One of the Legislative Assembly’s primary roles is holding the executive branch of government to account. When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, responsible government and the principle of parliamentary accountability were established components of the province’s system of parliamentary democracy.
House of Commons Procedure and Practice highlights:
The right to seek information from the Ministry of the day and the right to hold that Ministry accountable are two fundamental principles of parliamentary government. Members exercise these rights principally by asking questions in the House. The importance of questions within the parliamentary system cannot be overemphasized and the search for or clarification of information through questioning is a vital aspect of the duties undertaken by individual Members. (3rd ed., p. 497).
In British Columbia, Members’ historic ability to question Ministers with respect to government policy and the affairs of the government has always been regarded as a key way of enforcing parliamentary accountability. The Assembly’s early Standing Orders provided for a daily item of business under the Orders of the Day called “Questions put by Members.” The Standing Orders prescribed that questions asked of Ministers needed to be put to them with a minimum of two days’ notice and published in the Orders of the Day (the Order Paper). Therefore, questions were primarily put in writing.
Members’ historic ability to question Ministers with respect to government policy and the affairs of the government has always been regarded as a key way of enforcing parliamentary accountability.
It is not certain when putting questions orally to Ministers became accepted in B.C. In a 1932 decision, Speaker Davie noted: “A certain number of oral questions are permitted in practice by members, without notice, before the Orders of the Day are called; 320 but these are merely allowed by courtesy in connection with the business of the House or with very urgent and important matters of public concern” (B.C. Journals, March 2, 1932, p. 26).
The daily Oral Question Period is arguably the most widely followed proceeding of the Legislative Assembly.
Therefore, oral questions were permitted in limited circumstances by 1932, though in subsequent Parliaments, such questions were ruled out of order (see decision of Speaker Shantz, B.C. Journals, February 4, 1958, p. 26). The proceeding of Oral Question Period was not formally introduced in the Legislative Assembly until 1973. In practice, questions are most frequently directed to Ministers during the daily Oral Question Period, which is arguably the most widely followed proceeding of the Legislative Assembly.
Since the introduction of oral questions, the use of written questions has greatly decreased, but it remains a tool available to Members, particularly if seeking a more detailed or technical answer.
In the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, Oral Question Period was first provided for on February 27, 1973, following the adoption of recommendations outlined in a report of the Select Standing Committee on Standing Orders and Private Bills. The proceeding continued thereafter by way of Sessional Orders until 1985, when amendments to Standing Order 25 provided for a daily Oral Question Period. Originally a 15-minute time allotment, it was extended to 30 minutes on a permanent basis in 2006.
In British Columbia, a Member is not required to
provide notice of intention to ask an oral question.
Oral questions are predominately addressed to Ministers.
An amendment to Standing Order 25 adopted in 2017 cemented a practice implemented by Sessional Orders in previous Sessions, providing for Oral Question Period to take place in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays and in the afternoon on Mondays and Wednesdays. If the Legislative Assembly has a rare Friday or weekend sitting, Standing Order 47A does not provide for an Oral Question Period (see decision of Speaker Barnes, B.C. Journals, April 27, 1996, p. 10). Pursuant to Standing Order 47A(f), Oral Question Period does not take place on a sitting day when the Speech from the Throne is delivered.
Unlike some Commonwealth jurisdictions, in British Columbia, a Member is not required to provide notice of intention to ask an oral question.321
Oral questions are predominately addressed to Ministers, allowing Members of the Legislative Assembly a regular and visible opportunity to hold the government to account for its decisions and actions.
STANDING ORDER 47A
There shall be a 30 minute Oral Question Period at the opening of each afternoon sitting on Monday and Wednesday and at the opening of each morning on Tuesday and Thursday, which shall be subject to the following rules:
(a) only questions that are urgent and important shall be permitted;
(b) questions and answers shall be brief and precise, and stated without argument or opinion;
(c) supplementary questions may be permitted at the discretion of the Speaker. There shall be no supplementary question to a question taken on notice;
(d) debate shall not be permitted;
(e) points of order arising during Oral Question Period may, at the discretion of the Speaker, be deferred until Question Period has been completed;
(f) Oral Question Period shall not take place on the day of the Speech from the Throne.
13.2.1Principles and Guidelines for Oral Questions
Questions addressed to Ministers must relate to matters for which those Ministers are currently and officially responsible. A fundamental rule of questioning Ministers is that the subject matter of the question must fall within the collective responsibility of the government or the individual responsibility of one of its Ministers. This is the only basis upon which Ministers can be expected to answer questions (see statement of Speaker Bosley, House of Commons (Canada) Hansard, February 24, 1986, pp. 10878-9).
The principles and guidelines which govern the form and content of Oral Question Period are based on convention, use and tradition. The written rules noted below are complemented by practice, precedents and various Speakers’ rulings, which have provided guidance for the conduct of Oral Question Period. However, a gap exists between the written rules and modern practice, and a need for modern principles was addressed 322 in a decision of Speaker Bosley of the House of Commons of Canada. Of note, Speaker Bosley reinforced that time is scarce and should be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible, and that the primary purpose of Oral Question Period must be to seek information from the government and to call the government to account for its actions.
