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House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

 
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19. Committees of the Whole House

Photo of low relief Architectural Sculpture entitled “Nurses' Memorial” from the Heritage Collection in the Hall of Honour.

 

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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)

A Committee of the Whole is the entire membership of the House of Commons sitting as a committee.[1] Each time the House resolves itself into a Committee of the Whole to deliberate on a specific matter, a new committee is created. Once that committee has completed its business, it ceases to exist. Over the span of a session, many Committees of the Whole can be created on an ad hoc basis.

A meeting of a Committee of the Whole is held in the House of Commons Chamber itself and presided over by the Deputy Speaker, as Chair of Committees of the Whole, or by the Deputy Chair or Assistant Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole. Whoever is presiding sits at the Table, in the Clerk’s chair, while the Speaker’s chair remains vacant. The Mace is removed from the top of the Table to signal that the House itself is no longer in session; it rests on the lower brackets at the end of the Table during the entire time that the House sits as a Committee of the Whole.

Since the membership of a Committee of the Whole is identical to that of the House, one might expect the rules in both forums to be the same. While there are similarities, the rules in a Committee of the Whole are less formal than those which apply when the House is in session. For example, Members may speak more than once on any item[2] and need not stand in their place when they have the floor.

“The function of a Committee of the Whole is deliberation, not enquiry.”[3] Unlike standing committees which have the authority to initiate studies of continuing concern to the House, a Committee of the Whole may only consider questions and bills which the House decides should be dealt with in this particular forum.

At one time, the House sat frequently as a Committee of the Whole to examine the estimates,[4] appropriation bills[5] and all taxation bills[6] at the committee stage. In addition, most bills that had received a second reading were referred to a Committee of the Whole for consideration and review. Relatively speaking, Committees of the Whole are now used less frequently to consider legislation, and more frequently for special debates.

Today, the vast majority of bills are referred to standing or legislative committees, although the Standing Orders still provide for a Committee of the Whole to examine appropriation bills.[7] Furthermore, certain bills are referred by special order or by unanimous consent to a Committee of the Whole for consideration. In such cases, however, the predominant reason for doing so is to expedite passage of the bill.[8]

Over the past few years, however, Committees of the Whole have become popular once again, primarily because they provide a forum for special debates, such as take-note debates and the consideration of the main estimates.[9] Members consider a Committee of the Whole to be an opportunity for a discussion that is less formal than a debate held in the House.[10]

This chapter will examine the role of Committees of the Whole and discuss the rules and practices pertaining to proceedings in a Committee of the Whole.



[1] Wilding, N. and Laundy, P., An Encyclopaedia of Parliament, 4th ed., London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1972, pp. 149‑52.

[2] Standing Order 101(1).

[3] Beauchesne, A., Beauchesne’s Rules & Forms of the House of Commons of Canada, 6th ed., edited by A. Fraser, W.F. Dawson and J.A. Holtby, Toronto: The Carswell Company Limited, 1989, p. 249.

[4] The estimates are the expenditure plans of all government departments, consisting of main estimates, tabled annually, and supplementary estimates, tabled as required. Consideration of the estimates is a major component of the business of supply. For further information on the estimates, see Chapter 18, “Financial Procedures”.

[5] An appropriation bill is a bill authorizing government expenditures, introduced in the House by a Minister following concurrence in the main or supplementary estimates or interim supply.

[6] A taxation bill is a bill proposing to introduce a new tax, to continue an expiring tax, to increase an existing tax or to extend the application of a tax.

[7] Standing Order 73(4). See, for example, Journals, June 14, 2005, pp. 889‑90.

[8] Since 1980, although a significant number of bills have been referred to Committees of the Whole for examination after second reading, very little time has been spent in this forum debating those bills, with the exception of the Committee of the Whole consideration of Bill C-2, An Act to implement the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States of America, in December 1988 (Debates, December 20, 1988, pp. 408-19, 433-517; December 21, 1988, pp. 532-87). For a more recent example of a bill that was referred to a Committee of the Whole after second reading, see Journals, December 11, 2007, pp. 295-7.

[9] See, for example, Journals, October 3, 2006, p. 492 (take-note debate); May 31, 2005, p. 810 (consideration of estimates).

[10] Generally speaking, anyone who is not a Member or an official of the House of Commons is not permitted on the floor of the House of Commons when the House is sitting; this is, however, allowed during a Committee of the Whole. For example, Members have used this relatively informal forum to invite on to the floor of the House Olympic and Paralympic athletes who competed in recent Olympic Games. Such tributes have taken place in 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2004 (Debates, October 1, 1996, pp. 4944‑6; April 22, 1998, pp. 5959-60; April 15, 2002, pp. 10393‑4; November 1, 2004, pp. 1011‑2). An exceptional event also took place on June 11, 2008 when, pursuant to an Order adopted the previous day, the House met for the sole purpose of proceeding to “Statements by Ministers” to allow the Prime Minister to make a statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools. Several guests of honour representing the First Nations, Metis and Inuit were permitted on the floor of the House during the speeches. After the Prime Minister’s apology, the leaders of the opposition parties responded. In addition, the House adopted an Order at the beginning of the sitting, authorizing the House to resolve itself into Committee of the Whole to allow the guests of honour to make statements in response to the ministerial statement and the responses of the leaders of the opposition parties. The Speaker was permitted to preside over the Committee of the Whole (Journals, June 10, 2008, p. 952; June 11, 2008, p. 963, Debates, pp. 6854‑7.

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