House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

House of Commons Procedure and Practice - 15. Special Debates - Statutory Debates


Parliament has seen fit to include provisions governing special “statutory” debates in certain statutes. These special debates are a form of parliamentary oversight and review of specific statutory provisions. In some cases, the statutory provision is designed to be permissive;[177] in others, it is mandatory.

Statutory debates can be grouped into two broad categories, although the procedures pertaining to the debates are similar. The first category provides for a general review of an act or a particular aspect of it. The second and most common category provides for a debate to discuss, confirm, revoke or amend an order, regulation, declaration, proclamation, guideline or other instrument of delegated legislation issued pursuant to the statute in question.

Consequently, these statutes make regulations at times that are subject to affirmative resolution of Parliament. This obliges both Houses to adopt the regulations, ostensibly by holding a debate on them, before they can come into effect.[178] Conversely, regulations subject to negative resolution of Parliament are in effect until revoked by resolution of both Houses, again presumably after a debate.[179]

Since the 1960s, several statutory debates have taken place. In 1971, for example, pursuant to the Government Organization Act, 1970, the House considered and adopted a motion to establish a Ministry of State for Science and Technology.[180] In 1974, the House debated a motion requesting the Minister of Veterans Affairs to continue provisions of the Veterans’ Land Act scheduled to expire on March 31, 1975.[181] One was held in 1977 in an attempt to advance the expiration date of the Anti‑Inflation Act.[182] Two occurred consecutively in late 1980 when Members sought to revoke two proclamations tabled by the government in relation to the Petroleum Administration Act: one proclamation concerned regulations prescribing maximum prices for various qualities and kinds of crude oil; the other proclamation involved regulations prescribing prices for natural gas.[183] Another took place in 1985 when Members invoked a provision in the Western Grain Transportation Act to move a motion to use a sitting day to examine a progress report on the Act and any outstanding issues of interest to western farmers.[184] One statutory debate took place in September 1992 when, pursuant to the Referendum Act, the House adopted a motion approving the text of a referendum question.[185] A few months later, in December 1992, Members sought to amend the Special Economic Measures (Haiti) Ships Regulations in accordance with provisions set down in the Special Economic Measures Act for amending or revoking orders and regulations regarding economic sanctions programs.[186] In 2000, on the initiative of a Minister, the House held a debate on an order amending the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, as prescribed in the statute.[187] More recently, in 2007, a Minister moved, in accordance with the procedure set out in the Criminal Code, that the application of certain sections of the Code be extended for a period of three years.[188]

Moreover, until 1986, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act contained provisions that allowed Members to discuss their objections to a report of an Electoral Boundaries Commission on the floor of the House. Four debates—in 1966, 1973, 1976 and 1983—were held under the Act’s provisions.[189] In 1986, the Act was amended so that these reports are now tabled in the House and automatically referred to a parliamentary committee established for the purpose of dealing with electoral matters.[190] Objections are filed with and considered by this committee.

*   Initiating Debate

The manner in which statutory debates are triggered depends upon the provisions contained in each statute. For statutes which allow a debate to be held, such a debate may be initiated by a Minister who, within a specified time, files a notice of motion with the Speaker for the confirmation of an order, regulation, declaration, proclamation, guideline or other instrument of delegated legislation issued in accordance with the law.[191]

However, the initiation of a debate to revoke such instruments typically requires that a notice of motion signed by a minimum number of Members or Senators, as the case may be, be filed with the Speaker.[192]

Furthermore, where statutes require that a debate take place on the use of an instrument of delegated legislation, the relevant provisions typically specify that a confirmation motion signed by a Minister must be laid before Parliament within a specified time.[193]

After notice has been filed in accordance with the Standing Orders of the House and transferred to the Order Paper under the rubric “Statutory Order”,[194] debate must take place within the set number of days, if any, prescribed in the particular statute.

For example, in 1974, debate pursuant to the Veterans’ Land Act had to take place within 15 days, and the House adopted a motion fixing the dates for the debate.[195] In 1977, debate pursuant to the Anti‑Inflation Act was required to take place within 15 days of the notice being filed[196] and, in 1980, pursuant to the Petroleum Administration Act, within four sitting days.[197] It appears that in both cases the dates for the debate were fixed through all‑party consultation. In 1985, pursuant to subsection 62(6) of the Western Grain Transportation Act, which stipulated that debate had to take place within 60 days of the notice being filed, the Speaker assigned the day for the debate.[198] In September 1992, pursuant to the Referendum Act, the debate on the text of the referendum question took place 24 hours after the notice was given.[199] In December 1992, after a motion for a debate pursuant to the Special Economic Measures Act had been placed on the Order Paper, the Chair was asked to rule on its procedural acceptability. The Speaker ruled that the motion was acceptable and that pursuant to the Act, the House had to consider the motion within six sitting days.[200] The House agreed to hold the debate later that day.[201] In 2000, pursuant to the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, the House of Commons adopted a Special Order setting the debate at a date and time that was consistent with the statutory requirement to hold the debate in both Houses within 20 sitting days after the order was tabled.[202] The resolution to extend certain sections of the Criminal Code in 2007 was to be adopted by both Houses no later than the 15th sitting day after December 31, 2006. Consequently, the government began the debate on the matter on February 9, 2007; according to the House calendar, the House of Commons resumed business on January 29 that year.[203]