In B.C., the rules contained in Beauchesne have been applied and used as guidance, which are as follows:
A question…must not:
(a)be ironical, rhetorical, offensive, or contain epithet, innuendo, satire or ridicule.
(b)be trivial, vague or meaningless.
(c)multiply, with slight variations, a similar question on the same point.
(d)repeat in substance a question already answered, or to which an answer has been refused.
(e)inquire whether statements made in a newspaper are true.
(f)contain an expression of opinion.
(j)be framed so as to suggest its own answer.
(k)be a speech, however short; not be of unreasonable length.
(l)seek, for purposes of argument, information on matters of past history.
(m)ask solution of a legal proposition, such as interpretation of a Statute, a Minister’s own powers, etc.
(n)reflect on or relate to character or conduct of persons other than in a public capacity.
(o)refer discourteously to a friendly foreign country.
(p)be asked which might prejudice a pending trial in a Court of law.
(q)contain or imply charges of a personal character.
(r)refer to debate or answers to questions of the current Session.
(s)embody a series of questions which should be moved for an Address or Order.
(t)impugn the accuracy of information conveyed to the House by a Minister.
(u)suggest amendments to bills.
(v)anticipate an Order of the Day or other matters.
(w)raise a matter of policy too large to be dealt with in the limits of an answer to a question.
(x)deal with an action of a Minister for which the Minister is not responsible to Parliament, or with matters not within the Minister’s official knowledge.
(y)raise matters under control of local authorities not responsible to Government or Legislature.
(z)refer to speeches made outside the House; but in the case of Cabinet Ministers, it is permissible to ask the Prime Minister whether such speech represents policy of Government.
(aa)seek information about the internal affairs of foreign countries or the Dominions.
(bb)ask the Government’s opinion on matters of policy.
(cc)ask what advice a Minister proposes to give Crown (but may ask what advice the Minister has given).
(dd)deal with matters not officially connected with Government or Parliament, or which are of a private nature.
(ee)relate to communications alleged to have passed between a Member and a Minister.
(ff)seek information set forth in documents equally accessible to the questioner, as Statutes, published reports, etc.
(gg)seek information about matters which are in their nature secret, such as decisions or proceedings of Cabinet, advice given to Crown by Law Officers, etc.
(hh)seek information about proceedings in a committee which has not yet made its report to the House.
(ii)introduce the name of, or contain reflection on, the Sovereign or Royal Family, or refer to influence of the Crown.
(jj)be addressed to the Leader of the Opposition inquiring the course the Opposition intends to adopt regarding a motion by the Government.
(kk)criticize decisions of the House.
(ll)seek from an ex-Minister information with regard to transactions during that person’s term of office.
(mm)reflect on the character or conduct of the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker, Members of either House of Parliament and Judges of High Courts. These can only be dealt with on a substantive motion.
(nn)relate to matters which passed outside the walls of the House and do not relate to any Bill or motion before the House. (6th ed., §428, pp. 124-6).
The following guidelines are further provided in House of Commons Procedure and Practice:
…when recognized in Question Period, a Member should:
- ask a question;
- be brief;
- seek information; and
- ask a question that is within the administrative responsibility of the government or of the individual Minister addressed. (3rd ed., pp. 508-9).
It is also out of order to ask a question of a Minister with respect to the actions of a former Minister occupying the same portfolio. Nor is it in order to insist that a particular Minister provide a response to a Member’s question.
These rules pertaining to questions are reiterated in the comprehensive ruling of Speaker Davie (see B.C. Journals, March 2, 1932, pp. 22-6). Members continue to be bound by the rules of debate during proceedings of Oral Question Period, further outlined in Chapter 7 (Rules of Debate). This includes a prohibition on speaking disrespectfully of the Sovereign, the Governor General, the Lieutenant Governor or another Member (Standing Order 40(1) and (2)) and on raising matters that are sub judice.
During the 37th Parliament, following the 2001 provincial general election that produced only two opposition Members, the Legislative Assembly adopted a new Practice Recommendation 11, pertaining to Standing Orders 47 and 47A, and the provision of “public written questions” on a sessional basis (see B.C. Journals, August 2, 2001, pp. 22-3).
18.104.22.168Questions and the Anticipation Rule Regarding Bills
Questions may be out of order if they deal with the details of a bill which stands on the Order Paper, or if they address proposed amendments. Such matters should be canvassed at committee stage consideration of the bill. A general inquiry regarding background material or the general subject matter of a bill may not be out of order (see decision of Deputy Speaker Lovick, B.C. Journals, June 6, 1995, p. 83).
