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House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

House of Commons Procedure and Practice - 19. Committees of the Whole House - Other Uses of Committees of the Whole

*   Take-note Debates

From time to time, the House holds take-note debates, during which Members have an opportunity to examine and debate domestic and international issues in detail.[198] The Standing Orders set out a special procedure for holding such debates in a Committee of the Whole, a forum considered more intimate and more conducive to a free exchange of ideas. The majority of take-note debates today are held in a Committee of the Whole format.[199]

After consultation with the House Leaders of other parties, and at any point in the sitting, a Minister may move a motion that sets out the theme of the take-note debate to be held in Committee of the Whole, as well as the date the debate is to be held. The motion cannot be moved less than 48 hours before the debate is to begin. When the motion is moved, the question is put immediately, without debate or amendment.[200]

The debate begins at the ordinary hour of daily adjournment on the day designated by the adoption of the motion and continues until no Member rises to speak or until four hours have passed, whichever is earlier. The motion to be debated by the Committee of the Whole reads, “That the Committee take note of [subject]” and is not put to a vote. At the conclusion of the proceedings, the Committee rises and the House immediately adjourns to the next sitting day. As a consequence, the Adjournment Proceedings do not take place. For its part, the motion to allow a take-note debate is dropped from the Order Paper.

The general principles relating to proceedings in a Committee of the Whole apply to take-note debates, that is, Members need not be in their assigned place to be recognized to speak.[201] There are, however, a few exceptions. For example, the Committee may not consider any motion except a motion “That the Committee do now rise”. No Member may speak for longer than 10 minutes and each speech may be followed by a period of not more than 10 minutes for questions and comments. Finally, the Speaker may preside over the Committee debate, if he or she wishes to do so.[202]

In practice, many take-note debates are placed on the Order Paper even though the official procedure as specified in the Standing Orders has not been followed. Very often, they are held following the adoption, by unanimous consent, of special orders that set additional conditions for the debate, such as changes to the number of hours or the allocation of a number of days for debate,[203] the prohibition against quorum calls,[204] and authorization for Members to divide their speaking time with other Members.[205]

One of the major differences between a Committee of the Whole devoted to a take-note debate and others where bills or motions are under consideration is that Members have no opportunity to make a decision on the item being debated. The purpose of take-note debates is first and foremost to permit a discussion of the selected theme. For this reason, the only motion admissible during a take-note debate is a motion “That the Committee rise”.

*   Consideration of Estimates

Detailed examination of estimates mainly takes place in the standing committees of the House. For instance, the main estimates for the incoming fiscal year are deemed referred to committees on or before March 1 of the current fiscal year and are reported back, or are deemed reported back, to the House not later than May 31.[206]

Each year, under this rule, the Leader of the Opposition is permitted to select, in consultation with the leaders of the other opposition parties, the main estimates of no more than two departments or agencies for consideration in Committee of the Whole for up to four hours.[207] Not later than May 1, the Leader of the Opposition may in this respect give 48 hours’ notice of a motion to refer these estimates to a Committee of the Whole. The motion is deemed adopted at the end of the notice period and the estimates in question are deemed withdrawn from the standing committee to which they had initially been referred.[208]

Each set of estimates is considered on a day designated by the government,[209] but not later than May 31,[210] at the conclusion of the Adjournment Proceedings or, if taken up on a Friday, at the conclusion of Private Members’ Business. When the estimates are to be considered following Adjournment Proceedings, the motion to adjourn the House is deemed withdrawn.

Unlike many other debates in Committee of the Whole, the debate on estimates is general in its scope, covering all of the Votes referred to the Committee.[211] The Committee of the Whole considers the appropriations initially included in the main estimates.[212]

Another rule of debate that distinguishes this type of Committee of the Whole states that no Member will be recognized for more than 15 minutes at a time. Only 10 minutes within that period may be used by the Member to give a speech. The 15 minutes may be used both for speeches and for asking questions about the estimates to the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary acting on behalf of the Minister. When the Member is recognized, he or she shall indicate how the 15 minutes is to be apportioned.[213] In addition, Members must obtain unanimous consent to split their time with other Members.[214]

Furthermore, the House frequently adopts special orders setting additional conditions for debate, such as rules ensuring that the answer by the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary does not exceed the time taken for the question, or prohibiting quorum calls, dilatory motions and requests for unanimous consent.[215] Generally, the Committee Chair makes a statement about the rules of debate at the beginning of the proceedings.[216]

The goal of these debates is first and foremost to hold discussions on the estimates during which Members have an opportunity to ask the Minister or Parliamentary Secretary questions about the specific estimates under consideration. In fact, the Standing Orders provide no procedure under which the Members of the Committee of the Whole might concur in, reject or reduce the estimates, contrary to what is possible in a standing committee.[217] In addition, the estimates are not examined individually, but as a whole, by department or agency. The Standing Orders set out an automatic procedure for reporting the estimates back to the House without the question being put at the conclusion of the proceedings; the Committee rises, the estimates are deemed reported and the House immediately adjourns to the next sitting day.[218] Final decisions on the main estimates are made on the last allotted day in the supply period ending June 23.