*   Duration of Debate

The duration of a statutory debate is usually prescribed in the legislation, be it one or more sitting days or only a few hours. On occasion, the House has also adopted motions setting out additional guidelines.[204] For example, pursuant to subsection 1(3) of the Veterans’ Land Act, the debate was to take place over two days, without interruption, in accordance with the rules of the House; the House subsequently adopted a motion establishing the days of the debate and suspending Private Members’ Business on the first day of debate.[205] The debates held pursuant to the Anti‑Inflation Act and the Petroleum Administration Act lasted four and three days respectively, in accordance with the statutes.[206] Subsection 62(6) of the Western Grain Transportation Act stipulated that the progress report was to be debated without interruption for “a period not exceeding the duration of the normal business hours of the House on that day”. A motion to this effect was adopted by the House.[207] The motion also indicated that the order was to be the first item of business. The debate held in September 1992 pursuant to the Referendum Act lasted two sitting days. The Act stipulates that a decision must be taken on the motion by the end of the third sitting day of the debate.[208] The House passed a motion, by unanimous consent, to dispose of the motion after two days of debate.[209] The length of the December 1992 statutory debate was set by subsection 7(4) of the Special Economic Measures Act, which limits debate to not more than three hours, unless the House fixes a longer period by unanimous consent. In this instance, the House adopted a Special Order that had the effect of terminating debate after only two hours.[210]

The Emergencies Act is exceptional in that it imposes no time limit for debate on a motion for confirmation of a declaration, or continuation of a declaration, of an emergency or for debate on a motion to revoke or amend a regulation or order. The legislation simply provides that debate continue uninterrupted until such time as the House is ready for the question.[211]

The debates held in 2000 and 2007 pursuant to the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, and the Criminal Code were not limited in length, apart from the timeframes for holding the debate or for adopting the resolution extending sections of the Criminal Code.[212] The amendment to the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, was debated for less than 90 minutes,[213] and the debate on the Criminal Code sections lasted about 10 hours and 30 minutes, over three sitting days.[214]

*   Rules of Debate

Unless otherwise specified in the statute, the rules of debate and the length of speeches during a statutory debate are determined by the Standing Orders.[215] There have been two exceptions: in 1977 and 1985, the House adopted motions restricting the length of speeches.[216] The House has also adopted special orders that no quorum calls, requests for unanimous consent or dilatory motions be received during the debate.[217]

*   Interruption of Debate

Many statutes that prescribe provisions for statutory debates also stipulate that the debate may not be interrupted. Nevertheless, in 1977, debate on the motion pursuant to the Anti‑Inflation Act, which took place over four days, was interrupted on three occasions for the Adjournment Proceedings, after which the motion to adjourn was deemed withdrawn and debate continued, pursuant to an Order of the House adopted on May 30, 1977.[218] In 1985, the debate held pursuant to the Western Grain Transportation Act was interrupted for a ministerial statement by the Minister of Finance pursuant to an Order made by the House.[219]

*   Termination of Debate

Normally, all motions moved and debated pursuant to a statutory provision are voted on at the conclusion of debate.[220] A statutory debate concludes according to the provisions in the legislation. Therefore, if debate has not concluded earlier, the Speaker is required to interrupt the proceedings at the expiration of a given sitting day or the time prescribed in the legislation and put the question on the motion.[221] In cases where the statute under consideration does not stipulate a specific length of time for debate, the vote is held only when no Member rises to speak, unless the House concurs in a motion of closure, or unless it adopts a special order setting a limit on the length of the debate.[222]

If a confirmation motion is adopted by the House of Parliament in which it was introduced, the statute will normally prescribe that a message be sent to the other House requesting its concurrence. If the motion is subsequently adopted by the other House, the regulation or Order in Council is thereby confirmed, amended or revoked.[223] If a revocation motion is not adopted by the House in which it originated or by the House where it was sent for concurrence, the regulation or Order in Council comes into force or remains unaffected, as the case may be.[224]

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[177] For examples of permissive provisions, see the Energy Administration Act, R.S. 1985, c. E-6, ss. 72 to 78; the International Development (Financial Institutions) Assistance Act, R.S. 1985, c. I‑18, ss. 5 to 11; and the Safe Containers Convention Act, R.S. 1985, c. S-1, ss. 8 to 12. The User Fees Act provides that the House of Commons may approve, reject or amend recommendations made by a parliamentary committee that reviewed a user fee proposal from a regulatory agency. See User Fees Act, S.C. 2004, c. 6, ss. 4(4), 5 and 6.