In B.C., practice has been for oral questions to be typically followed by a supplementary question. However, there is no automatic right for a Member to ask a supplementary question — it is entirely at the discretion of the Speaker. Previously, Speakers have denied supplementary questions to Members who did not follow the direction of the Speaker or whose actions in the Chamber, in the view of the Speaker, did not merit it (see statement of Speaker Richmond, B.C. Journals, November 25, 2003, pp. 181-2).
There should not be any supplementary question when a Minister takes an oral question on notice. As a supplementary question can only arise to clarify an answer, without 325 an answer provided, there can be no reason for a supplementary question. However, a Member may be recognized to ask a second, separate and new question.
A decision of Speaker Schroeder noted the following (B.C. Journals, June 30, 1982, pp. 189-90):
…I refer honourable members to Sir Erskine May’s 16th Edition, at page 363, relating to oral answers and supplementary questions, and I quote:
An answer should be confined to the points contained in the question, with such explanation only as renders the answer intelligible, though a certain latitude is permitted to Ministers of the Crown;
Supplementary questions, without debate or comment, may, within due limits, be addressed to them, which are necessary for the elucidation of the answers that they have given.
Further, as a proper supplementary question seeks clarification or explanation of an answer already given, there cannot be a question supplementary to a question taken on notice.
The number of allowable supplementary questions is not fixed by any practice. So long as questions are properly supplemental and so long as other members are not unfairly deprived of an opportunity to participate in the question period, the Chair need not intervene to limit the number of supplementary questions.
Beauchesne’s 5th Edition states as follows:
The question must be brief. A preamble need not exceed one carefully drawn sentence. A long preamble on a long question takes an unfair share of time and provokes the same sort of reply. A supplementary question should need no preamble.
13.2.2Addressing Oral Questions
22.214.171.124Questions to Ministers
The provisions of Standing Order 47(1) setting out to whom questions may be put also apply to oral questions, though they are most commonly addressed to Ministers. Questions must be addressed on a matter within the Minister’s current ministerial responsibility.
In B.C., questions are posed by opposition Members. Private Members of the Government Caucus do not, in evolved practice, seek an opportunity to ask oral questions. Historically, however, this practice was permitted, including the admissibility of questions from Parliamentary Secretaries (see statement of Speaker Barnes, B.C. Journals, June 17, 1994, p. 154).326
126.96.36.199Questions to Private Members
Although rarely used, Standing Order 47(1) also sets out that questions may be directed to Private Members “relating to any Bill, motion, or other public matter connected with the business of the House, in which such Members may be concerned.…” In practice, the most appropriate time to address questions to a Member with regard to a bill or a motion standing in the Member’s name on the Order Paper would be when that item of business is called for debate.
Questions to Private Members regarding statements made by Members outside of the Legislative Assembly are not permitted. Questions to Private Members relating to the Member’s participation in a commission or an authority outside of the Legislative Assembly are also not permitted. Furthermore, questions to former Ministers with regard to business undertaken during their term of office have been ruled out of order (see Erskine May, 21st ed., p. 286; Beauchesne, 6th ed., §406, p. 119).
The only possible area for questions to Private Members under modern practice would be to Members who chair parliamentary committees (see Erskine May, 25th ed., §22.10, p. 521; House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd ed., p. 512). Questions addressed to a Committee Chair that may be in order may pertain to the schedule and agenda of the committee. Questions are out of order if they suggest a particular subject for inquiry by the committee, or if they deal with evidence before the committee prior to the committee reporting it to the Legislative Assembly.
Furthermore, as noted in a decision of Speaker Brewin (B.C. Journals, June 24, 1999, p. 296):
…questions may not be addressed to a Committee Chairman to elicit detail of voting, motions or other internal Committee proceedings, nor may questions be directed, nor answered, which would have the tendency to interfere in the proceedings of the Committee.
A decision of Speaker Reid upheld the finding of Speaker Brewin, and noted: “For clarification and although procedurally permissible in restricted circumstances, it has not been the practice in British Columbia to direct questions to the Chair of a Committee” (B.C. Journals, October 8, 2015, p. 133). In her decision, Speaker Reid further reinforced that the scope of questions to Committee Chairs is very limited. This view affirms that the primary purpose of Oral Question Period is to seek information from the government and to hold the executive branch of government to account.
188.8.131.52Questions to the Speaker
Questions cannot be directed to the Speaker. Members are encouraged to seek information from the Speaker in private (see Erskine May, 25th ed., §22.8, p. 519; House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd ed., p. 512). On one occasion in the Legislative Assembly, when questions directed to Ministers pertained to the Office of the Speaker, the Speaker asked the Deputy Speaker to take the chair to preside over proceedings during Oral Question Period (see B.C. Hansard, November 27, 2018, p. 6900).327
Questions relating to the Speaker’s oversight of Legislative Assembly administration may be considered within proceedings of the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, which is chaired by the Speaker.
