amendment or other motion applying to the main motion is included in the termination time set out in the closure rule (Journals, July 24, 1969, pp. 1393‑6).

[80] Standing Order 45(3).

[81] On occasion, debate on a closured item has collapsed prior to the cut‑off time. See, for example, Journals, June 26, 1989, pp. 450‑3; March 4, 1996, pp. 33‑5, 39‑42; Debates, March 4, 1996, pp. 270‑3; June 11, 1999, pp. 2101‑2.

[82] See, for example, Journals, December 6, 1995, pp. 2214‑6; December 9, 2002, pp. 281, 285.

[83] Standing Order 45(7).

[84] Standing Order 67.1 provides that, if the motion for closure is moved and carried at the beginning of the time provided for Government Orders on any day, and if the bill is then called and debated for the remainder of that sitting day, a period of time equal to the time allowed for questions and answers shall be added to the time provided for Government Orders on that same day. In practice, Government Orders are not extended because the proceedings under closure are interrupted at 8:00 p.m. or shortly thereafter. Private Members’ Business, where applicable, is dealt with at the time designated in the daily order of business and is not delayed, despite Standing Order 67.1. See, for example, Journals, February 10, 2004, pp. 34‑41.

[85] The Adjournment Proceedings were occasionally held even though closure had been applied to an item debated during the sitting. See, for example, Journals, December 9, 2002, pp. 280‑1, 285, when, with the unanimous consent of the House, the vote on a subamendment and all other questions affected by closure had been deferred to another day, making it possible for the Adjournment Proceedings to be held that day.

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