Evidence of meeting #144 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was signatures.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Vice-Chair  Mrs. Stephanie Kusie (Calgary Midnapore, CPC)
David Natzler  Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons
David Christopherson  Hamilton Centre, NDP
André Gagnon  Deputy Clerk, Procedure
Jeremy LeBlanc  Principal Clerk, Chamber Business and Parliamentary Publications
Linda Lapointe  Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, Lib.
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Andrew Lauzon

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

You mentioned the petitions with 100,000 signatures. How often do those happen? Have there been quite a lot of them?

11:35 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

Sir David Natzler

We only have about 28 or 29 sitting Mondays in a year. Again, it's my impression that it is most unusual now to have a sitting Monday without having a petition debate in Westminster Hall. There was a bit of a slow start, but the word got around that it was really worth going and that we would have petitions introduced.

The issue is that they've not been arranged by a member. A member of the Petitions Committee introduces them. They're not necessarily in favour of or against what's being discussed, but it's to get the debate going. Most of them are successful, in the sense that they attract half a dozen members who are willing to take part.

There's the occasional dud, a petition about which members don't really feel they have very much that they can usefully say, but as you can imagine, that's quite rare.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

You mentioned that debate length is based on the projected interest in a debate. That's why you get some that are 30 minutes and some that are 90 minutes.

I know that around here, RSVPs from MPs are notoriously unreliable. They often say that they're coming and they often don't. How do you prejudge attendance at a debate?

11:35 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

Sir David Natzler

We don't; the member has to, and it is a slight problem. The member takes responsibility. If she or he puts in for a 60- or 90-minute debate, it says very plainly that you shouldn't do this, and if you want to say which other members are putting in, please put it in on the form.

You can't force them to turn up; you're absolutely right. I guess maybe about once a week or once a fortnight, we do get what's meant to be a longer debate, but even with a long speech from the member starting, other members have not turned up in the event, and the thing falls short. We suspend so as to know when we're starting the next one with a new minister and new cast.

I don't think there's a public black mark against the member, but there's certainly a private one to note that they are not meant to go for the longer debates unless they think they can fill the space, not just with themselves, but with colleagues.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

You mentioned that chairs of Westminster Hall are committee chairs as opposed to chamber chairs. Is that correct?

11:35 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

Sir David Natzler

We have a two-tier committee system, so that may be misleading. We have our select committees, which look into subjects of their own choice, the so-called scrutiny committees that have chairs elected by the chamber. That's a different issue. They are not involved.

These are the committees that are smaller versions of the chamber, of maybe 17 or 20 members who look at legislation in detail on the committee stage off the floor, or look at delegated legislation, statutory instruments and so on. They are chaired in a neutral manner from a panel of about 35 members who are nominated by the Speaker on a party balance. They are senior members who are paid extra. They chair public bill committees and general committees, but they also chair Westminster Hall.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

In a typical week, how long does Westminster Hall sit, how many hours?

11:35 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

Sir David Natzler

It sits on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Mondays for three hours if there's a petition. For the Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, my math produced 13 hours, but my math may be wrong. I think it's 13 hours plus a possible three hours for a Monday sitting, which is quite a lot by our standards or anybody's standards. That's a lot of paper.

On a Tuesday or Wednesday Hansard, Westminster Hall is a pretty significant wodge at the back.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

I'm out of time. Thank you.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you.

The clerk has to go in about 10 minutes, so if it's okay, I will go to Mr. Nater. If people who are interested could ask one question, that would be great.

Go ahead, Mr. Nater.

February 28th, 2019 / 11:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and again, thank you, Sir David, for joining us on the day of your retirement. It is much appreciated.

I'm going to divert very slightly from Westminster Hall. I'm taking advantage of your expertise on a slightly different matter.

It's on the subject of the Backbench Business Committee. Would you be able to very briefly describe the purpose of the Backbench Business Committee, who sits on it, and how those members are appointed to that committee?

11:40 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

Sir David Natzler

Okay. I will try to be brief.

The purpose of the Backbench Business Committee, which was recommended in 2009 by the House of Commons reform committee, was to ensure that on days when the government didn't need the floor for its agenda, rather than filling it with boring debates in which junior ministers would make long statements and nobody wanted to debate them, the backbenchers would have a decision as to what they debated, and to some extent put that to the House for decision, because these are potentially decisive resolutions.