13.2.3Role of the Speaker
Given the lively and unpredictable exchanges that may take place during Oral Question Period, the Speaker’s task in preserving order and decorum during this proceeding often becomes a difficult one. House of Commons Procedure and Practice notes:
The Speaker strives to ensure that Question Period is conducted in a civil manner, that questions and answers do not lead to debate, and that both sides of the House have an opportunity to participate….
The Speaker has discretion and authority to rule out of order any question posed during Question Period — or to interrupt any Member (in the case of unparliamentary language, for example) — if the Speaker is satisfied that it contravenes House rules of order, decorum and procedure. In ruling a question out of order, the Chair may suggest that it be rephrased in order to make it acceptable to the House. Alternatively, the Speaker may recognize another Member to pose the next question. (3rd ed., p. 503).
As noted, the Speaker may be in a position to intervene if, for example, the rules of decorum are breached in framing a question. The Speaker may simply rule the question out of order or may allow a Member to rephrase the question. The fact that a Minister is prepared to answer an oral question does not convert a question otherwise out of order into an orderly one. It is for the Speaker to decide whether or not a question is out of order, and if the Speaker so rules, an answer is not permitted.
In some instances, the Speaker may defer to the Minister to determine if, for example, the question is sub judice. In such cases, Ministers are likely to be in a better position to determine whether answering the question might result in prejudice (see B.C. Hansard, November 26, 2018, pp. 6833-8). The sub judice convention is further outlined in Chapter 7 (Rules of Debate).
Furthermore, on the role of the Speaker in Oral Question Period, Speaker Schroeder stated the following (B.C. Journals, June 30, 1982, pp. 188-9):
On Thursday last several points of order were raised from each side of the House with reference to the rules applicable to oral question period and their enforcement by the Chair. The Honourable Member for Coquitlam–Moody objected that some answers given were not relevant to the question asked; the Honourable Member for Mackenzie objected to lengthy answers being given during the question period to questions taken on notice and the Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources objected to supplementary questions being asked with respect to a question taken on notice.
Other points of order relating to question period have been taken from time to time, notwithstanding that the Chair has given much guidance on points of order which recur with some frequency. The Journals of 1977 disclose the following comment from the Chair, which now bears repeating:
My perusal of the Hansard reports of oral question period since its inception in this House clearly shows that very great latitude has been taken by honourable members both in the posing of questions and in the answers given thereto. The tenor of the points of order taken on Thursday last, when the Chair was asked to review oral questions, indicates to me that it is the view of many honourable members that there has been too much latitude and liberality of interpretation taken with reference to both questions and answers. Accordingly, the Chair can only respond by seeking the co-operation and adherence of honourable members to the numerous but explicit rules relating to oral question period.
Honourable members, upon reading those rules, will readily see that their strict and meticulous application during oral question period would preclude the Chair from allowing the vast majority of questions and answers advanced in this House. Therefore, without some degree of latitude, constant intervention by the Chair would, in the absence of greater precision in framing questions and answers, lead to the total impoverishment of question period. Having said that, I must add that honourable members would be in error to ignore the rules and must not presume to constantly test the limits of any latitude extended by the Chair. If honourable members continue to transgress, the Chair will assist the orderly conduct of question period by intervening as frequently as necessary.
Speaker Sawicki upheld the findings of Speaker Schroeder in one of her decisions (see B.C. Journals, April 13, 1992, p. 53).
The order in which Members are recognized in Oral Question Period is at the Speaker’s discretion (see decision of Speaker Barnes, B.C. Journals, June 21, 1994, p. 160), and the discretion remains intact at all times. From Parliament to Parliament, and indeed from Session to Session, informal agreements may be proposed relative to the recognition of Members and the number of supplementary questions. However, such agreements have never been considered as binding on the Speaker to a rigid course of action on a particular day. In order for the Speaker’s historical authority to remain intact, the discretion of the Speaker must always remain unfettered.
Furthermore, the Speaker retains discretion over the length of questions and replies, and seeks to ensure that there is a balance in time between questions and replies. Indeed, there is one precedent in the Legislative Assembly that shows that a Speaker has, at his discretion, implemented a time limit on the length of questions and replies (see decision of Speaker Richmond, B.C. Journals, February 10, 2005, p. 16).
The Speaker also tries to ensure that as many Members as possible have an opportunity to ask a question in the allotted 30-minute time frame. The Speaker retains the authority to interrupt a Member asking a question or a Minister providing a response who, in the opinion of the Speaker, has consumed a reasonable share of time (see House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd ed., p. 504).329
In reflecting on the role of the Speaker and the discretion accorded to the Speaker with regard to proceedings in Oral Question Period, Speaker Hartley stated (B.C. Journals, May 31, 2000, p. 68):
As has been the practice in the past, the Speaker is reluctant to continually intervene bearing in mind the short duration of our Question Period, but unless Members on both sides of the House exhibit some self discipline, the Chair will have no option but to intervene.
