May 19, 1947 (20th Parliament, 3rd Session)


Jean-François Pouliot

Independent Liberal


That was in 1817.

The first edition of "A Treatise on the Law, Principles and Usage of Parliament" by Sir Thomas Erskine May, Clerk of the House of Commons "was in preparation exactly fifty years ago (1843-44) during those halcyon days of parliamentary existence when the standing orders of the House of Commons, now ninety-seven in number, were only fourteen"-I counted only ten-"when no rule or order prescribed that previous notice should be given a motion, however important; and when a motion might be met by any form of amendment, however grotesquely irrelevant. Excluding the standing orders which require the recommendation of the crown to motions involving a money change, and which regulate the presentation of petitions, the parliamentary procedure of 1844 was essentially the procedure on which the House of Commons conducted business during the Long parliament." This is from the preface of the tenth edition of May which has not been reproduced in the 14th.
In the very last of his countless last speeches, delivered on the eve of his resignation as Prime Minister of England, I heard Stanley Baldwin speak as follows at the Empire day and coronation banquet of the combined empire societies in London on May 24, 1937:
If you will only do as I have done, study the history of the growth of the constitution, from the time of the civil war until the Hanoverians came to the throne, you will see what a country can do without the aid of logic, but with the aid of common sense. Therefore my next point is: do not let us put any part of our constitution in a strait-waistcoat, because strangulation is the ultimate fate. And I would say one more thing: do not let us be too keen on definition.
How could anyone reason with the aid of common sense and without the aid of logic? I may therefore be excused for not following the advice of the right hon. gentleman, as I intend to be keen on definitions with the aid of both logic and common sense.
The same year the empire parliamentary conference met at Westminster Hall, which no building in the United Kingdom overshadows in historic importance. It is haunted by the ghost of Charles I, Warren Hastings, Sir Thomas More, Lambert, the Earl of Strafford and the cynically humorous old "Fox of the North", Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat; and' many of the ceremonies in connection with the coronation of English kings were enacted under its lofty timbered roof. The Right Hon. Sir John Simon, who was then Secretary of State for Home Affairs, and who had been described as "a great statesman, an expert.

Standing Orders
politician, and a great constitutional lawyer", made an amazing speech in which he asked this strange question:
Do you think that ministers of the crown will be able to continue under the increasing pressure and speed of modern conditions to do their work as ministers, and to sit in the legislature as well?
As I was invited to speak immediately after him, I gave my answer to the question, and it was as follows:
There is the alternative of suppressing either one or the other. If we suppress the cabinet the situation would be the same, because every member of parliament will be a cabinet minister and we shall have anarchy. If parliament is suppressed we shall have fascism, which Mr. Dillon hates and Mr. Danebury detests.
The subject matter of the discussion being, "The future of parliamentary government", I spoke of the parliamentary procedure of the British empire.
The first standing order was passed in 1707, and there were only, four in 1821. I made a comparison with the Quebec legislature, which has 688 rules, and I expressed the view that the rules of the various legislative bodies of the British empire were much more complete and to the point than those of Westminster. A New Zealand delegate said that he could conceive of a parliament being conducted without any standing orders at all. "I do not think", said he, "that the question of standing orders has very much weight so far as parliamentary' institutions are concerned. If you have a Speaker who is a fair and just man, if you have tolerance in the chamber so that you listen to what others have to say, and if you follow the Speaker's ruling, I do not think it matters very much whether there are written standing orders or not."
He expressed the view that we should rely on the spirit of fairness of the Speaker and the spirit of tolerance of our fellow members, as I do now.
Sir Thomas Erskine May, who has been acknowledged as the main authority on the law, privilege, proceedings and usage of parliament, was born in London in 1815, the year of Waterloo. He was only sixteen when, in 1831, the Speaker of the House of Commons nominated him to the post of assistant librarian. At the time of his appointment there were only' four standing orders, but countless were the precedents of every description.
In 1818 Hatsell had published a book entitled "Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons." May decided to do better, and he was given "the kind assistance of many gentlemen" to write a book which he filled with all the precedents he could gather,
without using proper discernment. He included even those that were, according to his own description, "grotesquely irrelevant", and he went so far as to fabricate precedent. He was only twenty-nine when his illegible book was published. Twenty-seven years later he was appointed clerk of the House of Commons. He was raised to the peerage in 1886, under the title of Baron Farnborough of Farn-borough, in the county of Southampton, a few days before his death.
He was born a collector, and his so-called treatise would be compared to the house which the Collyer brothers, who died not long ago in downtown New York, had filled with junk. The editors sell the revised fourteenth edition of the book for only $30.
The main portion of the report of the committee on standing orders reads as follows:
Authorities on parliamentary procedure and practice, which are binding on the house under standing order 68, are unanimous in declaring: (1) that all petitions should commence with the superscription: "To the Honourable the House of Commons in Parliament assembled"; (2) that the conclusion should be the prayer, without which no petition is in order.
The only way to check up the authorities in the matter of precedents is to find out the first precedent. To my great surprise I discovered that Bourinot, 4th edition, pages 234 to 235, referred to May, page 525; and to my greater surprise I found out that May, 13th edition, 1924, page 610 and 14th edition, 1946, page 795, had no ruling to quote to support his contention that petitions to the House of Commons should be superscribed, "To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in parliament assembled." In fact he quoted no ruling whatever for his suggestion of an antiquated form of petition to the House of Commons, which has been reverently followed by all the authors on parliamentary practice for over a century.
Standing order 68 mentions only "a petition to the house". What is "the house" if it is not "Mr. Speaker and Messrs, the members of the House of Commons"? I have the evidence of Hansard to show that the petitions were tabled when the house was assembled. Why should we be bound to use nowadays the formula which May took upon himself to suggest 103 years ago? Is it not musty, rancid, decayed and out of date?
Now I come to the prayer. May says, at pages 795 and 796 that-
Without a prayer a document will not be taken as a petition.
He gives two references, namely Commons Journal, 1651-59, page 427 and Commons
Standing Orders