The idea was to set up a committee of backbenchers, chaired by a member chosen by the House as a whole from the opposition, to act as a jury, if you like. Members come and pitch to that committee and say they would like to have a three-hour debate if possible on X. They now sit in public to hear these applications. They then meet in private to decide which ones to give, and for approximately how long and on which days.

They are nominated theoretically by the House and in practice by parties. It was originally a whole-House selection, but that rather fell away after some difficulties early on, which are behind us now.

It's a real success. It means Thursdays are now by and large not voting days. Today is, obviously. For Thursday we've had the business still going on, thank goodness, on two backbench topics. One is about Welsh affairs, because tomorrow is St. David's Day, and we always have a Welsh affairs debate near St. David's Day. The other one is on the U.K.'s progress towards net-zero carbon emissions.

I'm watching my own annunciator on this as well. I notice how many members are speaking on that. They will turn up and speak about that. It's backbenchers who have chosen it. Ministers respond, and the opposition joins in, and so you have debates that are purposeful. Sometimes they are controversial and can lead to votes, and they are resolutions of the House. They are perfectly the same, in theory, as any other decision of the House. Just because it came on a backbench day doesn't make it less valid.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Thank you for that. That's very helpful.

I note that St. David's Day and your first day of retirement fall on the same day. That's somewhat coincidental, or perhaps it's on purpose that it happened, but that's wonderful.

11:40 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

Sir David Natzler

It's not a coincidence.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Well, that's wonderful. Happy St. David's Day.

11:40 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

I just want to clarify something. You had mentioned earlier that no government legislation is dealt with in Westminster Hall. Am I right to assume, then, that Westminster Hall in no way speeds up a government's agenda, and in the same way, Westminster Hall is no way for opposition to thwart the business of government? Thus, it has no impact, one way or the other, in speeding up or slowing down legislation.

11:40 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

Sir David Natzler

That is absolutely correct. It is neutral. As far as I know, other than ensuring ministers turn up, the government's business managers—who I do know fairly well—take very little interest in Westminster Hall at all, and that's a good thing.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Thank you so much.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Mr. Simms, you have one question.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

Thank you, Chair.

Very quickly, I understand that in 2009 or 2010, or shortly thereafter, you made a huge change in Westminster, whereby your select committee chairs are chosen by all members of the House. How is that going?

11:40 a.m.

Clerk of the House, United Kingdom House of Commons

Sir David Natzler

It has gone well. This was a recommendation from the House of Commons reform committee, to which I was the clerk.

As it's in my last hour, I can be candid. Most members favoured this idea. They thought it was a really good idea. It would give the chairs of the committees more standing in the House.

There had been a habit of the members being appointed to select committees to include one senior member from the party who, it was understood, would take the chair of that committee, and then the committees were expected to just elect them.

It didn't always work. Sometimes they chose some other member as their chair, which was fine too, as it was a good sign of independence. However, the government would then also try to leave the person off. There was a row in 2001-2002, when the government party tried to have two senior chairs not appointed to the committee at all.

Follwing that failed coup, the Wright committee said, “Why doesn't the House choose chairs? We will divide up the parties in advance; the parties meet in a small room and decide who gets which committee, on a arm-wrestling basis, which has always worked perfectly well so far. They then come forward to report that X committee is Conservative, X is Liberal Democrat, X is Labour, and then only members of that party can stand for election, with the electoral college—the House as a whole—voting by an alternative vote system.” Members absolutely love it.

Well, you are members; members enjoy voting. They don't seem to mind competing against one another within parties, so for some chairs, we would have four or five candidates. You would think the caucus might say, “No, this is our Labour candidate for X committee”, but it doesn't seem to work like that. They quite happily compete, without visible hard feelings, and then they have to canvass, of course, the other parties to get them to vote for them in a secret ballot.

The only voice on the Wright committee that said this would never work because, first, there wouldn't be any elections and it would all be sorted out by the caucuses and we would look ridiculous, was me, and I was completely wrong. It has been a really great success.

I hope that's helpful.

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you.

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

Yes, it's extremely helpful.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

It's not really helpful; it's provocative.

I want to ask a question to follow up on that.

First of all, are the chairs elected for the life of the entire Parliament?