There has been an increasing tendency to interfere with the Chair’s conduct of Question Period by both sides of the House, in that the Government interjects with a call for “question, question” while a question is being posed by the Opposition, and the Opposition interjects with “time, Mr. Speaker, time, Mr. Speaker” while the question is being answered.
I am certain both sides of the House in so interjecting are simply exhibiting a conscientious concern for application of the rules, but I would ask all Members to accept the assurance of the Chair, that such interjections are counter productive and tend to exacerbate disorder in the House. I am, therefore, asking Members on both sides of the House to refrain from such interjections. The Chair will be the judge of whether a question is too long, or an answer is too long.
13.2.4Replies to Oral Questions
In the Legislative Assembly, it is accepted practice that any Minister may rise to answer a question, even if it is addressed to another Minister and does not fall within that Minister’s portfolio. This is because it is the Executive Council that is accountable collectively to the Legislative Assembly, and it is the prerogative of the government to designate whichever Minister it chooses to respond to a question (see Erskine May, 25th ed., §22.9, p. 520). It is not within the authority of the Speaker to compel a certain Minister to respond.
In B.C., Parliamentary Secretaries cannot respond to questions on a Minister’s behalf. While Parliamentary Secretaries are appointed by Order in Council and are typically tasked with an area of responsibility in support of a Minister, they are not appointed as a Member of the Executive Council and are, therefore, not able to be held to account for Cabinet actions and decisions, or for the general administration of the government.
As outlined in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, several types of responses may be appropriate:
- answer the question;
- defer their answer;
- take the question as notice;
- make a short explanation as to why they cannot furnish an answer at that time; or
- say nothing. (3rd ed., p. 515).
As previously noted, the Speaker, a Member, or the Legislative Assembly collectively cannot compel a Minister to provide an answer to a question during Oral Question Period. Furthermore, a Minister’s refusal to answer a question during Oral Question Period may not be raised as a point of order or a question of privilege (see House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd ed., p. 516).
184.108.40.206Questions Taken on Notice
If a question is taken on notice by a Minister, there is typically no supplementary question permitted, consistent with Standing Order 47A(c). Likewise, a Minister may not answer a question and take it on notice at the same time (see B.C. Hansard, June 17, 1992, p. 2707). It is at the discretion of the Minister, and not the Speaker, as to when the answer will be given to a question taken on notice (see decision of Speaker Barisoff, B.C. Journals, October 31, 2007, p. 138).
Speaker Schroeder noted the following (B.C. Hansard, March 26, 1980, p. 1694):
The practice of the House is this: …it is acceptable during subsequent question periods to answer questions taken on notice; if the question requires a lengthy answer, it is the option of the minister to ask for leave to answer the question at a time other than question period, but this is only a courtesy and is at the option of the minister. If the question is of such a nature that is requires a lengthy answer, perhaps the best way of a return is to have the answer on the order paper itself, as though the question had been a written question.
In a subsequent decision, Speaker Schroeder noted: “…lengthy answers to questions previously taken on notice would best be deferred until after question period so as to keep intact the time allotted” (B.C. Journals, April 7, 1981, p. 77).
13.2.5Points of Order During Oral Question Period
In the Legislative Assembly, the raising of points of order during Oral Question Period has been disapproved. In practice, the proper course is to defer such points of order until the time allocated for Oral Question Period has expired. This practice is upheld in the Houses of Commons of the United Kingdom and Canada and is further reinforced in a decision of Speaker Schroeder (B.C. Journals, April 7, 1981, p. 77):
It is the opinion of the Chair, in accordance with the practice adopted in other jurisdictions, that points of order generally should not be raised at all during question period, but would more properly be deferred until the question period has been completed. In view of the authority vested in the Chair...it is very difficult to conceive of a valid point of order being raised which would require any significant time to deal with unless, of course, there were any disposition to improperly engage in protracted discussion on points of order with the Chair.
It is my view that if the Chair itself has to interrupt question period for a significant period, any time so utilized ought to be restored, as determined by the Chair.
Should any honourable member insist upon raising a point of order during oral question period rather than deferring the matter, without prejudice, until after question period, any extension of time ought best be left to the discretion of the Chair, with leave of the House, according to the circumstances.
13.2.6Questions of Privilege During Oral Question Period
Standing Order 26 permits Members to interrupt almost any business before the Legislative Assembly in order to raise a question of privilege. Consistent with the guidance provided above for points of order, a Member wanting to reserve the right to raise a question of privilege or to outline the issue of concern in a question of privilege should do so at the earliest opportunity, such as immediately following the expiration of time allotted for Oral Question Period.
Though this tool of seeking information from the government is now infrequently used in the Legislative Assembly, Standing Order 47 provides an opportunity for information to be sought and received in written form.
