Committees of the Whole

During consideration on a particular bill or motion, it may be prudent for the House of Commons to resolve itself into a committee composed of all of the members of the House. These committees are known as Committees of the Whole and they have a unique purpose in the body of parliamentary procedure. Each time the House sits as a Committee of the Whole, a new committee of that particular session is formed, thus, over the span of a session many ad hoc Committees of the Whole can be formed.

A Historical Perspective

Committees of the Whole were borne out of the British parliamentary tradition of grand committees that started prior to the reign of King James I. These committees considered legislation that was brought before the House and it became practice to allow any member who was in attendance of these meetings to speak and be heard. It was during the reign of James I and Charles I in the mid-1600s that these grand committees became known as Committees of the Whole and procedures similar to what we have today in Canada were formalized in our parliamentary tradition. In their early days, Committees of the Whole were forums that were struck to debate bills of great interest. By forming a committee outside of the sitting of the House of Commons itself, ordinary members were afforded a greater chance of getting their questions heard and answered. More importantly, the removal of the Speaker and all officers of parliament who were viewed to have the interest of the King at heart, meant that members were given more latitude to discuss controversial subjects.

There is as little sense of reality in appointing a committee of sixty members as there is in having a Committee of the Whole of 265: it is hopeless to expect a committee of such size to accomplish any useful work. (W.F. Dawson, Procedure in the Canadian House of Commons, p. 209)

In Canada the colonies adopted the practices of the British House of Commons and thus Committees of the Whole were brought over. In Lower Canada, four grand committees were struck at the start of each session that covered four broad but important areas of government. Addresses to the Crown were often first proposed and debated in the Committee of the Whole. At Confederation, the Parliament of Canada adopted the procedures of the former Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada which required that issues of taxation, trade or public revenue had to be first considered by a Committee of the Whole before any resolution or bill could be passed by the House of Commons.

From 1867 to 1968 there were three main committees of the whole House of Commons; the Committee of Supply, the Committee of Ways and Means and Committees of the Whole House. The House of Commons often resolved into the Committee of Supply to consider budgetary matters and supply estimates provided to the House by the government. In 1968 after a special committee was struck to review and revise the rules of the House of Commons, changes were made to the committee structure. Standing Committees would be formed at the start of each session with membership limited to a certain number of members and partisan representation being based on the composition of the House as a whole. The process of resolving into a Committee of the Whole for matters of routine legislation, which financial matters were increasingly being viewed as, was seen as too cumbersome and complex for the entire House. The new streamlined process saw most Committees of the Whole in Canada fall by the wayside. And by 1975, the only remaining committee composed of all members of the House of Commons is the Committee of the Whole itself.

Special Rules and Procedures

When the House resolves into a Committee of the Whole there are significant changes to the rules and procedures which govern that particular body. While Standing Order 101 clearly states that all rules and procedures of the House of Commons shall remain in force while the House is resolved into a Committee of the Whole, it goes on to further add that rules pertaining to the seconding of motions and the length of speeches do not apply while in a Committee of the Whole. In fact, one of the most attractive aspects about Committees of the Whole is that members are permitted to speak more than once and may speak for up to 20 minutes on a particular topic, provided it is relevant to the bill or motion at hand. The general decorum while in a Committee of the Whole is much less formal that when the House itself is in session. The Speaker, for example, is not present in the Chair and actually leaves the Chamber entirely while the committee is meeting. The Mace is moved from the Table to the bracket just below out of sight. Members are not required to stand in their place to speak (they may sit anywhere they like in the House) and often civil servants are brought to the floor of the House to assist Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries during deliberations.

On 11 June 2008, Stephen Harper issued an apology to aboriginal Canadians for the role of the federal government in the residential school system. During this apology, the House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole which allowed aboriginal leaders to be on the floor of the Chamber during the speech and as well to address members present following the remarks from the Prime Minister. This is an example of the differences between the House of Commons being in session and being resolved into a Committee of the Whole.

