House of Representatives Committees

Standing Committee on Procedure

Provision for Members to make short speeches in the Main Committee

Report

Introduction

Background

  1. On 4 June 1997 the Procedure Committee resolved to conduct an inquiry into whether Members need more opportunity to make short speeches on unspecified matters of concern to them and, if so, whether the Main Committee could be used for this purpose.

  2. This inquiry was prompted by a letter from a Member (Mr M T Brough MP) which noted the limited opportunities for Members to speak in the adjournment debate in the House, and which sought the committee's consideration of an adjournment debate being made available in the Main Committee. The committee also noted a private Member's notice of motion (Hon L R S Price MP) proposing that the Main Committee meet between 1 pm and 2 pm on Monday and Tuesday for the purpose of Members' constituency statements.

  3. At present, Members' regular opportunities to raise constituency matters in the House are during the adjournment debate (30 minutes each day, 5 minute speeches), grievance debate (80 minutes each Monday, 10 minute speeches) and Members' statements (15 minutes each Monday, 90 second speeches). Other opportunities are the second reading debate of the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) each year, and the Address in Reply debate at the commencement of each Parliament.

Conduct of the inquiry

  1. The committee noted that when formation of the Main Committee was originally recommended by a previous Procedure Committee in the About Time report, it was envisaged that the second chamber would only deal with “uncontested” government legislation. Over time and with the benefit of experience of the Main Committee's functioning, this limitation was modified. Nowadays the Main Committee also deals with ministerial statements and parliamentary committee reports, innovations which have significantly extended the opportunities for Members to contribute to public debate on a wide range of important issues.

  2. The committee considered that a further extension of the type of business which may be conducted in the Main Committee could provide Members with more time to speak on constituency matters or on other topics of concern to them. However, such an extension would result in some change in the Main Committee's nature. The unpredictability of the subjects which could be raised in the types of debates being envisaged (adjournment/constituency speeches) would mean that “controversial” subjects might arise. Therefore the committee's objectives in this inquiry were to ascertain the demand for additional opportunities for constituency speeches and to consider how appropriate provision for them might best be made without compromising the functions of the Main committee.

  3. In June 1997 the committee circulated a questionnaire to all Members seeking their views on the subject. Appendix 1 details the questionnaire and Members' responses to it. In summary, fifty-seven Members responded and several added extra comments. The committee thanks all those who participated.

Members' views

  1. Nearly 80% of Members who responded to the committee's questionnaire felt that their present speaking opportunities were not sufficient for them to raise matters which are important to them and their constituents.

  2. Of the options given in the questionnaire, Members' strongest preference (86% of responses) was for an extension of the sittings of the Main Committee on Wednesdays and Thursdays—its usual days of meeting—for half hour adjournment debates. There was also majority support (63% of responses) for additional one hour sittings of the Main Committee on Monday and Tuesday specifically for constituency statements. However, when asked to indicate a choice between the two, Members clearly favoured the former (51%) over the latter (19%). In relation to the length of speaking time, the majority preferred 5 minutes (47%) to 3 minutes (16%).

  3. The majority of Members (61% of responses) also supported additional opportunities for Members' 90 second statements.

Conclusions

  1. After considering Members' responses, the ramifications of changed procedures with respect to the standing orders of both the House of Representatives and the Main Committee, and the experience to date of the effect of dual chambers on Members' opportunity to speak in debates, the committee concluded that it would be preferable to extend to the Main Committee an existing, well-tested House of Representatives procedure (adjournment debate), rather than create a completely new procedure (constituency statement). In other words, it would be administratively and procedurally simpler if the existing adjournment debate procedures could be adopted, with as little difference as possible, in the Main Committee. The committee also thought that support for 90 second statements was sufficiently strong for provision to be made for them to be trialled in the Main Committee.

Adjournment debates in the Main Committee

  1. When the Main Committee was established in 1994, it was recognised (both in the Procedure Committee's About Time report and in the remarks of Members in the House) that it could work only if its business was confined to uncontroversial or uncontested matters. The guiding principle in formulating the standing orders for the Main Committee was to ensure that it would operate on a mutually cooperative basis. (It has been demonstrated on a number of occasions that controversy can have the effect of rendering the Main Committee unproductive and/or compromise its functions.)