STANDING ORDER 47
(1) Questions may be placed on the Order Paper seeking information from the Ministers of the Crown relating to public affairs; and from other Members relating to any Bill, motion, or other public matter connected with the business of the House, in which such Members may be concerned; but in putting any such question no argument or opinion is to be offered, nor any fact stated. And in answering such question the matter to which the same refers shall not be debated, and the substance of all replies made by Ministers of the Crown to questions put to them shall be in writing and handed to the Clerk of the House, and entered in the Journals of the Session.
(2) If in the opinion of the Speaker a question on the Order Paper put to a Minister of the Crown is of such a nature as to require a lengthy reply, the Speaker may, upon the request of the Government, direct the same to stand as a notice of motion, and to be transferred to its proper place as such upon the Order Paper, the Clerk of the House being authorized to amend the same as to matters of form.
(3) A Minister may answer a question by way of a return, and an entry shall be made accordingly in the Votes and Proceedings.
Written questions often seek more detailed responses, or are of a technical nature, making them less practical to address orally. Prior to a question’s publication on the Orders of the Day (the Order Paper), the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly may edit the question to ensure that it conforms to the rules (see Erskine May, 25th ed., §22.7, pp. 518-9; House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd ed., p. 526). However, it is the Speaker who ultimately decides whether questions are in order.
Written questions often seek more detailed responses, or are of a technical nature, making them less practical to address orally.
As noted in House of Commons Procedure and Practice:
…a question must not:
- concern a subject matter which does not contain public affairs;
- contain an expression of opinion, or request the government’s opinion;
- supply information to the House;
- be hypothetical;
- request information which could be obtained through a notice of motion for the production of papers;
- raise matters under the control of authorities not responsible to the government or Parliament;
- seek information about matters which are in their nature secret, such as decisions or proceedings of Cabinet or advice given to the Crown by law officers; or
- seek from a former Minister information regarding transactions which took place during that person’s term of office.
Given that the purpose of a written question is to seek and receive a precise, detailed answer, it is incumbent on a Member submitting a written question “to ensure that it is formulated carefully enough to elicit the precise information sought”. Since questions must be coherent and concise, the Clerk may split a question into two or more questions if it is too broad, or if it contains unrelated subsections.… Written questions are reviewed by the Clerk to ensure procedural admissibility, grammatical correctness and orthography.… It is not the responsibility of the Clerk to assess the merit of the question or the government’s ability to respond to a question. (3rd ed., pp. 526-7).
Beauchesne further outlines:
Some further limitations seem to be generally understood. A question may not:
1.ask a solution of a legal question, such as the interpretation of a statute;
2.seek information about matters which are in their nature secret, such as decisions or proceedings of Cabinet or advice given to the Crown by Law Officers;
3.seek information about proceedings in a committee which has not yet made its report to the House;
4.criticize decisions of the House;
5.reflect on the character or conduct of the Speaker or other occupants of the Chair, Members of either House of Parliament and members of the judiciary. (6th ed., §411, p. 122).
Furthermore, Speaker Davie delivered a comprehensive ruling relating to questions, which stated, in part (B.C. Journals, March 2, 1932, pp. 22-6):
B.C. Rule 47(1) provides that questions may be placed on the Order Paper seeking information (a) from the Ministers of the Crown relating to public affairs, (b) from other members relating to any public matters connected with the business of the House in which such members may be concerned; but in putting any such question no argument or opinion is to be offered, nor any fact stated. And in answering such question the matter to which the same refers shall not be debated, and the substance of all replies made by Ministers of the Crown to questions put to them shall be in writing and handed to the Clerk of the House, and entered in the Journals of the Session.
Our practice with reference to what may be asked is identical with that of the Canadian and English Commons, and out of the above very simple rule there has grown a considerable body of what might be termed case law based upon the ruling of different Speakers, and a voluminous treatise would be required to present a comprehensive survey upon what now forms a very important branch of legislative procedure. No one has yet undertaken a textbook on the subject, but, in a small way, Campion’s Procedure of the House of Commons, 1st ed., pp. 123 to 130, covers the subject in the best digest form, although it must be said that this work is robbed of considerable value by omission to state references to many of the rules referred to.
The chief object served by questions is, according to Redlich, the explanation to the public of political events. Formerly, debate was permitted upon the answers, but it was found that this took up too much of the time of the House, and the general principles now surrounding this procedure are founded upon the desirability of restricting questions entirely to the matter of obtaining from Ministers and members information not otherwise obtainable.
With these preliminary remarks, I shall endeavour to lay before the House, as concisely as possible, the salient features of the practice which has developed under the above rule, with a view to enable honourable members to frame questions in accordance with constitutional usage and parliamentary etiquette. (References are: May, 13th ed.; Bourinot, 4th ed.; Redlich,
1908 ed.; Campion, 1st ed. [Note: Original references excluded; refer to original decision in Journals.])
on which a question is based may be set out briefly, but extracts from newspapers,
quotations from speeches, etc., are not allowed, and where the facts alleged are of
sufficient moment to arrest attention the Speaker may require prima facie proof of their authenticity. As the object of
a question is to obtain (not give) information, it must contain no statement of fact
which is not necessary to make it intelligible. (B.C. Journals, March 16, 1917, p. 26).