Procedures for Resolving into Committee

The rules and procedures regarding how the House of Commons resolves into a Committee of the Whole have changed over time. Today, an order in placed on the Order Paper for the Speaker to vacate the Chair and the House to resolve into a Committee of the Whole is carried out without debate or objection. Once read in the House at the appropriate time, the Speaker simply gets up and leaves the Chair and the Chamber. The Sergeant-at-Arms will move the Mace from its place at the Table to the bracket just underneath the Table and all of the Officers of Parliament will vacate the Chamber. The Deputy Speaker, or more accurately, the Chair of the Committee of the Whole takes their place at the end of the Table (where the Clerk of the House of Commons typically sits) and the Speaker’s Chair is left vacant. The image of a vacant Speaker’s Chair and the Table will no Mace present is a sign that the House of Commons is no longer in formal session and has resolved into a Committee of the Whole. Individual members may also begin moving about the House at this time. It is not uncommon for the minister or parliamentary secretary relevant to the particular item being considered to take a seat along the front bench where government members normally sit. It is also not uncommon for civil servants to be escorted into and out of the Chamber during this time to assist ministers or parliamentary secretaries during the meeting of the committee.

When an Order of the Day is read for the House to go into a Committee of the Whole or when it is ordered that a bill be considered in a Committee of the Whole, the Speaker shall leave the Chair without question put. (House of Commons Standing Order 100)

A quorum of 20 members is required for the committee to sit. The quorum must be present when the House resolves itself into committee and during the entirety of the meeting. If at any time a member rises to draw to attention to a lack of quorum, the Chair will count members present and if a quorum is not met they will vacate the chair and report the status to the Speaker. The Speaker will take their chair and the Chair of the Committee of the Whole will report to the Speaker that a quorum is not present. If at this time the Speaker sees that there still is no quorum present than they will order the bells rung. If after 15 minutes of the bells ringing quorum has not been met than the House and committee will adjourn for the day and the proceedings will resume where they left off the following day.

Conduct of Debate

There are four unique characteristics of a Committee of the Whole in contrast to the rules and procedures in place when the House of Commons is in session. First, the rules of motions and the seconding of motions is different. No motion from the Committee of the Whole requires a seconder and motions may only be withdrawn by the mover or by unanimous consent of the committee. Second, members may speak more than once and, third, members may speak for up to 20 minutes with the exception of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition who have unlimited time to speak, if they wish. And lastly, members are not required to be in their place during the meeting of the committee and often move about the Chamber during the meeting.

(1) The Standing Orders of the House shall be observed in Committees of the Whole so far as may be applicable, except the Standing Orders as to the seconding of motions, limiting the number of times of speaking and the length of speeches.

(2) Speeches in Committees of the Whole must be strictly relevant to the item or clause under consideration.

(3) No Member, except the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, shall speak for more than twenty minutes at a time in any Committee of the Whole. (House of Commons Standing Order 101)

When the Committee of the Whole is interrupted to permit the House of Commons to carry on with routine proceedings (for example, Oral Questions), the Chair will simply vacate their seat and the Speaker will resume the Chair. Once in place, the Chair reports the status of the committee to the Speaker and requests leave for further time to deliberate. The scheduling of Committees of the Whole is generally conducted by the Speaker in consultation with the House Leaders from each political party (with strong input from the majority leader). Once the Speaker takes the Chair and the Mace is moved back to the Table than the House of Commons resumes its sitting and carries on with proceedings.

If debate is required to be extended for any reason, members may not move such a motion without notice as in the House of Commons. Rather, notice must be given so that the Chair can make arrangements to report the status of the committee to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Any request for debate extension must go through the Speaker of the House of Commons who is responsible for committees of the House.

Voting within the Committee of the Whole is first done by voice. If the Chair hears no objection to a bill or motion than it is deemed passed without opposition. Any member may request a standing vote. The standing vote is done differently than in the House of Commons because a members name is not recorded in divisions. Members are not necessarily in their place, they simply rise where they stand on the division they wish and they are counted out-loud by the Chair. At the end of the count the matter is either affirmed or negatived and the committee moves on the next item of business. Typically the Chair does not vote in Committees of the Whole but may do so in order to break up a tie between the committee in the same fashion as the Speaker in the House of Commons (that is in such a way as to maintain the status quo).

Modern Application

Committees of the Whole are used in the modern Canadian parliament to debate matters of particular importance which may require input from members beyond what would be permitted in the Standing Committee model. The desire to resolve into a Committee of the Whole is generally started by the government or opposition House Leader and is added to the Order Paper as required. Committees of the Whole have also been used to allow the government to make an announcement and allow members of the public to address the Chamber. It is not uncommon to see orders for the House to resolve into a Committee of the Whole in the consideration of controversial legislation or main estimates or to conduct a less formal take-note debate on a particular subject.

Photo credit: Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Committee of the Whole while aboriginal leaders listen on the floor of the House of Commons. Buzzfeed.

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