[178] See, for example, Unemployment Insurance Act, S.C. 1996, c. 23, s. 5(5).

[179] See, for example, Safe Containers Convention Act, R.S. 1985, c. S‑1, s. 12, and the Employment Insurance Act, S.C. 1996, c. 23, s. 153. A number of Acts also specify that reports, orders, regulations or notices of intention must be referred to a parliamentary committee for review. See, for example, Official Languages Act, R.S. 1985, c. 31 (4th Supp.), s. 69.

[180] Government Organization Act, 1970, R.S. 1970, c. 14, s. 18(2); Journals, June 21, 1971, p. 712.

[181] Act to Amend the Veterans' Land Act, S.C. 1974, c. 3, s. 1(3); Journals, November 5, 1974, p. 104; November 6, 1974, p. 106.

[182] Act to Amend the Anti‑Inflation Act, S.C. 1974‑75‑76, c. 98, s. 11(1); Journals, June 16, 1977, p. 1144.

[183] Petroleum Administration Act, S.C. 1974‑75‑76, c. 47, ss. 36 and 52(1); Journals, November 12, 1980, p. 690; November 21, 1980, p. 769; November 26, 1980, p. 784.

[184] Western Grain Transportation Act, S.C. 1980‑81‑82‑83, c. 168, s. 62(6); Journals, December 4, 1985, pp. 1315‑7.

[185] Referendum Act, S.C. 1992, c. 30, s. 5; Journals, September 9, 1992, pp. 1956‑7; September 10, 1992, pp. 1960‑2.

[186] Special Economic Measures Act, S.C. 1992, c. 17, s. 7; Journals, December 8, 1992, pp. 2308‑9.

[187] Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, S.C. 1994, c. 22, s. 12; Journals, May 30, 2000, pp. 1750, 1760-1.

[188] These sections dealt with the possibility of preventive arrests of suspected terrorists by law enforcement agencies and the questioning before a judge of those likely to have information about criminal activities. See Criminal Code, R.S. 1985, c. 46, s. 83.32; Journals, February 9, 2007, pp. 987-8; February 12, 2007, p. 991; February 22, 2007, p. 1060; February 26, 2007, pp. 1069‑70; February 27, 2007, pp. 1077-9.

[189] Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, S.C. 1964‑65, c. 31, s. 20. Within 30 days of the tabling in the House of such a report, a motion for consideration of an objection to the report signed by not less than 10 Members could be filed with the Speaker. The motion would detail the provisions of the report objected to and the reasons for the objection. Within 15 days of the filing of the motion, time would be set aside under Government Orders for Members to voice their concerns about the report. Upon the conclusion of consideration of the objections, the Speaker was required to refer the objections and the relevant Debates pages back to the Commission.

[190] Representation Act, 1985, S.C. 1986, c. 8, ss. 9 and 10. On June 10, 1994, the Standing Orders were amended to designate the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs as the parliamentary committee responsible for electoral matters (Journals, June 10, 1994, p. 563; Twenty‑Seventh Report, Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, June 9, 1994, Issue No. 16, pp. 7‑8). For further information on electoral matters, see Chapter 4, “The House of Commons and Its Members”.

[191] See, for example, International Development (Financial Institutions) Assistance Act, R.S. 1985, c. I‑18, s. 5(2)(a).

[192] While most legislation providing for such statutory debates makes provision for debate in either House, there are some statutes that do not provide for debate in the Senate. See, for example, Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, S.C. 1994, c. 22, s. 12(3).

[193] See, for example, Emergencies Act, R.S. 1985, c. 22 (4th Supp.), s. 58(1).

[194] In 1974, the motion was placed under the rubric “Special Order” following the adoption of a Special Order of the House specifying the time and days on which the motion would be considered (Journals, October 31, 1974, p. 97; Order Paper, November 5, 1974, p. 4). In 2000, the Government moved a motion under “Government Business”, not under “Statutory Order”. In addition, the motion was formulated like a typical motion for a take-note debate: that the House “take note” of the order amending the Migratory Birds Convention Act (Order Paper and Notice Paper, May 29, 2000, p. III).

[195] Veterans' Land Act, S.C. 1974, c. 3, s. 1(3); Journals, October 31, 1974, p. 97.