A question should be “simply and severely accurate in its
Deducible from this rule, the practice has been established that the publication of names of persons or statements not strictly necessary to render the question intelligible are improper. And the Speaker will expunge from questions anything reflecting on individuals and assuming facts which are not admitted.
A question must not: —
2.be a speech, however short; nor be of unreasonable length.
3.contain within itself an argument. Questions more suitable for debate should not be permitted, as otherwise the Order Paper would be flooded to the disadvantage of the ordinary type of question.
4.be framed so as to suggest its own answer.
5.inquire whether statements made in a newspaper are true.
6.carry a particular point of view.
7.contain an expression of opinion.
11.be ironical, rhetorical, offensive, or contain epithet, innuendo, satire, or ridicule.
12.be trivial, vague, or meaningless; and the Speaker has indicated that questions of small import to the general public should be addressed to the different departments and not to the Ministers in the House.
13.multiply, with straight variations, a similar question on the same point; nor can a question which one Minister has refused to answer be addressed to another Minister.
14.repeat in substance a question already answered, or to which an answer has been refused.
15.seek, for purposes of argument, information on matter of past history.
16.deal with matters not officially connected with Government or Parliament, or which are of a private nature. A question relating to communications alleged to have passed between a member and a Minister is improper.
17.seek information set forth in documents equally accessible to questioner, as Statutes, published reports, etc.
18.ask solution of a legal proposition, such as interpretation of a Statute, a Minister’s own powers, etc.
19.be asked which might prejudice a pending trial in a Court of law.
20.contain or imply charges of a personal character.
21.reflect on or relate to character or conduct of persons other than in a public capacity, but excluding those whose conduct can only be dealt with on a substantive motion — namely, the Speaker, Deputy Speaker, members, Judges.
22.refer discourteously to a friendly foreign country.
23.anticipate an Order of the Day or other matters.
24.suggest amendments to Bills.
25.refer to debate or answers to questions of the current Session; but a second question arising out of or bearing on an answer is permitted, but not a debate.
26.embody a series of questions which should be moved for by an Address or Order.
27.impugn the accuracy of information conveyed to the House by a Minister.
28.deal with matters within the jurisdictions of the Speaker; such questions should be addressed to the Speaker by private notice.
29.Question may be asked regarding the intentions of Government, but not its opinion on matters of policy, and may not ask what advice a Minister proposes to give Crown (but may ask what advice he has given). Questions relating to a Budget should be confined to the year in which the Budget is framed.
30.Should be directed to the Minister officially responsible for the subject-matter with which it deals, and may not ask one Minister to influence action of another.
Question must not: —
31.raise a matter of policy too large to be dealt with in the limits of an answer to a question.
32.seek information about the internal affairs of foreign countries or the Dominions. (Within this rule in B.C. there would be covered other Provinces and the Dominion of Canada.)
33.raise matters under control of local authorities not responsible to Government or Legislature.
34.ask matters referred to a Royal Commission.
35.refer to speeches made outside the House; but in the case of Cabinet Ministers, it is permissible to ask Prime Minister whether such speech represents policy of Government.
36.deal with action of Minister for which he is not responsible to Parliament, or with matters not within his official knowledge.
Question must not: —
37.introduce name of, or contain reflections on, the Sovereign or Royal Family, or refer to influences of the Crown.
38.refer to action of a Court official.
39.criticize decisions of House.
40.seek information about matters which are in their nature secret, such as decisions or proceedings of Cabinet, advice given to Crown by Law Officers, etc., or concerning the Secret Service.
41.seek information about proceedings in a Committee which has not yet made its report to the House.
42.be handed to press in advance of approval of Speaker.
43.be addressed to the Leader of the Opposition inquiring the course he intends to adopt regarding a motion by the Government.
44.Question to unofficial members must relate to a Bill, motion, or other matter connected with the business of the House in which such members are concerned. And this principle permits a question regarding a circumstance alleged to have happened outside Parliament, if thereby the veracity of a member in respect to a statement made by him in the House has been impugned.
45.Question to an ex-Minister with regard to transactions during his term of office is not in order.
46.And finally the Speaker, in common with his duties of supervision over the proceedings of the House, may rule out any question which violates the privileges of Parliament in the same way as he deals with irregularities in motions and amendments.
Ancillary to the submitting of a notice of a question, the following practice governs: —
Under Rule 47(2) a question may stand as notice of motion upon request of the Government, if the Speaker is of opinion it requires a lengthy reply. It is then transferred to its proper place after being amended by the Clerk.
The Government may also, under Rule 47(3), offer reply by way of return, with the consent of the House, and in such case the Minister’s statement becomes an Order of the House accordingly.
The Speaker deals with irregularities after the questions are first corrected at the table or reserved for consideration. He may make an alteration in the question or refer it back to the member for correction. A member may call the attention of the House to the matter and may challenge the action of the Speaker.
