House of Representatives Committees

Standing Committee on Procedure

Ten years on: A review of the House of Representatives Committee System

Summary and Recommendations

The present committee system of the House of Representatives has now been in operation for over a decade. In the 38th Parliament, Members of the House of Representatives can serve on nine general purpose standing committees, eleven joint statutory and joint standing committees and eight domestic committees. The existing committees enable scrutiny of all areas of government. The committees review indicates that the current system has served the House well. However, with the passage of time and experience generally, together with the evolving political dynamics, the committee system, even though generally acknowledged as a good one, can be even better with some rationalisation and modification.

The committee finds that even though the House has a system of broad based committees, single or narrow issue committees remain. The committee accepts that a case can be made for the existence of these committees on the grounds that they address issues of special importance or address issues that require an expertise which might not exist in the general purpose standing committees. However, all the matters covered by these single issue committees can adequately be accommodated within the scope of the general purpose standing committees and the broader interest joint committees.

The committee accepts the views of those who argued for a reduction in the number of committees, particularly joint committees. It is hard to justify the re-establishment of the Joint Standing Committees on Electoral Matters, Migration and the National Capital and External Territories. In addition, the committee questions the success of the statutory committees relating to corporations and securities matters, the National Crime Authority, native title matters, or the Australian Security Intelligence Organizationthe watchdog committees. The committee does not support their re-appointment in the 39th Parliament.

The expansion of the committee system has placed increased demands on Members time. Many Members find they are unable to allocate the time to participate in all the activities of a particular inquiry. Shadow ministers are required to fill committee positions and the demands of their shadow responsibilities have been such that only limited time can be devoted to committee duties. It is not unusual for only three or so members out of a membership of fourteen to attend public hearings.

The committee believes that the number of positions on general purpose standing committees should be reduced to ten and that the membership of the Procedure Committee should be reduced to seven.

The committee received a number of submissions relating to the adequacy of staff and financial resources provided to committees. The committee considers the question of resources to be outside its terms of reference but notes that if the number of committees were reduced, additional resources would be available to the remaining committees.

All general purpose standing committees traditionally have conducted general inquiries into subject matter referred to them by the Minister. The Ministers referral is usually at the request of the committee. The fact that annual reports stand referred also provides a vehicle for these general inquiries. This, in effect, allows the committee to undertake any inquiry it chooses without the need for referral by a Minister. There appears to be little justification to deny committees the right to initiate their own inquiries.

As with annual reports, the committee considers that reports of the Auditor-General and petitions should stand referred to committees for any inquiry they may wish to make.

Since 1994 (to the end of the 1998 Autumn sittings), only ten bills have been referred to the House general purpose standing committees and 18 to joint statutory committees. If related bills referred to the committees as a package are considered as a single reference, the numbers are even less encouraging. The committee is disappointed that more bills have not been referred to committees. The committee however, does not support the automatic referral of bills at the second reading stage. Rather, it encourages the Government to consider referring a higher proportion of its legislation to House of Representatives standing committees.

As a matter of principle, the committee considers that bills should only be referred to joint committees in exceptional circumstances and that Senators should not be involved in what is, in effect, House business. If necessary, the House may refer a bill specifically to a committee consisting of House members of a joint committee, rather than to the joint committee as a whole.

There is almost universal criticism of the small amount of time allocated to debating reports. The time taken for discussing committee matters in the Chamber comprised only 2 percent of Chamber time. Committee matters were discussed in the Main Committee for only 12 percent of Main Committee time in 1997. This is despite the perception by many Members that the Main Committee provides a significant amount of its time for the discussion of committee matters.

It is also frustrating and disappointing that governments do not respond to reports in a proper and timely manner. Often the delays in responding to committees may relate to the nature of the recommendations rather than a lack of commitment by the Government. However as a minimum requirement, the Government should provide an interim response within three months.

A greater priority should be given to debating committee reports. More flexibility should be given to the Selection Committee to program statements on the tabling of reports. In addition, time should be allocated for debate in the Main Committee that same week. The committee also believes that the process of presenting government responses to committee reports should be formalised in the standing orders and that time be allocated for debate on the response.