  2. Given that the nature of an adjournment debate is different from the various forms of debate which have been conducted in the Main Committee to date, the inclusion of an adjournment debate procedure in the Main Committee could affect the manner in which the Main Committee functions. For this reason it was felt that, in the first instance, any new procedure should be trialled—by means of a sessional order—on only one day each week. The committee therefore proposes:

    If the trial is successful, consideration should be given to formalising it in the standing orders, and also to extending it to Wednesday Main Committee meetings.

Present practice

  1. Whilst standing order 48A fixes specific times for the commencement time of adjournment debates in the House, different standing orders for an adjournment debate in the Main Committee would be required because of the unpredictability of the times at which the Main Committee adjourns.

  2. The hours of meeting of the Main Committee are not prescribed in the standing orders. (Indeed, whether the Main Committee meets at all depends on the House referring business to it.) Meeting times are fixed by the Deputy Speaker, subject to the requirement that the Main Committee may only meet while the House itself is sitting. So far as it has an established routine, the Main Committee meets between 10 am and 1 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays. However, these meetings may finish prior to 1 pm, extend beyond 1 pm, or be suspended at 1 pm and resumed later in the day. In addition, the Main Committee sometimes meets on Monday or Tuesday. When the Main Committee meets other than at its `regular' times, the starting and finishing times of the meeting are flexible, being adjusted to suit the amount of business in hand.

  3. In practice the Main Committee does not meet during periods when all or the majority of Members expect or are expected to be in the Chamber of the House. One such occasion is question time—meetings of the Main Committee are therefore adjourned or suspended in time for Members to attend question time at 2 pm. Any Main Committee adjournment debate occurring prior to question time would need to commence sufficiently early to meet this requirement. Further, matters could be raised in an adjournment speech to which a Minister may wish to respond. Given that Ministers are expected to attend every question time and may also need to have time to prepare for it, the timing of any Main Committee adjournment debate would need to take account of these needs.

  4. Since the time of rising of the Main Committee is variable, rather than the standing orders specifying a particular time for the Chair to put the question on the adjournment (as is the case with the House), the question could be put 30 minutes prior to the scheduled end of a meeting—say, at 12.30 pm. This should not cause a problem because the intended times of meeting and adjournment of the Main Committee are, in practice, negotiated and known in advance (a draft weekly program is issued by the Parliamentary Liaison Officer).

  5. Members may consider it desirable for this advance knowledge to have a more official status. (Current practice is for the Deputy Speaker to announce in the House the time fixed for the next meeting of the Main Committee, except when that time has been announced at the time of the Main Committee's previous adjournment.) If so, the Deputy Speaker could formally announce both the meeting and the anticipated adjournment times, and times for all the week's meetings rather than for only the next meeting.

  6. Although the committee is proposing, at this stage, that an adjournment debate take place only on Thursdays, it sees some advantage in having more predictability in all the sittings of the Main Committee. Such an arrangement would also mean that the process for adjourning the Main Committee each day would be procedurally the same, regardless of whether the question was open to debate or not.

Negativing the adjournment

  1. The possibility of the Government wanting to delay the commencement of an adjournment debate could arise—particularly if the Main Committee is still debating a bill which the Government needs to have finalised that day—when the scheduled adjournment debate time occurs. When such an occasion occurs in the House, the procedure is for the adjournment motion to be negatived when the Chair proposes it. The motion “That the House do now adjourn” can subsequently be moved by a Member when debate on the bill is concluded. Negativing the adjournment motion would work in the Main Committee only if there was agreement between the Government and the Opposition that that course of action was appropriate. It should be emphasised that the Main Committee can only ever function satisfactorily if mutually acceptable arrangements for the conduct of business are made by both the Government and the Opposition before it meets, and those arrangements are adhered to by all Members.

Present standing orders

  1. The following provisions currently apply to the adjournment of the Main Committee:

    Any Member may move the adjournment of the Committee, without notice (SO 274(c))

    In practice the motion for the Main Committee to adjourn has been moved by a Member at the time the meeting was scheduled to finish. The committee is proposing that, in normal circumstances, the question on the adjournment be put by the Chair at the scheduled time without the necessity for a Member to move the motion. However, should business for the day be completed prior to the scheduled time, it would still be necessary for a Member to move the adjournment motion.