[196] Anti‑Inflation Act, S.C. 1974‑75‑76, c. 75, s. 46(6).

[197] Petroleum Administration Act, S.C. 1974-75-76, c. 47, ss. 35(3) and 52(4).

[198] Order Paper and Notice Paper, December 4, 1985, p. XXIII. Pursuant to the Act, Speaker Bosley designated December 4, 1985 to be the day for the debate. The House Leaders of the various parties were informed of the Speaker’s decision by letter and it was placed on the Order Paper. The House officially scheduled the debate on the Orders of the Day for December 4 by Special Order (Journals, pp. 1315-6).

[199] Referendum Act, S.C. 1992, c. 30, s. 5(4). See also Order Paper and Notice Paper, September 9, 1992, p. VI.

[200] Special Economic Measures Act, S.C. 1992, c. 17, s. 7(3); Debates, December 8, 1992, pp. 14862‑4.

[201] Journals, December 8, 1992, p. 2308.

[202] Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, S.C. 1994, c. 22, s. 12(3); Journals, May 30, 2000, p. 1750.

[203] Criminal Code, R.S. 1985, c. 46, s. 83.32(1). The debate was held during the period set aside for Government Orders. However, it was recorded in the Journals under the rubric “Statutory Order” (Journals, February 9, 2007, p. 987). The motion was defeated in a recorded division held on February 27, 2007 (Journals, pp. 1077-9).

[204] Once House procedures are prescribed in statutes, any attempt to modify them would normally require a statutory amendment.

[205] Journals, October 31, 1974, p. 97.

[206] Anti-Inflation Act, S.C. 1974‑75‑76, c. 75, s. 46(7); Petroleum Administration Act, S.C. 1974‑75‑76, c. 47, ss. 35(4) and 52(5).

[207] Journals, December 4, 1985, pp. 1315‑6.

[208] Referendum Act, S.C. 1992, c. 30, s. 5(5).

[209] Journals, September 9, 1992, p. 1944.

[210] Journals, December 8, 1992, p. 2308. The motion also stipulated that any requested recorded division would be deferred until the following day.

[211] Emergencies Act, S.C. 1988, c. 29, ss. 58(6), 60(5) and 61(8).

[212] Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, S.C. 1994, c. 22, s. 12(3); Criminal Code, R.S. 1985, c. 46, s. 83.32(1).

[213] Journals, May 30, 2000, pp. 1760-1.

[214] Journals, February 9, 2007, pp. 987-8; February 12, 2007, p. 991; February 26, 2007, pp. 1069-70.

[215] Standing Order 43. In 2007, pursuant to section 83.32(3) of the Criminal Code, the motion to extend certain sections of the Code could not be amended.

[216] Journals, June 16, 1977, p. 1144; December 4, 1985, p. 1315.

[217] See, for example, Journals, May 30, 2000, p. 1750.

[218] Journals, May 30, 1977, p. 874; June 16, 1977, p. 1145; June 20, 1977, p. 1156; June 21, 1977, p. 1177. The motion under consideration was not the first item of business under Government Orders for two of the four days of debate.

[219] Journals, December 4, 1985, p. 1316. The debate also took place on a Wednesday when less time was allotted for Government Orders.

[220] See, for example, Journals, November 6, 1974, p. 106; June 21, 1977, pp. 1177‑8; November 26, 1980, pp. 785‑6; December 1, 1980, p. 799; September 10, 1992, pp. 1961‑2; December 8, 1992, p. 2309. There are some exceptions, however. During the 1985 debate, the proceedings ended at the ordinary hour of daily adjournment, and no question was put on the motion or on the proposed amendment (Journals, December 4, 1985, p. 1317). Furthermore, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, requires only that a debate be held on the amendment to the Convention; the adoption of a resolution is not required. In 2000, at the end of the discussion involving an amendment to the Convention, the motion before the House was deemed withdrawn and the House was adjourned until the next sitting day, in accordance with the Special Order adopted for the debate (Journals, May 30, 2000, p. 1750).

[221] For example, the Petroleum Administration Act specified that the proceedings were to be interrupted 15 minutes before the expiry of time for Government Orders in order to put the question on the motion (ss. 35(4) and 52(5)). However, for the two debates held pursuant to this Act, the House unanimously agreed to defer the putting of the question until the expiry of time for Government Orders, at which time the divisions were deferred (Journals, November 25, 1980, p. 779; November 28, 1980, p. 794).

[222] See, for example, Journals, 22 February 2007, p. 1060.

[223] See, for example, Special Economic Measures Act, S.C. 1992, c. 17, s. 7(7).

[224] See, for example, Special Economic Measures Act, S.C. 1992, c. 17, s. 7(8).

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