There are varying means through which Members of the House are appointed to serve on committees. For those internal committees for which there is no nomination process stipulated in the standing orders, the practice has been that the House appoints Members by resolution. For some other committees the standing orders include a nomination process and Members are deemed to be officially appointed on receipt by the Speaker of appropriate letters of nomination, with the House being advised subsequently by the Speaker of the nominations. Statutory committee membership is effected by resolution of the House. The committee believes that the standing orders be amended to provide for appointment by resolution of the House in all cases.

Some submissions and some committee chairs are critical of Members who do not regularly attend meetings. The committee notes these views but does not support amendments to the standing orders to discourage committee membership of shadow ministers, restrict Members to a specific number of committees or require the resignation of Members who do not attend regularly. The committee believes that more informal processes would achieve the desired results. The proposed reduction in the number of members on each committee (and the reduction in the number of committees) should relieve the pressure on the time of members. It believes that Members would have extreme difficulty in effectively serving on more than three committees. The committee considers, however, that the number of committees on which each Member is allowed serve is a matter for each party to decide.

Joint standing and select committees are established by resolution agreed to by both Houses. The standing orders are largely silent on the procedures to be followed by joint committees. It has become the established practice for such committees to follow Senate select committee procedures when such procedures differ from those of the House. As joint committees are creatures of both Houses the committee considers that it is important that the two Houses agree to arrangements, such as quorums, for the operation of joint committees which meet the needs of both Houses and the committees themselves.

Increasingly, committees have adopted less formal and more flexible approaches to the gathering of information and providing public input to committee activities. These approaches were developing well before the establishment of the current committee system. These processes can take the form of informal discussions, public meetings, seminars or workshops. There has been some doubt in the past as to whether these informal proceedings attract parliamentary privilege. The experience of a decade of operations of the House general purpose standing committees indicates that to a large extent the question of privilege does not arise. However, the Parliamentary Privileges Act provides that:

"proceedings in Parliament" means all words spoken and acts done in the course of, or for the purposes of or incidental to, the transacting of the business of the House or of a committee (emphasis added).

The committee believes that, with the recognition of informal committee proceedings in the standing orders of the House, it would be difficult to argue that parliamentary privilege did not apply to any proceedings properly conducted by a parliamentary committee. The committee considers that committees should freely be able to use in reports material gathered by informal processes, provided that the type of process used is acknowledged and the person providing the information is aware that it may be used in this way. The committee also believes that the standing orders should be amended to recognise the less formal procedures, which have become an accepted part of modern committees operations.

The House has authorised the use of electronic communication devices to conduct committee hearings. In addition, documentary evidence can be received by electronic means, ie electronic mail, facsimile, telex, computer disc and video. The committee strongly supports the formal recognition of the use of modern technology as part of the inquiry process.

It is clear that guidelines for dealing with witnesses need to be adopted as a matter of some priority, not only to ensure that witnesses are treated in a suitably respectful manner when they appear before a committee, but also to ensure that that they are in a position to provide the committee with the required information. Committees of the House use the procedures laid down in the Procedure Committees 1989 report on procedures for dealing with witnesses as current reference points and non-binding guidelines. However, these procedures have no formal status until adopted by the House in a resolution of continuing effect. The committee supports the recommendations of its predecessor and recommends their adoption by the House with some minor modifications.

The confidentiality of evidence taken by committees is provided for in standing orders, resolutions of appointment and, for committees established by statute, enabling legislation. The Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 makes it an offence for a person to disclose or publish a document or evidence taken in camera without the authority of the House or a committee.

The Procedure Committee reviewed the question of disclosure of in camera evidence in 1991 and concluded that a rigorous mechanism should be put in place to ensure that in camera evidence could only be disclosed in the most extraordinary circumstances. That committee recommended severe penalties for Members who disclosed in camera evidence, including exclusion from committees and suspension from the House. The committee agrees with the recommendations of its 1991 predecessor, with the exception of penalties. The committee considers that the House should decide penalties for unauthorised disclosure on a case by case basis following investigation and recommendation by the Privileges Committee.

The standing orders, as presently constructed, have application to committees in several distinct and seemingly unrelated chapters. The standing orders also contain provisions that no longer apply and some of the language is dated and unclear.

The committee has proposed changes to the standing orders which:

Where the recommendations propose amendments to the standing orders, the proposed standing orders are set out in appendix 4 of this report.

The committee recommends that:

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