[198] For further information about take-note debates, see Chapter 15, “Special Debates”.

[199] See, for example, Journals, February 24, 2003, p. 451, February 26, 2003, p. 479 (on the fisheries); October 28, 2004, p. 165, November 2, 2004, pp. 180, 187 (on assistance to victims of Hepatitis C); April 27, 2006, p. 100, May 1, 2006, p. 115 (on the crisis in Darfur). For an example of a take-note debate held by the House and not in a Committee of the Whole, see Journals, December 12, 2006, p. 899 (on a Report from a Standing Committee).

[200] Standing Order 53.1. See, for example, Journals, November 1, 2002, p. 153. A recorded division is rarely required for these types of motions, although it has happened. See, for example, Journals, February 12, 2004, pp. 72-3. Furthermore, the House occasionally has agreed to set aside the 48 hours’ notice required before a debate begins by adopting special orders by unanimous consent. See, for example, Journals, January 28, 2002, pp. 964, 970-1.

[201] Standing Order 17. Debates are therefore held in a less formal setting. In addition, the House experimented by holding two emergency debates in Committee of the Whole in 2001 (Journals, September 27, 2001, pp. 644‑5, 663; October 4, 2001, pp. 691, 694), in response to the suggestion made in the First Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons (par. 30, presented to the House on June 1, 2001 (Journals, p. 465) and concurred in on October 4, 2001 (Journals, pp. 691‑3) by Special Order (Journals, October 3, 2001, p. 685)). As a motion to adjourn the House is not appropriate in committee, on these two occasions, the committee considered a motion to “take note” of the matter. For further information on emergency debates, see Chapter 15, “Special Debates”.

[202] Standing Order 53.1.

[203] See, for example, Journals, January 28, 2002, p. 970; October 7, 2004, p. 33.

[204] See, for example, Journals, January 27, 2003, p. 314.

[205] See, for example, Journals, October 7, 2004, p. 34; April 6, 2006, p. 28.

[206] Standing Order 81(4).

[207] Standing Order 81(4)(a). This procedure is only possible for estimates that have not yet been reported by the committees to which they have been referred. On occasion, the estimates have been referred to a Committee of the Whole even though they had previously been reported. See, for example, the Fourteenth Report of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, presented to the House on April 30, 2008 (Journals, p. 746). See also Journals, May 2, 2008, p. 759; May 28, 2008, p. 866.

[208] No formal announcement is made in the House that the motion has been agreed to, but the fact is recorded in the Journals. See, for example, Journals, May 3, 2007, p. 1348. These studies are immediately placed on the Order Paper in the section entitled Consideration in Committee of the Whole under Orders of the Day, Business of Supply. See, for example, Order Paper and Notice Paper, May 4, 2007, p. 29.

[209] The government designates such days just as it does supply days—through a verbal announcement in the House. The Weekly Business Statement is often used for this purpose. See, for example, Debates, May 10, 2007, pp. 9331-2.

[210] One study in Committee of the Whole was held after May 31, by Special Order of the House. Originally scheduled for May 28, 2002, the debate was deferred until June 4 (Journals, May 27, 2002, p. 1430).

[211] Debates, November 7, 2006, p. 4859.

[212] This holds true even if the Standing Committee has already begun its consideration of the estimates, even if it has already approved, reduced or negatived them, and in fact, even if the Committee has already reported back to the House. See, for example, Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Minutes of Proceedings, Meeting No. 30, April 19, 2005; Journals, May 2, 2005, p. 682.

[213] Standing Order 81(4)(a). See, for example, Debates, November 23, 2004, p. 1786. Occasionally, the House allows parties to allocate time to one or more of their Members, within each 15-minute period permitted for speeches or questions and answers. See, for example, Journals, November 16, 2004, p. 221.

[214] See, for example, Debates, May 7, 2002, p. 11341.

[215] See, for example, Journals, June 4, 2002, p. 1471; November 1, 2006, p. 609; May 27, 2008, p. 852.

[216] At this point, details are normally provided concerning the rotation of the various recognized political parties in the House and the speaking order to be followed during debate. Although Members may speak more than once, the Chair will generally try to ensure that all Members wishing to speak are heard before inviting Members to speak again. See, for example, Debates, November 1, 2006, p. 4572.

[217] In May 2003, during a debate in Committee of the Whole, a Member moved to reduce one of the Department of Justice Votes by $100 million. Although the Chair expressed doubt that the motion was consistent with the spirit of debate in a Committee of the Whole, he allowed the motion to be debated. He refused, however, to grant requests from a number of Members to put the question immediately, before the Committee had had an opportunity to debate it. This ruling was appealed and it was upheld by the Speaker. When the debate ended, the original Votes considered were deemed reported, pursuant to Standing Order 81(4)(a) (Journals, May 27, 2003, pp. 815-6, Debates, pp. 6590-3).

[218] See, for example, Journals, June 4, 2002, p. 1472; November 16, 2004, p. 226.

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