A Minister may decline to answer a question without stating the reason for his refusal and insistence on an answer is out of order, no debate being allowed, although refusal to answer or the giving of an unsatisfactory answer may lead to an “urgency motion”, and often gives occasion for a debate in Committee of Supply. A refusal to answer cannot be raised as a question of privilege, nor is it regular to comment upon such refusal. A member can put a question, but has no right to insist upon an answer.
Questions must be answered briefly and distinctly, and be limited to the necessary explanations, though a certain latitude is permitted to Ministers of the Crown whenever they find it necessary to extend their remarks with the view of clearly explaining the matter in question.
Although there may be no debate on an answer, further questions, within due limits, may be addressed to the Minister as may be necessary for the elucidation of the answers that have been given. The extent to which supplementary questions may be asked is in the discretion of the Speaker, but he cannot be called upon to judge of the merits of answers to questions.
A question can be withdrawn only by written notice to the Clerk or by informing the Speaker in the House of desire to withdraw same.
A certain number of oral questions are permitted in practice by members, without notice, before the Orders of the Day are called; but these are merely allowed by courtesy in connection with the business of the House or with very urgent and important matters of public concern. They are always brief, no debate being permitted, and the replies are as concise as possible. The Minister interrogated may reply at once or may direct that the usual notice be given. Such questions are governed by the same rules of order as questions of which notice has been given.
13.3.1Response to a Written Question
A Minister to whom a written question is addressed is not obliged under the Standing Orders or by any statutory provisions to provide a response to the question. As the 338 Executive Council is collectively responsible to the Legislative Assembly, any Minister may provide a response to a written question, and not necessarily the Minister to whom the question is addressed.
If a response is provided, it must be submitted in written form to the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, who publishes it in the Votes and Proceedings, and the question subsequently no longer appears on the Order Paper.
As noted in the decision of Speaker Davie, the Minister may decline to provide an answer without stating the reason why. While it would be in order for the addressee to simply answer in writing to that effect, often the question remains on the Order Paper without the addressee providing a response.
If a Minister to whom a question is addressed declines to provide an answer, it is not in order for a Member to insist on an answer.
220.127.116.11Response by Way of a Return
Standing Order 47(2) provides that, if the Speaker is of the opinion that an answer requires a lengthy or detailed reply, the government may request that a written question stand as a notice of motion. If such motion is adopted, then the Minister to whom the written question is addressed may respond to the question by tabling a response in written form. Alternatively, by virtue of Standing Order 47(3), a Minister may offer to provide information by way of a return. If the Minister to whom a question is addressed offers to table a return to a written question, the Votes and Proceedings reflect that it was provided by way of a return when a response is provided.
This is reinforced in a decision of Speaker Perry (B.C. Journals, February 19, 1935, p. 9):
There are some questions on the Order Paper which in their nature would seem to involve voluminous details, and in these cases the information required should be more properly sought by a Notice of Motion for a Return. It should be noted, however, that under Standing Order 47(3) the Minister concerned may, if he so desires, furnish his reply in the form of a Return, and this is the practice which has been generally followed by this House.
This procedure is further outlined in House of Commons Procedure and Practice:
In some cases, long and complex questions which require information from a number of government departments, or which would require replies too lengthy or in a format unsuitable to be published in the Debates, are made Orders for Return, that is, documents that must be provided following an order adopted by the House.…
The rules also provide the Speaker with the authority to transform a written question into a notice of motion, if the Speaker is asked to do so by the government and believes that a question would require a lengthy reply. (3rd ed., pp. 531-2).
Simply put, an order for a return is an order of the Legislative Assembly for the government to table a document or documents, which may be accompanied by additional information in writing, which will serve as a response to the question. An order for a return is subject to Standing Order 91, the provisions of which are further noted in section 13.3.3.
13.3.2Withdrawal of a Written Question
As noted in the decision of Speaker Davie, in section 13.3, a written question may be withdrawn in two ways. The Member who asked the question may submit a written request to the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly to withdraw the question from the Order Paper, or the Member may rise in the Chamber and put the request verbally to the Speaker. If proceeding with the latter option, the Member should rise to address the Speaker after the conclusion of Routine Business, and before the Assembly proceeds to the Orders of the Day.
13.3.3Effect of Prorogation
All business before the Legislative Assembly ceases to exist at prorogation, and all items on the Order Paper are quashed. Therefore, if a written question is not answered at prorogation, a Member must submit the question again for it to appear on the Order Paper in another Session. Questions that do not receive a response by prorogation are not published in the Journals.
However, if an order for a return is made by the Legislative Assembly, requiring a Minister to table the response, prorogation has no effect. Pursuant to Standing Order 91, an order for a return carries from one Session to the next; it ceases only when the Legislative Assembly is dissolved. Standing Order 91 is outlined in greater detail in Chapter 9 (Motions).