    The Chair shall adjourn the Main Committee on the adjournment of the House (SO 274(d))

    This provision should not be changed.

    The Main Committee shall stand adjourned at the completion of all business referred to it by the House (SO 274(e))

    This provision would need to be altered or omitted to accommodate an adjournment debate in such circumstances.

    The unresolved question provision (SO 276)

    As Main Committee procedures currently operate, if any Member dissented from the Chair's ruling on the putting of the question for the adjournment, the question would be unresolved and a matter to be reported to the House. This would be unsatisfactory.

Recommendation

  1. The committee recommends:

Proposed changes to the standing orders

  1. Taking into account the considerations discussed above (paragraphs 11—20), the committee proposes that its recommendation be implemented by the following changes to the standing orders:

    Add to SO 273

    For each sitting week, the starting and finishing times of each proposed meeting of the Main Committee shall be announced in the House prior to the first item of business on the first sitting day of that week. Any subsequent changes to these times shall be announced to the House at the earliest opportunity.

    Replace SO 274(e)

    Upon completion of consideration of all matters referred to the Committee by the House, or, on a Thursday, thirty minutes prior to the time fixed by the Deputy Speaker for the adjournment of the Committee, the Chair shall propose the question `That the Committee do now adjourn'.

    New SO 274A

    The question `That the Committee do now adjourn' shall be open to debate on Thursdays:

    Provided that:

    (a)
    if, on the question `That the Committee do now adjourn' being proposed, a Member requires the question to be put forthwith without debate, the Chair shall forthwith put the question;
    (b)
    any business under discussion and not disposed of at the time of the adjournment shall be set down on the Notice Paper for the next sitting, and
    (c)
    if the question `That the Committee do now adjourn' is negatived, the Committee shall resume the proceedings at the point at which they had been interrupted:

    Provided further that, after the debate on the question `That the Committee do now adjourn' has continued for 30 minutes, or continued until 1 pm, or at the time fixed by the Deputy Speaker for the adjournment of the Committee, whichever first occurs, the Chair shall interrupt the debate, at which time—

    (d)
    a Minister may require that the debate be extended for 10 minutes to enable Ministers to speak in reply to matters raised in the preceding adjournment debate; on the expiry of 10 minutes or upon the earlier cessation of the debate the Chair shall forthwith adjourn the Committee until the time of its next meeting, or
    (e)
    if no action is taken by a Minister under paragraph (d) the Chair shall forthwith adjourn the Committee until the time of its next meeting.

    No amendment may be moved to the question `That the Committee do now adjourn' on any day.

    Add to SO 276

    Provided that, if the question `That the Committee do now adjourn' is unresolved, it shall be deemed to have been resolved in the affirmative.

90 second statements in the Main Committee

  1. The committee has had statistics collated on Members' use of the 90 second statement period since 1988 (when the procedure was first introduced). These are attached at appendix 2.

  2. The record shows that about 50% of Members have used the procedure in each Parliament and that most of the Members using the procedure have used it between one and three times per Parliament.

  3. Taking into account the 63% support for an extension of opportunity for 90 second statements, as shown by questionnaire responses, the committee proposes that the House consider a trial in the Main Committee of an additional period for these statements.

  4. The committee does not envisage that the additional opportunity for Members' statements would be provided out of existing sitting time. Instead it proposes that the Main Committee meet 15 minutes earlier on Thursdays for Members' statements.

Recommendation

  1. The committee recommends that the Main Committee meet at 9.45 am on Thursdays and sessional orders be adopted to provide for Members' 90 second statements until 10 am in the Main Committee, the business of the day to be called on at 10 am or earlier if no Member rises to make a statement.

Proposed change to the standing orders

  1. The committee proposes that its recommendation be implemented by the insertion of the following new standing order:

    New SO 275A

    Notwithstanding standing order 275, when the Main Committee meets before 10 am on a Thursday, the Chair shall first call statements by Members. A Member, other than a Minister, may be called by the Chair to make a statement for a period not exceeding 90 seconds. The period of Members' statements may continue for a maximum of 15 minutes or until 10 am whichever is the earlier.



Kathy Sullivan
Chair
29 September 1997

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