Report of the committee

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Committee of Selection has the honour to present its

SIXTH REPORT

On October 29, 2020, the Senate authorized your committee to make recommendations to the Senate on issues related to meetings of either the Senate or committees by videoconference. Your committee now presents an interim report.

Background:

The Senate is normally resourced to support the needs of committees based on a long-standing meeting schedule for in-person committee meetings hosted in Senate committee rooms in Ottawa during sitting weeks. The meeting schedule is prepared in accordance with section 3, chapter 5:03 of the Senate Administrative Rules (SARs), which directs the Principal Clerk of Committees to prepare a meeting schedule in consultation with all leaders and facilitators, for all committees and subcommittees that meet regularly. This schedule allowed for twenty-six (26) committee time slots per week, with no more than four (4) simultaneous committee meetings in specific time slots.

However, in April 2020, in order to continue business operations safely during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate authorized only four (4) of its committees to meet entirely by videoconference. On November 17, 2020, the Senate adopted a motion authorizing all Senate committees to hold hybrid meetings or meetings entirely by videoconference, subject to certain conditions. This order was subsequently extended on December 17, 2020, to be in effect from February 1 to June 23, 2021. Notably this order suspended the practice of restricting committees to regular time slots along with the requirement under the SARs for a pre-established meeting schedule for committees.

Although senators and witnesses can participate in virtual committee meetings remotely in accordance with the Senate order, support staff operate virtual meetings on-site from existing Senate committee rooms, to provide procedural and technological support and other essential services such as interpretation and multimedia services. Additionally, the more complex technological, procedural and logistical requirements of virtual Senate committee meetings have made it necessary to assign additional clerks, interpreters, stenographers and technicians to each meeting.

Current Capacity:

Your committee is pleased to report that since February 2021, the Senate has upgraded its technological room capacity and now has four (4) Zoom-capable rooms that can host virtual or hybrid committee meetings. However, even with the availability of four (4) fully equipped committee rooms, the committee was informed that the House of Commons Multimedia Services can support up to one (1) hybrid Senate event at a time (including the hybrid chamber), or two (2) simultaneous virtual meetings with their existing resources.

Additionally, we were advised that the Translation Bureau can support up to a maximum of fourteen (14) Senate events per sitting week (including chamber sittings, committee and caucus meetings and other senator meetings), with their current staffing capacity. Based on current staffing and resources, this means that the Senate can therefore support one (1) hybrid event at one time (including the hybrid chamber) or two (2) simultaneous virtual committee meetings, up to a maximum of fourteen (14) Senate events per sitting week.

Your committee heard that the overall number of committee meetings cannot be increased to the same numbers as the pre-pandemic schedule with current staffing resources. To increase the overall number of committee meetings, more interpreters are required. However, the Translation Bureau has advised that all available staff and freelancers from across Canada have been called to serve Parliament and there are no additional resources available to hire.

We also heard that to increase the Senate’s current capacity to support additional simultaneous committee meetings, additional technicians are required. We understand that discussions are underway to increase the number of technicians, however this may take 2 to 3 months to fulfill. Additionally, Debates and Procedural Services may require additional staff and equipment, depending on the schedule and number of committees.

Committee Schedule:

Despite these issues, the committee also heard that it may be possible to increase the Senate’s service capacity slightly if the Senate were to establish a fixed schedule of regular, consecutive committee meeting times to allow for better planning, a more efficient use of current resources and to ensure adequate staffing redundancy and backups. Any Senate schedule would also have to consider potential conflicts with the House of Commons schedule as there are many shared resources.

Although a fixed schedule would permit only a slight increase in the overall meeting capacity, your committee feels that it would nevertheless allow for better planning, a more efficient use of current resources and would help minimize time conflicts. It would also reduce the strain caused by the uncertainty of meeting hours and would allow for scheduled breaks and recovery periods for all senators and employees, many of whom have been working under less than ideal conditions since the beginning of the pandemic. Furthermore, your committee believes that committee meetings should be held in an all-virtual format to allow for more simultaneous meetings, until the public health situation improves.

Recommendations:

Based on the information provided, your committee makes the following recommendations and appends to this report a proposed schedule for virtual Senate committee meetings, which it believes provides a way forward that is fair and equitable for all committees. Furthermore, it will allow committees to meet safely, while allowing for proper planning and scheduled breaks for senators and staff.

Your committee therefore makes the following recommendations:

1.That notwithstanding any provision of the Rules, previous order or usual practice, and taking into account the exceptional circumstances of the current pandemic of COVID-19, until the end of the day on June 23, 2021, Senate committees be authorized to meet at the following times:

a)on any day from Monday to Friday, inclusive, except for the periods from April 2 to 16, 2021, and May 17 to 24, 2021, inclusive;

b)on days the Senate sits, pursuant to rule 12-18(1); or

c)when the meeting is authorized pursuant to rule 12-18(2).

2.That during this period, Senate committees be authorized to meet entirely by videoconference according to a fixed committee schedule with up to fourteen (14) all-virtual committee time slots per week, with no more than two simultaneous virtual meetings provided that:

a)fourteen (14) committees be assigned one two-hour timeslot per week; four (4) committees be assigned alternating time slots on Mondays before noon (RPRD/SELE/REGS/BILI); two (2) committees (CONF/AOVS) be assigned an alternating time slot on Tuesdays;

b)meetings of standing Senate committees be prioritized for those that are meeting on government business, subject to available capacity; and

c)if a committee opts to not use its assigned time slot, the time slot could be used by another committee (except for Tuesdays when the Senate is sitting) or by a subcommittee, subject to approval by the Government Liaison, the Opposition Whip, and the whips and liaisons of all recognized parties and recognized parliamentary groups.

3.That meetings entirely by videoconference be considered, for all purposes, to be meetings of the committee in question, and senators taking part in such meetings be considered, for all purposes, to be present at the meeting.

4.That for greater certainty, and without limiting the general authority granted by the adoption of this report, when a Senate committee meets entirely by videoconference:

a)all members of the committee participating count towards quorum;

b)such meetings be considered to be occurring in the parliamentary precinct, irrespective of where participants may be; and

c)the committee be directed to approach in camera meetings with all necessary precaution, taking account of the risks to confidentiality inherent in such technologies.

5.That subject to variations that may be required by the circumstances, to participate in a meeting by videoconference senators must:

a)participate from a designated office or designated residence within Canada;

b)use a desktop or laptop computer and headphones with integrated microphone provided by the Senate for videoconferences;

c)not use other devices, such as personal tablets or smartphones;

d)be the only people visible on the videoconference;

e)have their video on and broadcasting their image at all times; and

f)leave the videoconference if they leave their seat.

6.That when a Senate committee meets by videoconference, the provisions of rule 14-7(2) be applied so as to allow recording or broadcasting through any facilities arranged by the Clerk of the Senate, and, if a meeting being broadcast or recorded cannot be broadcast live, the committee be considered to have fulfilled the requirement that a meeting be public by making any available recording publicly available as soon as possible thereafter; and

7.That the provisions of the orders of November 17, 2020, and December 17, 2020, concerning hybrid and virtual meetings cease to have effect upon the adoption of this report.

Your committee also appends to this report a draft virtual committee schedule, and further recommends that:

a)the draft schedule be implemented on a trial basis; and that

b)any subsequent changes to the attached schedule be done in consultation with the Government Liaison, the Opposition Whip, and the whips and liaisons of all recognized parties and recognized parliamentary groups.

Respectfully submitted,

TERRY M. MERCER

Chair

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