Journal, 1843, page 457. I looked up the first reference at page 427 of volume 7 of the Commons Journal for September 23, to 25, 1656. History tells us that it was during the protectorate of Cromwell, and four years before the restoration of Charles II in 1660. There was nothing to support May's declaration. I turned the pages of that old book and read on page 171 that on August 27, 1652 a committee for petitions was appointed to meet in the Star Chamber. Those who have revised May's book have been right on one point, when they wrote in the preface to the tenth edition that "the parliamentary procedure of 1844 was essentially the procedure on which the House of Commons conducted business during the Long Parliament," and it is still the same today. It has not changed with the times.
And now, Mr. Speaker, I will call to the attention of hon. members of the house the reference given by May in the latest, the fourteenth, edition published in February, 1946. Ten references to remonstrances, signatures, forgery or fraud on petitions date back to two centuries before the reform bill of 1832. They are in the Commons Journals for the following years: 1667 to 1687; 1688
to 1693; 1772 to 1774; 1792 to 1793; 1807; 1812 and 1813; 1817; 1821; 1826 and 1827; 1831. This book was out of the press last year. Could it be called a modern book?
May's second reference to the necessity of the prayer on petitions was Commons Journal of July 7, 1843, in the seventh year of Victoria, page 457. There was no ruling of the Chair about it. All I found was that a remonstrance of the secretary of the National Association, praying the house to establish better representative government, had been laid on the table and it was withdrawn the following Monday. Doctor Johnson calls "remonstrance"-strong representation.
There are so many interchangeable words in the dictionary that they have given birth to basic English. I looked up the Dictionary of the English Language by Doctor Samuel Johnson and I notice there that the words petition, request, supplication, prayer, entreaty, solicitation were interchangeable. Here is what he said with regard to "prayer."
1. Petition to heaven.
2. Mode of petition.
3. Practice of supplication.
4. Single formula of petition.
Then in the Oxford dictionary I find, at the word "prayer", under 5:
The thing prayed for or entreated; specifically that part of a memorial or petition that specifies this.

This is Middle English. And the petitions to the Commons, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, shall be as follows:
Must be in writing; must contain none hut genuine signatures, and must be free from disrespectful language or imputations upon any tribunal or constituted authority.
And May, at page 795, says:
The general allegations of the petition are concluded by what is called the "prayer," in which the particular object of the petitioner is expressed.
And it adds:
To the whole petition are generally added these words of form: "And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray," et cetera, to which are appended the signatures or marks of the parties.
Bourinot, fourth edition, says at page 234:
The conclusion should be "the prayer," without which no petition is in order. This prayer should tersely and clearly express the particular object which the petitioner has in view in coming before parliament.
The parliamentary meaning of "prayer", in Middle English, was that of "request" in modern language. Let us sweep away the dust of self-complacency and revise our rules and create our own precedents in conformity with modern times. This is to show that "May", who has been blindly quoted as an authority and accepted as such by other authors throughout the British empire, is outdated, because he and those who have revised his book have shown no discrimination and no discernment in the selection of precedents, and it is time that the House of Commons of Canada should have the rules revised in conformity with modem times.
I express my appreciation to the committee on standing orders who have forwarded the petitions which have been submitted to the house as exhibits to the redistribution committee. The question is not at all the word "petition", or "remonstrance", or any other word. The question is that the electors whom we represent shall have the opportunity at any time to get in touch with the House of Commons.
Sometimes a letter is wrongly addressed but it usually gets to its destination just the same and there are very few dead letters. I remember once a letter was addressed to "Jean-Frangois Pouliot, Deputy Minister of National Defence", but I got it and answered it.

Full View